01/28/17 My rural school’s future depends on the wilderness surrounding it - Bangor Daily News

My rural school’s future depends on the wilderness surrounding it

By Jim Chasse, Special to the BDN

As you’re driving north on Route 15 toward Greenville, you eventually arrive at the top of Indian Hill, where Moosehead Lake comes into view. It is breathtaking. As your gaze moves away from the water, the majesty of the mountain peaks appear as a crown to the lake. The sight can calm the hardest of souls, and it’s a paradise that residents respectfully call home.

As a recent Maine Focus article, “Wilderness and a way forward,” points out, population losses have fueled efforts by the Moosehead Lake Economic Development Corporation to build on the region’s history and fulfill its economic promise. Greenville Consolidated School, the public K-12 school at the foot of Moosehead Lake, has an important part to play in that work.

Just as Henry David Thoreau, the writer, philosopher, adventurist and scientist, was inspired by the majesty of what is Moosehead Lake — his 1846 book “The Maine Woods”mentions Moosehead 71 times — so, too, will the school’s future success hinge upon its integration with the natural environment.

The outdoor classroom for Greenville students includes nearly 1 million acres of public access land, a lake that is nearly the size of Rhode Island and a ski mountain that boasts some of the best views in New England.

Also, there are six accessible mountain peaks, an Appalachian Mountain Club office, more than 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, proximity to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and offices for Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologists and wardens.

The school is in the strategic planning process to integrate these resources into its curriculum and learning experiences, reaching K-12, college-level and adult learners. The school envisions an environmental college and is seeking a partnership to place a satellite campus on the shores of Moosehead.

Such an outpost would provide experiential learning that incorporates the largest outdoor laboratory in Maine: the North Maine Woods. Local students would have access to an early college experience that embeds the area’s landscape — rich in history and natural resources — into its learning.

Essentially, the aim is to attract targeted students from all over the world who seek a first-class education that integrates the liberal arts with environmental science.

The school intends to add to the current summer experiences that exist in Greenville. One such effort is occurring through the performing arts. The school is currently working with the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft and The Theater at Monmouth to become a host site for summer theater productions.

The school wishes to open its doors and welcome locals and those who visit the lake. The school’s auditorium, built in 1935, is a site to behold and is dear to the community.

The school board’s aim is to continue a strong academic tradition, while creating opportunities for students that better integrate natural resources and tourism through the study of outdoor recreation, horticulture, watershed research, wildlife biology, entomology, forest conservation, tourism and hospitality, energy and more.

In 1846, Moosehead’s port of entry, Greenville, was about 10 years old with four school houses valued at $2,000. In the 1930s, during the booming years of the former Mt. Kineo House, the Louis Oakes family founded the Greenville School as well as Foxcroft Academy. Both buildings remain today and share the bond of a common founder. Academically, Greenville continues to place students at the top of academic lists.

Recently, the Maine Department of Education released state assessment results. The top scores in Piscataquis County, for all subjects, came out of Greenville. In science, Greenville ranked near the top of the state’s list. This is a tribute to its students, teachers and families.

While the school’s scores are impressive, for many communities, a decline in enrollment and funding beg for an entrepreneurial solution. Greenville’s school today houses about 200 students fewer than it did in 1991.

Coupled with the enrollment challenge is the current state funding formula, which leaves many of Maine’s rural schools scratching their heads. The Moosehead Lake area is, as they say, “property rich but cash poor.” The lake property has a high valuation but the median income is well below the state average. Most of the lake is in unorganized territory and not subject to the property tax that funds the local school.

A recent Bangor Daily News article, “The poorest Maine school districts that pay the most,” highlighted this truth using an interactive graphical tool that clearly shows less state aid to schools that are distanced from the I-95 corridor. Greenville’s local, per-student contribution of $10,764, for example, is close to the $10,881 found in the town of Wells, while Greenville’s family poverty rate is 24 percentage points higher.

The Maine Focus article states that, economically, the Moosehead Lake area is “betting on the lake.” This bet has full support from the school. Indeed, there is a way of life that exists here to which it is hard to affix a price tag.

Residents have grown used to covering more than 95 percent of the costs of education, an impressive commitment to the town’s children throughout difficult economic times. They express frustration about the state’s funding formula for education. The town generates millions of dollars each year in sales tax — mostly generated through local small businesses — but receives very little state aid.

Currently, local officials are discussing how to resolve some problems with a gymnasium that is many, many years past its life expectancy. The last time the state released school construction funds, the school ranked 41st on the priority list. Legislators continue to discuss and debate funding for rural schools.

Like the Economic Development Corporation, the school is now looking to thrive and not simply survive.

Thoreau wrote, “I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”

There is no question that a physical-psychological-spiritual experience is part of Moosehead Lake. It brings with it a mindful wonder, a release of anxiety and the notion of being centered. It is a play land for the naturalist and can cure the strongest case of writer’s or painter’s block! The region has and will continue to have an impact on those that encounter it.

Jim Chasse became superintendent of schools in Greenville last year.