One Square Mile: One of the most expensive schools in RI

PROVIDENCE, RI – On Block Island, a single public school serves all of the island's year-round residents. Kindergartners and high school seniors have classes in the same building and eat lunch in the same cafeteria. It's a close community, but it's also one of the most expensive public schools in the state.

At about 7:30 on a typical weekday morning, a strong wind blows off Rhode Island Sound and a large yellow school bus winds its way past the still-closed retail stores and ice cream parlors on Block Island's main road. Inside the bus, students chat or get in some last minute studying. They range in age from Kindergarteners all the way up to high school students.

Riding the School Bus
There's only one bus and one bus driver.

Mary Conant, a 5th grader sits toward the middle of the bus, where the middle schoolers congregate. She takes the bus to school every day.

"There's no one on the bus that you don't know, basically. So every morning it's just like talking to everybody and its actually pretty fun on the bus," says Conant.

The bus driver, Howie Rice, calls himself the captain of the ship. He drives the same route every morning, just like he has since 1970

"It was my dad's before, he got the contract in 1949 and we've had the contract all except for one year ever since," says Rice. "And the interesting thing about it is these are grandchildren of children that I went to school with here on the Island. And I do have to say some respects I feel like a father or a grandfather to most of them."

A Place Where Everyone Knows Each Other
Familial is how many people describe the Block Island School.

As the bus arrives to start the school day, students pour out and head to class. There are just 119 students at the island's only public school, so everyone pretty much knows everyone else. Class sizes range from only a few students to about a dozen. Alsie Stiepock MacKay is in the 6th grade.

"You have a different feeling of big classes and small classes when you live on an island," says MacKay. "Like our class is six people, which is tiny, but like eleven is considered a really big class."

The small number of students means everyone gets a lot of individual attention. But it can also be tricky, like when it comes to dating, says 18-year-old Danielle Woodward.

"Umm, it can get a little bit awkward because it does go one but then if you break up you're still in the same school," says Woodward. "You're still seeing each other every day, most of the time it isn't within a class because you're like siblings so it feels weird."

Woodward was the only girl in this year's senior class, and her younger sister is also in a class with just one girl. She calls it the curse of the Woodward sisters, but she says in her case, it hasn't been all bad.

"It's been interesting. We don't exactly get along most of the time, we have very different opinions, so we have to try to co-exist as best we can. It's definitely made me a bit tougher than I would have been because I have to deal with all of their ribbing," she says.

Inside the Classroom
In many ways, the Block Island school is like a miniature version of your basic public school. It has a library and a band, and hallways lined with lockers. But it also has just one Math teacher for every year of high school. Same goes for Spanish and for Science. There's just one building, and one classroom for each of the elementary school grades.

In the first grade classroom, ten students draw pictures with shapes then gather on the rug to prepare to write a report about bees. Teacher Laurie McTeague asks the kids to think back to the day before, when they went on a walk to count the bees and observe them.

The environment figures prominently in the life of the Block Island school, as it does for everyone on the Island. There's a strong culture of environmental conservation, and the school even has a large collection of taxidermy birds donated by a local resident. The 4th graders learn to identify each species.

Second grade teacher Barbie Michelle says if you live on Block Island, the environment controls your life. And because residents have a special relationship to their surroundings, she and other teachers make a point to bring nature into the classroom, and their students out into nature.

"We are able to offer environmental education on a regular basis so they go off on regular nature walks, they learn about the seals that are on Block Island, the migrating birds," says Michelle. "I take my class bird banding every fall and every child gets to hold a bird and release it. I mean they have these unique experiences."

The Cost of Public Education on Block Island
But those unique experiences are expensive. In the last academic year, Block Island spent nearly $38,000 for each student, more than any other school district in Rhode Island. The cost is as high as a private school complains part time island resident Jean Tabor.

"The cost of the education on this island is outrageous," says Tabor.

Tabor, who retired to Block Island with her husband several years ago, looks out her living room window at the bluffs and the sea beyond. She says its time find a way to bring the school budget under control.

"People out here want to have the sublimeness of the island but they also want all of the things you would have on the mainland," says Tabor. "For example, one of the parents got to talking about AP Calculus. Well, if you want to have AP calculus you have to find another way of doing it."

The small size of the school is the main reason for its high cost, according to Block Island Superintendant Robert Hicks.

"Our school system is expensive," says Hicks. "And that's simply because it's less efficient to operate a comprehensive school system for a very small number of children."

Hicks says he has suggested changes like doing away with his own position, but the school board decided against it. And then, Hicks says, there's this thing called the Block Island factor. That refers to the fact that everything from food to repair services costs 20 to 25 percent more on the island.

"A beautiful example, Block Island's not on the electric grid. So all electricity on Block Island is generated through diesel generators," says Hicks. "So we spend $1,000 a child on electricity."

Parent Marie Anderson says it may be expensive, but children on the island need a school. Without it, she and her husband would have to live separately so their two sons could go to school on the mainland while she runs a retail store on the Island.

"I can't imagine the day when there was no school, where would all of those families go that live here year round," Anderson asks.

Back at the school building, students practice the Block Island Alma Mater, which they sing every year at graduation. With all of their school spirit, their numbers are dwindling. Within the next decade, enrollment is expected to drop as low as 90 students. That will only make class sizes get smaller, driving the per student cost of the school even higher.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you.