ROCKLAND, Maine — About 20 island educators, school board members and administrators met for a panel discussion Saturday on the challenges faced by the schools in their communities.
The panel was one of many held as part of the third annual Sustainable Island Living conference scheduled to run Friday through Sunday at a half-dozen locations in Rockland. About 120 participants from islands around the U.S. and Canada attended the conference organized by the Island Institute, based in Rockland.
Saturday’s panel on island schools began with statistics showing downward trends in school enrollments for Maine’s islands. The islanders talked about how a lack of affordable housing on the islands can lead to a lack of young families, which means fewer children enrolled in school.
Heather Knight, the principal of Islesboro Central School, discussed her island’s model of recruiting. Islesboro created a magnet program three years ago and has enrolled 100 students in that time. Those students all pay tuition, which ranges from $4,000 to $5,000. She said the program has helped keep the 85-student school’s enrollment up.
The students take the ferry to the island and can stay with host families.
“All islands have an opportunity to emphasize what they have to offer,” Knight said. “Our largest grade level is 12 [students], our smallest is six. I think that’s what parents are looking for.”
Now, three years in, Knight is seeing a shift.
“This is the first year magnet families have considered moving to the island because they realize the quality of education translates into quality of life,” she said.
Some of those magnet families rent housing, but Knight is working with an affordable housing project that might get them into permanent homes.
Courtney Naliboff, who teaches music, theater and English at North Haven Community School, said her school plans to become a destination school.
“We at North Haven have been impressed with Islesboro’s efforts,” she said after Knight’s presentation.
Alton Ballance of the island town Ocracoke, N.C., also attended the discussion. He said his island’s school is using online classes to help educate their children. Ocracoke also works with community colleges to allow its high school students to take classes such as forensics.
As for suggestions about housing, Ballance urged participants to encourage landlords to take in lower-maintenance, year-round renters who may pay a little less than summer renters. He also suggested finding people who can work from home and encouraging them to try island life.
“We probably need to have more conversations among the islands so we are not experiencing our challenges alone when we all have the same challenges,” Knight said after the meeting. “Although we are islands, we don’t have to work in isolation.”
Also attending Saturday’s panel was Dave Hiltz, a school board member from Isle au Haut, which has two full-time students.
For more information on the Island Institute’s Sustainable Living Conference, visit www.islandinstitute.org/silconference.