Little School in the Big Woods

by Lisa W. Foderaro | October 2018

Attending or teaching at a school where most of the grades can squeeze into an SUV has its ups and downs. Still, Long Lake Central has managed to survive and even bring its surrounding community closer together

t was time for bean science in Kristin Delehanty’s second-grade class in Long Lake. The students peered down at their sprouted lima beans using magnifiers and microscopes to identify the embryo, the seed coat and the cotyledon—the first leaf to appear from a germinating seed. “That’s the seed coat,” observed Briggs Hample, an eight-year-old aspiring inventor with freckles and close-cropped red hair, pointing to the white, papery covering.

As the students carefully recorded what they observed, Delehanty had plenty of time to check in with each child. That is because she has only six students. Remarkably, those students not only make up her class, but the entire second grade, and that grade happens to be one of the largest at Long Lake Central School, where the first grade this school year consisted of just two students.

“I’ve taught in larger schools, but this is really a dream,” said Delehanty, who counts her son, Morgan, among her pupils this year. “You’re connected to each and every student. You know them so well.”

In the past few decades, the small-schools movement has taken hold across the United States, with educators arguing that more intimate settings result in better outcomes for students. But in the Adirondacks, at least for nearly a dozen schools like Long Lake, small schools are simply a fact of life. Rural outposts that swell with weekenders and tourists in the summer months usually have small year-round populations.

At Long Lake Central School, one of the smallest districts in the Adirondack Park, there are only 70 students spread across pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The town itself is enormous by New York standards—with 450 square miles, the same size as Westchester County. But whereas Westchester has nearly a million residents, Long Lake has fewer than 700.

While so few students could be seen as a liability, educators in Long Lake view that census as both a gift and a challenge. The tiny student population, by default, yields strikingly small class sizes and personal instruction. But it also requires that school officials get creative in offering as many courses, as well as clubs and sports, as possible.

At Long Lake Central School, that task falls to its new superintendent, Noelle Short, who had taught English in the seventh through 12th grades for several years at the school when the former superintendent became ill with cancer. She was already taking courses toward a building-leadership certification when the district tapped her to fill in as acting superintendent. After the superintendent, Donald Carlisle, died last year, Short officially assumed the roles of both school principal and superintendent, which, like at other small schools in the Adirondacks, are combined to achieve cost savings and efficiency.

“I took the extreme fast track to becoming a superintendent,” acknowledged Short, who is 35 and lives in nearby Tupper Lake. “Dr. Carlisle was a wonderful mentor and I wouldn’t have been able to figure out how to navigate or even have the confidence to pursue it; he really gave me that push to go for it.” 

Having attended public school in Tupper Lake, Short is a devotee of intimate schools like Long Lake’s, believing that they possess far more advantages than they lack. She is a product of tiny districts. Her mother went to school in Tupper Lake, while her father graduated from Long Lake Central School and for years taught in Tupper Lake. While in semi-retirement, he also taught math at Long Lake and served as its principal.

“It’s a really close-knit community, much like communities in the Adirondacks are, where people take care of each other and they get to be their real selves and they get to wear a lot of hats,” Short said in her office, where Long Lake glistened through pines outside the large window. “The kids are authentic and down-to-earth. I know all of their names, and for most of them, even their middle names. You know what works for them and what doesn’t work for them, what excites them—what makes them laugh. You can tell if they are having an off day and maybe how you can help get them to rebound.”

Among the many benefits of small districts like Long Lake is the school garden, which not only provides a living classroom but produces a variety of vegetables for the school cafeteria—the epitome of sustainability and the locavore movement. But offering the full academic complement of courses that New York State requires—not to mention what teenagers expect—can be difficult. At Long Lake, that involves 20 teachers who are comfortable with a range of ages and subjects and who are not above performing lunchroom duty. In the elementary and middle-school grades, some teachers must oversee combined grades: the third- and fourth-grade classroom, for example, has a total of eight students. And teachers of core subjects like social studies, English and math are expected to instruct the seventh through 12th grades.

In the case of science, one teacher, Nicole Curtin, oversees all chemistry, physics, biology and earth science instruction. She somehow manages to squeeze in electives like environmental science and forensics, while also coaching the Science Olympiad team and advising the students who competed in this year’s Envirothon, a statewide competition focusing on wildlife, aquatic ecology and forestry, among other things. In May, Long Lake’s team took first place for Hamilton County.

Curtin, herself a graduate of Long Lake, is able to teach the main science disciplines by alternating them. So one year, she will teach physics and biology, and the next year earth science and chemistry. But as the head and sole member of the entire science department, she lacks the professional camaraderie found in larger schools.

“Being your own department is definitely a challenge,” said Curtin, who majored in chemistry at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Potsdam. “If you are a teacher in a big school, you might teach only biology and you might teach the same lesson four times in a day. I never teach the same lesson twice in a day. And because I teach a two-year rotating curriculum, I don’t even teach the same thing two years in a row.”

Like other teachers, she is also enlisted for things that in more crowded schools would fall to aides. For example, on Fridays, she keeps watch over the elementary students in the lunchroom, after which she teaches Regents physics. “You go from, ‘Can I help you unwrap your ice cream?’ to ‘What is the equation to solve for force?’” she said. “It’s fun, but it’s also a mental swing that you have to get used to.”

Still, Long Lake manages to offer some courses that go beyond the three Rs, with classes in college-level digital photography, welding and driver’s education. And administrators and teachers swap ideas and share services with fellow educators across the Adirondacks through a consortium of small districts called True North.

Every October, the teachers congregate for a professional development day hosted by one of the member districts, which include Long Lake, Indian Lake, Newcomb, Minerva, Johnsburg, Schroon Lake, Warrensburg and North Warren. District leaders meet several times a year. “It really came out of thinking about how can we share resources, how can we problem-solve together,” Short explained. “Any challenge that might arise, whether it’s students or curriculum or how to face something head on—they are the people I reach out to.”

For about a decade, Long Lake and Indian Lake Central School, which are about 20 miles apart, have had a merged athletic program, enabling the districts to field teams like soccer, basketball, baseball and softball. The two districts also share a school psychologist. And for the prom, which would not be much fun for the nine graduating seniors at Long Lake, the district partners with Indian Lake, Minerva and Newcomb.

David Snide, who serves as both principal and superintendent at Indian Lake, said the collaboration has proved invaluable. His district is slightly larger than that of Long Lake, with 115 students in pre-K through 12th grade. But the student population has dropped significantly—from 240 students—since 1989, when he started teaching business there.

“The job market has gone down,” said Snide, 52, who graduated from Long Lake Central School. “Young folks aren’t staying around a whole lot.”

His school offers a rich lineup of courses thanks, in part, to distance learning. In a high-tech classroom, outfitted with two large screens and overhead microphones, Indian Lake students take courses in subjects ranging from veterinary medicine to microeconomics, taught by teachers elsewhere in the Adirondacks. Indian Lake’s own teachers return the favor, teaching courses like college-level French.

Taking advantage of technology has helped districts like Indian Lake remain relevant, along with their surrounding communities. “The school isn’t just a place that educates kids,” Snide said. “It’s the center of our community. It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, it’s getting small—you need to consolidate or merge,’ but there’s a huge impact that would happen with that. What family would move into town if their children would need to be transported to another school district? Then the trickle down is that your emergency services are affected. We are all trying to survive up here.”

In Long Lake, the district enjoys the support of the community, with voters regularly approving its school budgets. (Last year’s operating budget was approximately $4 million.) Between the property taxes paid by the state on large tracts of public land and the many vacation homes, the district is able to make ends meet. School officials want to retain that support and go out of their way to involve the community. Residents dig in the garden and use the fitness center before and after school. “There isn’t a gym in town so it allows them to use our exercise equipment,” Short said.

The relationship is reciprocal. The Long Lake Fish & Game Club is credited with a popular new student activity at Long Lake this year: the clay-target club. Several members of the group approached the district about starting the club. Despite her natural misgivings about mixing students and firearms, Short gave it a green light.

“We felt it was a neat opportunity for kids to have a connection to the community, and most of the students have their hunting licenses anyway,” she explained. “It was a chance to refine those skills, but also to focus on safety. And they get to work with some of the hardiest people in our community.”

For students, attending a school where most grades can squeeze into an SUV has its ups and downs. Most say they thrive on the attention they receive from teachers and deep connections with other students. Karmen Howe, a junior at the school since pre-K, had two other students in Algebra II this past year. “It’s really one-on-one,” she said. “Our teacher spent time with all three of us to make sure that we actually got it.”

She is sure that her school friends will be life-long, even if their interactions can sometimes feel stifling. “We all get really close and it’s great,” she said. “We’re friends with everybody and we don’t even have to be. We just all are. But there’s also the not-great part—knowing everybody’s business all the time.”

Leif Roalsvig, a senior who will attend SUNY Oswego in the fall, had experienced a larger school before arriving in Long Lake. He believes that, socially, navigating a diminutive student body is far easier. “With small numbers, you don’t get bullying or marginalization,” he said. “Everyone can lay their cards on the table.”

Still, he groused that the school did not offer the myriad clubs and sports common elsewhere. “We don’t even have a chess team,” he said, while acknowledging that he was nonetheless a member of “People for People,” a club that focuses on diversity and tolerance.

Lillian Dechene, a senior who is heading to Siena College, countered that, even if she wanted to, she could not fit one more activity into her schedule. A sixth-generation resident of Long Lake, she plays a sport in all three seasons. She is president of the student council, the National Honor Society and the Green Team, and she just joined the clay-target club. “With the amount of kids we have, you kind of have to be involved in everything,” she said. “You really can’t be bored.”

She said that one of the perks of attending Long Lake was the reaction she gets when meeting students from more capacious high schools. “It’s a conversation starter,” she said. “You’ll hear kids say, ‘Oh, I have such a small school; there are only 130 of us in my grade.’ And I’ll say, ‘We have nine.’ I definitely one-up them on that.”

Dechene said she was not nervous about Siena College, whose student body of 3,000 undergraduates is more than 40 times the size of the Long Lake district. “I’m a people person,” she said. “I’ve had my time here. I loved it. But I’m ready for the next step.”

For Short, the tug of life beyond the Adirondacks is certainly familiar. While she stayed in New York for college, graduating from Hamilton, she then spent a few years teaching in Massachusetts. She would like to think that Long Lake Central School, while providing a memorable education, also leaves an indelible impression of the Adirondack landscape and its people on students like Dechene, eager for the next adventure.

“I can relate to being an Adirondack kid,” she said. “I know what it’s like to grow up in an area where the weather can be harsh and you know everybody and where you have your sights set on other things. But I want them to have a sense of how wonderful this place is.”

When she accepted the teaching job in Long Lake, Short was not necessarily set on returning here for good. But she had just lost her position in Massachusetts because of budget cuts. “I knew I needed a job and it worked out,” she said. “I hadn’t wanted to come back to the Adirondacks—not yet. I love being near family, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to move out West or where I wanted to land.”

Since then, she has not looked back. And she hopes that Long Lake’s graduating seniors feel the same passion, wherever they end up. “I love the Adirondacks,” she said. “I love to ski. I love the water. The mountains aren’t as big as those out West, but they are big enough. So hopefully, [the students] will stay, and even if they don’t stay, they’ll come back.”

Lisa W. Foderaro is a staff writer for The New York Times. She wrote about Shingle Shanty research center in the June 2018 issue of this magazine.

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