Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Bitter and the Sweet

Student Reproduction of Richard Lindner's Rock-Rock
Acrylic Paint, Grade 10

Painting based on a map of Lubec, inspired by the artwork of Maine Artist Eric Hopkins.
Last year grades 5 and 6 had the pleasure of meeting Hopkins who is known for his Maine island paintings, depicted as aerial views.
Tempera paint, grade 5

View of the Art Room showcasing current projects: High School Printmaking, 7th Grade Weaving, and 4th Grade Paper Mache Maskmaking

Scratchboard drawing
Grade 11

Still-Life with fruit and flowers
Crayon and watercolor, Grade 1

Student Interpretation of Van Gogh's Starry Night
Oil pastel, Grade 7

Chalk pastel drawing
Grade 11
This same student just won first place in a regional high school art competition.


It's been one of those weeks punctuated by both extreme highs and extreme lows. I think I'll start with the good news.

The first week of May is a flurry of activity at school. Students work like mad scientists and artists, historians, and mathematicians while they prepare for the school's annual Project's night. Granted, projects are completed in every class all through the year, but this one evening is an opportunity for students to show off their talents and interests with a new project. One skill that I see being honed during the two weeks preceding Projects night is the ability to set a goal and meet a deadline. I can totally relate to these students. There is excitement, and there is frustration. And despite the mass hysteria the few hours just before doors open to the public, it all falls into place.

Projects' Night is a huge deal in the community. It draws the biggest crowd that you'll ever see here, short of the Fourth of July or Fall Festival celebrations. Parents and students, community, and school board members filter through the classrooms checking out latest creations.

The Art Show is housed in the cafeteria to accommodate the mass number of pieces. Aside from the main display in the Caf, the bulletin boards are filled with student works and the art room is set-up to showcase some of the current happenings. Two weeks prior, I ask students to sort through their art portfolios and select their favorite piece from the school year to display in the "BIG SHOW". It's interesting to see what criteria they base their decisions on. Sometimes students know right off which piece to display. Others take an entire class period to work-out their decision, asking their peers to vote. They are asked to think about which piece shows a lot of effort and skill, would stand-out on the wall amongst 150 other artworks, and which piece would make them feel most proud when their parents see it for the first time.

Portfolios are available that night, too, to be taken home. I can tell by how many portfolios are left behind how good the "turnout" was. This year, of my approximately 125 art students, twelve portfolios remained. Of those few portfolios, some were siblings so it equated to only five or fewer families that were no-shows.

It was an amazingly successful Projects' Night; a sweet occurrence that followed a very bitter and sad event the evening before.

On Wednesday Evening, May 5th, 2010, Lubec Consolidated School board members voted four out of five to close the high school. Lubec High School has been in existence since 1896. The final decision will be made by town vote on June 23rd. If the town does indeed vote to close the high school, then this year will be the last ever senior graduating class in this town. As I type this, I am welled with emotion.

Since I first moved to this community and began teaching nine years ago, I have been hearing talk of closing the school. It is an issue that divides people and I can honestly understand where folks are coming from, on both sides of the "fence." My opinions in the matter are based on my experiences within the school and my views of education in general. My husband and I have been vocal supporters of keeping the school here in our own community. We believe that a school is a heart of a town and it helps students define their identity and their belonging. Rather than closing a school and sending students to another community, we believe there is no excuse to not instead invest in your own school and children and work together to make it the incredible learning environment it has the potential to be.

The final blow to the several-year struggle to keep the high school open came just a few months ago when the state cut our annual education funding by nearly $590,000. In a larger city or school system, that number may seem minor to you, however, here, it is enormous. Our total annual school budget is only 1.2 million. Peanuts for a PK-12 school education for an entire community. The state cut ALL but $19,000 of our funding. This happened in one-year's time. The reason? The state funding formula for education is based on a few things, including 1) student enrollment, 2) property evaluations, and 3) willingness to comply with the new educational consolidation law.

Basically, the town of Lubec, being coastal, is assumed to be able to afford the school. We are the classic example of "property rich - cash poor." Many of the people here are struggling multi-generational fishing families, many of them are those of my students. We have a 75% reduced lunch population and higher than normal special education needs. But as it is with many coastal communities, there is an influx of people who have been able to buy incredibly low-priced seaside property and have been able to develop their dream retirement homes. School enrollment drops as families move away to find work after the closing of factories and lack of available jobs. I myself am what is referred to as a PFA....a.k.a. Person From Away. People here make no bones about telling you that you are just that. But after nine years here, I have a new understanding of the lifestyles and people. I'd like to think of myself as an SPFA..."Semi Person From Away", thinking my ability to adapt to such a different way of life than I had been accustomed to, and my love for the people and this area, gives me some sort of honorary new status.

So, in a nutshell, reductions in funding over the years cause cuts in school programming lessening the perceived quality of education. One big blow comes along, hits hard, stirs fear, and defeats the spirit. The saddest part of all of this for me is that despite all the blows this school has received, it has continued, under excellent administration, to improve and excel at a steady pace over the past three years. I am not one to support testing as a means of proof of accomplishment, but for those who do, our remote school's state test scores are higher than the "surrounding" schools. I put "surrounding" in quotes because the closest high school other than our own is approximately 35 miles away. The states average for "Annual Yearly Progress" (AYP) is something like 4.8%. Our school came out as 14.2%. Impressive if you ask me, that we continue to get better despite lack of state support and resources. I attribute this to several factors in our school, one being a principal who has excellent leadership skills. He saw what needed to be done, set expectations high, motivated us and praised us along the path. We implemented a weekly literacy class with an on-staff expert. Our students have become phenomenal and inspired writers and the teachers are using new methods of differentiation to be able to teach to all kinds of learners so that they may find success. The arts have grown with the inclusion of a music program and my own visual arts classes have grown to include two additional levels. We have the most advanced technology of all schools around, including the colleges in Machias and Calais. Our Aquaculture teacher was recognized as a national teacher of the year, and I have myself received awards and participated in state arts pilot programs. We have a high percentage of students go on to college who have been accepted at such venues as Northeastern, Wheaton, Maine Maritime, Husson, Farmington, and UMO.

Still, a decision was made. Ironically, for those who think that closing a high school will save our town money, it just won't happen. A community is responsible for educating its youth. The money will be invested whether it is here or at a tuitioned school with long bus rides.

We won't know for certain if the high school is closing until June 23rd. This is highly bothersome to me. How do we proceed with the remainder of the school year? Do we move forward as if nothing has changed? Or do we say our goodbyes? It is an emotional time and the last thing I want to do is give up the fight for my students, but at the same time, I need to prepare them for the "if and when". I am a planner, and I want to be ready for either scenario. I want my students to feel prepared as well and confident of their success whatever the outcome. I know that, ultimately, people are strong and adapt, and we will all get through this. The not knowing is the toughest part.

If 2010 is our final graduation at Lubec High School, then it needs to be commemorated. If my art-college bound students finish out their senior year at another school, I want a working relationship with the next art teacher to ensure that that their transition is smooth and that dreams don't go by the wayside. If students are told that they have school choice, then the school needs to provide opportunities for the students to tour the other schools during a school day when students and teachers are in full working mode. If drop-outs occur due to the change of school venue, then we need to have an excellent alternative program in place to catch them before they fall. Decisions need to be made so that teachers who may be losing their jobs can make plans. Not knowing if your school will be here in September brings up the dilemma of do you apply for other jobs to ensure you can pay the bills, or do you hold on because you don't want to abandon the students that will be here should the town decide to keep the school. It is hard to find good teachers willing to commit to living in a remote area to work for one of the lowest teaching salaries in New England with more than the usual workload because the staff is small and spread far too thin.

This blog entry has been the most emotional one for me that I have ever written. Change is always difficult, as I spoke of a few weeks ago. I hope that as a community we can all move through this gracefully and intact.

The sun is shining and I am itching to soak it up. I will head outside to find a piece of fallen birch limb for my sculpture project. Art does the soul good, even when everything around you seems to be a bit of a mess.

8 comments:

Ginger said...

One of the hardest issues for me beyond the loss of the community, is the distance the children will be away from their community and cut off. The length of time they will have to travel to get to school, the costs of that alone. Emotionally and financially. Parents will have a harder time attending events and staying involved, this is a direct cost shift to the parents. I believe the whole community should support the children. It takes a village to raise a child, or so I've heard. Peace and Love~Shanna, I hope this resolves to the best result. Blessed Be~G

Kim Hambric said...

I am so sad and frustrated after reading about the unknown future of your school. I wish our country would understand that the "Walmartization" of our schools will benefit no one.

I do wonder what the future of our schools will be. Will students gather in conference rooms on corporate campuses, in empty shops in malls, in their own homes and connect to the internet to learn and be tested? Will we no longer be able to afford to build new schools?

I'm so glad to hear that no matter what, you will try to make this as positive as possible for your students and fill them with confidence for the next step in their lives.

Owl Who Laughs said...

This is much more than a blog entry, it is a testimony to your caring and insight and love of art, and also your dedication and bond with the students of Lubec. You have done so much for this students over many years. Lubec is now full of murals and art, the kids’ art is yearly on display at the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, and this year one of the high school students took first place in a Country wide competition (beating out all the ‘big’ schools), and might win the State. All this since you arrived in town, brought prestigious artists here through grants, and jumpstarted the Lubec Arts Alive phenomenon, which was a great success. There is no way to fully describe how much you have done for your town, how much healing you have brought here. You have helped kids of all backgrounds, including the most impoverished. You are definitely a SPFA!

The attempt to close the school is a horrible failure of inspiration on the part of the School Board. They have an incredible opportunity here to make Lubec Consolidated a leader in State Education. It already is by some standards--like having an aquaculture teacher who won the National Teacher of the Year Award, and an art teacher who has brought, through grants, fund raising, community-organizing and sheer talent, amazing attention to this little community. The kids here love art, and a good number of them want to study art when they go to college.

To see the pictures from Projects’ Night and then read about the heart-wrenching news of the School Board’s terrible choice to close the school is devastating despite the great beauty of the students’ art.

You’re a brave and wonderful soul. And perhaps the best case for keeping the school open has just been made here, on your blog, through the open and honest and passionate expression of your great heart and intellect.

rhonda said...

Regardless of where you are, and what you're doing, it sounds to me like your passion for the arts will permeate whatever you embrace and people will respond and benefit from it.

marasco said...

So sorry to read this..very shortsighted...so, hard to really not know too..just crazy...take some time for you if you can, as this is gonna go the way it goes.. thinking of you.

SHANNA WHEELOCK said...

Thank you, everyone, for your supportive, insightful, and compassionate words.

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Trina and I are both very sad about this decision, Shanna. Hopefully, it will go the other way in June.

Portlandiakids said...

Hello Shanna, I appreciate your passionate description of the Lubec HS sad vote for closure, so detailed and thoughtful. Your work with the students in Lubec is inspiring. What beautiful artwork they have created under your instruction and guidance. In the early 80's, I lived in Trescott and taught a few summers of grant -funded art programs at the Lubec Elementary while Pat Goden was the school principal. I spent my entire life as a PFA, mostly as a summer resident, with the exception of 5th/6th grade as a student in Lubec. But when I come to visit, I am greeted and recognized by many of my former classmates and childhood friends with the standard "How long you been home?" Lubec will always be one of my homes, that special, odd, corner of life in Downeast. Mostly I am writing in support of the unique, small town school experience that defines Lubec public education. Without the school, the community may dissolve further. Lubec has suffered low-employment, job loss and poverty for decades, the arts being almost the one solid unifying experience that keeps Lubec vibrant. I imagine the scattering of Lubec youth to area schools may further the stresses on families. Where will the kids belong? In my city of Portland, Oregon, there is a citywide after-school program called SUN, Schools Uniting Neighborhoods. Healthy school boards recognize that schools, families and children are what guarantee a future for a community. I am saddened that some of the leadership in Lubec may make a choice that affects generations of potential residents turn away from a life in Lubec. I'm planning a visit to be with family in Maine/Lubec in August this year. I hope to say hello in person. My heart is with you as this story unfolds.