Students on the island of North Haven, Maine, learn math and local history by building a boat.
Audio by Lisa Morehouse. Photography by Katherine Emery. Produced by Grace Rubenstein.
When locals from Maine's North Haven island
board the ferry for the 12-mile, hour-long trip to
the mainland, they joke about "going to America."
This community, about halfway up the coast in Penobscot Bay, has a year-round population of just 350, and may
indeed seem isolated from the mainland.
But North Haven residents'
self-sufficiency and determination mean they have one thing
most Maine islands lack: their own K-12 school. And this scrappy
school, the smallest public K-12 campus in the state, has, often out
of necessity, developed innovations that can inspire schools of any
size, in any location.
In the last century, Maine has gone from having about a hundred
islands with schools to just fourteen. Only three serve all
grades. North Haven Community School, though, has not only
survived but also thrived. It serves as the center of its community
and challenges the perceptions about the
quality of education -- and opportunities
for graduates -- that island schools can
deliver. With a flexible curriculum, an
experiential, place-based pedagogy at
its core, and a commitment to reaching
all of the island's sixty-five kids, NHCS gives students real skills
and responsibilities grounded in rigorous academics.
Life on North Haven has always involved physical work. Today,
work "on island" includes lobstering, carpentry, caretaking
for summer residents, and working at one of the two boatyards.
Principal Barney Hallowell believes the little school succeeds precisely
because it doesn't try to duplicate a large mainland facility.
"Teachers understand that teaching and learning is done most effectively
in North Haven by doing rather than by sitting and getting because that's the tradition of the community," he says. He
points to the hands-on teaching that's part of island maritime life,
with children learning at their parents' sides.
Students Jack Walker and Conor Curtin do body work on a hybrid car.
Credit: Katherine Emery
That tradition morphs easily into school life. Students ride in
NHCS's electric van (equipped with a student-converted engine)
to the nearby garage, where they're making biodiesel and researching
hybrid engines for their next vehicle. They're trained in
cardiopulmonary resuscitation (in both French and English), and
some learn how to use an automatic external defibrillator. They've
installed solar panels on the school's roof and tested residents'
water for lead. And while studying the Vietnam War, they interviewed
people to learn different perspectives on the era.
Though NHCS's learning looks nontraditional, it's grounded in
both intellectual rigor and a sense of island identity. "It appears
that we break all the rules, which we don't," says Hallowell. "We
just connect the teaching we do with the place where we live."
build a park trail, fifth and sixth graders researched island flora and
history, surveyed townspeople, learned to use global-positioning-system
(GPS) units and geographic-information-services (GIS)
maps to design their trail, studied town government and presented
their proposed trail to park commissioners, who approved it.
When a dead white-beaked dolphin washed up on a nearby island,
vocational arts teacher Terry Goodhue created a project in
which students rearticulated the dolphin's skeleton. They boiled off the skin and fat in honey barrels behind the school, bleached
the bones and placed them in carefully labeled boxes, then reassembled
the skeleton. Students studied the bones' names and
functions, as well as dolphin eating habits and evolution. The
skeleton now hangs in the school, where it's still used as a learning
tool, as when ninth-grade biology students compared human
hands to the dolphin's fins.
The Fox Island Thoroughfare, a strait separating the island of North Haven from its neighbor, Vinalhaven.
Credit: Katherine Emery
Teachers also look to the island's traditions for inspiration.
Under Goodhue's watchful eye, juniors Conor Curtin and Ashley
Hodder built a fishing boat of historic North Haven design, using
a hand tool called a plane -- and lots of trial and error -- to shape
planks to fit the boat's frame. Students use old techniques --
steaming oak frames and cedar garboards -- and develop an
understanding of tools and job skills. But Curtin knows how
boatbuilding dovetails with academics. "Instead of just using a
textbook, we use math in real life," he says. "That's a big part of
it -- learning to apply skills we learn in class."
At daily meetings, staff members discuss collaboration and
integrating academics with these hands-on projects, but "the
first order of business is students," says Hallowell. Parents
praise the school's focus and flexibility. "It's adaptive. It works
for a really intellectual kind of kid or a hands-on kind of kid," says
Adam Campbell, a lobsterman and oyster farmer with four children
at the school. "They can focus that education and tailor it to
each student, and not use up or hurt anyone else's time."
learn to build on their students' interests. When eleventh
and twelfth graders studied forest ecology, high school science
teacher John Dietter integrated a student's love of photography,
asking her to find historic North Haven photos, take new pictures
from the same location, and grapple with the evident ecological
changes. "Rather than starting with the theory in the classroom
and reading a text, I had her go to these places and see the change
and then try to hook the theory on to it," Dietter says.
Because of the island's isolation, NHCS seeks learning opportunities
that broaden students' experiences. English and U.S.
history teacher Keith Eaton says the school "readjusted my curriculum"
when they hosted Native American leader Barry Dana
for workshops on Maine's Penobscot Nation, of which he is
governor. Eaton's students debated and wrote about citizenship
while working with painter Robert Shetterly and studying his
portraits depicting "Americans Who Tell the Truth." Students --
and teachers -- take University of Maine courses through an
interactive television system, and a few kids have taken online
Advanced Placement courses.
In November, the ferry filled up with students from Bowdoin
College, in Brunswick, Maine. Extending an existing connection
between the college and NHCS, education professor Doris Santoro
teamed with Eaton in a formal academic partnership this
year. Students read the same texts (education philosophers such
as Paulo Freire were first on the agenda), and NHCS students
attended a Bowdoin class called Education and Social Justice as
"That's really powerful, because it demystifies the hallowed institution that is Bowdoin," says Eaton. "They go into this
class and they say, 'Hey, I can contend here. I can hold my ground and contribute.'" NHCS students researched Maine nonprofit
organizations with partners at Bowdoin's library, analyzed the
groups through the lens of their shared readings, and presented
their projects when Bowdoin students visited North Haven.
Such trips off island move "school" outside a traditional
classroom. Students have visited Europe to apply language
skills and to study the Holocaust. A group performed Islands,
a student- and community-created musical, in New York City.
Each year, the high school takes a fall expedition, like this year's
canoe trip on the Penobscot River. Students paddled through
landscapes depicted in Henry David Thoreau's writings, studied
Native American history, analyzed 300 years of historic, environmental,
and social changes, and debated land preservation versus
The work of 2006 graduate Jesse Davisson and his math classmates prompted a redesign of the new gym.
Credit: Katherine Emery
What's most notable at North Haven is that students' work
has real-world consequences. The school relies on the student-built
electric vehicle for daily transportation. Students plan every
part of their expeditions -- from the shopping and packing
duties, to designing and navigating hiking and paddling routes
using GPS and GIS technology.
They present their findings -- on
expeditions, during projects, even after personal trips to interesting
places -- to the island's community at large, often using
laptops (all secondary school students have one) and LCD projectors,
or videos they've shot and edited. "That's a skill that
you can measure in a rubric, but it goes far beyond that," says
teacher Keith Eaton. "It enters into the realm of character and
confidence. They've had to present to members of the community
and really focus on 'What was the purpose of our task?'"
Many of these presentations happen in high-stakes contexts.
When they didn't meet pupil numbers to receive state funding to
build a new school, NHCS raised more than $6 million (mostly
from summer residents) and the town committed $1.9 million
in taxes for the costs.
Students, such as alumnus Jesse Davisson,
had essential roles in the building's design. "For our math class,
we made little modular homes out of cardboard and did light
studies," he says, while leading a tour of the new building site.
Students studied scale and fractions, oriented models according
to the construction-site plan, and placed them outside in
the middle of the winter for a number of days.
The results horrified
them: Except for a few midday hours, shadows darkened the
whole front of the school. "The light studies showed it would be
a better idea if we flipped it so we had sunlight coming into the
classrooms and the main entrance," he says. Davisson, his classmates,
and their teacher met with architects in Portland, and the
students successfully argued for a reorientation of the school.
Conor Curtin and classmate Ashley Hodder build a traditional Maine boat.
Credit: Katherine Emery
NHCS students get a lot of practice for such pressure-filled situations through the school's own rigorous, public assessments.
The island's community comes out to the annual
Knowledge Fair, at which each student presents a project and
is evaluated by three teachers. And seniors must present portfolios --
including formal assessments in each discipline area, as
well as art, music, athletic achievements, and summer activities --
to the school board.
Not everyone on North Haven has supported the new building
or the school's unusual instruction. An uproar on island ten
years ago got national attention and taught Principal Barney
Hallowell that, as he says, you have to "honor people's view that
schools have to look a little like school." But a majority of the
community eventually rallied around the school, in large part
because of its central role. "The school is the heart of North Haven,"
says Hallowell. "It is the educational heart, the cultural
heart, the entertainment heart."
The school's academic results merit this community backing.
Though the school rejects teaching to standardized tests, it
has been identified as high performing on the Maine Education
Assessment the last four years, and its students perform in the
top of the state's SAT rankings. It has garnered an accreditation
from the elite New England Association of Schools and Colleges,
and 80 percent of its graduates pursue higher learning.
But no matter what students do, their North Haven education
gives them unique preparation. "We have students who go on to
selective private colleges, and students who go on to large universities,"
notes teacher John Dietter. "We have students who
join the military right out of high school, and students who go
on to cosmetology school. The gift of this school is that it values
and supports each of these students and each of these choices
with the same enthusiasm."
Lisa Morehouse taught secondary English for twelve years in
San Francisco and rural Georgia. She is now a public radio
journalist and education consultant.