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Class Half Empty Or Half Full? Maine’s Islands Using Small Size To Draw Mainland Students

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Science teacher John Kerr and English teacher Kristen Kelley co-teach a class on nature writing, with a small class of about 10 students, at the Islesboro Central School.

It’s no secret that populations are shrinking on some of Maine’s isolated island communities, such as North Haven and Monhegan. More and more island residents are often older, with no kids, and present only during the warmer months.

That has posed a challenge for some of Maine’s island schools, which were small to begin with. But some islands are now trying a new approach: by luring in students from the mainland.

For junior Finn Gibson, getting to class every morning is a little bit of an adventure. It starts early on a bus from his hometown of Belfast, which takes him to a ferry terminal in nearby Lincolnville. Finn takes the half-hour boat ride across Penobscot Bay to the island of Islesboro. Then it’s one more bus ride before, finally, Finn gets to school on the island.

The commute can make for a long day — often nearly 10 hours.

“And that’s if you have no extracurriculars,” he says. “If you have soccer practice, you get home at 6:45. So it’s quite a long day when you get down to it. Two and a half hours of commute total. All day.”

But it’s a journey that Finn and about 20 other students choose to make to the Islesboro Central School, a large, stone building that has only about 90 students, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Principal Heather Knight says the small student body enough to keep the school’s culture vibrant. Ten years ago, she says, there were concerns that that the island school was becoming too small.

“When you have a classroom discussion of two, it’s not as diverse,” she says. “The diverse thinking isn’t there. The ideas aren’t bouncing off. Or they bounce and they land. There’s no bouncing.”

Knight says the community recognized that it needed to keep the school alive, and decided to expand what it called a magnet program, designed to attract students over from the mainland every day.

“Adding to the student body in such a way that we could offer full classes, with full discussion,” she says. “That we could offer diverse social experiences.”

For some students, coming to a tiny island school is a tough sell. It can’t compete with bigger schools when it comes to AP classes or sports — but Islesboro tries to use its tiny size to its advantage.

“I mean, we’re only in a group of 10,” Knight says. “You’re not going to hide in the back of the room and not be called on. You’re not going to be able to fall through the cracks here. That doesn’t happen here. It can’t. It’s unacceptable.”

That small size also allows the staff here to conduct what’s called a “personalized pathways” meeting with every student, every year. Recently, the school’s guidance counselor, Jess Woods, sat down with junior Emily Lau.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
Islesboro Student Emily Lau leads a "personalized pathway" meeting with her teachers, including guidance counselor Jess Woods and English teacher Kristen Kelley.

They gathered around a table along with a team of teachers. The goal is to simply talk about what Emily’s interested in and how they can make school better for her.

“So why don’t we talk about your vision?” Woods said. “So, what you said, and what you think is still true.”

Emily soon rolls off a long list of interests. She likes math, physics, sailing, poetry, music and she wants to do it all. So her teachers ask her: what can we do to help you now?

“I would add more emphasis to math,” Emily said. “I’ve always liked math, but I’ve recently been getting into super competition math. It’s so much fun. I’d like to do that more.”

By the end of the meeting, the teachers have talked about a new math class in Emily’s schedule, and there are even discussions about planning for some potential future careers.

Students say they appreciate this attention, though they can’t get away with much. Emily laughs as she explains that she’s had the same English and math teachers for five years, and that her English teacher is her mom. But the school says this connection leads to positive results in the classroom, including a schoolwide graduation rate that routinely hits 100 percent.

But Islesboro has struggled in meeting one of the major goals of the magnet program, which is to get more working families to move to the island. Because of limited housing options, Knight says, only one family has actually made the move.

“They’ve been the only one to successfully pull that off,” she says. “And it is the lack of housing, appropriate housing choices, that hasn’t made that transition for more of our families more possible.”

Town officials say they’re now addressing that issue through new initiatives like adding broadband to the island and changing zoning laws to allow construction of more affordable housing.

Other communities are now attempting this magnet strategy, as well. Just this year, the island of North Haven has created a residential program for about a half-dozen students from Maine and other countries. And it has a similar goal: using education as a way to replenish the island community’s year round population.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.