Island and remote schools provide unique mix of culture, challenges

Some small schools in the Upper Peninsula and northern lower Michigan face unique challenges of geography--island schools, and their close cousins, remote school districts.
Imagine your walk to school growing up.  
 
Are there horse drawn carriages, bikes and tourists crowding the streets? Are ferries headed back and forth from islands and the Upper Peninsula? Is there a parking lot full or snowmobiles?
 
The Great Lakes might be glistening in the sun, making for beautiful school scenery, but what happens when the last ferry leaves or when feet of snow fall all winter long?
 
It's easy to forget the challenges island and geographically remote residents face--specifically in education.
 
Summer scenes are dumped on by snow and deer take over the football field. Sandals are swapped for snow boots and bikes are stowed away to make room for snowmobiles. Chilling temperatures and ice halt ferries while planes begin to run routes to and from town--all while keeping island and remote schools in session.
 
In Michigan, "island schools" typically refers to educational institutions accessible by ferry or plane, or schools in remote locations. While northern Michigan makes for a great summer vacation spot, people often forget residents return to their regular lifestyle once the tourists leave--sometimes buried under a few feet of snow.
 
Small size means big opportunities
 
Island and remote schools don't just have small class and school sizes--they have small district sizes. John Prescott, superintendent and principal of Whitefish Township Community School, a remote school in Paradise, Michigan, has 23 students, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, enrolled in his school district.
 
Prescott has a network of superintendents who face the same challenges. Mackinac Island, Beaver Island and DeTour Area Schools have schools located on islands throughout the northern Great Lakes. Burt Township School encounters limitations due to its remote location in Grand Marais, Michigan.  
 
There are between 70 and 80 students enrolled in the Mackinac Island School, depending on the time of year.
 
"We have more in the fall and spring when many of the hotels and shops are open. Some of our students leave with their parents for October through April to head to other towns where their parents hold jobs in the winter," says David Waaso, superintendent at Mackinac Island School.
 
The other island and remote school districts have comparable kindergarten through 12th grade enrollment.
 
DeTour, which encompasses three communities--Raber/Goetzville, DeTour and Drummond Island--has approximately 145 students. Beaver Island enrolls around 60 students and Burt Township School has 30 students. In comparison, Detroit Public School District enrolls more than 67,000 students.
 
Size isn't a limitation, though--island and remote schools utilize their resources to maximize learning opportunities for their students.
 
"Our challenges are turned into opportunities," says Waaso. "We do not have many of the classes larger schools have, so we use interactive TV classes with students from other schools in our intermediate school district."
 
Small class sizes allow for increased student and teacher engagement, which allows students to thrive in programs tailored to their individual learning needs.
 
"Obviously we have small class sizes, which is great for individual student program planning," says Heidi Homeister, Burt Township School superintendent. "Each student can have an individualized education plan."
 
Due to small size, athletic teams are integrated between grades and are primarily co-ed.
 
No such thing as a snow day
 
Island and remote schools have challenged their education limitations, but the unpredictable nature of northern Michigan weather poses additional problems.
 
"We don't have many days off due to bad weather. The weather is just a part of life. You dress for it and are ready for almost anything," says Waaso.
 
During the winter, the Mackinac Island School parking lot is filled with snowmobiles. Students take a snowmobile safety class at age 12 to obtain their license.
 
"The blowing snow here can really reduce visibility and is probably the worst activity we deal with. You don't live here without some idea of an early spring," says Homeister.
 
Maintaining the logistics
 
The weather not only affects the commute to school, but it also complicates extracurricular activities. The island and remote school conference is accustomed to the out-of-the-ordinary traveling process. Island and remote schools play most of their games on Fridays and Saturdays to minimize travel.
 
Ferries are the preferred way to travel, but frozen water and ferry schedules don't always cooperate. Planes are the alternative and in some circumstances, it is more cost-efficient for teams to fly.
 
Visiting teams and coaches often stay the night at the host school. The home team feeds the guest team dinner after games and breakfast the next morning. Athletes and coaches scatter sleeping bags and air mattresses across the gym floor to get rest for Saturday's activities.
 
"For a typical weekend of games we spend around $1,000," says Waaso. "As you can see, it is a lot of logistics."
 
If the weather is rainy, muddy uniforms need to be washed to play the next morning. Though it's not in the superintendent's job description, at times Homeister has taken it upon herself to handle laundry duties.
 
"I have never met another superintendent that has done laundry for their athletics teams," she says.
 
Island and remote school superintendents wear many hats and often have roles as principal, counselor, athletic director, teacher, coach, driver education instructor and all other duties assigned--even dirty laundry.  
 
Leading one of these schools means being open to anything and everything that comes their way, even if that means taking on a role in the school play. Homeister was asked to play the role of Glinda the Good Witch of the North in "The Wizard of Oz" because there were not enough students to fill the parts.
 
"I had never been in a play before. It was fun. It was difficult to memorize lines. I needed lots of prompts and redirection, but it was lots of fun to work that close with the students. They helped me with my lines, hair and makeup. We had lots of laughs," says Homeister.
 
The island and remote school difference
 
Despite some geographic limitations, island and remote school students are open to amazing opportunities. Small school size allows for accessibility to unique experiences. Students attend plays, musicals, art museums and take field trips to go ice-skating, dog sledding and rafting.
 
Larger scale trips have visited the state capital in Lansing and traveled to Washington D.C. Seniors have held fundraisers to take class trips to Disney World, Mexico and the Bahamas.  
 
With all fun aside, island and remote schools have proven to be great academic preparation for college. Of the six students graduating from Mackinac Public School this year, all have been accepted to a college or university.
 
"The ACT average for this year's senior class is 24.4," says Waaso.
 
Drummond Island Elementary has been recognized the last four out of five years by the Michigan Department of Education for their academic performance and as a "Beating the Odds" school.
 
Another day in paradise
 
Michigan island and remote schools may not have white sand and palm trees, but they do have the tools to build and shape successful students and strong communities.
 
"Over the past 13 years, I have been able to develop relationships with the families and students on the island," says Angela Reed, superintendent and principal of DeTour Area Schools. "Watching a student grow and mature knowing that you had a part in that development is the greatest joy," she adds.
 
With such small school sizes, superintendents play a tremendous role in island and remote school students' lives. They get to know each student on a personal level, which has led to academic success despite the many limitations.
 
"The staff and parents I work with know that it takes a village to raise a child and we all work together to make this happen," says Reed.
 
Even under a few feet of snow, Prescott believes, "It's another day in paradise."
 
This piece was made possible through a partnership with InspirED Michigan, a project of the Michigan Public Schools Partnership. MPSP is a coalition of more than 50 education-related organizations, school districts and individuals committed to promoting the good news about Michigan public schools. To subscribe to the monthly e-newsletter, click here.
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