“We believe that, as a unique island community, our small size is a part of our strength, and that island life encourages cooperation, collaboration, and empathy, and fosters an environment in which each person is valued. ” ~ North Haven Community School
This week I had a fortuitous encounter on the Rockland, Maine ferry headed 12 miles northeast to North Haven. Holly and I got talking. It was no time before we discovered we were both teachers. Holly had been ensconced at the North Haven Community School for as long as she could remember, and before we disembarked she’d invited me for a tour of her school at noon on the following day.
Competence, Compassion, Challenge, and Community
North Haven, with its year round population of 350, opened its energy efficient 22,000 square foot school building in 2008. The architect, in collaboration with the teaching staff, designed individual but connected “houses” – one for the elementary, middle, and high school students. Each space not only serves a given age group, but its attributes focus on the specifics of that developmental level. Bright blue lockers appear in the middle school, and an enormous, professional looking conference table sits center stage in the high school space. Light abounds, as do high quality, natural building materials, easy access to the outdoors, a school garden, greenhouse, and expansive wood shop.The school boasts its own library, art studio, music room, special needs classroom, and a well-equipped science lab.
But space is only a fraction of what the school stands for. When I arrived kids were in a buffet line for a home cooked meal, made right there in the kitchen, and offered twice each week. This is just one of the ways in which teachers and staff envision “the whole school” experience. The previous week middle school students had returned from a multi-day climb on Mount Katahdin, and high school students were off on a well-planned river expedition (not just typical start of school trips.) It was evident to me that direct experience is what matters here, and students and teachers are equally immersed.
On my tour I noticed enormous binders housed on shelves in the high school space. I asked Holly about them. She explained that the Community School uses an alternative means of assessment, including these portfolios, required for graduation. In order to complete school requirements, seniors present their cumulative high school portfolios to a review panel during the final trimester. (Students in grades K – 6 do not get letter grades; instead they are evaluated through work on projects and performances.) Although teachers are attuned to the Common Core, they lean into the standards through connected, real world curricula.
In an island community with a school population of fewer than 70 students (this year’s kindergarten has less than a handful of students) and mixed grade levels (children benefit extraordinarily when working in multi-aged peer groups) this place has got it right. Teaching kids is an art, not a science. Small schools can do great things, and North Haven Community School values learning that is meaningful, goes beyond classroom walls, and gives its older students significant responsibility for planning, documenting, and assessing their own learning.
Thank you, Holly Blake, and principal, Amy Marx for such a warm welcome, and congratulations on doing truly remarkable work.
Nancy Harris Frohlich