BAR HARBOR — If a single, stand-alone middle school is created for students in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System — and that decision has not yet been made — it should be for grades seven and eight and should be built on the campus of Mount Desert Island High School.
Those are the key recommendations of a 16-member committee of teachers, parents, administrators, school board members and others in the community who began studying the issue last October. The committee presented its report to the MDIRSS board Monday evening.
The board had not asked the committee to decide whether there should be a combined middle school for students in the four MDI towns and Trenton, but rather, to recommend what form such a school should take if it were created.
However, the committee’s report makes a strong case for a combined middle school.
Throughout its deliberations, the committee kept two guiding principles in mind, said school board member Marie Yarborough, who co-chaired the committee.
“One, keep the students at the center of the conversation and the recommendations; they are our constituents. And two, whatever we recommend has to be a better version of any middle-level experience that exists in our district today.”
Committee member Tara McKernan, the mental health counselor at Mount Desert Elementary School, said, “We have amazing, great schools on this island … However, the opportunity is not the same for all students. We have varying degrees of what seventh- and eighth-graders get at each school and also for the younger grades.”
Committee member Maria Simpson, who teaches seventh grade English language arts at Conners Emerson School, said, “We believe that a middle school with a unified vision of education could deliver even more challenging, relevant, engaging and hands-on learning. We feel a combined middle school would draw families and students to the area. It could also serve as a model of middle school innovation.”
In addition to their middle school recommendations, the committee proposed that each elementary school in the district offer pre-kindergarten education. Currently, Trenton Elementary School is the only one that does.
“Kids who have not had pre-K are often the first ones to be referred for special education,” McKernan said. “They come in [to school] not on a level playing field.
“One way we can equalize that is to make sure all of our kids have equal opportunity for pre-K in all of our schools.”
She also said that adding pre-K would help elementary schools, especially the smaller ones, offset the loss of their seventh and eighth grade classes.
“You would only have one grade being lost per school, which means you’re opening up space, you’re providing more opportunities for our youngest kids and each town gets to hold onto the school that is really central to who they are.”
Former Superintendent Howard Colter, a strong advocate for a separate middle school, had envisioned using one of the existing school buildings for that purpose rather than constructing a new facility. But the planning committee determined that none of the existing schools could accommodate all of the approximately 240 seventh and eighth grade students.
They also agreed that the combined middle school should be centrally located on MDI.
“We felt it had to be a place that was a middle ground, not on one side or the other, for people to feel invested in it,” Yarborough said. The high school property, she said, “was the place that people came back to as an ideal location.”
Committee member Peter St. Germain, a former member of the Bar Harbor Town Council, noted that the location has worked well for the high school.
“It brought all the communities together,” he said. “It only made sense to me to explore that as the most viable possibility [for a middle school], just because of the success that this has represented over the years.”
Yarborough said that, while there were 16 core members of the committee, a number of other people provided good ideas and perspectives. And 149 MDIHS students responded to a survey about their experiences in the middle school grades.
“We did not operate in a bubble,” Yarborough said. “We used research. We brought new information from our communities to the table each week.”
Tremont teachers object
Three Tremont Consolidated School teachers spoke at Monday’s school board meeting and variously criticized the middle school plan or the process by which it was created.
Middle-grades teacher Liz Rabasca said that, because of the committee’s charge to focus only on what a district-wide middle school would look like, “We never had an opportunity to engage in a back-and-forth about whether this would be something that would really serve all of the students on this island, especially ones from the smaller schools, especially the kids who struggle with academics, with socio-economic status.”
Middle-grades teacher Daniel Horning said, “It seems like, from the outset, there was a certain attempt to manufacture consent for a conclusion that was already drawn.”
Michelle Lear, Tremont’s Title 1 reading teacher, said the proposal for creating a new school for middle-grade students “sounds very expensive.”
Noting that the district’s teachers last year agreed to a new three-year contract with a salary increase, she said, “We are still kind of reaching for more so that we can successfully live here.”
Also, she said, the schools are paying only 82 percent of the cost of teachers’ health insurance coverage, which she described as “mediocre.”
School board member Kristi Losquadro responded, saying, “If the Tremont teachers have gotten together and have all this information about why they are opposed, if they could send it to the board, I think we would all be interested.”
The school board plans to hold a workshop sometime this summer to discuss the middle school recommendations.