Alumni of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone are giving new meaning to its identity as a magnet school.
Founded in 1995, the school’s first graduates are reaching an age when giving back is a way to express appreciation for valuable experiences. For some that means returning to Limestone to work at MSSM. For others, it means connecting through a network of alumni.
Luke Shorty, executive director and academic dean, and Catherine Reilly, director of advancement, met me at the MSSM entrance for a tour on May 13.
“First, let me say we are both MSSM alums,” said Kate as we greeted each other. Luke beamed as he confirmed that he had graduated just a year after Kate.
Now, after earning advanced degrees and working in other parts of the state, they are both back, dedicated to enriching the school that enriched them with a rigorous education and transforming life experience.
Among the first students to enroll, Kate arrived in 1995 from Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor, where it was easy for her to earn good grades. She had never been north of Orono and wondered, on her first night in a new environment without a familiar face: “What have I done?”
But the next day the uncertainty was gone. It was easy to get acquainted with similarly motivated peers from diverse economic and social backgrounds.
“It was an early life lesson,” she said of her recognition that all these kids were brilliant.
“I learned an incredible amount. I had to work harder.”
Luke’s experience was similar, even though he was not alone when he arrived from Fairfield where he had attended Lawrence High School. Seven other Lawrence students had been recruited for the new school in Aroostook County.
But Luke’s academic challenge matched Kate’s.
“It was like drinking from the academic fire hose,” he said, recalling he had never had to work for As and Bs. “I got my first F. It was an awakening.”
Now, with the experience of college and work behind them, Kate and Luke have a heightened awareness of the value of their experience as MSSM students. When they saw opportunities to return to their alma mater as staff members, they were excited to be able to give back.
Luke came first as a teacher of mathematics in 2009.
Following four years as state economist at the Maine State Planning Office, Kate was recruited in 2011 to serve as MSSM’s director of external relations by a fellow alum, who was on the school’s board of trustees. In her role that same year, she staffed the search for a new executive director at the magnet school.
Luke was the successful candidate, moving from the faculty into the dual role of executive director and academic dean.
Kate has since transitioned to her current role as director of advancement.
“I love working for a cause I care about where I can see the direct effect of my work,” she said. “This is more concrete economic development than policy work.”
One of her goals is to keep MSSM students in Maine.
“Maine needs to retain its young people,” she said, describing her efforts to help students realize opportunities in Maine. “You have to plant the seed before they enter college.”
Luke completed the metaphor in describing his outreach efforts: “The fruit of MSSM is now ripe and ready to come back.” He sees potential for collaboration with the Maine Department of Labor and the State Chamber of Commerce while he builds an alumni network through contacts with graduating classes, a newsletter, Google and Facebook, “capitalizing on the social media — an untapped resource.”
But MSSM outreach is not limited to alumni. The school offers summer programs to both students and teachers from all parts of Maine.
In its 16th year, MSSM summer camps for students ages 10-14 encourage campers to pursue their passion in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). During three camps for boys and two for girls, campers become scientists, computer programmers, engineers and mathematicians for a week through hands-on interactive classes, such as Lift-Off (rocket building), Real-Life CSI, Animal Medicine, Chemistry in the Kitchen, Computer Programming and Robotics and Out-of-the-Box Engineering.
MSSM outreach to Maine teachers culminates this year in the second STEM Collaborative Educators’ Camp July 28-Aug. 2 — a week-long professional development summer camp for Maine educators who currently teach science, technology, engineering or math in grades 6-12. Thanks to a $60,000 gift from an anonymous donor, awarded through the Maine Community Foundation, the camp is free. Educators can earn up to three continuing education units and will be able to choose from 20 different courses to improve their teaching, with time each day to debrief and collaborate. Faculty members for both student and teacher camps are selected through competitive applications based on their designs for the courses they propose to teach.
And the summer program director just happens to be another MSSM alumna, Lisa Smith of Albion and Boothbay Harbor. Like engineering instructor Jen Brophy of Patten and residential instructor Cody Snow of Masardis — also MSSM alumni — Lisa is giving back to her alma mater.
Creation of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics evolved from economic recovery efforts initiated after the closure of Loring Air Force Base in 1994. Arthur Thompson, chair of the MSSM Foundation, remembers those days. He had been a member of local committees organized to work with the Maine congressional delegation, initially to keep the base open and subsequently to adjust to its closure.
“The subcommittee on education was particularly active,” Thompson said, explaining how it worked with a consultant to develop the winning proposal to create a public, residential magnet school for science and mathematics in Limestone.
When Gov. John McKernan announced Limestone as the location for the new school, there was skepticism among the reporters around the conference table,” Thompson recalled. “What makes you think it will work?” was the first question. “Students won’t travel all the way to Limestone.”
But travel they did, from throughout Maine, for a tuition-free education at the school recently ranked the 13th best public high school in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. Classes for up to 142 MSSM students meet in one wing of Limestone Community School while 264 LCS (K-12) students attend classes in an adjacent wing. The two schools share the use of the library, gymnasium, café and a junior Olympic pool.
MSSM students live in a dorm that was once a school and participate in on- and off-campus events and athletic activities. They can earn college credit through the University of Maine at Presque Isle and can pursue a special course or project during a 10-day January term between fall and spring semesters.
“Community support made it work,” said Kate. “Local leaders followed their vision for a little town in Aroostook County, and it’s impressive that their vision included an emphasis on science and math long before the rest of the educational community was doing that.”
Shorty concurred: “Limestone is out of sight, but it’s a jewel, a welcoming community, a beautiful learning environment.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.