SHIRLEY, Maine — Just as her predecessors have done for nearly 175 years, teacher Joyce Lessard rang a hand-held bell Monday in front of the white schoolhouse to summon Shirley Elementary School pupils in from recess.
And just as children have done in as many years, there was a race to see who could get to the school door first. While it’s likely the two Shirley pupils will resume their race next year, it won’t be to the door that’s been most familiar to them.
The Shirley School Committee and residents voted in May to close the one-room schoolhouse on July 1 because of declining enrollment. The last school day is Thursday.
Several attempts were made to close the school in previous years, but they were rejected until this year. In the 1980s, Shirley was the first town in the state to dissolve a school district when district officials pushed to close the school. The school has had enrollments as high as 50 and as low as today’s two.
The lack of jobs in the region has prompted some families to move away and it has prevented others from moving into this small community in the Moosehead Lake region. With no incoming kindergarten pupils anticipated and none projected in future years, it made sense to the majority of residents to vote to close the school and give students school choice. The town will pay transportation only to Greenville schools.
The Shirley school and the Rockwood Elementary School in Rockwood Township, another kindergarten to fifth-grade school, are the last one-room schoolhouses left on the mainland of Maine. The Rockwood school, which serves two children this year, also will be closed this year. Even though both schools have more than one room, the state classifies schools with multilevel grades and one teacher as one-room schools. Several one-room schools are in operation on coastal islands.
“It’s sad to see this school go because I really enjoyed it,” Dean Lazore, 8, said Monday. The Greenville youth said he had attended prekindergarten and kindergarten in Greenville and had transferred to the Shirley school because it was small. “Greenville was good, but here, I did way better.”
For Ian Blackstone, 9, of Shirley, who participates in activities with Greenville children, the move won’t be that bad, he said Monday. “I know most of the kids in Greenville,” he said, but added, “I really like this place — the school.”
In recognition of the closing, the boys on Monday wore T-shirts that displayed a photograph of the school on the front. The back of Blackstone’s T-shirt read, “The last student in grade 3,” and Lazore’s read, “The last student in grade 2.”
Built in 1835, 15 years after Maine was admitted to the Union as part of the Missouri Compromise, the Shirley school appears to have been caught in a time warp. It is a place of hardwood floors, where the Pledge of Allegiance is proudly recited, where children sit at old-fashioned desks, some of which have inkwells, where a clothesline holding clothespins is draped from the ceiling to display art projects, and where the wainscoted walls are covered with information about Maine’s 16 counties, punctuation and etiquette rules, and photographs of activities undertaken by Shirley children over the years.
“The school is very dear to me,” resident Pat Mace, 72, said Monday. She said it has played an important role in her life. In addition to her, Mace said her father, her four sons and her three grandchildren had attended the Shirley school.
The small school has provided an excellent education for those pupils who have attended it, Mace said, noting that Shirley students quite often were among the top in their graduating classes. She attributed that to the individual attention pupils have received at the school.
In the past three years, that attention has been given by teacher Lessard of Frenchtown Township and by Jackie Stevens, an education technician, of Monson. Both women on Monday also recognized the closing of the school by wearing T-shirts that said “last teacher” and “last ed tech.”
Retiring after 23 years in teaching in both large and small schools, Lessard said there are advantages and disadvantages to small schools. Although it’s difficult to do some activities, such as ballgames, class trips, such as the one taken to the State House in May, are easy, she said.
Lessard said that visit brought a smile to both pupils and teachers. Lazore and Blackstone were to serve as pages on the trip, she recalled. When the teachers and boys arrived in Augusta, they announced their presence and were told to wait for the other group. When Lessard finally asked whom they were waiting for, the State House aide said the 60 kids from Shirley. “That’s us,” Lessard said she told the aide, who apparently got mixed up because the school was in Union 60.
Both Lessard and Stevens, who has served at the school for nine years, called the closing “bittersweet.”
“It’s unfortunate the school is closing. There is a lot of tradition here,” resident Nathan Boyan said Monday as he visited the Shirley General Store. But the young man, who moved to Shirley in 2005, said that on the other hand, “Can you really justify keeping it open?”