Great Things Come in Small Packages

With only 63 students, the Washington Island School District is the smallest K-12 district in the state of Wisconsin. Photo by Katie Sikora.

The Washington Island School District proves true two old adages. The first is it takes a strong community to build a strong school. The second is strength isn’t always measured in numbers.

The island is the smallest K-12 district in the state of Wisconsin, employing only 10 professional staff members and serving only 63 students. The lone school building is pretty small compared to most districts’ elementary, middle, or high schools, with lockers and classrooms located along just two hallways.

But when the bell sounds to tell students to change classes, those two hallways get just as noisy as any you’d find at a larger school.

“I do like to refer to us as ‘Great things come in small packages,’” said Tim Raymond, superintendent for the district. “This is a place where the teachers and the school and the community have such an emotional investment to a greater degree because of our size, but you know, really we’re no different than any other K-12 school district.”

In the larger scheme of things, what Raymond said is true. Students on the island have a lot of opportunities you might not expect a 60-student district to have, and some that students at larger districts don’t have.

The school has a music and band program, a theater program, sports programs, and forensics, among other extracurriculars. Just this year, the school began to offer a University of Wisconsin – Green Bay-accredited speech class and installed solar panels to use as a learning device in math and science classes.

Clearly, Washington Island School has a lot of things to offer its students. But the particulars of how those things come together make the school into something quite unique.

The band program, for example, is actually a community band program that high school kids can join. The music program isn’t an official music program; it’s run by volunteers from the Island Music Festival. The theatre program is also a community program, and the island’s sports teams have an unorthodox schedule because of travel logistics.

“We play a lot of tournaments,” said Raymond. “We’ll go and get a lot of games in at the same time, and the kids and coaches will stay overnight.”

“Some of that is really nurturing, too,” said history teacher Leila Nehlsen, “because there’s really a bonding element. There’s almost kind of a family feel that’s different than other schools.”

The intimacy between students and staff is the island’s real strength. When walking the hallways, Raymond can call out each student by name. When teaching classes, teachers can take the time to make sure every student is comprehending and performing at the level they should be because there just aren’t a lot of students.

“It’s really easy to focus when you see someone struggling,” says Larry Hermanson, the district’s new high school math and science teacher. “It’s easier to commit time to that kid and catch it sooner.”

Hermanson is a recent transplant to the island, and when he moved he brought two daughters with him, a second grader and a sixth grader. He had a number of offers on the table when he was offered the math and science teacher position this year, but he said seeing the school sold him on the island.

“I specifically chose it because I wanted a good school for my daughters,” said Hermanson. “They love their teachers, they love what they’re doing in class, and they’re making friends.”

“I didn’t have to sell the island [to him],” said Raymond. “It did come down to this is different. It’s going to be an experience, but I promise you it’s going to be an incredible experience. And you don’t make those kinds of promises unless you mean it.”

While Hermanson came from outside the district, a number of the school’s hires come from the island itself. An example is the district’s technology coordinator, Chris Haertig, who Raymond said is the best technology coordinator he’s ever worked with.

“We had a desperate need for a technology coordinator, and here he was on the island,” said Raymond. “This island has a wealth of resources.”

What the island does not have a wealth of is new students. This year, eight new students came into the district, but nine students transferred out, continuing a 10-year trend of declining enrollment.

“We have half the number of students here now compared to when I started,” said Nehlsen. “There’re many reasons, I think. One is there’s not jobs here. Another is people just aren’t having as many children.”

The island’s declining enrollment is the number one concern for Raymond.

“[It’s] why I work with the economic committee on the town board,” he said. “I need to be part of the economic development committee. We have a campaign coming up where the school is going to be part of the promotion of the island.”

The other area Raymond is focusing on is an expansion of the school’s technology usage, which he feels is essential to making sure the small district and its students can compete with others across the state.

“We’re going to push technology,” said Raymond. “For us to give our children a similar, comparable education to a child in Ashwaubanon we’ve got to have 21st century resources. That’s all there is to it.”

While the school has been streaming in interactive television, or video learning, courses from other districts for several years now, this year is the first time the district was able to offer to stream one out. This year was also the start of a one-to-one technology initiative, supplying every student with a computer while at the school.

In addition, the school is looking at new ways to utilize resources like Google Apps and Smart Boards. Raymond said he’s been having discussions with staff about whether it’s time to move away from things such as actual, physical dissections in biology classes and towards virtual dissections that don’t present students with a gross-out factor or ethical complications.

“If that increases their achievement and their learning and their growth, why wouldn’t we do it? What vestiges would we hold on to?” said Raymond.

However, the one vestige Raymond said he absolutely will hold on to, no matter how far technology advances, is physical teachers.

“Last year we consistently heard rumors we were going to become an online school, and that’d never been discussed. But we need to have those components to be able to provide a 21st century learning experience,” said Raymond. “The center of every community is its school, and our community certainly knows that.”