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The Rural Maine Reporting Project is made possible through the generous support of the Betterment Fund.

'Academics First, Over Anything Else' - A Magnet School In Limestone Receives National Recognition

Robbie Feinberg
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Maine Public
The Maine School of Science and Mathematics sits in remote Limestone, Maine, surrounded by acres of potato fields.

Earlier this year, a tiny, 140-student magnet high school in Limestone, Maine — only a few miles from the Canadian border — received an unusual honor. It was judged the Number 2 school in the country by U.S. News and World Report.The ranking was based on a number of criteria, including graduation rates and the number of college-level classes offered. But there are other forces at work that are harder to measure. 

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
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Maine Public
Senior Shea Sewall shows off moss that he helped grow in the greenhouse at MSSM.

Inside a small, humid greenhouse attached to the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, three students drop seeds into a hydroponic growing system. The trio is surrounded by agricultural experiments of their own creation, including a rig stocked with electronics that is used to grow mushrooms.

One student, senior Shea Sewall, says he never cared much about plants before he arrived at the school. But after taking a plant biology class, he's hooked. Sewall and the other students are out here constantly — after school and in-between classes.

"When I look outside, in my yard, it feels bad when I mow the lawn because I see all these different plants growing," Sewell says. "You can tell how they're different, and what they might end up like, even when they're just small little things. It was one semester, right? But just a little bit of knowledge can take you a long way."

Standing next to Sewall, senior Madelyn Battcock-Emerson says finding students with these same passions sets the school apart.

"I think what makes MSSM, for a lot of people, is they're not used to being around people who care as much as them, and who are interested in the world and learning as much as them," Battcock-Emerson says. "And I think that's what sets MSSM apart in a lot of ways."

The greenhouse is just one tiny part of the school, which is located inside one-half of an old brick building overlooking the potato fields of Limestone. The school was formed 25 years ago by the state Legislature as Maine's first magnet school, with a goal of attracting students interested in challenging classes, and a focus on science and math.

A quarter century later, MSSM has built such a reputation, as reflected in the recent high ranking by U.S. news and world report.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
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Maine Public
Instructor Debbie Eustis-Grandy shows students a geologic map of Maine inside her classroom.

Class sizes are small — sometimes as few as just a couple of kids. Many teachers have college teaching experience and hold doctorate degrees. And they say they have freedom to try out new approaches in the classroom.

"We're not beholden to anybody's exterior vision of what school should look like," says instructor Debbie Eustis-Grandy.

Eustis-Grady says with no outside mandates, her classroom feels more like one at a college. She frequently takes students outside to conduct forest studies. "So they're getting, you know, here's what real ecological field work looks like."

But the other major factor behind the success of the school, says Executive Director David Pearson, is the student body.

"And those students that come here are, in many ways, self-selecting," Pearson says, "because they're looking for a tribe. They're looking for an identity, a group identity, where they can really focus on academics."

For senior Michael Delorge, MSSM was a big change from his previous high school, where he says he was often bored and surrounded by classmates who lacked a passion for academics.

"Those stresses about being in a classroom with people that didn't really care — those are gone," Delorge says. "Like, I feel like you might have gotten a sense of that, walking around here. It's academics first, over anything else. So people do want to be here."

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
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Maine Public
Students Shea Sewall and Madelyn Battcock-Emerson plant seeds in a hydroponic system inside the greenhouse at MSSM.

And that "academics first" culture is obvious wherever you go. Administrators say virtually every student takes rigorous, university-level Advanced Placement or dual-enrollment classes. Even in the dorms and cafeteria, students have their head in a book or laptop. Two hours every evening are solely devoted to quiet work.

"It is pressure packed, and not all kids are suited to it," says Mark Rhodes, the chair of the school's math department. "The ones that thrive here do so because they are surrounded by like-minded individuals who have that same enthusiasm for learning."

To attend the school, students must apply, take tests and interview to show that they can handle a rigorous course load. And their families have to pay $9,000 per year for room and board, though the school offers financial aid.

And for those who do attend, the enthusiasm for learning never really seems to end — even late at night. As it approaches 9 p.m., I find a group of students in the dorms still working on an extra-difficult math problem that their friend had created a few days ago, just for fun. Other students devote their free time to clubs, such as robotics and astronomy, and a few small athletic teams.

Student Raymond Dulac says while the course work can be stressful, it also helps to bond students in a  supportive atmosphere.

"We all know it's a struggle," Dulac says. "It's really not that easy for anyone. But we're all going through the same things. So we all want to help each other out, and help each other get through whatever hard classes we have."

Despite its record of success, some administrators say they'd like to see changes at the school, including improved facilities and more state funding to help offset the costs of room and board.

But, perhaps surprisingly, several students agreed that they prefer the school's rural location. They says Limestone's dark skies, cold winters and lack of distractions actually helps to bring the school community together and contributes to an educational experience that's getting national recognition.

Originally published September 12, 2019 at 4:18 p.m. ET.