Down East 2013 ©
Do you know where Connor Township is?
How about Sinclair?
I know that at least one reader will know these places, he being our local Superintendent of Schools (I mean, uh, School). Jerry used to work up to Ste. Agathe (which is how he says it, Saint Ag-AT,) a stone’s throw from the northern tip of the state. I’m headed up that way later this month.
My excuse for this northern Maine road trip is that I am in the middle of an oral history project which involves visiting the one-room schools in Maine, along with a few other very small rural schools, maybe “two-room.” Having taught in, sent my children to, volunteered at, substituted in and done the bookkeeping for the one-room school and district on Matinicus Island, I have a bit of understanding of how these schools work. This spring, I have been privileged to visit a number of small schools, chatting with teachers, ed-techs and others, and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
My intention is to make the case that one-room schools still exist, still function, can offer a twenty-first century education, and are not “living history displays.”Note that I don’t call them “one-room schoolhouses.” This isn’t about the architecture.
Not every school visit has been on a cheerful or even a typical day. I visited the Shirley Elementary School, just south of Greenville, the April morning after the town of Shirley voted to close the school after this year. One of the students was deeply moved by the vote; the boy was, in fact, noticeably depressed that morning. The teacher explained to me that the other student, although less visibly upset, attends the little school by choice, as he lives close enough to a larger school. These boys may be a bit young (and way too rugged) to go in for such syrupy language, but clearly they treasure their little school, and hate to see it close. Taxpayers evidently feel otherwise. I am grateful to have been able to visit the school and speak with the staff before the closure. The teacher, Mrs. Lessard, described a field trip they were hoping to take this spring: they are planning to climb Mt. Battie, in Camden. I told her that if it was really, really clear, they might see Matinicus. I told her to let me know if they made it to the Midcoast, I’d help them find some good ice cream.
Likewise, the Rockwood School; Bill Folsom, the teaching principal at Rockwood, halfway up the west side of Moosehead Lake, is a retired superintendent, a native of the area, seemed to be related to nearly everybody, and told me the story of how he was the one resident of Day’s Academy Grant, Maine, in the 1990 census. Folsom was a wealth of information, and I wish I’d had a week to listen to his stories. The school is an incredible facility…relatively new, with a beautiful gymnasium, an impressive sun-lit library, and what appeared to the casual observer to everything an elementary school student could wish for. Three girls were in attendance that day; Folsom was teaching them how to use the hand tools and how to do the math to build a birdhouse from a set of plans.
One of those little girls will have to commute 40 miles each way next year, to attend school in Greenville.
There are one-room schools on some of Maine’s islands: Cliff Island, Monhegan, Matinicus, Isle au Haut, and Frenchboro, as well as Islesford, on Little Cranberry, which has two teachers and two groups of students; maybe they think of themselves as “two room.” The Great Cranberry School has no students. “No students” isn’t exactly the same as “closed.” On Matinicus a few years ago, we had a September with no students. The community went through a lot of hang-wringing, floor-pacing, meetings and discussions. The decision, thankfully, was to keep the school open as a legal agency, which just happened to have zero students at the moment. The next year, kids began to trickle back, and now we have six, a fairly average number for recent years. It helped that we are our own School Administrative District; it wasn’t so much a matter of permission as a matter of confidence. Shrinking schools in larger districts don’t generally have the autonomy it takes to make such a decision, a decision more about protecting the viability of an isolated community than about saving money.
In most places, it is mostly about saving money.
A one-room school, by the way, is not necessarily the same as a one-room “schoolhouse.” Rockwood’s spacious and multi-roomed facility, which served three students last month, is functionally a one-room school, architecture notwithstanding.
Where mainland one-room schools struggle with financial realities, consolidation, and closure, island schools have other issues. They require teachers who are equipped not only to teach a multi-age group but can be dropped into the fishbowl of a community where it may not be possible to ever be “off duty.” They often need to be able to work without much peer support, administrative oversight, cleaning staff, certainty about anything (scheduling or students or transportation), help with behavioral issues, privacy, social life, or, occasionally, respect. Teaching on an isolated island is very hard work. It can be a delight, but it’s no walk in the park.
It has been a lot of fun journeying to the other islands and trekking into northern Maine. I’ve had the opportunity to chat with many of the Matinicus teachers from the last couple of decades, and a few of the teachers and students from other islands. There are many others I hope to be able to contact soon. If you attended, taught in or somehow assisted with a one-room school in Maine relatively recently, and have any memories, comments, thoughts, stories, or opinions you’d like to share, I welcome your input; please be in touch. Yes, Kate, that means you.