May 20, 2019
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When a school closes in a rural town, more than education is at stake

FRANKFORT, Maine — Children giggled as they tried to balance Dixie cups of water on their heads during a splashy relay race at the annual Frankfort Elementary School Field Day.

They were excited to be outside playing games with their friends just before the start of the long summer vacation, but the moment was bittersweet. The end of the school year this week marks the permanent closure of their elementary school, which residents have described as the heart of their small, rural community.

“It feels like my home. It’s the place where I went since kindergarten,” Josie McFarlin, 9, said. “I know this school by heart.”

Frankfort, population about 1,100, is one of at least 50 primarily rural Maine towns that have closed their elementary schools since 1996. Some of the closures came about after Maine passed its controversial school consolidation law in 2008. Others likely happened because of shrinking rural populations and increasing education costs. All these factors played a role in the demise of the Frankfort school.

According to Rep. Brian Hubbell, that’s not a good indication of the health of the rural portion of the state.

“I think we need to recognize what’s lost when we deprive a community of the project of educating its kids,” said the longtime school board member and education advocate who serves on the state’s Joint Standing Committee of Education and Cultural Affairs.

“On the state side, we nod our heads and say, ‘yes, rural populations are shrinking.’ It’s the natural progression, as regrettable as it is. My concern is that when we lose those connections between people and schools, our communities become more alienated from the institutions. I think that’s reflected in the anger, the complaints about budgets, the sense that our schools are not serving our needs adequately.”

Frankfort has been wrestling for a few years with tough questions about the fate of its much-loved school, where parents say they feel welcome to volunteer in their kids’ classrooms and where students describe teachers enthusiastically.

“Funny, nice, cool. awesome, crafty, phenomenal, excellent, perfect,” Josie and four of her classmates said Monday, their words tumbling over each other in their haste to get them out.

All 74 pupils in the kindergarten-to-fifth grade school must decide this summer whether they want to continue their education to the north, in Winterport or Hampden, or in Searsport and Belfast to the south. Frankfort voters decided last fall to formally withdraw from the Regional School Unit 20, which includes Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville, and join Hampden, Winterport and Newburgh in SAD 22.

The withdrawal effort began as a way to save their school from being closed, but that’s not how it ended – a reality that has made many here sad, angry and frustrated. The school is where town meetings are held, where exercise classes take place, where community members meet to debate big issues including the recent controversial effort to erect wind turbines atop Mount Waldo. Its closure leaves a hole in town.

“I think it’s a huge part of the community,” said Dawn Wilbur, a parent volunteer. “Whenever we have special events in the evening, it’s amazing how many people come out.”

Matthew Southard, an 11-year-old with a mischievous smile, turned serious when he talked about saying goodbye to his best friend, who will attend middle school in Belfast next year. He talked about seeing an unwelcome sight in a nearby town.

“We passed a school, it was all boarded up. I hope that doesn’t happen to this school,” said Southard, one of the last students at the Frankfort Elementary School. “I don’t want to leave this school. I don’t. I just hope it doesn’t end boarded up.”

That is not likely to be the fate for the school, which opened in 1968.

The town select board has indicated its intention to turn the building into the new town office after Regional School Unit 20 conveys it back to the town for $1 on July 1, according to Gabe Baker, who helmed the community’s withdrawal and reorganization committees. He said it is possible the town will form a committee to decide the future uses for the school. Suggested ideas include a recreation center and commercial office space.

“It’s really hard to lose our community school. It’s an emotional thing and it’s hard,” Baker said.

Frankfort is not the only town in Waldo County losing its elementary school this year. Nearby Stockton Springs, population 1,600, marked the last day of its grade school this week. The RSU 20 administration plan to use the building next year for a preschool program, but that’s slim consolation for parents and children.

Sharon Catus, who serves on the RSU 20 board of directors, has one daughter in Stockton Springs Elementary School who will attend Searsport District Elementary School next year.

“The school is always the heart. You have other arteries going out from it, and other organs,” she said. “I really think it’s a loss that we will be feeling forever.”

The other night as she tucked her younger daughter into bed, the girl asked something hard.

“She said, ‘do you suppose people up there will love me as much as people do here?” Catus said, tears audible in her voice. “Our kids are going to be fine over at Searsport, but it’s not really our school.”

Other Maine towns have found creative solutions for their closed elementary schools. In Allagash, population 239, when the consolidated school closed in 1995, the building seemed in danger of abandonment. But village residents saw promise in its empty classrooms, and over the years used elbow grease and determination to turn it into the focal point of the community once again.

Now, it hosts a revolving door of activities such as a quilting bee, club meetings, social gatherings and impromptu basketball games. It also serves as the library, the town office, the garage for the municipal fire truck and ambulance and a health clinic.

In Cornville, population 1,300, which saw its elementary school shutter three years ago, a group of motivated parents and teachers worked to start a charter school. It opened last year schooling about 60 students with a personalized learning plan.

Hubbell said that although he politically has had a rocky relationship with charter schools, he understands why parents and residents fight to keep local schools alive.

“People still feel it’s important to have that connection, oversight and control over how to educate their kids,” he said.

He believes consolidation can work, if politicians, school officials and taxpayers recognize the importance of community ties and figure out how to maintain them.

“That seems vitally important, not just because schools are the essence of democracy, but because that’s what provides long term support,” he said. “You hear that at town meeting. As long as people think of them as ‘our schools,’ they’re incredibly generous. The moment that trust and relation is broken, then it turns really ugly.”

In Frankfort, the teachers, school administration and parent volunteers worked hard to protect their children from such ugliness, according to Principal Christine Boone. Even though many teachers, custodians and support staff didn’t know where, or if, they’d be working in the next school year, they tried to stay positive.

The school provided a “wellness room” to provide support during the year. Alanna O’Donnell, the school counselor, ran weekly bibliotherapy sessions where kids would process emotions through literature.

“We read stories about change, about courage, about bravery, about gifts that we all have that we can bring with us to the new school,” she said.

Wilbur, a Reiki practitioner, volunteered to provide the healing therapy in the wellness room to children with their parents’ okay.

“It was pretty comforting, and made us feel better,” her son Josh Wilbur, 10, said.

“It helps out with stress,” Matthew added.

Boone said that these transition efforts have been largely successful.

“The kids are in a good place,” she said. “I’m not going to pretend it’s easy. It’s not. But everyone has the right attitude. Anyone who’s ever worked, or volunteered, or had a child go through, knows the value of this little community school. Our job is to get kids ready for their next year, and we did that.”

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