Maine School of Science and Mathematics alum Sam Critchlow recently became the ninth executive director of the public magnet school and hopes to help the school reach out to even more students across Maine. Credit: Courtesy of Ryan McDonald

LIMESTONE, Maine — Even if Sam Critchlow, a native of Peaks Island, hadn’t had an array of high school options in the Portland region, he still would have chosen the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone for its reputation as a close-knit academic community.

“MSSM was the first school where I had true friends and peers who pushed me to excel but also looked out for me,” Critchlow said.

Critchlow is the ninth executive director of Maine’s first public magnet school. He hopes to help the school expand its reputation as an “innovative” academic environment to more students across the state.

Modeled after similar residential magnet schools in Louisiana and North Carolina, the school opened in 1994 offering educational experiences rare in Aroostook County and Maine at the time — such as advanced placement courses and higher level science and math, including calculus.

Over the years, graduates have attended public and Ivy League institutions and begun careers in medicine, engineering, software development, business, education and other STEM-based fields. Thanks to a partnership with the University of Maine at Presque Isle that began in 2015, students can take courses for college credit and potentially earn an associate’s degree.

Today, advanced placement and dual-credit programs are more common in Maine schools, especially in larger districts. But Critchlow believes the Maine School of Science and Mathematics remains relevant because it tailors STEM curricula to student interests and encourages high achievement.

“When students express a particular interest [in a subject or club], we seek instructors who could fill that need,” Critchlow said. “I remember taking math analysis courses as a student. My best friend, who is a neuroscientist, is deeply grateful for the science skills he developed here.”

Critchlow graduated from the school in 2001 and spent 14 years teaching math and leading schools in the Rocky Mountains and northern New England. After living in Montana for several years, he saw the Maine School of Science and Mathematics’ vacancy for executive director and was inspired to return to a place that has always felt like home.

The school’s story is rooted in Aroostook County’s history and a desire to bring a different educational experience to Maine students.

After Limestone’s Loring Air Force Base closed in 1994, the Maine Legislature chartered and funded the school, which opened that year to 11th- and 12th-graders. The first class graduated in 1996 and the school later expanded into a four-year high school.

“The motive was to bring something special to Limestone,” said Ryan McDonald, the school’s public relations coordinator and summer camp director.

Despite being located in remote northern Maine, Critchlow said, the small-town lifestyle and the region’s quiet nature draws students who want to focus on academics without the entertainment distractions of more urban areas.

Oliver Sites, a senior from Leeds, credits the vast Aroostook County skies for introducing him and his friends to star gazing, which could lead to potential careers in space science.

“I know a lot of people who never would have been interested in astronomy had they not come here,” Sites said. “They want to major in astronomy or something similar.”

The school has typically housed 100 to 200 students, with 97 percent on average coming from Maine. Currently there are 121 students, 15 of them Aroostook natives.

Justin Pelletier, a senior from Fort Fairfield, said being at the school has allowed him to take higher-level classes not available in the local school district. Now he feels more confident about applying to colleges.

“I never would have considered an Ivy League school if I hadn’t come here. It’s still a long shot, but it’s more possible,” Pelletier said.

To better help students like Pelletier and Sites, Critchlow plans to advocate for increased state funding. Unlike SAD or RSU districts, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics receives a yearly appropriation of $5.2 million from the Legislature that goes toward operational expenses.

Since the school pays rent to Limestone Community School, with whom they share a building, they must ask for increased state funding or fundraise through the MSSM Foundation. That dilemma means MSSM has only undertaken less major repairs, such as upgrades to its heating and cooling system and flooring, in recent years.

“I’d say we’re less at risk [for decreased state funding] than before, but we’ve been flat funded over the years, which creates a decrease over time,” Critchlow said.

Amid those challenges, Critchlow hopes to expand the school’s outreach to potential students in rural areas of Maine, tribal communities and southern regions of the state with growing populations of immigrants.

By increasing the focus on equity, the school could increase enrollment and give more students the chance to fully embrace their potential, he said.

“There are still people who haven’t heard of MSSM,” Critchlow said. “I want every middle- and high-school student in Maine to know that MSSM is an option for them.”