Charity’s column: Real towns have a school

The sign on the lawn outside Louis Cicero’s barbershop last Thursday read “Prom Haircuts” and it captured the mood (and the stray hairs) of the Island.

The students who danced at the Ram’s Head Inn last Friday night are members of the community’s most important institution, and prom is one of the ways they celebrate their passage from this beautiful and nurturing place to a wider and wilder one.

In 2001, the K-12 Shelter Island School had 285 students with 25 in the graduating class. Since then, a steady decline has brought the enrollment down to around 200, and 19 seniors are set to graduate in June, a drop that has a lot of people here worried.

The end of the school year is also when we vote on the school budget for next year, and contemplate the cost of having a whole school to ourselves. In the U.S., particularly Wisconsin, Colorado, Arizona and New England, many small rural public schools like ours are under pressure, and some have closed. Could we lose our school to declining enrollments? Would you miss it? What does our school do for the community?

The school is at the heart of the Island, physically as well as spiritually. It anchors one side of a tight formation around the traffic circle; Town Hall, the Legion and the Library, where director Terry Lucas runs another important Island institution, and one that has a symbiotic relationship with the school.

“I love that the small school is so mighty, putting on stellar science fairs and school plays and developing a variety of sports teams,” said Terry. “Of course, my favorite part of the day is when the last bell rings and some of those students stream into the library.”

In other towns that lose their school, people worry that the families will eventually leave, won’t be replaced, and the town will die. Shelter Island, with its natural beauty, beaches, and a reputation as a vacation destination won’t die, but could become barren — a town without children. We could find ourselves without young families and children, living in a place we don’t recognize, in a way we don’t like.

There’s a pattern to the spiral of lower enrollments and tightened resources that lead to the death of a school, a pattern that many rural towns have experienced. Usually a lack of affordable housing makes it harder for young families to establish a foothold, and enrollments drop, putting school budgets under pressure.

The school may move to share administrative services and athletic programs with other schools. The spiral deepens as parents choose not to send their children to a school that lacks the leadership of a strong principal, or one without athletic programs, further hollowing out the school.

Islander Phyllis Gates grew up in a rural community in Nebraska that eventually lost its high school — the one she attended. She has no offspring at the school, but feels strongly about its importance. “To me, a school is to a community what a family is to an individual, like the difference between a house and a home,” Phyllis said.

For some Islanders, the ties to the school go back many generations. Hoot Sherman (class of ’56) and his wife Joanne’s two children, Scott (class of ‘86) and Matthew (class of ‘88) and their grandchildren are the most recent members of the family at the school. Back in the mists of time, Hoot’s father and grandmother attended as well.

Joanne says the value of the school goes beyond the classes, or the plays, concerts, public hearings, political debates and car washes. “It’s the vitality of the students and the commitment of the teachers and people in the community,” Joanne said. “If we didn’t have the school we wouldn’t have the young and growing families who are such an important part of our lives. It’s the core of our community.”

With the departure of School Superintendent and Principal Christine Finn at a time when there is pressure from the state for districts to share services, it’s tempting to consider the money we could save by sharing that important leadership position with a nearby district. Already we’ve consolidated the roles of district superintendent and school principal into one (larger districts have both positions).

But the advocacy and leadership that an effective administrator like Ms. Finn brings to a school district is what makes the school the kind of place you’d want to send your child, and well educated children make this a place where people want to live and work. And that’s what a real town is.