ATHENS — Even though the school district’s recent idea of transplanting seventh and eighth graders from Athens Elementary School into Madison Area Junior High School never became an official recommendation, it was enough to draw outrage.

Within hours of learning of the proposal, dozens of Athens parents and community members gathered to discuss a plan to keep their school intact, and they formed a fact-finding group to research the options surrounding seceding.

“Hopefully they won’t tinker with our school, and this hornet’s nest they poked won’t blow up in their face,” Athens First Selectmen Bruce Clavette said. “You mess with our school, you’re making a big mistake.”

Athens residents are fighting back hard because they say their school, which serves 150 students in grades pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, is flourishing, and breaking it up would harm both students and the community.

Several residents said the small-school environment allows Athens teachers to know each student and their families, prompting a greater feeling of accountability, fewer major disciplinary actions, more involvement from parents and a greater interest on the part of students to get involved in extra-curricular activities.

“If you don’t get along in a small school, you’re not going to get along anywhere,” said resident Alan Linkletter, who attended the school, has served on the school board and has a daughter in second grade. “It just seems like it’s a more caring environment.”

The Madison junior high school, which serves grades five through eight, has about 90 more students than the entire Athens school, but “our school isn’t just a school, it’s more of a community center,” Linkletter said. Madison has three schools, but in Athens, there’s just one.

The district brought up the idea of moving the 35 seventh and eighth graders, and their teachers, in order to save about $135,000. The Athens teachers would fill the positions of teachers in Madison who may retire.

In total, the district is looking at a $400,000 to $600,000 hole largely because of the recent secession of Starks from the district.

But Athens residents say moving their middle school students would do more harm than good.

“If you take those grades and bus them over there that would be a trauma to this town. It just would not heal,” Clavette said. “If education is supposed to be the bottom line, not money, then they need to leave us alone.”

Small school myth?

Are students at smaller schools more academically successful than those at larger schools? Not necessarily, said Stephen Abbott, director of communications at the nonprofit group Great Schools Partnership, based in Portland. What matters most is the effectiveness of teachers’ instruction.

“A small rural school can be a wonderful and amazing and pathbreaking school, but it can also be an underperforming school,” Abbott said.

David Silvernail, co-director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, agreed. Although there is some research that indicates students are served well in kindergarten-through-grade-eight schools, “It’s more important what happens inside the walls than what the walls of the school are.”

He added, “The community is key, but community involvement doesn’t automatically make it a better school. It’s the type of community involvement that makes a difference.”

A comparison of standardized test results of Athens versus Madison students reveals practically no difference. Students in grades three through eight take the New England Common Assessment Program test, which examines proficiency in reading, writing and math.

And Superintendent Todd LeRoy has said that students will receive a fine education whether they attend schools in Athens or Madison. Students may even have more extra-curricular and social opportunities in Madison, he said.

Some research, though, shows that small, rural schools are beneficial for children. A report entitled “The Hobbit Effect: Why Small Works in Public Schools,” collected research from 75 different scholarly texts and institutes and was published in 2006 by the Rural School and Community Trust, based in Washington, D.C.

According to the report, “children in smaller schools are more academically successful than those in larger schools, have higher graduation rates, are more likely to take advanced level courses, (and) are more likely to participate in extra-curricular activities.” The group said it controlled for socioeconomic factors to make accurate comparisons.

The report’s title draws a connection to the main characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and describes how Hobbits are “huge in courage and unrelenting in their focus on attaining their goals.” They also “appreciate their rural roots and gladly return home when their quest is fulfilled.”

The report states that, among other reasons, smaller schools work well because there are more openings for students to participate in extra-curricular activities. They tend to be safer, and children report that they feel like they belong. Teachers tend to feel better about their work, too, and more grades in one school removes the problems that arise when students transition to new schools.

Strong connection in Athens

Julie Bartsch is a senior research associate at the Great Schools Partnership and previously worked for the Rural School and Community Trust. She has worked with schools in Somerset County and said it appears Athens residents have a particularly strong connection to their children’s education.

“If the community is a fairly strong community, there are incredible benefits of having at least a K-8 school,” she said.

Research shows that some of the most vulnerable times in students’ lives are when they’re making transitions, she said. At a pre-kindergarten-through-grade-eight school, there is one less transition that students have to make.

It’s beneficial for students to travel short distances to school, because they are more likely to participate in after-school activities

Instruction can also be more effective at smaller schools, she said, because teachers are better able to coordinate, catch students who are falling behind and teach across different subjects.

“Small schools are much better at teaching in an interdisciplinary fashion, so they really connect content,” she said.

The irony, she said, is that research praises the benefits of smaller schools. There is even a movement in other places within the U.S. to break down very large schools into smaller ones. But “politicians continue to regard small rural schools as an expensive luxury where they already exist,” she said.

Though School Administrative District 59 officials have emphasized that they have no intention of closing the Athens school, residents say they can’t be sure. A reorganization of middle school students could be the “beginning of the end,” said Sonja McSweeney, an Athens school board member who attended the Athens school and has sent her own children there.

“We have a serious budget crisis that we have to look at, and I want to do that while keeping the integrity of all our schools in place,” she said.

“I think there are a lot of special things about the small school, not just the small aspect of it,” she said. She likes that many Athens students go on to college and that teachers pay individual attention to students and provide extra help when needed. She likes that the school has a garden and that she has open communication with other students’ parents.

None of the classrooms in Athens are at maximum capacity, McSweeney said, so why not send some students from Madison to Athens?

“I think that’s one of the options that we should look at. I think we should look at all options,” she said.

Bartsch said small, rural districts commonly have to find ways to cut costs but often don’t have a lot to cut. It’s important to examine the impact of changes not just on students but on the affected community.

Research shows that small communities that lose their schools or parts of their schools tend to see a decrease in population growth and housing values, she said: “In general it’s very costly to small communities, particularly communities 500 and under.” Athens has about 800 people.

David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said ultimately it is a local decision whether to combine students into a larger school.

While “there is certainly a culture and climate in a small school that is different in a larger school,” he said, “larger schools often have more resources, more programming options and an ability to provide more services more cost-efficiently.”

A decision to move Athens students may have repercussions. The fact-finding group that is examining secession options will talk with surrounding districts and see whether it is feasible or practical to withdraw.

Linkletter said he is one of many people in Athens who supports the idea. “I’m not only supporting it, I’m advocating it,” he said.

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]

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