Island Magnets

Students and islands attract each other at Islesboro and North Haven schools.

Islesboro’s magnet school program, which attracts upwards of 30 students who commute daily to the island from the mainland, is located in a lovely renovated stone mansion with a recent addition to accommodate this innovative educational program. The success of the effort to attract students to this isolated rural community has sparked interest from other towns wrestling with declining school enrollments, including the nearby island of North Haven.

The day that photographer Nicole Wolf and I visit the Islesboro program, the ferry terminal waiting room in Lincolnville is filled with magnet school students who sit quietly on benches with open books and notebooks, finishing homework assignments. Studious and focused, these students have opted for ten-hour school days with early-morning and late-afternoon ferry rides in order to take advantage of a highly unusual educational experience.

When Islesboro’s ferry, the Margaret Chase Smith, pulls up to its slip, more than two dozen middle and high school students quickly board and file into port and starboard passenger cabins above the car deck. Romy LeFage, a vivacious seventh grader from Belfast, says she opted for the Islesboro magnet program after two years of home schooling “because it’s super cool to go on the ferry every morning.” Now in her second year in the magnet program, she says she values the “smaller environment out here and learning at your own pace.”

Out on deck in the stiff breeze during the crossing, I speak with 11th-grade student Finn Gibson, who is dressed in wool pants with a wool hat, the ear flaps pulled down tightly to keep him warm. Gibson is a five-year veteran of the Islesboro magnet program and plans to stay through graduation next year. He tells me he has lots of interests, including math and physics.

“I really like the teachers and have been challenged,” he says, citing in particular the Advanced Placement classes that the school now offers. But Gibson is also active in his home community of Belfast, where he is part of a community theater group. He acknowledges that magnet students have a betwixt-and-between life, as they divide their time between their hometown and the island. “There is a strong community on Islesboro,” Gibson says, “and even though we are not exactly a part of it, you have a feeling of acceptance.”

The bus at the Islesboro ferry landing on Grindle Point meets us and quickly fills with chattering magnet students, who range from 5th to 12th graders, for the ten-minute ride to the Islesboro School. I sit next to Ryan Martin, the high school horticulture teacher, who lives on the mainland in Montville and is one of a handful of teachers who also commute by ferry to school every day. Martin says magnet school participants from the mainland “are all really close because we spend so much time together.” Even though their days begin at 7:30 a.m. and don’t end until 5:30 p.m., Martin says, “The kids are so polite and well-mannered—they’re really awesome.”

Heather Knight, the principal of Islesboro Central School, greets each student and guest at the door of the school, located on a 21-acre former estate whose gardens now produce a variety of edible produce and products that students raise and sell. Knight, a bundle of taut energy packed into a petite frame, has overseen the expansion of the Islesboro magnet program during her ten-year tenure.

Now in its 29th year, the program began with a single student who commuted to Islesboro Central School. When Knight was hired in 2007, there were just six students in the program, she tells me. “But then we rewrote the school’s mission statement,” Knight says, “and incorporated the magnet program as a part of our mission, which was a key element of the school’s long-term commitment to adding diversity to our student body.” Demographic trends had indicated that enrollment would decline from approximately 90 students to as few as 60 students at the K-12 island school during the next decade. One option was to become a K-8 school with students commuting to the mainland for high school. “But many island families said, if there were no high school on Islesboro, ‘we won’t stay here,’” Knight recalls. The school board and community began planning to dramatically expand its magnet program in order to increase diversity, class size, and program offerings without reducing staff. Knight says, “It was my responsibility to achieve the mission, and I took the charge seriously.”

In order to accommodate more magnet students at the Islesboro school, the school board, community, and staff had to confront serious building issues. The original stone mansion that had been donated by an elderly summer resident to house the Islesboro school, although charming, was in many respects inadequate. The basic question was whether to renovate or build somewhere else. “It was a pivotal point,” Knight says. The school board hired engineers, who said the 1928 building had “beautiful bones” and recommended renovating the original building and adding a new wing with additional classrooms, including music and band rooms and an expanded gym and cafeteria.

As the community embraced the vision of an expanded school facility that would accommodate more students from the mainland, Islesboro’s deep-pocketed summer community got behind the effort and helped raise private funds, because there was no state support. In 2010 the beautiful new facilities opened. With additional space and strong community buy-in, the magnet school program grew steadily to top out at its current level of 30 students—one-third of the school’s total enrollment.

Knight has asked Annika Rogers, a quietly confident senior, to show us around the school. As an infant, Rogers was found abandoned in a train station in China and was later adopted by a couple in Atlanta, who ultimately decided to relocate to Islesboro. Walking backward while talking, Rogers ushers us into classrooms along the way, where we chat with teachers who have a free period.

We duck in to Kristin Kelley’s classroom, where we meet the high school language arts teacher. Kelley lives on the island and has been a teacher at the school for the past six years. During her relatively short career on Islesboro, she has taught an astonishing 20 different classes, including world literature, American literature, British literature, women in literature, nature writing, academic writing, film, psychology, and AP English. Many of these classes were created in response to student suggestions.

Kelley also describes Islesboro’s Personalized Pathways program, whereby at the beginning of the school year a team of teachers meets with each student and their parents to design an individualized learning program. They jointly discuss how each student learns best and then they collaborate on a pathway, focused either on academic or hands-on learning styles. “There are internships all over the island,” Kelley says, “and if kids want to be fishermen, for example, they can read boat manuals in social studies class.” Later I learn that Rogers, our student guide, began taking high school math in middle school, another example of the flexibility and individualized program the magnet school is able to provide its students. “Because we personalize education at an early age, kids can go anywhere they aspire to,” Kelley says.

Across the bay from Islesboro, North Haven has just launched a magnet school program as well. The drivers behind North Haven’s new program are similar in many respects to Islesboro’s, says North Haven Community School principal Amy Marx: declining school enrollment and the desire to increase student diversity. Marx says that the largest classes here at Maine’s smallest K-12 school have eight students, while most have three to five. With larger class sizes, Marx says, “There is more diversity of opinion and more interesting discussions in class.” A change of just one person in school, Marx says, “can change the whole vibe in the school, and even islanders with no children in the school get excited by new faces on the island.”

For years the North Haven Community School has attracted off-island students to its program, which has been widely recognized for its emphasis on innovative place-based and experiential learning. North Haven also has invested in new facilities built around three modules, one each for its elementary, middle, and high school divisions. Sometimes students from smaller islands without their own high schools, such as Isle au Haut and Monhegan, have boarded with local families in order to attend North Haven’s school. North Haven has also recruited foreign students to augment the student body. This year there are three exchange students: from Germany, Slovakia, and Thailand. “We have had kids for many, many years come to school on North Haven; we just didn’t call it a magnet program,” says Marx.

In the past, Marx tells me, the biggest barrier to attracting students to North Haven had been housing the students, given that an hour-and-a-quarter ferry commute twice a day is out of the question. Last year, serendipitously, a newly built three-bedroom house near the ferry landing became available when the owners’ plans changed. The school board leaned in to the opportunity, raising funds to rent the house, hire a house parent, and support scholarships for magnet students.

Last September North Haven enrolled two young women in its magnet program—a ninth grader and a tenth grader. One recently moved to Waldoboro, and the other is from South Portland. One read about the program in The Working Waterfront newspaper; the other saw a Facebook post. Both were attracted to the small class size that North Haven offers. “The students have thrived,” says Marx, “because we can individualize their education program. We can focus more attention on what they need or want from school.” But Marx is quick to add that the magnet program is also a benefit to everyone at the school because it reduces students’ sense of insularity—that nothing new ever happens there.

School counselor Kelsey Jones, who graduated from North Haven Community School in 2005 before earning undergraduate and master’s degrees at Colby and Lesley Colleges, says, “The whole scenario has been great from my perspective.” Jones emphasizes that both magnet school girls chose to attend the school in spite of long commutes to and from their families on Mondays and Fridays. “They see the opportunities that can be had here, which helps with morale throughout the school,” she says.

Jones understands that keeping magnet school parents in the loop from week to week is another challenge. She says that the parents follow the school’s Facebook page and are involved in virtual conferencing to follow their child’s progress. One of the unexpected benefits of the program, Jones says, has been the magnet house itself. “It’s just like a college dorm—it’s like practice living away from home.” On some afternoons, if there are no sports events or other extracurricular activities, high school students congregate at the house to play Ping-Pong in the garage or watch movies in the living room. “The kids don’t have a lot of places to go. Sometimes they even invite eighth graders. It’s just so necessary for these kids,” Jones adds.

The common thread that runs between Islesboro’s long history of success with its magnet programs and North Haven’s newly launched program is the focus on individualized learning. The parents of three Islesboro magnet school students, Matt O’Malia, an architect, and Heather Ward, a family practitioner in Belfast, underscore the value of such attention for their very different children. After three years in the Islesboro program, their eldest daughter had become a confident enough traveler to spend a year enrolled in a French high school for her senior year. Their tenth grader is interested in sports management, especially equestrian sports, and the school has allowed him the flexibility to pursue internships. Ward says their youngest son, a seventh-grader, is different from both of his siblings, having attended the small Cornerspring Montessori School in Belfast, which she describes as a very protective environment. But the Islesboro magnet program “really gave him the exposure to try new things and the safety to see his potential.”

These island school programs have taken what is often perceived to be their greatest liabilities—isolation, small size, and limited enrollments—and turned them into assets that benefit students, impress parents, and enrich community life.