School & District Management Photo Essay

Transitioning From Island Life to an Inland High School

By Kristen McNicholas — April 10, 2017 3 min read

Dominique Hessert, a senior at the Rochester Institute of Technology, documented the story of Connor Maxcy, a student at a one-room schoolhouse on Isle au Haut in Maine, as part of her senior capstone project. Over the course of a year, she documented Maxcy’s experience as a student on a small island moving inland to attend high school. The video, images, and writing are all by Hessert. Watch the full video here: Finding Home from Dominique Hessert on Vimeo.

Connor Maxcy in Surry, Maine.

A century ago, 200 of the 3,000 islands spread along Maine’s coast were fishing communities. Today, only 14 of the islands are inhabited year round. Isle au Haut remains one of these communities with a current population of 30 year round residents. The difficulty of this remote lifestyle contributes to continuing declines in the island’s population. Unless one is a fisherman, surviving financially has proven to be difficult, while the reality of raising a family presents its own set of issues: The only source of education is a K-8 one-room school-house. When students approach 8th grade graduation, they have a decision to make:

  1. Move off the island to attend high school.
  2. Commute every day on the 40-minute mailboat to attend high school on the mainland.
  3. Attend boarding school.
Connor Maxcy works on a project during the school day last June at the Isle au Haut school.

Connor Maxcy is one of the two 8th grade students in the 2016 Isle au Haut school graduating class. In June 2016, Connor finished his last semester of schooling on Isle au Haut with the only other student attending the school. Unable to live with his father, who is a fisherman and frequently away, Connor made the decision to move in with a couple who have played surrogate grandparents to Connor since he was born, Linda Greenlaw and Steve Wessel. Linda’s knowledge from being the only female swordfishing boat captain on the East Coast of the United States blends well with Connor’s passion and deep connection with the outdoors. Linda and Steve’s large brown house sits across the street from Perry’s Bay in Surry, 10 minutes from George Stevens Academy, a private high school where Connor has chosen to attend high school.

Connor Maxcy works on a project during the school day last June at the Isle au Haut school.

One week before his 8th grade graduation, Connor’s goal for after high school was to be a fisherman. After a summer living with Linda and Steve and one day in a high school of 300 kids, Connor’s goal has shifted. “I’m looking forward to these four years of high school and then college,” said Connor, “I asked a few of my dad’s friends what they’d do differently if they could change anything, and they said they’d go to Maine Maritime Academy, get a degree. I’m gonna go ahead and try to do that.”

Connor and his teachers, Paula Greatorex and Lisa Turner, Skype with the other island schools during the last day of school in June, 2016. Skype gives the students an opportunity to socialize with other students outside their school.

It’s November 22, and a sheer layer of white barely covers the patches of light brown grass spread around the dock in Stonington, located on the southern portion of Deer Isle, Maine. Connor hops out of the car as his guardian, Linda Greenlaw, wishes him a happy Thanksgiving while handing him his duffel bag. Connor had arranged to spend his Thanksgiving break with his best friends, Michael and Andrew Barter and their family. Paula Greatorex, Connor’s middle school teacher, offers him a welcoming hug as Connor climbs onto the deck of the Mink, exchanging excited conversation with Captains Garrett and Tracey. As the Mink approaches the island, Connor’s gaze shifted to the houses perched on Isle au Haut’s rocky coast. He takes a deep breath than says to his childhood teacher, “Finally, I’m home.”

When Connor was on the island, he couldn’t see himself leaving. Some leave, and can’t imagine coming back. Isle au Haut offers meaning to its residents in different ways, but there is one constant. Connor, a 14-year-old boy who spent his childhood couch surfing and hunting his meals while his father left for weeks at a time, still found family on the island. Isle au Haut offered him a unique freedom that gave him a chance at survival while providing him with a sense of family that mainland lifestyle couldn’t provide. On Connor’s journey, he discovered the intoxicating magic bringing residents back to Isle au Haut: a sense of famil

Paula Greatorex, Kathie Fiveash and Connor Maxcy (left to right) look for birds during the school day last June. Kathie, an ecologist, tries to bring the students out birding a few times a year.

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A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.

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