EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine – Erica McAvoy wasn’t happy this year at the idea of sending her 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to Opal Myrick Elementary School, which is housed in a wing of Schenck High School.
“I didn’t think that elementary kids needed to see lots of high school behaviors,” McAvoy said.
AOS 66 Superintendent Quenten Clark had that concern. It is axiomatic among educators that mixing such disparate ages — kindergarten through grade four and grades nine through 12 — is a bad idea, he said.
“This community is small. We know everybody, and instead of making everybody apart, it has brought us so that we are together,” said Kelley Michaud, a first-grade teacher at Opal Myrick. “It has brought these high school kids into looking forward to and looking for the elementary kids, looking to be a mentor, looking for ways to make that connection.”
“It’s almost like a brother-sister situation,” Michaud said.
No serious incidents among the intermingled populations have been reported, and the minor incidents have been very minor, Schenck Principal John Farrington said Tuesday.
“If we have disciplinary issues it would be big kids with big kids or little kids with little kids,” Opal Myrick Assistant Principal Tracey Nute said.
The most serious reported problem involving the intermingling came shortly after the schools merged when a kindergarten student reported a high school student in one of the K-4 bathrooms. School officials investigated and found that the “big kid” the kindergartener mentioned was a fourth-grader, Farrington said.
“To a kindergartener, a fourth-grader is a big kid,” Farrington said.
Looking statewide, t he Maine Department of Education website lists about two dozen public and private K-12 and specialty schools, but none that mix K-4 and 9-12 the way it’s done in East Millinocket. The Education Department lists Opal Myrick and Schenck as separate entities.
Housed in separate high school wings, the two populations at Schenck — both of about 150 students — have their own routines. They walk to and from school together, but use different bathrooms and change classes at different times to reduce hallway congestion, Clark said.
Yet both populations connect, according to students and staff. High schoolers will often walk the younger kids to class or monitor them at recess, and the elementary school students practically worship the high school athletes, underlining to the older students the importance of being good role models, Nute said.
“In the year before, when the young children weren’t here, I’d overhear this [swearing] in the hallway,” Clark said. “Maybe when they are down in the high school corner [of the building] and they are all high school kids, they act like high school kids, but when they are typically in a mixed situation, they act like grown-ups.”
Another virtue: The high school is a much more lively place because of the boisterous grade schoolers, Clark said. When the grade schoolers hung decorations on their classroom doors and in hallways, the older kids followed suit.
Sixteen-year-old juniors Kylie Bouchard and Allie Currie have used the elementary student presence to investigate their own futures. Interested in becoming teachers, the two tutor younger students daily. They said that they are learning how difficult and rewarding teaching is.
“They all act differently,” Currie said of the grade schoolers, “some with special needs and some that are more mature than others. So you have to learn to treat each one differently.”
The student-teachers fit right into grade school classrooms, Michaud said.
“When they come in — and it doesn’t matter what we are doing — they come in and get right to work,” Michaud said. “Once they have been in here a little bit, they know exactly what I want them to do.”
“My kids love it,” McAvoy said. “They think it is a great thing to have the high school kids coming into their classrooms. I think that they feel like they are part of the community more. They are involved in high school sports more. It really works well.”