On Shelter Island, A School Enters The 21st Century
By MARY CUMMINGS MAY 17, 1998
Attention, parents: How would you like to send your children to a small school where every senior has his own laptop computer, where instead of buzzers or bells Bach, Beethoven or Bernstein signals the end of class periods and where an up-to-date fitness center will soon be in place?
And here’s the clincher: the school is tuition-free. All you have to do is relocate to Shelter Island — that idyllic off-Island island midway between the North and South Forks — and put your children in the public school.
That’s what Bruce and Margaret Wilson did, though at the time, the school was hardly the lure. According to Ms. Wilson, when she and her husband decided to move from Connecticut and turn their Shelter Island summer house into a permanent, year-round home, they had no intention of sending their four children to the island’s tiny, 250-student public school. All were already in private schools and, as parents, ”we were very involved in private schools,” Ms. Wilson says.
That was a year ago. Now, on a brilliant spring day, Ms. Wilson is sitting in the sun-drenched office of Lydia Axelrod, the school principal and superintendent of the Shelter Island Union Free School District, talking excitedly about her involvement in public education. Her children are first, fourth, sixth and ninth graders there, and as vice president of the Shelter Island Educational Foundation, she is a force in the school’s pioneering effort to raise private funds for a growing list of impressive projects.
What impressed her about the school, she says, was the low student-teacher ratio (most classes have about 19 students), the quality of the teachers and Dr. Axelrod’s experience and ”visionary” educational approach. She says she was particularly intrigued by a mentoring program called Project Excel, which was introduced by Dr. Axelrod to bring students, teachers and members of the community together in activities aimed at promoting scholastic achievement, community service and a heightened awareness of civic and spiritual values. These endeavors have ranged from working on a nature preserve to assisting in voter registration.
Project Excel, as Ms. Wilson explains it, not only fosters better school-community relations and helps students achieve, it has also served as the ”birth vehicle for the Shelter Island Educational Foundation.” Through the foundation, private donors have been recruited to pay for things many public school budgets cannot, or will not, provide, like theater trips, fine arts instruction and drama. This summer, for instance, the school will offer four scholarships to a sailing program that will teach about the local waterways and marine life.
As incentives for Project Excel students to reach goals like making the honor roll or befriending an elderly person, a selection of rewards is offered at the end of each quarter. To pay for the rewards, which often involve off-island trips for cultural enrichment, the foundation raised $4,000 in private donations for the 1996-97 school year, a sum matched by a Boces grant and supplemented by another $4,000 collected at foundation fund-raisers, as well as a $1,000 donation from the Lions Club. This school year, the foundation has raised nearly $10,000.
People are very concerned about school taxes,” Dr. Axelrod says. She came to Shelter Island five years ago, after a career that included almost a decade in a Pennsylvania school. There, the harsh truth about taxes prompted her first experiment with an educational foundation.
The foundation she started proved ”a wonderful concept,” she says, adding that ”people who are really interested in supporting schools can get a tax break and make the school’s dreams come true.”
That dynamic is dramatically demonstrated in the computer room at the Shelter Island School, where, thanks to an anonymous donor’s pledge of $100,000 to the foundation, seniors have recently been given laptop computers, which they are free to take home and to class.
And that distribution is merely phase one of Project Computer, Dr. Axelrod says, adding, ”It will be done over a four-year period, and at the end of the four years, every child in high school will have a laptop, and we will really enter the 21st century.”
Dr. Axelrod stresses that the island community presents some unusual challenges. True, its 12,000 summer residents are well off, she notes, but the 2,000 year-rounders served by the school are mostly service trade workers who are far from wealthy. Thus, as the authors of the Project Excel grant application put it, ”Shelter Island appears to be a wealthy community, but most taxpayers have no personal investment in the community.” Educational and student programs get little support, the statement continued, and the district receives little state or Federal aid ”due to what appears to be a high socio-economic status.”
To get Dr. Axelrod’s innovative programs up and running, there were just two alternatives, Ms. Wilson notes: to raise taxes or ”to get the community excited, giving money, getting involved in the education of their community.”
Having opted for the latter, Dr. Axelrod managed nevertheless to keep her balance, Ms. Wilson says. ”She was cautious,” she stresses, ”careful not to get involved in funding things that the school is legitimately going to fund.”
The school’s students have also responded remarkably, according to Ms. Wilson. Three years ago, at a meeting of parents, students, teachers and community members, their ‘‘most overwhelming problem” was declared to be ”the negativity” they displayed and that the local residents directed toward them. Once stigmatized as having discipline and attitude problems, the students have been energized by the realization that ”they have a community that thinks they are worth it,” Ms. Axelrod said.
Certainly the can-do atmosphere created by so much support and encouragement had a galvanizing effect on Maura Regan and Lila Piccozzi, the seniors who spearheaded Project F.I.T. (for Fitness Center, Improved Baseball Fields and Tennis Courts). According to Ms. Regan, she and Ms. Piccozzi had an idea last year, when they were juniors, that it would be nice to leave a reminder of their regard for the school after graduation.
”We were trying to think of something that we could improve at the school,” Ms. Regan recalls, adding that their first thought was to buy some new equipment for the school’s neglected weight room.
That idea ”grew,” Ms. Regan says — an understatement. From plans to raise perhaps $4,000 to improve the weight room, the project expanded to include a fully equipped fitness center for both school and community use, as well as improved baseball fields and four tennis courts — all of which raised the fund-raising goal to roughly $250,000.
”It has become a vast school-community project,” Dr. Axelrod says, adding that over the last eight months, the six-figure sum has been raised, and work has already begun on the addition that is to house the new fitness center. To be used by students during the school day and by community members outside of school hours, it is expected to be completed by the summer.
If Dr. Axelrod takes particular pride in the project, it is because it grew out of a student initiative and reflects her well-known emphasis on leadership qualities; it also helps realize her ”open door policy” for the school.
Dr. Axelrod explains that early in her more-than-30-year career as an educator, she realized that school administrators were often ”very territorial.” They tend to hide within walled fiefdoms, she says, ”afraid of the press, afraid of the public.” For her part, she says she has always tried to integrate school and community. ”We have nothing to hide and tons to show,” Dr. Axelrod says, ”and we need the outside community to help us.”