Ohio island school sees enrollment shrink

By Annie Zelm

Sandusky Register

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 30 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

"From a geological standpoint, the place is a wonder," he said. "We have the money, the resources to run the very best school in the world. We just need kids."

Even if the district no longer has enough students for a school, it plans to keep the building open to the community. That way island residents can still use the gym, library, and meeting rooms, school officials said.

But its staff would have to find jobs elsewhere.

Bonnie Shoff, who travels to Kelleys Island one day each week to teach art classes to students and adults, said the closure of the school would be a "devastating" loss.

"The school is the center of the community," she said. "They embrace these kids as their own and are very proud of what they do. They say it takes a village to raise a family, but that's how it really is over here."

Annie Coulon, 52, hopes her youngest son can carry on the family tradition by graduating from Kelleys Island in 2013.

Bobby, 17, is a junior who commutes to EHOVE on the mainland each day with his older sister, Crystal, a senior. His only classmate, Ben Krzynowek, is also his best friend.

Bobby and Crystal's three older siblings all graduated from the school, and two went on to pursue big-city careers in the restaurant industry.

As teenagers, they constantly complained that they were bored, and now they can't wait to come back home to visit. Coulon works seven days a week at the Village Pump in the summer while her husband Rob maintains properties on the island. Both take a break during the winter months.

"You get the best of both worlds here," said Coulon, who grew up in Pemberville and moved to Kelleys Island in 1986 and has had relatives there for decades.

Some of the family's best memories involve school-sponsored activities like field trips to Washington, D.C., Boston, Mass., or Texas — trips most other students would have to pay for out of their own pockets.

Without the school, they wonder what will be left of their tight-knit community.

"I have a lot of memories at that school," she said. "It's always been a part of the community. But what are you going to do if there aren't any kids?"

Thirty years ago, the one-room, first-through-eighth-grade school on Middle Bass Island faced a similar dilemma. John Schneider was one of four students in its last class.

As he and his brothers graduated eighth grade and moved on to high school at Put-in-Bay, the school faced the prospect of having only one student.

The school board opted to close the school in 1982 and send students to Put-in-Bay, which it has done ever since.

Four students now travel from Middle Bass to Put-in-Bay each day, by boat or by plane.

The Middle Bass Island school board remains intact, collecting about $240,000 in taxes each year.

That pays the out-of-district tuition to Put-in-Bay — $31,000 per student — plus the students' transportation costs, said Schneider, who is now the clerk for the Middle Bass school board.

Residents have often wondered why the board doesn't send students to a school on the mainland that offers open enrollment, instead of paying such high tuition costs.

Doing that would certainly be cheaper, Schneider said, but not necessarily practical.

When winter weather sets in, he worries about his 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter becoming stranded on the mainland without a place to stay.

Even North Bass Island, a largely undeveloped territory that had been used mostly as vineyards, had a one-room schoolhouse until recently.

In June 2006, it closed its doors after 150 years when its only teacher, Paula Fausey, retired to Arizona. The only two students moved to other school districts, and the 700-acre island now has fewer than 15 permanent residents.

But Kelleys Island Schools superintendent said as his district tries to move forward, it's not likely to look to other island schools of the past.

"We're really unique," Thiede said. "Whatever we do, we're kind of a trendsetter for ourselves."

Information from: Sandusky Register, http://www.sanduskyregister.com/cgi-bin/liveique.acgi$sch=frontpage?frontpage

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