June 22, 2018
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Tiny St. George eighth-grade class faces tough transition to new school

By Heather Steeves, BDN Staff

ST. GEORGE, Maine — The 14 students who make up this town’s entire eighth-grade class are a little nervous. Next year they have to join the district’s 350-student eighth- and ninth-grade school. They got a one-year exception this year and the town paid a $50,000 bill to keep them home as eighth-graders, but come next year when they’re in ninth grade, they’ve got to go.

But what about drugs? And bullies? That school is so much bigger. What if I lose the relationships I’ve had with the students I’ve known since I was 6 years old? These are all concerns the St. George students are thinking about.

Meanwhile, the district’s school board and the town of St. George must think about what to do next year. Can the town again keep its oldest students in its school of less than 200 children? So far, it’s unclear, but locals expect the issue to pop up at town and school board meetings soon.

If the kids in the coastal peninsula town had it their way, eighth-graders would stay at the small St. George School.

In an informal vote, 12 of the 13 St. George eighth-graders who attended school Tuesday decided that their little school should always have an eighth grade. The dissent was by 14-year-old Owen Shay.

“It has to change sometime,” he said.

Right now, St. George’s eighth-graders are heroes. This week the hip-height children gleamed when the eighth-graders applauded their rendition of “Silent Night.” Sometimes the big kids read to them. The eighth-graders make up the student senate and most of the band, chorus and soccer and basketball teams.

“We’re like a community. We don’t want to be split up,” said Sadie Bartlett, 13, of St. George, who wore an Audrey Hepburn shirt. “All the eighth-graders are supposed to be good influences here. The little kids look up to us.”

“It’s our responsibility to take care of this school,” added AJ Benner, 13. “I was playing kickball and I saw a seventh-grader bullying a third-grader and I went right up to them.”

But next year, although they will be the oldest students at Oceanside High School West, the grades eight-nine school in Thomaston which has students from five towns, fears about bullying and drugs are springing up.

“I’ve heard about drugs up there. I’m pretty gullible. I’m afraid I will be sucked into that,” said Shay.

Others are a bit more optimistic.

“I think we can have an effect next year,” said Emily Bennett, 14.

“Yeah, right. All 13 of us?” said Emma Faunce, 13.

“We can,” Bennett insisted.

Larry Schooley, the principal of Oceanside West, said there have been only two incidents of drugs in the school this year. One of them happened last week when a girl brought marijuana-laced cake onto a school bus and shared it with some students, Schooley said. In his opinion, zero incidents would be optimal, but two isn’t bad for a school the size of Oceanside West.

Schooley’s in an interesting position. He was the principal of St. George School from 2002 through 2010 before he became the principal of Oceanside West.

“I’m a little worried about the transition of St. George’s eighth-graders next year,” Schooley said. “My worry is being a two-year school, a lot of things happen. At this age they fall into peer groups [quickly]. But St. George kids usually do pretty well. It will just take some effort on our part.”

That integration plan hasn’t been formed yet.

The one major difference between St. George’s eighth-grade class and Oceanside West’s is expeditionary learning. That type of learning takes a schoolwide approach of integrating themes throughout a grade level’s curriculum. A student in St. George’s eighth grade might learn some Latin in her language class, Roman mythology in her history class and might read about Rome in her reading class. Some of the classwork is specifically tailored to students’ interests. That’s not something Oceanside West can do, Schooley said.

“We don’t have the resources.”

Schooley said he has heard rumblings from the RSU 13 school board that St. George eighth-graders should begin to integrate next year as the rest of the district has. But he has a solution of his own — a solution a lot of people close to the issue are talking about. Why not keep both schools’ grades open and let parents decide where to send their kids? If children want an expeditionary learning experience in a small school, go to St. George. If not, have them attend Oceanside West.

It’s a plan Oceanside West eighth-grade English teacher Catherine Sally agrees with. She also taught at St. George for more than a decade before moving to Oceanside. Some of her students would benefit from the learning environment and individual attention a smaller school can offer, she said.

Eighth-grader Isabella Watmough, 14, of Rockland said it isn’t fair St. George kids were given a choice of which school to go to when she and her friends had none. She said it will be hard for St. George’s current eighth-graders to integrate next year.

“We don’t expect to meet new people next year. We already met people. It will be difficult,” Watmough said.

Caitlin Banda, 13, of Rockland, who lived in St. George for a long time and recently moved to the area, said her transition wasn’t difficult and that if she had a choice, she would stay at Oceanside West. There she takes Spanish full time, which she wouldn’t be able to do on the peninsula.

“I like it here a lot. I get to be with everyone. The classes are amazing,” Banda said. “I think it’s going to be hard for them [to integrate] next year. We all know each other and the teachers.”

St. George teacher Josh McPhail, who has been a vocal advocate for keeping the town’s eighth grade in the town, thinks his students will be OK as ninth-graders. He was happy when they got an extra year in their hometown. But, like any good mentor, he’s a bit worried for them to head out as high schoolers.

“Eighth grade is a big deal. Now they’re at the top of the heap,” he said. “It’s going to be different. Most of them will be fine. The ones who will struggle are the ones who are struggling now, socially and academically. They get a lot of attention now. They’ll be thrown into the deep end. But we’re preparing kids to be successful despite the system.”

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