THE desks and plastic chairs in the school have seen better days. Neither of the two computers is operating. And you have to borrow water from one of the students to wash your hands. But there are stacks of well-thumbed National Geographic magazines in the corner, a piano, a TV, and all of Muscongus Bay out the window. And best of all, there are two teachers to nine students.
This is a one-room schoolhouse, on an island 10 miles off the coast of Maine. Students aren't bused here -- after all, the island is only 1 mile by 2 miles. So they walk hilly dirt paths to the white 1847 schoolhouse.
With two teachers, Mary Beth Dolan and assistant Colleen Faulkingham, the students are ``practically tutored,'' says Ms. Dolan, a soft-spoken brunette known to her pupils as ``M.B.'' Like them, she is wearing jeans and boots the day a reporter and photographer come to visit.
``The difference between regular schools and this one is the idea that nine grades are in here,'' she says. ``When you have that many, it takes a lot more planning. It's more interesting, but takes more work.''
Dolan taught in Minnesota schools before she decided, four years ago, to move full time to Monhegan, where she had spent her summers for 11 years. She started working at the school as an assistant, and last year became teacher.
She cites a problem typical of the 840 or so one-room schools in the nation: lack of resources and lack of competition.
``The students are well coordinated because they've grown up climbing rocks and swimming. But we've had a difficult time giving them physical education; the eighth-graders can't play all that well with the second-graders,'' she says. The result: ``They have a hard time losing, because they don't have any competition here.''
Aware of the need to expand the students' horizons, the school takes big, if infrequent, field trips.
``Last year it was Washington, D.C. It took us two years to raise the money and to do the whole thing. We took eight kids around the city for five days. This year we're going to bring people here. The Maine State Commission on the Arts and Humanities touring artist program will bring an artist here.''
In spite of the isolation, the students do quite well on the Scholastic Research Associates test, says Dolan.
``They all get accepted to the private schools they want. One girl went to Phillips Andover Academy [in Massachusetts].''
All the high school students attend boarding school ``off island''; Monhegan picks up the tab for tuition. ``With all the summer residents, the island has a good tax base.''
Having all the students in one room makes for adjustments in traditional curricula, says Dolan. Learning languages, for example, is impossible. ``You can't drill out loud -- you'd disturb the whole class.'' So two months ago, the older students started learning Latin, which can be studied silently.
Typical of one-room schools, the older students read to the kindergarteners, and sometimes give the younger ones tests. Because all of the students in this cozy 12-by-30-foot schoolroom can hear what the others are doing, they learn not to get distracted. And when someone asks a question -- ``What color is an otter? -- they're apt to get several answers.
As teacher and principal, how does Dolan handle discipline problems? ``You handle them on the spot, or you send them home,'' she says. ``Since I'm the principal, too, there isn't anyone else to send them to.''
Dolan also has to supervise, and sometimes help with, chores that are done twice daily. But unlike other one-room schoolhouse teachers in rural areas, who have to cook lunch and clean the restrooms, Dolan gets off relatively light.
Aside from being teacher and principal, she orders books and supplies (``We've been waiting for our software for seven months''), and takes care of the $40,000 budget, which includes a special grant that the State of Maine gives to isolated areas. The town provides a janitor and assistant Colleen Faulkingham, who will take over as teacher when Dolan leaves next year.
The five students present (two are off-island and the two kindergarteners come only in the morning) are studying their habitat: the island's water system. It's not an abstract study; there's little water on the island and conservation is part of their lives. All winter, the town's water supply is turned off so the pipes won't freeze. Most of the 80 or so year-round residents get their water from wells or cisterns until it's turned back on in the spring.
Heather, Tigger, and Rod, seventh- and eighth-graders, are molding clay into a model of Monhegan. ``If White Head is 155 feet, and Signal Hill is 165 feet, how are you going to figure out your height?'' asks Dolan. They wave her away and discuss it among themselves. Then they stick a ruler in, computing 1 centimeter for each 10 feet. Later, they'll fire the model, and pump water with a water pic through water pipes made from latex tubing.
Nearby are Orca and Kole, fourth- and fifth-graders, who are huddled over a desk, preparing a model of a water treatment plant.
Third-grader Keri interprets a drawing she did with another student of a water filter. ``This top layer is peat moss, then there's a clay layer, then there's sand.''
``The one frustrating thing,'' says Dolan, ``is when you only have nine children, a project like the water systems is obsolete; all the kids have worked on it. We're never able to use our lesson plans again.''
But this kind of in-depth project, related to the surrounding environment and involving all the grades, is a common undertaking in one-room schoolhouses in the United States, says Ivan Muse, director of rural education at Brigham Young University. It's one of the pluses of a one-room schoolhouse, he says, as is the self-reliance that comes with rural living.
``Sometimes they're too independent,'' says Dolan ruefully, stopping her rounds to sit briefly on the stage to talk to a visitor. ``Because they're able to explore the island on their own, there's an independence before they even get to school. They know how to work the generator. They finish my sentences. Any one of those kids could take over the class if you let them.''