Adirondack schools confront woes, worries and wants

Long Lake Central School graduates Austin Pierce, left, and Ethan Bush are flanked by their graduation speaker Christian Wissler, a natural resource science teacher from BOCES, at their graduation in June. Bush and Pierce were the school’s only two graduates in 2017. 
(Photo provided — Nicole Curtin)

Long Lake Central School graduates Austin Pierce, left, and Ethan Bush are flanked by their graduation speaker Christian Wissler, a natural resource science teacher from BOCES, at their graduation in June. Bush and Pierce were the school’s only two graduates in 2017. (Photo provided — Nicole Curtin)

Of the 10 smallest school districts in upstate New York, seven are tucked away in the Adirondacks. And they are tiny.

Of the 50 smallest, 20 are in the Adirondack Park, according to a list recently compiled by NewYorkUpstate.com, a website associated with the Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper.

But how do they survive, and why are there so many? For many schools, money and community are the driving forces behind the answers.

Putnam Central School

High school students take part in an event in the Indian Lake Central School gymnasium last year.
(Photo provided)

High school students take part in an event in the Indian Lake Central School gymnasium last year. (Photo provided)

This small brick building is nestled in the hills and farmland of the town of Putnam, in northern Washington County between Lake Champlain and Lake George. With 20 to 21 students and eight teachers, according to Superintendent Matt Boucher, it is the second smallest school district in upstate New York and the smallest in the Adirondacks.

Students go to this school only from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, after which they migrate to Ticonderoga Middle School to be mixed with around 160 students, and later around 290 at Ticonderoga High School, according to Boucher. For students, the shift is softened by several visits to Ticonderoga during the Putnam students’ final year at their home school.

Putnam’s small class size offers strengths and weaknesses. The most obvious positive is the attention teachers can offer each student.

“No one falls through the cracks,” Bouchard said.

With classes that rarely, if ever, stretch into double digits, teachers can adapt to each student’s learning strengths without worrying about running out of time and accidentally ignoring a student. Such focus extends throughout the community.

Students gather for a photo prior to the first day of school at Indian Lake Central School.
(Photo provided)

Students gather for a photo prior to the first day of school at Indian Lake Central School. (Photo provided)

The town of Putnam also has a small population — 609 in the 2010 census. Bouchard explained that with so few people, faces and personalities become familiar. Rude behavior — and, conversely, exemplary behavior — rarely goes unnoticed.

The care continues after the students leave Putnam Central. Good grades upon high school graduation are rewarded with a scholarship from the Putnam Founders Fund. The scholarship continues through college if the good grades do as well. The group was started in 1997 by the Rev. Irving Cummings and the scholarship in 1998. This upcoming semester, the amount of each scholarship will depend on the qualified student’s grade: $1,500 for freshmen, $1,750 for sophomores, $2,000 for juniors and $2,250 for seniors, according to the Rev. Gerald Espenshade. Fourteen students have qualified for the scholarship this upcoming semester, according to Espenshade.

A small population has its downside, however. Small classes and few neighbors impact the student’s social skills, Bouchard explained. Fewer people also often leads to a lack in diversity.

Employment in the school also suffers from a smaller pool of employees. Many teachers fill multiple roles to keep the school running.

“It’s a juggling act,” Bouchard said.

There is also concern about the future of the music department at Putnam Central. The last teacher retired but has helped the school search for a replacement. Currently, every student plays an instrument. Whether that will continue is uncertain.

Why not merge? Bouchard said this option has been considered, but it was discovered that local people’s taxes would increase if they did.

True North

Several schools in the south and central Adirondacks have found a possible solution: the True North.

The True North coalition consists of eight New York school districts: Long Lake, Indian Lake, Johnsburg, Minerva, North Warren, Schroon Lake, Warrensburg and Newcomb. Together they share teachers, classes, sports and even proms.

For example, Indian Lake this coming year will share a technology teacher with Johnsburg.

“It’s 50/50,” Indian Lake Central School District Superintendent David Snide explained.

Indian Lake will also share a school psychologist and a chairperson on the committee for special education with Long Lake Central School District this year. The two districts also share soccer, basketball, baseball and softball programs.

To further save costs, the True North will join for a superintendents’ conference day in October, when teachers and administrators will listen to guest speakers that each district will have chipped in to pay for.

Indian Lake has taken sharing to new technological heights with a program called Joint Distance Learning. A room, separated in four quadrants, each hooked up with a camera and television, extends the walls of the classroom for miles. The program, Snide explains, allows kids to attend classes which otherwise would not be taught at the school, or increase the class size for a greater discussion.

“[If] somebody came in here that wanted to learn Spanish, we wouldn’t hire a Spanish teacher. We have a French teacher. So the student looking for Spanish would take it over the distance learning system,” Snide explained.

But for schools without such technology, hiring either isn’t always feasible, so other courses of action are taken.

Inlet Common School District, the third smallest in upstate New York, combines grades and classes. Grades first and second; third and fourth; and fifth and sixth are combined to fill the classes. It also allows for there to be fewer teachers.

But how do a first and second grader learn together when typically they would be taught separate subjects?

“There’s a lot of similarities, so you can have some great discussions and everybody inputs at their own level,” Inlet Superintendent Christine Holt explained. “But then it’s up to the teacher to make sure that the older students are taking it a bit further.”

Teachers can’t always allow each student to participate in a conversation, however, as some may not learn about a historical topic until the following year. In such circumstances, the students learning the subject would work with the teacher, and other students would be left to work on other subjects, either on their own or with an aide, according to Holt.

Other schools have found another technique: Teachers work in various educational departments.

Putnam teachers and administrators wear many hats. Boucher explained that their physical education teacher doubles as a science teacher. This multi-talented teaching style was born out of need rather than want, according to Boucher.

“There isn’t the available labor pool for those positions,” Boucher said.

But it has worked for Putnam, he said. He cited a study from 10 years ago that found around 80 to 85 percent of Putnam students went on to study in Ticonderoga, and between grades 9 and 12, were on the honor roll.

Citizens in the Inlet Common School District also have been pleased with the education, or at least pleased enough. Last year, voters decided to keep the school running instead of sending the students to another district.

Raquette Lake Union Free School District is an example of a district that no longer teaches. Instead it sends students to other school districts, such as Inlet, paying their tuition with property taxes gathered in its own district.

Many of these small schools’ leaders expressed hope that their communities grow and add more students.

“The most critical component for all rural school districts in the Adirondacks is bringing young people to the area to live year-round, and to do that we need to increase and diversify employment opportunities,” Superintendent of Long Lake Noelle Short wrote in an email.

Snide shared those sentiments, saying that when he first started working in Indian Lake in 1989, the school enrollment was around 230. It is now around 112.

“That’s a huge decline,” Snide said. “If we could figure out somehow to create jobs, that would bring folks because — again, I’m biased, but I think that we, the North Country schools, have fantastic schools, fantastic teachers and a safe environment for the kids to attend. You know we certainly have the outside facilities.”

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