The Maine School of Science and Mathematics sits in the recesses of northern Maine in the small town of Limestone. One bus runs to the town at 7:00 a.m. every day for any passengers that may want to venture to the pastured setting. The deep green pine forests, usually associated with Maine, have been deconstructed to make way for the endless potato fields that stretch along the side of the road. Quiet and undisturbed, the school sits on a small hill surrounded by grassland. MSSM’s somber color and plain architecture compliments the school’s surrounding atmosphere: gray, cold, and quiet. The students and teachers of MSSM do not.
“We’re the island of misfit toys. We’re all a bunch of Rudolfs.” Said Sarah Benjamin, a former MSSM student, with a laugh.
She hadn’t visited MSSM since graduation two years ago. The location of her college is too far west. She explains that it might be a few years before she visits again but with MSSM’s insecure funding, no one can be sure of the school’s future. There has been discussion of moving the school away from the isolated Limestone to the more populated Brunswick, to attract more potential students. The school’s problematic funding is in part due to the consistent decline in applicants.
“I would like to see more opportunities for students but there’s not much down in Limestone, Maine.” Said Luke Shorty, a mathematics teacher at MSSM.
As a charter school in a secluded rural area, MSSM has to develop inventive ways to attract students and faculty. Documentaries, like The Lottery and Waiting for Superman, broadcast the positive and negative aspects of urban charter schools. Rural charter schools receive notably less attention.
Technology education (or a focus in mathematics and the sciences) is thought to be an essential prerequisite in advancing the United States to a nation of greater capability and prosperity. The U.S. needs to do better in school. However, the problem is not the child, the problem is the school and the proof is in the numbers. The United States ranking in the 2010 Programme for International Student Assessment showed the disappointment of the U.S. education system: Reading – 14/34 OECD countries, Math 25/34 OECD countries, Science - 17/34 OECD countries. Average, below average, and average.
Global academic defeat has not hindered the development of the latest scholastic experiment: the charter school. The term “charter”, meaning contracts for teachers in the public education sector, was coined in 1970 by Ray Budde. Albert Shanker advanced the charter idea of the “charter school” and in the 1980 the first charter schoolesque institutions were developed. The first act to permit charter schools was passed in 1991. Ten years later, charter schools still serve as the luminous promise of United States education reform.
The problems of urban charter schools have been exposed by the media but the problems of rural charter schools have been remarkably less exposed. The Maine School of Science and Mathematics stands as a school that utilizes all of the new “proven” techniques of better education: it is a charter school and it is a magnet school for mathematics and the sciences. The problem is the backcountry that surrounds the school.
A math and science school located in a place predominantly populated by potato fields does not appeal to many students or parents. However, the school is planning to utilize its surroundings to enhance MSSM’s appeal. Seclusion can be a positive feature.
Currently in the works are plans of outreach and partnership. Luke Shorty is a former student and the teacher of advanced math (the lowest level math class available at MSSM), multi-variable calculus, and differential equations and variables (the highest level math class available at MSSM). Mr. Shorty, an energetic man with a booming voice, explains that the school is attempting to involve the University of Maine system. The UMaine system will help MSSM establish an early college program. UMaine at Presque Isle is willing to work with MSSM by providing them with more language and mathematics courses. The close proximity of the UMaine schools provides a good out lit for students.
“For outreach the board of trustees is pursuing early college programs.” Said Shorty.
Last year students developed windmills and the University of Maine took up their ideas and created a windmill competition. In addition to the green technology partnerships, MSSM has started to develop ways to teach students about farming and technology in relation to nature. One out lit has been the use of a green house.
“We grow parsley, carrots, you name it. We use worms and observe the fertility of the soil depending on what we feed them.” Said Jim, a junior at MSSM.
Using the solitary Maine outdoors to teach about plant growth is an example of how MSSM utilizes the cause of their declining applicants, seclusion, for good. But even with all the efforts and intended programs, there is no sure plan for the school’s future and many teachers and students ponder the schools hereafter. Nevertheless, MSSM is presently “home” to one-hundred and four boarders.
The lobby, so familiar to Sarah Benjamin on her visit to her alma mater, has gone through a few decorative changes to increase the homey feel: the hallway outside adorns pictures of students on the walls and curtains decorate the windows. The student lobby has all the necessities of a living space: a kitchen is located adjacent to the sitting room and there are tables to study at.
After classes, the makeshift family room serves as the go to place for students. Some leaf through and study thick binders and text books. Some sit, engrossed by the content on their computer screens. Others watch science fiction on TV.
Sarah Benjamin sat at a table and looked around the familiar room. Her mother, also sitting at the table, spoke of how her daughter had left home earlier than expected to go to the “math school in the middle of nowhere.” The two women understood that the school offered both unique academics and social experiences not provided by Sarah’s sending school.
“(MSSM) allows kids that don’t feel comfortable at a mainstream high school a place to thrive – really, that’s the bottom line,” Said Sarah’s mother. “The kids here didn’t fit in, for whatever reason, they didn’t feel comfortable at their local high school and whether it was because of their academics or because maybe they’re really introverted and being around all those people is just too much…it just allows them to have a positive experience in secondary education.”
Many teachers and students attested to the fact that the seclusion of the school brought out a sense of community. The school holds the mentality of “competing against oneself.” There is no class rank and students have no outside source of community in their farmland location. Students explained that every MSSM student feels the rigor of the MSSM work load and this encourages students to share their strengths and weaknesses by aiding each other with homework. Some math classes, specifically designed to have this effect, give students difficult worksheets that are almost impossible to do alone. The point of these worksheets is to promote the idea of cooperation. It is common knowledge (among students) that no MSSM student has received a high grade after doing a work sheet alone. It is not difficult to ask fellow students for help because the small population and the close living courters maintain a sense of familiarity among the students.
“Students help struggling students and that’s pretty amazing…especially in a school that you would figure to be pretty competitive.” Said MSSM’s wellness teacher.
As Sarah’s mother discussed earlier, the school provides a learning space that caters to introverted students by giving them familiarity so that they may have an intact space to develop social skills.
“I didn’t have a lot of social skills, it was really hard for me socially.” Said Sarah about her sending school. “So, coming up here, there is something about being put in that type of dormitory situation with forty other girls where you learn social skills and you learn how to better interact with people.”
The school provides a positive sense of camaraderie but there is also a negative side to the close proximity and isolated area. MSSM restructured its school year: students go home every month for either three days or a week. School buses go to the various regions of Maine and students from abroad or other states find host families in Limestone to stay with. The reconstruction of the school year was in large part due to cases of depression brought on by the dark, cold isolated farmland.
At the first year orientation meeting a parent in the audience asked the anticipated question: “I heard that you have to send kids home every month now. What does being up here do to kids?”
The question was answered with a description of the new method of sending students home once a month. There was also an explanation of how the school always has faculty on hand to aid and speak to students at any time. Nonetheless, having a school in isolated cropland six hours from the most populated city in Maine brings about a sense of detachment.
“Sometimes I don’t even know what’s happening in the news or pop culture.” Said Luke, a sophomore at MSSM.
A new proposition is to move MSSM to a more populated area. The proposal of moving the school to Brunswick is still on the table but there are many logistical issues.
“If MSSM expands you’ll need more teachers, you’ll need more of an adult community. It’s really about a ratio of students to teachers. Right now it’s ten to one, maybe a little under ten to one.” Said Shorty.
The goal of relocation is more applicants and more accessibility of the school. A more populated MSSM would mean larger class sizes would be larger and attention would be less individualized. Teachers wonder whether students would be able to manage the rigorous work load with less attention. The current system of the school shows that individual attention is paramount.
“I had eight kids in three of my classes. We’re working with, generally, a gifted and talented population. In other places I’ve seen the other places I’ve been, both of my parents were teachers, the gifted and talented students languish. Because they don’t often have special needs.” Said Sarah Goletz, an MSSM English teacher. “Very Often, gifted and talented students have special needs that get masked by the fact that their gifted and talented. Here, this might be the only place they actually get the attention they need to overcome the potential difficulty their having and flower.”
Sarah Goletz lives with her husband, also an employee of MSSM, in northern Maine near the students. The two, both in their late twenties, keep a constant eye out for potential backup plans in case the funding for the school falls through and MSSM ceases to exist. The decreasing applicants and small class sizes, though beneficial for many reasons, are a hindrance to the security of those that work for MSSM. A lot is on the line for Sarah and her husband. Still, the young couple chooses to live in Limestone because of the positive qualities of the school and the students.
Upon entering the English classroom for the interview, Ms. Wag (Sarah Goletz) was in the midst of a group of teenage boys. A group of students sat around her classroom with open math books, discussing movies. She sat at the center of the gathering, lounging and grading papers. She shooed the boys out of the room. She explained that their class got out an hour and a half ago and that they stuck around to talk to her.
“Get out!” She said with a laugh as they laughed in reply, obeying her command.
Someone on the way out addressed her as “Ms. Wag.”
“My name is Sara Goletz, I got married three years ago yesterday. My maiden name is Wagenfeller. I was called Wag because so many people were named Sarah and I went to a large school. Why should I get rid of that awesome name when I spent my whole life wearing it?”
Ms. Wag and Mr. Goletz, who works in administration and runs the yearbook, anticipate every year because of the insecure funding of MSSM. The idea to relocate, though potentially problematic, is still in deliberation. Relocation could possibly increase applicants and secure the school. If this ends up being the case, the positive effects of small class sizes would be sacrificed but the security of the young couple’s jobs would remain intact.
Isolation, however, was not always an issue for MSSM.
The desolate Limestone used to be “an economic hub” according to Luke Shorty, math teacher and former student of MSSM. The reason for the activity years ago was the Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine. Loring was the “closest (air force base), believe it or not, to Europe, Russia.” Said Luke Shorty. The base stayed active throughout the Cold War and when the War ended the base was no longer necessary. The creation of MSSM was built off the availability of the building that was once the Loring Air Force Base.
“Like a lot of things in life…sometimes they’re driven by political forces that we don’t have any say over and that’s kind of this story here.” Said Shorty about the creation of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics.
When Loring was still active the town of Limestone was, in the eyes of Mainers, bustling. There was an array of businesses that developed the town of Limestone and the surrounding Aroostook county towns. This portrait of a bustling Limestone is contrary to the farmland laden Limestone of today.
“There are two (stores) on one side of main street and an IGA.” Said Shorty.
This year the Brunswick Navel Air Force Base in Brunswick, Maine will be closing. Brunswick, the home of Bowdoin College, is the proposed spot for MSSM’s move and with the closing of the base the move seems almost perfect.
“(Brunswick is) closer to the population hub so they will probably weather that closure a lot easier than Aroostook County.” Said Shorty.
If the school was in the midst of an area with a large and active population, MSSM would have an easier time attracting potential students. The fact that Brunswick is a college town and further south (closer to civilization) gives evidence of staying power for the economic security of the town. Population, though the solution to the problem of diminishing applicants, may not be enough incentive to deal with the problems associated with moving locations.
“There are people that have lived here their whole lives so they have a personnel issue. But other than that you have a logistic issue. It’s very expensive to move the school. If you move down to Brunswick you would need another school building. You’ll need to make labs and labs are expensive. People will want state of the art labs and things of that nature like Dorms.”Said Shorty. “Faculty. Do you pay for the faculty to relocate? Do you fire them all and rehire. (Do you) go through a rehiring process. That opens a whole new can of worms. Will it help us in certain aspects? Absolutely. If we were closer to the population it would be easier to attract more students. But it could even potentially be done here depending on what MSSM does with their curriculum. If it was a more hands on curriculum…if people were making tesla coils and doing genetics experiments and stuff like that might attract more people.”
Some worry about the possible problems an active community might have on the students. MSSM is a selective school but selectivity is becoming more difficult to maintain with the shrinking number of applicants: one MSSM administrator stated that the school was looking to accept around eighteen students for next year’s first year class. The possible increase in applicants would solve this problem but the active social atmosphere of a more populated town might not be conducive to the school’s rigorous curriculum.
To a city charter school, the problems that an increase to Brunswick, Maine might pose could seem comical. MSSM’s population of 104 boarders contrasts the 1800-2000 students at the Dorothy I. Heights Community Academy Public Charter Schools and many other city based charter schools. A student population of 1800-2000 is low for a city school. Lotteries are a common vehicle for selecting students to attend city charter schools. The high number of applicants guarantees a struggle to find a spot in a city school. MSSM, with its rural population, does not have a “high number of applicants’ problem.” Because of this, the foundation of a very small school could easily be altered with a slightly higher population or active surrounding community. Some members of the administration feel that the potential alterations of the school will not be positive.
“As a public charter school, we are required to enroll students who meet the city residency requirements as long as our campuses have slots available. We must conduct an annual enrollment lottery if we have more enrollment applications and returning students than available slots.” Said Ashaki E. Goodall, Director of Development and External Affairs at the Dorothy I Height Community Academy Public Charter Schools in Washington D.C.
MSSM’s curriculum is not as restricted as most charter schools.
“I’m not really sure how we function as a public school. It’s kind of bizarre.” Said Alex, a senior at MSSM.
Because MSSM does not have a high level of applicants or community students, the school is able to initiate the system that serves as their identifier: MSSM’s rigorous grading system.
“We don’t do GPA or honor roll but there are other motivations. If you don’t do well, if you have a C or lower, you have structured study. People do get A’s here. But, if you are doing exceptionally well in a course you are usually bumped to a higher level.” Said Jane Smith*, a current sophomore at MSSM.
This is the schools unique quality. If a student can succeed at MSSM a student can succeed in college. That is the philosophy. Test taking will be a breeze. Reading, writing, and solving problems will be an easy feat. However, being in a world where grades are required for college admission, parents are starting to feel concerned about the future of their children and they are pulling out of the MSSM school system. The pressure to keep students and increase applicants questions the unique grading system of MSSM and students wonder if the current grading system will still exist in the future.
The topic of grading is one of the most debated topics in the MSSM community is the grading system and the difficulty of classes. The school advertises a college ready initiative but many parents would say that the actions of the school were contrary to this agenda in regards to the evaluation systems of the school. Students are given a large challenging course load and if students display the ability to handle the material well, an A as the parents would say, the student is moved to a higher level class. The administration argues that the challenge of the curriculum prepares students for higher education but parents argue that the inability to score well in classes prevents students from getting accepted to a prestigious college or university.
As teachers explained, MSSM is not held to state standards because MSSM’s students continually exceed the standards. The school prides itself on this and how the excellence in student testing reflects the rigorous academics of the school. However, lately, there has been a debate on student success at the school. What does a student transcript look like if A students are being bumped up until they can’t be bumped up anymore? What about standardized tests?
MSSM students are known to do exceptionally well on standardized tests. The school’s performance on standardized tests is one of the reasons for the wide berth of freedom given to the school (wider, even, than most public charter schools).
“We are not held to the Department of Education rules. In the creation of MSSM, one of the things that created this – charter schools, board of directors say: you are going to hire an amazing faculty and the board of trustees will certify your teachers and we will waive any regulations the Maine department of education puts on us…you are to educate the students how you see best fit for the gifted and talented students and that is what we have been doing.” Said Luke Shorty.
Unlike conventional public charter schools, like the Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter School, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics is not subject to stringent state regulations. MSSM was given a lot of freedom because of the high test scores of its students. The supposed negative effect of a more populated area and a larger school population is lower test scores because of the presupposed distractions and less individualized attention.
As of now the secluded location increases MSSM’s obscurity. The students and teachers admit that they aren’t surprised when people don’t know about the school: it’s in the middle of nowhere. However, being obscure does not stop the school from being selective. The Maine School of Science and Mathematics stands as a selective school, graduating a class of about forty to fifty students a year. It was ranked number 12 in the U.S. News and World Reports best public schools. The school only accepts students that have demonstrated an ability to thrive within the MSSM system. Selection is based on sending school grades, standardized test scores, extra-curricular activities, essays, demonstration of passion for the arts or sciences, and the “special something else” exhibited in the interview.
The small student community of MSSM isn’t only because of the low acceptance rate. In addition to the low number of acceptances, a third of the enrolled freshmen end up leaving the school because of curriculum difficulty or because they are not ready to be away from home. They go back to their sending schools.
“If students who were doing exceptionally well at their sending school come here and have difficulty and start struggling, we set some things in place to help with that. Sometimes structured study helps people, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s one of the tools we have in place. We have academic team meetings if a student is really in trouble.” Said Luke Shorty.
He spoke calmly of the students that struggled: academic struggle was not unique. It was something the school prepared for and had a system for. Structured study is a required study period for students who get a C or below in any class. There are also other means of aiding students, including individualized help from teachers which is only possible in a small school.
“We try to stem those problems before they get out of hand. If we can’t fix them, well, the beauty of MSSM is that we can say MSSM is not working for you but you have a sending school you were doing well at: let’s put you back there.” Said Shorty.
This results in a high number of students who got back to their sending schools or transfer out. But the number could be higher with less individualized attention in an equally rigorous course load, which is the fear of many students and teachers.
“Administrators are afraid that the increase in population will hurt the academics of MSSM and the performance of students.” Said James, a junior at MSSM, about the school’s potential move to Brunswick.
MSSM has the hope of gaining funding and students with current courses and programs, regardless of what plans the school holds for the future. Visiting a class at MSSM demonstrates the effect of small class sizes and dedicated teachers. That’s truly it: the teachers and students that decide to trek to the middle of nowhere for an extended period of time usually want to be there. The remote location makes the venture to Limestone a long haul for most and because of this MSSM is a boarding school. The vast majority of students board in the residential hall alongside the school. The school is separated into two buildings: the living courters where the students’ board and the academic building where students have classes. Teaching is integrated in an MSSM teacher’s daily life and this lifestyle is one that many teachers knowingly choose. Some classes, like a night time astronomy class, take advantage of the fact that the students are also boarders. The fact that most MSSM students are live in students allows teachers to take on a twenty-four hour role. Most teachers live nearby. The teachers that were interviewed seemed pleased to have the constant role.
“The best way to serve them is to get to know them, get to know how they think and to provide consistency between home life and school life and we can do that. We have the whole support team always working with them.” Said Sarah Goletz, “getting to that place of met cognition where people are able to see how they learn and work on that. Not necessarily through resources but through teachers that are willing to sit with them.”
Goletz’s view is that students are responsive to the constant education system: “We are constantly working with kids of high intelligence and motivation. Kids that want to get more out of their education. “I have a hard core of students who want everything I can possibly give them. The student body is different. Even the students that speak of education as an invasion of their time. The students took an initiative to come here. You know that lying dormant somewhere is a love of learning.”
The teachers, students, and administration faculty interview conveyed, intentionally or unintentionally, the characteristics that bring the school to light. The detrimental aspects that prevent an increase in applicants are, in part, due to the isolation of the school but the isolation, in many ways, plays a positive role in the school environment.
Individual attention allows the school to possess uncommon qualities: all of the computers in the computer lab were put together by former students.
Class atmosphere seems to be constructive:
An example is Mr. McCartney’s English class. The class contains a kitchen counter covered in tea makings. Behind the black board and desks sits a wall of books and living room furnishings: couches are placed behind a neat row of desks. All students, given the option of couch or desk, choose to sit at a desk. Mr. McCartney also sits at a desk, amongst his students, with his red tea pot that reads “Keep Calm and Carry On” and his red mug with the same phrase. The eight students sit in a row and discuss American Indian literature using imaginary numbers and the variable x to analyze literary concepts.
Many public charter schools hold lotteries and admit all students that meet state specified guidelines.
“Each year our enrollment target changes slightly, and we have consistently increased our enrollment. Across our 5 physical campus and 1 online campus, we currently have approximately 1800 students, and next year our target is approximately 2000 students in grades PK3 – 8th.” Said Ashaki E. Goodall, Director of Development and External Affairs at the Dorothy I Height Community Academy Public Charter Schools, “As a public charter school we are required to enroll students who meet the city residency requirements as long as our campuses have slots available. We must conduct an annual enrollment lottery if we have more enrollment applications and returning students than available slots.”
MSSM does not have these goals or city requirements. The decline in applicants has not reduced the selectivity of the school: an admissions director shared that the school might be excepting a total of seventeen students for its incoming first year class. Upholding standards is not the only reason the school remains selective: a student needs to demonstrate the ability to live independently in an isolated area. However, the isolation of the surrounding area encourages students to form intimate bonds.
“It was that sense of community that made MSSM so special for me throughout my years…because it definitely wasn’t the location that brought me here.” Said Luke Shorty about his time as a student at MSSM.
“Nobody judges you here. We’re all coming from a different and we all pretty much want the same thing.” Sarah Benjamin said about the sense of community and desire to learn amongst the MSSM students.
And because the school is in a desolate location, the students that choose to go to MSSM are usually students that are willing to devote the majority of their time to academia and school related activity. The positives and negatives of MSSM, and charter schools nationwide, present reminders of the initial romanticized charter school promise: to improve the education of the United States and provide an education choice to students that cannot afford alternative to public schools. The methodology of charter schools is simple: the perks of a private school and the perks of a public school fused together. Freedom to compose a school alongside the pressure, brought on by public funding, to meet requirements of success.
Charter schools were intended to provide the accessibility of a selective, prestigious institution without the tuition. Whether the goal of a further advanced nation is achievable through the charter school system is under question with the display of documentation of urban charter schools. The less broadcasted rural charter schools have shown problems and successes separate from their urban counterparts. “According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The number has gone from 207, or 13 percent, of all charter schools in 2000 to 652, or 15 percent, in 2008, according to the most recent statistics.”1 An increasing number of parents and students are choosing rural charter schools. The MSSM system, different from the conventional big city charter school system, has proven to be a more effective methodology in some ways. However, the problems with the schooling system and the problems brought on by the surrounding isolated area cannot, and should not, be ignored.
1The National Charter School Research Center November 2010 E-Newsletter