On an early spring day in Seal Harbor, Maine, sunlight streams through the windows of a classroom overlooking Acadia National Park’s Stanley Brook. Inside one corner of the warmly lit room, shoes and jackets have been neatly ordered beside a bookshelf, while a blackboard is covered with a richly chalked drawing of a gnarled tree, its roots entangled in an underworld exploration of Norse myths and fables. The walls of the adjacent room are hung with colorful fabrics creating a cozy burrow for a study of winter ecology. Nearby, a family of felted gnomes sits on a shelf beneath a clothesline hung with watercolors drying in the sun.
These two spaces in Seal Harbor’s Abby Chapel form the inside classrooms of the first year of The Community School of Mount Desert Island. A door leads to the school’s outside classroom: a field stretching to Seal Harbor’s pebble beach, protected by an island at the mouth of the harbor. Though truly, all of Mount Desert Island serves as a classroom for this human-ecological school, which currently enrolls fourteen students from across the island.
Founding director Jasmine Smith ’09 has been working to establish a place-based school on MDI for years (see Fall 2010). Originally, says Jasmine, “Nick (Jenei ’09) and I were thinking about a high school geared towards the complex, big ideas that a human ecological education inspires. The mission hasn’t changed, but it’s been retooled.” Through an integrated, expeditionary curriculum, weekly outings, and town meeting-style gatherings, students and teachers have found new ways to cultivate a sense of self and of place.
Jasmine’s years at COA, her stint as the director of the college’s Summer Field Studies, and connections made as a homeschool teacher on the island, laid the foundation of the Community School. Her experience is enhanced by a profusion of human ecologists: Bethany Anderson ’13 teaches the older class, Nick teaches music, Karen Ressel (wife of COA biologist Steve Ressel) and adjunct Patricia Ayala-Rocabado teach handwork and Spanish. The board includes COA founding president Ed Kaelber, along with education faculty members and COA alumni, and is led by Lynn Boulger, COA’s dean of institutional advancement.
“We don’t do things like other schools,” says third-grader Samara Gilhooley, daughter of Lauren Rupp ’05, COA’s coordinator of wellness and campus engagement. “We spend lots of time outside exploring nature, building, and getting to know our friends and lots of places around here.” Weekly outings, focused on the current themes of each class and warmed by a sense of camaraderie and adventure, form a major component of the school environment.
“We have so much fun and always get into something messy!” exclaims second-grader Lolie Ellis. “You know, an adventure, like trying to figure out a way off of Bar Island, getting caked with clay at [local potter] Rocky Mann’s, and almost getting stuck when we were crossing an old beaver dam!”
While the expeditions may take students all over the island, the Community School also dedicates itself to a particular place. The Maine Coast Heritage Trust has assigned the students stewardship of the shore path set alongside the dramatic cliffs at Cooksey Drive Overlook. “We’ve been there on a balmy September day and we’ve been there when the trail is an ice floe,” says Jasmine. “We’ve seen things blossom and die back. In the spring, we’ll start to see it cycle to completion.” Some of the students’ responsibilities include trail maintenance and visitor information. That may sound like a big project for a five-year-old, but it’s an opportunity to gain real-life skills and make connections to the land.
“They were just meticulous,” recalls Jasmine. “Some of the younger students worked on clipping bracken fern from the path. One child sat down with the visitor log and started writing where everyone was from, which started the conversation of why people come to this island from all over the world.”
Another fall expedition took the students to the Bar Harbor Food Pantry where they learned about food access and community service. “The visit brought an awareness to the children that there were people in our community in need of something our children take for granted: food. They felt called to help support members of the community, even ones they didn’t know. We’re not sugarcoating it. We’re showing them the essence of life.”
Following the food pantry visit, the school traced some of the vegetables back to their origins at COA’s Beech Hill Farm. “We learned about the farm’s relationship with the community and the role it plays with this system. … It’s all about context: we’re learning that stewardship means not just the land, but the people.”
Service opportunities are just one part of the curriculum’s focus on cultivating a sense of self within the community; every Wednesday both classes gather in a town meeting to share announcements, cares and concerns, and ideas or suggestions. “Regardless of the type of share, children are given the practice and opportunity to find their voice inside and learn to communicate what is on their hearts and minds,” Jasmine says. Mindfulness exercises during each class’s morning meeting help to build an understanding that, “to be a positive, participating member of a community, one must know and be at peace with oneself.”
Weekly cycles roll into seasonal ones, with transitions marked by community festivals. In the fall, students organized crafts for a harvest festival and ventured out on Northeast Creek to celebrate the cranberry harvest. Joined by their families on Heirloom Apple Day, students pressed a bounty of apples into cider at the Smith Family Farm, bright with fall color. It’s one of Jasmine’s favorite memories:
“I vividly recall looking around at all of our families and community members while a student ensemble from COA played string instruments on a nearby knoll. The wind was blowing apple prints that we had drying on a clothesline. Children were sharing their favorite heirloom varieties with community members amidst a hearty potluck lunch. It was a moment of coming together, of beautiful realization.”
After less than a year, the school has already begun to lay the ground for a new generation of human ecologists: when finishing up an expedition titled “Our Home, Our Place, Our Community,” Jasmine asked one of her students if she remembered what it meant to be a steward. Echoing the dream of a school five years in the making, the student responded, “Someone who loves a place and takes care of it.”
Eloise Schultz ’16 taught singing classes at The Community School in the fall of 2014. Her studies at COA have focused on education and the human ecology of voice.