FRENCHBORO — It doesn’t take long for Jan Keiper to take attendance at the start of each school day on this remote offshore island.
Keiper, the lone teacher at Frenchboro Elementary, has three students: Breanna Lunt, 9; her sister, Makayla, 6; and Annabri Ransom, 7.
“The nice thing about having only three is that you can really individualize your teaching,” Keiper said. “It’s basically private tutoring.
“I’m lucky because the age spread is not huge. And they are delightful little girls who love to learn and have no behavior issues. What’s really a joy for me is the closeness I have with these students; they’re important to me.”
Keiper said she has a lot of autonomy, which she enjoys.
“Yes, we are part of a school district and a state that has guidelines. But I have a lot of freedom to set my class up the way I want.”
Marc Gousse, superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, called Keiper “a real renaissance person.”
“It takes a special kind of person to do science and art and everything else. It’s a real blessing to have her.”
Frenchboro is on Long Island, about eight miles south of Mount Desert Island. According to the 2010 census, the town had a population of 61. The estimated 2015 population was 79. But residents say the year-round population is no more than 40.
Along with the advantages of teaching in a tiny school on a remote island, there are challenges.
“The main difficulty is that I am on all the time,” Keiper said. “I’m the show and tell. I have to keep the momentum going. It’s exhausting.”
This is Keiper’s third year as the Frenchboro teacher. She lived in Sebago for 35 years, teaching in that area and raising her family. She had always wanted to teach on an island, she said, perhaps in Casco Bay. But when the Frenchboro job came open, she applied.
Keiper said she and her students don’t feel as isolated from the rest of the world as one might think. Technology helps keep them connected, and the school has frequent visitors, such as music teacher Beau Lisy.
Every Friday in the fall and spring, they go to Pemetic Elementary in Southwest Harbor, where the students spend half a day in their grade-appropriate classes.
“It gives them a chance to connect with their peers, and it gives me perspective,” Keiper said. “I get to see the work the other children are doing, and I can see that we are right there with them. The Pemetic connection also gives me other teachers to talk to once a week, as well as technology support.”
Keiper also gets peer support through the Island Institute’s Outer Islands Teaching & Learning Collaborative. Services include a mentorship program, virtual meetings and academic collaborations. Six of Maine’s smallest outer island schools participate in the collaborative.
On Friday afternoons, when Keiper’s students are finished at Pemetic, she often takes them somewhere on Mount Desert Island to have fun and to learn something, such as the Oceanarium, the Wendell Gilley Museum or Camp Beech Cliff, where they recently went kayaking.
Lindsay Eysnogle, the principal at both the Frenchboro school and the Cranberry Islands’ Longfellow School, said that next spring, the students will work with students in the Educational Studies Program at College of the Atlantic.
“They’re going to bring the kids onto the campus and get them involved in real-life science, doing experimentation and scientific observation,” Eysnogle said.
On Nov. 4, the Southwest Harbor-based Island Readers & Writers group will present a program at Longfellow School, and the Frenchboro students have been invited to take part.
Keiper said the Maine Seacoast Mission’s boat, Sunbeam, brings educational and enrichment programs to Frenchboro from time to time.
“We have all sorts of wonderful resources and guests who come out,” she said. “And I get to go on amazing overnight field trips with the students and their parents.”
Both of the mothers of Keiper’s students are members of the town’s school committee.
Eysnogle, the principal, taught for nine years at Ashley Bryan School on Islesford. She said there is a common misconception that students at outer island schools are “not as savvy and prepared for high school as other people.”
“We always heard that as teachers, and we started to believe it.”
But she said that has been debunked by Mark Carignan, a guidance counselor at Mount Desert Island High School, who has looked at how well students from the outer islands perform academically and adjust socially in comparison to other students.
“When you actually look at the data, you see that our kids do really well in high school,” Eysnogle said. “We can feel confident that our schools are preparing our kids, and our communities are supporting them. They are adjusting. They are finding friendships. They are getting involved. They are competitive academically.”
Next year, a 4-year-old boy will join the three girls at Frenchboro School two mornings a week. Three younger children are potential students, and another is expected to be born any day now.