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R.I. One Room School to Close

One of New England's one-room schoolhouses is slated to close this June. A Rhode Island school district says it doesn't have the money to fund the Prudence Island School that now serves just two students.

Local residents are appealing the decision this week with the Rhode Island Department of Education. WBUR's Nancy Cook has more.TEXT OF STORY

NANCY COOK: To get to Prudence Island, visitors must board a ferry for a 30-minute ride across Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay. They land at a rugged seven mile long, two mile wide strip of land that is part of Portsmouth. It's a trip schoolteacher Vicky Flaherty makes every day to
meet her students.

VICKY FLAHERTY: "This is our classroom, where all of our work is done, there's a lot of learning, we do our math, reading, social studies, would you like to tell Mrs. Cook about some of the science kits?"

NANCY COOK: The Prudence Island school day begins at 9 o'clock. The students stand next to a cluster of empty desks, and recite the pledge of allegiance. Third grader Matt Bearse is a tan, skinny kid who loves to read. His four siblings went here before him.

MATT BEARSE: "It's fun here, Sometimes its fun. I like it here."

NANCY COOK: "But is that strange not going to school with other kids?"
MATT BEARSE: "No actually I like it, I get some time alone."

NANCY COOK: Miss Flaherty gives a tour of the classroom.

VICKY FLAHERTY: "Right now, we're in the hallway also known as the computer lab. We have right now, five computers. Right now we have more computers than
kids."

NANCY COOK: If it weren't for those computers, the modest Prudence Island School would look like it belonged on "Little House on the Prairie." It's been open for roughly 100 years and is one of 400 remaining one-room schoolhouses nationwide. Just a few years back, the Prudence
Island School served 15 kids. Next year, no additional students are expected to join these two.

NANCY COOK: Prudence Island is home to 150 year round residents. Because of the school's history and because there's so little to do on the island, inhabitants like Donna Bains say the school's very important.

DONNA BAINS: "It's a big part of our community. It's always been a big part of the community. Most of the people whether they are islanders or seasonal people are interested in the school. They go to the events."

NANCY COOK: Proposals to close the Prudence Island School come up every year. But this winter, the Portsmouth School Committee voted to close it and the committee says it isn't going to change its mind. The Portsmouth superintendent wouldn't comment on the decision. School Committee Chairman Sylvia Wedge says it was a tough choice.

SYLVIA WEDGE: "We don't have the money. The budget has been cut deeply enough. We cannot afford to spend $150,000 educating two students."

NANCY COOK: Islanders dispute that figure and the actual amount of money the district spends on the school is difficult to confirm. Island residents say that they pay taxes and receive few services in return. They say they've also invested in the school by repairing the roof and volunteering to teach art or gym.

But the town of Portsmouth is in financial freefall, says the Town Administrator Bob Driscoll. He says the town's cutting many services from mental health to sports leagues to money for the library, not just services on Prudence.

BOB DRISCOLL: "A lot of hard choices are being made by a lot of municipal governments. A lot of things that municipal governments have traditionally done, we have to ask and say is it appropriate for us to continue to do this?"

NANCY COOK: Back on the island, Eliza Volkmann sits in her kitchen drinking coffee. Her son, Matt, is the third grader at the Prudence Island School. Volkmann says it's the district's job to educate all students. She says she doesn't want her young son to ride the ferry to the mainland in bad weather, or to have to endure the commute that would extend his school day to 10 hours. Volkmann says the island and its
one-room school are special places that should be preserved.

ELIZA VOLKMANN: "It seems like, in a way, it's about the disappearance of community...children going to larger schools where they don't have a sense of community. We're beginning to feel it in our society."

NANCY COOK: Prudence Island residents say they have every right to expect the state to educate their children on the island, but Sylvia Wedge, the school committee chair says the islanders should have known better.

SYLVIA WEDGE: "We didn't force them to go out there. They chose to go to Prudence Island. They chose to there. They can't make the other taxpayers of the town responsible for their life decisions."

NANCY COOK: The Rhode Island Department Education is holding ongoing hearings about the fate of the Prudence Island School. The department will decide if closing the school would mean depriving Prudence Island residents of
their right to a public education.

For WBUR I'm Nancy Cook.

This program aired on May 24, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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