“Fifty-four kids, can you believe it!” exclaimed Heather Webster, principal at the Swan’s Island School.
While some islands are struggling to keep the doors of their schools open, enrollment at the Swan’s Island School is exploding. The 2012-13 school budget was approved for an anticipated enrollment of 36 children based on figures from the 2011-12 school year. Instead, 54 students were enrolled when school started in September.
Where did all the new students come from? A myriad of circumstances, all in a relatively short period, produced the huge increase in enrollment at the island school. Two families that had previously been homeschooling their children are now sending them to the school. Two new families, with five school-age children, moved from Frenchboro to Swan’s Island late in the summer. Five new kindergartners started school in September, while two children who had previously lived on the island are returning with their family and were expected to be in school by the end of September at press time. The new children, in addition to students returning from last year, bring the school’s total population to 54 students.
On an island with a year-round population of 332, according to the 2010 Census, the increase in this year’s school enrollment is astounding. The Swan’s Island School is a K-8 school with multi-grade classrooms. Each teacher in a regular classroom is responsible for delivering educational instruction for three grades, three teachers for nine grades. A full-time special education teacher is employed, along with a number of part-time instructional staff providing extracurricular instruction. Teaching on Swan’s Island is challenging in the best of circumstances, but the 50 percent increase over the expected enrollment will put the school’s staff to the test this year.
“We are really excited to have the new students,” said Principal Webster, who commutes to the island three days a week from the mainland. She feels the additional number of students will enable other children to branch out socially. Teachers and school board members echoed this sentiment.
The school board and staff were not expecting or prepared for the large influx of new students. “The increase in population came as a surprise after the 2012-13 school budget was set,” Webster said. New chairs, tables, lockers, books, and even silverware and lunch trays were required to accommodate the additional students.
Webster sees the school budget as an area of concern with the school’s population explosion. “We have to be creative with the budget,” she said. “It will be what we need versus what we want this year.”
Two education technician positions were unfilled at the start of school in early September, one for special education and another for regular classroom assistance. School board member Beverly McAloon cited staffing as the biggest challenge in the operation of the school this year.
According to McAloon, the positions to be filled require applicants to be certified to the level of Education Technician III, according to the Maine Department of Education requirements. “Staffing, and paying for staffing, will be challenging,” she said. “Most likely we will be hiring from off-island in order to get the staff we need. The school board is committed to providing what the school needs for staffing.”
Janice Staples, who teaches kindergarten through second grade, remembers when her own children, who both graduated from college a few years ago, attended school on the island. “I remember teaching here when Eric and Christie were enrolled and we had 60-some kids. To me, this is no big thing having 54,” she said. “The problem is, we did not anticipate any increase when the budget was formed and now we have minimal funds available. Before when our enrollment was higher, I had help in my classroom during the crucial reading and math times of the day. This year, I have 17 in my classroom with no help due to lack of money in the budget.”
Staples, who has taught at the Swan’s Island School for 31 years, cited an advantage of having a larger group of students. “Now I don’t have to have just one or two kids in a reading or math group,” she said. “It is much more fun and interesting to read a play or play a math game with more kids in a group.” Principal Webster agrees. “It will be easier to group the students by ability in the classrooms,” she explained.
The addition of so many new students not only presents a challenge to the school budget and the teachers in the classroom, but also for Lesley Harris, who runs the school’s cafeteria. Feeding all of the children has been challenging. “The main problem that I’m having is that I simply don’t have enough utensils, trays, bowls and serving utensils to accommodate this many students. After all, the student body was only about 30 when I arrived,” Harris said. “We’re at our largest population ever in the nine years I’ve been here.”
Several schools on other islands started in September with an enrollment of less than 10 students, which makes the Swan’s Island situation seem enviable. Despite the budgetary and staffing issues, the increase in students means an increase in overall island population. Harris sums it up well, saying she “can’t be anything except pleased to see our homey little school growing and expanding while others are suffering.”
“I hope it bodes well for the future of the island that our population is expanding and diversifying,” she added. “I don’t mind the fact that it’s more work for me. I’d much rather be busy, and with 54 students, I’m darned busy!”
Donna Wiegle is a freelance contributor living on Swan’s Island.