Principals begin early talks about a consolidated MDI middle school

Posted March 03, 2012, at 3:43 p.m.

MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, Maine — Some rumblings have begun about combining middle-schoolers from all five Mount Desert Island elementary schools.

It started when the five on-island principals were asked to think about how to offer sports to all the district’s middle-schoolers. Because the K-8 schools are so small — except Bar Harbor’s Conners-Emerson School — they have a hard time fielding full teams.

“As much as administrators and athletics directors liked the idea of islandwide sports, they kept looking at practical aspects. It wasn’t practical at all,” state the draft minutes from a recent Alternative School Organization 91 meeting.

Busing and scheduling would be a mess.

Which led to a bigger idea: Wouldn’t it be easy if they were all in the same building?

Mount Desert Elementary School principal Scott McFarland says maybe. He didn’t have enough students for a baseball team last year and it’s looking the same this year. His 170-student K-8 school used to have an A team and a B team for basketball and he has had to combine them into one — which isn’t necessarily good for the kids. It’s such a problem that he has thought about adding tennis — a sport the school hasn’t offered before — to the school’s sports offerings because it wouldn’t require many students. Other MDI principals are having similar dilemmas.

“We started talking about how boy, if we had an islandwide middle school that would solve those problems and it would also open up doors for kids academically. It spurred that conversation. Maybe we should investigate that more — not that it will be the solution, but it’s something to think about,” McFarland said.

Principals from Pemetic and Trenton schools both expressed tentative excitement about the possibility of a consolidated middle school. Tremont’s principal was not quoted in the meeting’s draft minutes and didn’t immediately return press calls.

The discussion isn’t just about sports, McFarland said. Several seventh-graders in the district have passed algebra, for instance. They should move on to geometry, but the little schools don’t offer it. To get around this, those students have been able to take geometry by videoconferencing with the larger Conners-Emerson School.

“One issue we have traditionally is having all students from all the schools being equally prepared for high school. I think one common middle school would prepare kids for high school in a more equitable way,” McFarland said.

One issue with doing this would be that it would make the four small elementary schools even smaller by taking out the sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

Barbara Neilly, the principal of Conners-Emerson School, said the talks were “very very premature.”

“It’s a conversation that’s been in the district for 20 years. It comes up every five years in looking at what’s best for the students for programming. I think its been about five years since the last discussion,” Neilly said.

The reason she thinks the conversation is so pervasive is when the district consolidated to only one high school, it worked well.

“I think there is a lot more to it than ‘should there be an island middle school or not?’” Neilly said. “There are so many pros and cons on each side. We have a lot to look at before we jump at anything.”

For one thing, most of the elementary schools still owe money on their buildings, according to AOS 91 superintendent Rob Liebow. And, while the conversation about one middle school sometimes pops up in the community, a similar conversation about having one big elementary school has never occurred. People want their towns to have their own elementary schools, he said — so the town elementary school would shrink by taking away the 6th, 7th and 8th graders.

One factor might be if two of the elementary schools do consolidate. Pemetic and Tremont schools will have votes soon to see if they should combine.

“If Southwest Harbor and Tremont start talking about it seriously, it might develop interest about talking this as a whole topic,” Liebow said. “I’m waiting to see what those two towns on the quiet side of the island are going to do. It’s a good indication of what the level of interest might be.”

On the other hand, the AOS voters did reject fully consolidating into a Regional School Union sort of formation and instead wanted each town to have its own schools and budgets — this might be an indicator that the community wouldn’t support one middle school, Liebow said.

Liebow said the entire discussion is in a very early stage and none of the talks have been official. If something does come of this “there is not serious comment from the committees, it’s from the school administrators. it sounds like a nugget.”

“I don’t know if the AOS will bring this back. There’s talk about it. You might see the discussion come back at the strategic plan talks in June — not agenda discussion or anything rushed,” he said.

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