Report From Rural Maine: What It Takes to Make a School

By Deborah Fallows

By Deborah Fallows

Shead High School, home of the Tigers, sits on a hill in Eastport, Maine, just a short walk from everything else in town.  I went to visit, curious about what a small public school in very rural, maritime Maine, with a total of 110 students, would be like.

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Shead is built-for-winter, but bright and efficient. Its big front doors open into a large entry area, which doubles as a lunchroom, which then opens onto an elegant high-raftered gym. At lunchtime, tables were set up and the space was bustling in anticipation of sports events and Halloween. 

Despite its small size, Shead fields teams in soccer, basketball, cross country, a host of other sports, and has its own radio station. One advantage of being such small school, people say, is that kids can play every sport they would like to. The gym is festooned with banners of championships, hanging next to a big flag from the Passamaquoddy tribe.

Shead is a regional school; only about 20 of the students are actually residents of Eastport, and the rest are bussed in from about a half dozen neighboring communities that don’t have high schools themselves. About 1/3 of the students are Native Americans from the nearby Passamaquoddy reservation, called Pleasant Point.  These nonresident students bring critical revenue to Eastport, which supports not only the school’s livelihood but also enough for extras, like teachers for P.E. and music. About 60% of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunch (a proxy for poverty level in the US).

The town itself worries about a shrinking and aging population. The census of 2010 shows 1331 people in Eastport, with a median age of 54 years, a 19% drop in population and 9 year rise in median age from 2000.  Shead reflects those numbers. Twenty years ago, there were 181 students enrolled at Shead; ten years ago there were 157; versus today's 110. The photos of the Shead graduating classes, which hang along one wall of the school, tell the vivid story: the class of 1988 had 46 students; 1998 had 35; the class of 2014 has 25 students, 3 of whom are from Eastport.

Shead class of 1988:

Shead class of 2008:

Right across the street from Shead is the even tinier Eastport elementary school, which enrolls about 90 students in K through 8, all Eastport residents.  The principal of the elementary school told me that several families had moved into town recently, two of them with five kids apiece, which is considered promising news.

(Elementary school playground, with art project.)

I heard repeatedly about ways that Shead’s smallness can turn to advantage. Teachers and  counselors can pay attention to each individual student. No one gets “lost in the sauce”, as they described it. Small numbers also means small class size, as few as 4 or as many as 15. I saw plenty of signs that no one could fly under the radar at Shead, even if he or she wanted to. While I was reporting in to the office for my visit, a number of kids passed through; they seemed to be casually checking in or out. An assistant would nod something affirmative, suggesting they knew exactly who each student was and what his business was there.

Also keeping track, in an understated way, was Principal Paul Theriault. Later in the morning, I found him sitting in the middle of the school hallway, right outside his office. He was wedged into a student- size desk, working on his laptop. If you were a student going from one class to the next, chances are you would pass Mr. Theriault along the way.

Paul Theriault, who grew up in Eastport, hasn't always worked in education. He was a meat cutter for 21 years, a solid pay-the-bills profession. He had also coached Eastport basketball at various times since 1985, and then eased into Shead as an educational technician in the Alternative/Special Education program in 1999. By 2003, he had a degree in education, by luck the same year that Shead was hiring a social studies teacher. Theriault got the job, and the part-time vice principal’s job to boot! Four years later, he became principal.

Empathy would be the right word to describe Mr. Theriault’s intense connection to the school, the students, and the old soul of his hometown of Eastport. “I grew up poor,” he said. “there were not a lot of bright colors in your life.”  His understanding translates into very specific examples of how he leads the school. Theriault describes an example of how each student needs-- and deserves-- special handling, sometimes granting dispensation outside the usual norms. Once, he discovered a student was being docked for not handing in his homework. “Homework?" he said.  “For crying out loud, some kids have no place to DO homework.” The guidance counselor, Leah McLean, backs up these sentiments and actions. She knows her students and their family lives, which are sometimes complicated. “There are “couch surfers” in this school,” she says.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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