ISLESBORO, Maine — On the first ferry trip from Lincolnville to Islesboro one recent morning, coffee-drinking construction workers shared space with teenagers hustling to finish their homework as the Margaret Chase Smith chugged across the three sparkling miles of Penobscot Bay.

These first passengers were not camera-toting tourists nor idle day-trippers but instead were drawn to the island for reasons such as work and school. In fact, the 21 students aboard the boat are affectionately called “magnets” because they are mainlanders who have been attracted to the smaller class sizes and the close-knit community of Islesboro Central School.

“I have more academic opportunities here,” said Madison Cook, 14, of Belfast. “It’s good, because when you don’t understand things you have more time to talk to the teacher.”

It’s her fourth year of life as a magnet. As a freshman in the “biggest grade ever,” a class of 12 students, she’s already taking pre-calculus — a good fit for a girl who dreams of being an architect one day.

After the boat docked, Madison joined the cluster of teachers and students who walked up to the school bus. As they traveled through the wooded island to the school, she reflected on the nonacademic qualities that make the long daily commute worthwhile to her. Islanders have made her feel welcome, and she has a host family to stay with if the weather is bad and the trip home impossible.

“I like the island. Everybody knows each other,” she said. “And there’s so few kids you sort of have to be friends with everyone.”

‘It’s really important’

The Islesboro Central School is located in a stone building that once was the summer “cottage” of Mrs. J.T. Atterbury, a New Yorker who built it in 1928 and is believed by many to still linger in the area as a friendly spirit. Despite an $8 million addition and renovation project that was completed in July 2010, the building still has a gracious atmosphere that has more to do with mansions than institutions, even though Mrs. Atterbury’s ballroom has been carved into several classrooms.

The unique magnet program has helped to keep the school viable over the last 14 years, said Principal Heather Knight.

“When people hear magnet, they think ‘charter,’ or something of that nature,” she said. “But the magnet term was to attract kids from the mainland to add diversity to our school.”

Islesboro has a year-round population of about 650 people, although that number swells considerably in the summertime. It’s one of the state’s 15 year-round island communities, and having a flourishing school is crucial to that fact, according to Alex Hodges, a fellow at the Island Institute. The nonprofit organization works to keep those communities “healthy and sustainable,” she said.

Hodges, who works at the Islesboro Central School, said that when schools on islands close, young families leave.

“You can’t support a year-round community without a school,” she said. “The magnet school on Islesboro helps. It helps to keep the school running. It fosters the year-round community. It’s really important.”

The number of mainland students in the magnet program has grown in recent years. Knight said that when she first came to the island, there were just eight magnets. Now, with 21 students ranging from fifth graders to high school seniors, the unique program makes up more than a fifth of the 91-person student body.

Although the island school does not offer charter-school-type specialization, it does boast a 100 percent graduation rate over the past six years and also has a strong ability to individualize education by tailoring academics to a student’s particular needs and strengths.

In some ways, the magnet program bridges the gap between a large public school and a pricey private education, Knight said. Mainland students must pay tuition that’s set at $4,100 per year for middle school magnets and $5,200 per year for high school students.

She has found that the program appeals to families that have had experience with home schooling and alternative private education models such as Montessori and Waldorf schools.

“Parents feel that to get [their children] prepared for the next level, they have to add a more traditional element,” Knight said.

Not every student is a good fit for the school, she said, adding that all who wish to become magnets must go through an application process. All classes are capped at 12 students, ensuring a low teacher-student ratio.

“‘Fit’ is a nice term,” she said. “Academically, can we provide what the student needs? And do they have something to offer?”

A good fit

The school is working well for sophomore Cameron Jack of Belfast, who previously had attended a tiny private high school in the area before becoming an island magnet last year. Now, he plays on the soccer and basketball teams but still enjoys the small-school feel of Islesboro.

“It fits me better,” he said.

Eric Armbrust, 16, of Northport formerly attended Pen Bay Christian School in Rockland, but because it didn’t have a high school, he and his family had to figure out something else. They lacked the money for a $50,000-per-year boarding school, he said, but the family went to a seminar on the magnet program and liked what they learned.

“It seemed really appealing,” he said. “People here seemed nice and friendly.”

Now, after three years, he’s a part of the community of the school and island, with three different host families that can take him in if the weather is too inclement for the ferry or if something is happening at the school at night.

“You make a lot of friends,” Eric said.

He, like others, said that one slightly negative aspect of attending an island school can be the way that students must plan their lives around the ferry schedule.

“It’s just coming to grips with not being able to do what you want, when you want,” he said.

Islanders appreciate the magnet program, too. Sisters Stephanie and Emily Bethune said that before the mainland students joined the program in the fifth grade, their classes were small and quiet. When Stephanie, 16, started kindergarten, there were just three children in her class.

“Now, we have 11,” she said.

“It expands our school,” Emily, 13, said.

During seventh and eighth grade math class on this particular afternoon, the island and magnet students blended seamlessly into one high-energy mix. They settled down to take a quiz, ignoring the dazzling ocean and mountain views framed in the windows behind them.

“Our original intent was to invigorate our school community,” longtime math teacher Tom Tudor said of the magnet program. “It works very well.”

Island students can benefit from the increased competition and the diverse experiences of the mainland magnets. They also like the expanded dating pool, one young man pointed out to teacher Katie Nelson.

“It provides the island students peers,” she said.

While even such a small school can’t entirely escape the perils of adolescence, it helps, said science teacher Heather Sinclair.

“Yeah, there’s the cliques and the gossip and the drama of middle school and high school,” she said. “But it forces this appreciation of everybody’s individuality. You’ve got to learn to get along with everybody and their quirks.”

For information about Islesboro Central School and its magnet program, visit