MDI has little time to build a much needed regional middle school

SOMESVILLE, Dec. 1, 2020 – More than a century ago, the concept of “middle school” took an enlightened turn – to focus on a curriculum that was more substantial and physical space more differentiated than that in elementary schools. It recognized the peculiar characteristics of a population with a developing frontal lobe. Plus, the traditional K-8 schools were beginning to become overcrowded and unwieldy to manage.

A leading thought-leader in the late 19th century was none other than Harvard President Charles W. Eliot who helped found the summer community of Northeast Harbor. He, George Dorr and John D. Rockefeller Jr. were later credited with the founding of Acadia National Park.

Eliot was so many things but as an educator, he was a lion. Not only did he create the modern Harvard, he also had profound influence on secondary education. wrote, “During his presidency Harvard raised its entrance requirements, and other major colleges did likewise. This, in turn, effected a corresponding rise in secondary-school standards.”

Eliot was a driving force behind the concept of a middle school. The first middle school was established in 1909 in Columbus, Ohio. There was a burst of adoption in the Sixties when Grades 6-8, or junior high (7-8, or 7-9) became the norm for most of the United States. To be sure, some districts have moved back to a K-8 system but those were mostly driven by cost considerations during the Great Recession.

So it is a puzzlement that Mount Desert Island remains an outlier which still clings to a K-8 system despite being home to one of the greatest education innovators of American history.

But now MDI faces a major decision. It has a small window of opportunity which may not be there for another 50 years – to create an islandwide middle school similar to the high school which has served MDI communities so well.

The issue is exacerbated by exigent needs. Tremont School has run out of space. Bar Harbor’s Connor Elementary is falling apart. Both are grappling for solutions, any solution, as the situation has been made urgent by the rigorous enforcement of pandemic-related logistics. Only a year ago, Bar Harbor began to discuss the idea of building a new school. That idea has been shelved for now. But if Bar Harbor ever built a new school, there will be no chance to build an islandwide middle school.

I asked Heather Jones, chair of the combined boards, on the status of the middle school proposal. “It comes down to funding,” she said. She cited two factions – some Mount Desert residents and Tremont teachers – who have vocally opposed a single middle school.

But that would go against a straw poll last summer that asked the question, “Are you in favor of the school board continuing planning efforts for a combined, district-wide middle school?” The votes were 1,237 to 598 in favor in Bar Harbor, 439 to 205 in Mount Desert, 158 to 62 in Southwest Harbor and 273 to 199 in Tremont.

The opposing voices in Mount Desert may be small but they have a point. No islandwide school will be viable without the largesse of Mount Desert because the formula for contribution from each town is largely determined by the tax base under which Mount Desert dwarfs everyone else by several factors.

Last year a 16-member committee of teachers, parents, administrators, school board members and others in the community proposed the creation of a Grades 7 to 8 middle school to be a new building located on the campus of MDI High School.

That committee presented its recommendations to the school system board May 13, 2019. Its vision was for “a combined middle school that directly targets the ever-evolving academic, social and emotional needs of its young adolescents.”

Mount Desert Islander veteran reporter Dick Broom wrote that committee member Maria Simpson, who teaches at Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor, said, “We believe that a middle school with a unified vision of education could deliver even more challenging, relevant, engaging and hands-on learning. We feel a combined middle school would draw families and students to the area. It could also serve as a model of middle school innovation.”

Middle school committee co-chair Marie Yarborough told the board that, throughout its deliberations, the group kept two guiding principles in mind: “One, keep the students at the center of the conversation and the recommendations; they are our constituents. And two, whatever we recommend has to be a better version of any middle level experience than exists in our district today.”

After the committee’s presentation to the school board, all of the school principals, along with Supt. Marc Gousse and curriculum chief Julie Meltzer, issued this statement: “Administrators felt strongly that a single middle school could support student government and greater student engagement (e.g. green team, civil rights team) and provide equitable programming opportunities prior to high school.” School Supt. Marc Gousse told QSJ a middle school created in his previous job in Westbrook, Maine, had Grades 5 through 8 and that he is open to adding another grade if need be.

The decision by the 16-member did not include Tremont. Members said Tremont representatives and teachers attended the meetings in the beginning of the process and then stopped attending. QSJ made several calls to Heidi Lawson, Chair of Tremont’s school board, but she did not respond.

In Fairfield County, Connecticut, where I lived for 20 years, the town of Wilton, with 18,000 year-round residents, has one high school, one middle school, one Grade 3-6 school and one pre-K to Grade 2 school.

What I admired about Wilton is that by consolidating, they were able to offer luxuries – a pre-K to Grade 2 school, for instance. So imagine Tremont and Southwest Harbor sending their Grade 6 to 8 kids to a new middle school and relieving their current overload. Can we create a Pre-K to Grade 2 program in Tremont and a Grade 3 to 5 (or 6) program in SWH? Those schools are 7 minutes apart by bus.

The middle school kids would receive a better education. Parents would be delighted at the addition of a Pre-K program, and there would be no space crisis.

But the reality is that the The Mount Desert Island Regional School System, with a year-round population of 10,000 has nine schools and too many school boards to count. It reports to 11 bosses, including the state. Only the high school is a truly regional school. The Alternative Organizational Structure (AOS ’91) on MDI, Trenton and the islands south of here was in response to Gov. John Baldacci’s effort in 2007 to consolidate schools to save costs.

Unlike the high school, the member entities of an AOS still have their own individual school boards.

“I want to give a shoutout to Nancy Thurlow,” said Supt. Gousse Monday night in front of the AOS ’91 school board. “She manages 11 budgets and 11 audits.” Gousse is a clever guy and a great operator. Did the board members pick up his signal: 11 budgets! Seriously?

Gousse said in a phone call that the enormous behind-the-scenes effort to keep this hamster wheel running are invisible to parents as they drop off their kids, the school board members, and the kids themselves.

Separate from the middle school consideration is another subcommittee investigating ways to reorganize AOS ’91 to make it more efficient. Gousse said work already has been done to streamline operations such as working off of a single school calendar, setting universal policies, negotiating a single union contract and unifying health insurance. But there’s more to do, such as centralizing hiring to spread the work. “If the Cranberry Isles wanted to hire a 20 percent Spanish teacher, they could never make that happen,” Gousse said. “But if the district had a Spanish teacher, we could share that teacher.”

It would help to see an analysis – a true forensic analysis – on the benefit of consolidating central office costs versus the true “soft” cost of operating a highly constipated system of juggling reports and other demands from so many different entities catering to so few constituents. How many calls does Nancy Thurlow get a month? How big of a support staff does she have? How many of those requests are of substance and how many are frivolous? This is Maine, so I assume the adults in the room are mostly adults and respect each other’s duties. But nonetheless, dear reader, here is a link to the school board page of Alternative Organized Schools 91 and you may decide for yourself whether this is a well-oiled system …

Local control is laudible until it’s not.

Principals were hired to be educators. “They weren’t intended to oversee building maintenance,” said Heather Jones.

Tremont Consolidated School is an underachiever as evident by standardized test scores and as reported earlier by QSJ. There is no upside to protecting under-achievement. Tremont kids have benefitted over multiple decades from attending Mount Desert High School, one of the best in the state. The high school is what lawyers would call prima facie evidence that the streamlining of resources and talent can truly lead to exceptional results as MDI high school consistently ranks in the top 10 of Maine’s 161 high schools.

It gives bragging rights to all involved.

Is it time to pull the rip cord on this question of a single middle school? Time is running out.

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