BAR HARBOR — It would be possible to create a single middle school for Mount Desert Island and Trenton students without closing any of the existing elementary schools, according to MDI Regional School Superintendent Marc Gousse.
The idea of bringing together all students in the middle school grades has been batted around for several years. But the assumption has been that middle school consolidation would leave one or two elementary schools with so few students that it would not make sense to keep them open.
Gousse said in an interview with the Islander on Monday that he doesn’t think that’s the case.
“Schools are part of community identity,” he said. “I believe the integrity of elementary programming can and should be maintained at the community level.”
Asked how that would be possible if students in grades 6-8 or 7-8 were taken out of the district’s smaller elementary schools, Gousse said there are opportunities for using the schools in new ways.
“Pre-K programming is one of those,” he said. “Space would be available if we want to do that and there is a need. Parents are asking for that. And it would provide continuity for what we expect kids to know and to be able to do to make sure they are kindergarten-ready.
“If we really want kids to be successful [throughout their school years], let’s make sure they have a solid start. Let’s make sure they are well-nourished and can read at grade level. That will carry the day.”
Gousse said the MDIRSS schools already do a good job of preparing students to succeed, but they can do even better.
Another benefit of adding pre-K education and perhaps other elementary school programs is what Gousse described as “a golden opportunity to bring senior citizens and other community volunteers into the schools in even greater numbers.”
Like his predecessor, Howard Colter, Gousse said there are sound educational reasons for bringing together all of the district’s middle school students. When they are scattered among five different schools, he said, “Some of the classes are really small, and although those kids do great and the programs are exemplary, we limit some of the opportunities by not having them clustered. It’s similar to what high school [education] would look like if we had it in separate high schools.”
Gousse said the cost of consolidating middle school education and adding pre-K programming would not have to be exorbitant because “we already have the facilities.”
“But when you talk about new programming, there are always going to be costs. That’s a given.”
As for whether the MDI and Trenton communities would support the idea of creating a single middle school and, at the same time, maintaining the existing elementary schools, Gousse said, “I believe people will see the wisdom and value in it, and we can provide evidence to support that.”
But he emphasized that it will not be his decision; it will be up to the people in the communities.
And he said the decision should not be made in isolation, but as part of a process of “long-range and strategic planning that will incorporate student, parent, community and staff input.”
He said that among the questions the strategic plan should address is whether to continue with the current governing structure in which each school operates largely independently, or if the district should have a single board and combined annual budget.
“I think that over the next couple of years, we have to call that question,” Gousse said.
Starting the strategic planning process is one of Gousse’s goals for this year. A summary of his goals and areas of special focus is posted on the school system’s website: mdirss.org.
Gousse said he plans to hold a number of “meet and greet” sessions to listen to the ideas and concerns of parents and other community members.
In the meantime, he said, “I want people to know that our schools are vibrant, they are stable and growing. Achievement is exemplary. Kids do well. The community is supportive. And nobody wants to see that change. The question is, ‘How do we sustain it and improve it?’
“My goal is to maximize the resources we have and bring programming that’s going to benefit students.”
Gousse said a complete inventory of the school system’s facilities is needed before any decisions are made about how they might be used differently in the future.
“That will tell us what shape they’re in, how they’re used or not used now, and where we could potentially grow or make adjustments if we need to.”
Overall, he said, “I think we are in a really good place with facilities right now.”