As Maine's population has grown older, the number of school-aged children has declined, forcing some communities to close schools that have been social anchors for years. One recent school closure may serve to reflect the challenges faced by Maine's rural communities.
It was a bittersweet day last month at the Pittston Consolidated School, south of Gardiner. The elementary students here were joined by about 40 kids from nearby Teresa C. Hamlin Elementary in Randolph, only a few miles away. They had come to take part in a carnival event, competing in relay races and squirting water guns.
It's the first time that students from Hamlin and Pittston have come together like this, but it won't be the last. In March, the local school board voted to close Hamlin and send students to Pittston next fall.
As the day begins, some of the Hamlin students are shy, but the hope is that this event will gradually help these students adjust as they transition to their new school next fall.
The decision to close T.C. Hamlin was a long time coming. District enrollment has steadily declined for nearly a decade. The tipping point came last fall. Superintendent Pat Hopkins says that's when a lack of teachers forced Hamlin to send a class of students to nearby schools.
"Ultimately that left us with with 40 students at the T.C. Hamlin school," Hopkins says. "And we just couldn't sustain that."
She says a school nurse only visited Hamlin for a half-day every week. Teacher Leader Sara Hess says one teacher was forced to cover third, fourth and fifth grades — all at once.
"So just having more staff, having more resources around, having more peers to interact with," Hess says. "To be able to branch out is going to be extremely beneficial to them."
But some residents resisted the decision. Like a lot of rural schools, Hamlin is the center of its community. Without an elementary school, they wondered: would people want to move to town? And would they stay?
Randolph resident Pete Coughlin spoke at a school board meeting earlier this year.
"We lose our town playground. The outdoor basketball court. And we lose this gym for sports" Coughlin said. "Lots of them. And other activities, family gatherings and meetings."
Local officials have tried to assure residents that, for now, the school building isn't going anywhere and will still be a service center.
Yet similar worries have prompted some towns to withdraw from regional school boards and form their own districts. In effect, putting control of local schools back into their own hands.
But in many cases, communities have had to face financial and demographic realities. According to the Maine Department of Education, 91 public schools have closed in the state over the past 10 years.
“We have to have as many resources as possible. We can't just hold on to traditions and hold on to what things were, 20, 40, 60 years ago," says Ben Sirois, the superintendent of School Administrative District 27 in Fort Kent.
SAD 27 is in the very north of Maine, serving students from Fort Kent to the Allagash. The district closed three elementary schools in as many years after enrollment fell to a few dozen students per school.
The hour long bus rides have been hard, particularly for preschoolers. But Sirois believes consolidation has been largely positive for the region, that it's led to more socialization and educational opportunities. The district is even in the running to construct a new regional high school that would serve students from the entire St. John Valley.
"We really have to rethink the way that we're preparing these kids for their future," he says. "And how that's going to impact our region. I think that's important."
Hess says she understands the benefits, but says it's tough for students to say goodbye to their neighborhood school.
"They are looking forward to new friends. Everybody wants to go play on the playground, because we have a very small playground," she says. "But at the same time, they are going to miss their teachers. They are going to miss their building."
But Hess sees signs that make her feel optimistic about the transition.
As a few young girls get in line for the water gun station, a student from Pittston calls them over and introduces them to her friend, and, soon, they're playing and cheering each other on.
"Your other sister is on my team," she tells her new acquaintance. "And you're on Lexi's team."
The possibility of even more school closings leave many rural towns facing questions of their identity over the next 10, 20 or 50 years. But on this day, the staff at TC Hamlin are feeling confident that, come next fall, their students will be okay.
Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.
Originally published July 11, 2018, 4:41 p.m.