My graduating high school class was 93 students and I thought that was small, and then I talked to a friend who shared her senior year with six other students.
No, she was not homeschooled. My friend grew up in Maine and attended school on an island. Her K-12 school had 87 students enrolled across thirteen grades, seventeen students were dispersed across the four years of high school.
The Maine coast is dotted with island communities — communities that date back to the age of Pilgrims and Puritans, islands that were sites of trading posts and fisheries. Cities, skyscrapers, and the draw of mainland employment have slowly siphoned off islanders and the populations of the Maine islands have shrunk as a result. At some point, the islands’ diminishing populations reach a tipping point where there are no longer enough families, and particularly enough children to justify or fund island public schools. The closing of schools only further leads to the islands’ demise as families are forced to leave and rich summer residents buy up their lots.
But some island schools do remain. They might not physically be “one-room school houses,” but they embody the essence.
North Haven Community School educates 63 students grades K-12. Monhegan Island School has only seven students enrolled. Ashley Bryan School collects kids from two islands and sums to a total of nine enrolled. Islesboro Central School is comparatively booming with 104 students grades K-12, but Islesboro Central is also a magnet school and some of the students are mainlanders who commute to the island each day by way of ferry.
When my friend told me the minuscule size of her graduating class, I was immediately struck by the amazing possibilities hidden away off the windy coasts of Maine.
Over-distended class sizes are unfortunately the norm in most public schools across the country — classes of thirty or forty students. Imagine corralling thirty-five second graders into a room and productively imparting knowledge — sure it can be done in those magical moments when the stars align and all students are stunningly well behaved, but those moments are rare.
For most teachers, class sizes of seven are so much an intangible dream that the very notion is laughable. But if you allow yourself to dream, the possibilities are extremely enticing. Class sizes of seven would allow a teacher to take students out into canoes while reading about the voyages of Lewis and Clark. It would allow for students to document ecosystems by long in-depth observations of tidal pools. It would allow you to study velocity by going to baseball game. It would allow you the ability to put on plays, in class, with every child having a significant role.
With only seven students, it is near impossible for a single student to slip through the cracks.
Suddenly teaching becomes a whole different task. No longer is it a question of how well you can juggle the needs and demands of 35 students, but it becomes a question of just how deep can you dive into a particular subject? What new and innovative way can you tackle a piece of literature or a mathematical concept? Such a classroom harkens back to the progressive philosophies of John Dewey and the theories of the classrooms without walls. Such classes are the benefits of elite liberal art colleges with their small professor led seminars.
The focus of educational innovation and policy is directed towards the inner cities of our nation — as it should be. But while organizations like Teach for America send waves of would-be-educators to the centers of our metropolises, perhaps a few should be sent to the extremities.
I can’t help but think that the fishing islands off the coast of Maine could be transformed into incubators for exceptionally creative and innovative teachers.
Such teachers, afforded the luxury of a small class, would be able to devote all their creative energies to devising new ways to approach core curricula.
The possibilities are myriad and, as a teacher myself, incredibly exciting.