Jenny Baum had been trying to move to Maine from New York City for years, so when she saw the listing for a position with Portland Public Schools she applied immediately. It wasn’t until her interview that she found out that the job was in a one-room schoolhouse, on an island.

Last summer the 37-year-old took a leap of faith and moved from an island of over 1 million people to an island of about 50.

Cliff Island’s one-room schoolhouse has been in operation since the 1880s. A class photo from the 1915-16 school year shows 14 students, a photo from 1939 shows 20 students, and a 1978 photo shows 13 students. For the 2018-19 school year, Baum had two students: Edward Anderson, a second-grader, and Chloe Blomquist, a first-grader.

Edward and Chloe are old friends.

“I’ve known Edward since I was a little, little kid – 2, I think,” Chloe said.

A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram photojournalist followed Baum and her pupils over the past school year to tell a visual story of one of Maine’s last one-room schoolhouses. There are only six left in the state, all of them on islands.

Cliff Island Elementary School’s fate is a source of regular debate in the city, with officials questioning the wisdom of spending so much money to educate so few students. (The Cliff Island school had a $124,000 budget this school year, which works out to $62,000 per pupil – about five times the state average.)

Xavier Botana, superintendent of Portland schools, said last year that the school might have to close in order to shore up the budget. He eventually backed away from the idea.

Those who support Maine’s island schoolhouses say they are worth the cost, because they are the lifeblood of the islands. Without them, they say, year-round residents might disappear.

Yvonne Thomas, an education specialist at the Island Institute, an organization that works to sustain life on Maine’s island communities, said it is critically important to keep the schools open. “The plain truth is that if an island loses its school, it will also lose its year-round community,” Thomas said.

The island teacher is a community leader – a fact Baum learned over the past year. She put on the Christmas play, helped plan Valentine’s Day lunches for older residents and invited islanders into the classroom to talk with the students.

“In order to do this job you also have to be a community member,” said Baum, who rents a small house that overlooks Casco Bay. “Not only interact with the students but interact with everyone.”

It didn’t take long last September for the two kids to take to “Miss Jenny,” as she is known on the island. The three started every morning by checking in with one another and asking how they are feeling. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they took the ferry to Long Island’s school for specialty classes such as art and music, and to give Edward and Chloe a chance to interact with other children – kids with whom they will ride the 6 a.m. boat when they get to sixth grade and attend middle school on the mainland.

“I think it is important that they build these friendships now, because these kids understand what their life is like,” Baum explained. “I don’t think the kids on the mainland will understand what life is like for islanders. So they’re not understanding that these kids are getting up at 5:30 in the morning and taking an hour-and-15-minute boat ride to town, taking a bus to school, being there early. It is a long commute, and it is a different lifestyle.”

Edward and Chloe have lived on the island, which is part of Portland, since they were born. Edward’s grandfather grew up on Cliff. Chloe’s father came to the island to work as a sternman for Edward’s grandfather.

“Edward and Chloe do have a very special bond,” Baum said. “Especially when we travel to Long together, it feels to me like we’re even tighter. When we leave the island, our bond becomes even stronger because we know that we can count on each other, they know that they can count on each other, through thick and thin.”

Sitting in her rented house the day after classes ended this month, she reflected on her first year on Cliff.

“I get emotional, because Edward and Chloe really helped me,” she said. “There were many times they were the only people I interacted with all day, and I just love them so much. I feel like in the beginning I was an outsider, and now I really feel loved and really part of this community and so thankful to be accepted.”

In the fall, the school’s population will swell to three, when Edward’s sister Fiona starts kindergarten. And Baum is no longer the new girl on the island. Edward’s parents welcomed another girl, Roxanne, into the world in April.

 


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