It was a fortuitous circumstance that when, three years ago, Mike Felton accepted the post of Superintendent of the new St. George Municipal School Unit and moved his family to St. George, the family didn’t immediately have a place to live. Fortuitous because otherwise Martinsville summer residents Tom and Cathy Tinsley might not have been inspired to take leadership in creating the new St. George School Fund administered by the St. George Community Development Corporation (CDC).
“Rob Snyder from the Island Institute called us to ask if the Feltons could stay in our cottage for six weeks while they arranged for housing, so we got to know them,” Tom Tinsley explains. “They also became friends with our oldest daughter who had also gone to Bowdoin at about the same time as Mike. So we started following what was going on in the school because otherwise, as summer residents, we would have been less likely to get engaged in that.”
Still, both Tinsleys have a history of caring about quality education, which made them particularly receptive to learning about Felton’s ambitions for the newly independent school district.
“My father was a university professor and my mother served as an elected official on the school board in Houston,Texas, during the time of court-ordered desegregation and so public education has always been important to how we think about things,” Tom Tinsley explains.
In Cathy Tinsley’s case, education has been her volunteer focus for many years. “I’m pretty passionate about innovative education,” she says. “My personal passion has to do with international education, international experiences as you’re getting educated, but basic education is what you build on.”
What particularly interested both of the Tinsleys was Felton’s desire to make the kindergarten-through-8th-grade school experience in St. George “world class.”
“That’s important to the people living down here whether they live year round or are summer people,” Tom Tinsley says. And St. George, the couple felt confident, couldn’t be better suited for such an enterprise.
“The things that have impressed me about St. George are the number of very high-quality non-profit community organizations here that focus on this community,” Cathy Tinsley says. “And when Mike was staying here I took him aside and said, ‘If you don’t bring to bear what Herring Gut and Trekkers and the library and the people here who are so motivated to make this a better place, then you’re really missing an opportunity.’ But, of course, since Mike had this experience of teaching on an island, on Vinalhaven, he understood it’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of project.”
It was the formation of St. George’s CDC last year that prompted the Tinsleys to explore the possibility of benefitting the St. George School in some way—an early idea was setting up something on the model of Donors Choose—because it seemed the new entity might provide an ideal vehicle through which to work.
“So I went to Mike and said, ‘If we raise some extra-budgetary money that you could ask for for the school, would that be helpful?’” Tom recounts. “And Mike told me the story of Wick Skinner who had come to him and said, ‘I’m going to give you $15,000 and I want you to choose a project where you think there’s a 50 percent chance of failure. So I don’t want this to be gas money for the bus, I want this to be something that might change what you do at the school and you wouldn’t otherwise do it because you can’t afford the risk.’”
Skinner’s grant to the school, which came via Skinner’s Mainstream Fund at the Maine Community Foundation, launched the school’s “Makerspace Initiative.”
“Wick originally approached the school in the spring of 2016 to discuss innovative education ideas,” Felton says. “He was interested in ideas that would stretch our collective imagination as to what was possible in public education. We had started our Makerspace with a 3D printer that was donated by the Perloff Family Foundation in late April of 2016. With less than two months of school left in that year and no prior knowledge of 3D printing, we were able to successfully complete projects with students in the second grade (hand-drawn lobsters) and seventh grade (designed and tested the strength of different types of bridges). This experience got a lot of people excited about the potential to do more Makerspace activities and incorporate them into existing classroom plans. The funding from Wick’s Mainstream Fund, along with matching funds raised within our community, has allowed the St. George School Makerspace to grow and adapt to opportunities and challenges.”
Acquisition of a laser cutter, for example, opened up new areas of creative exploration by both students and staff. In addition, the purchase of Sphero SPRK+ robotic balls has made it possible to introduce students to algorithmic thinking and problem-solving. Other purchases have helped support individual students who benefit from more concentrated time in the Makerspace.
Excited by the opportunities for innovation the Makerspace Initiative illustrated, the Tinsleys began working with Rob and Margot Kelley, founders of the new CDC, on a school fund that would be overseen by the CDC.
“It took about a year for the CDC to work with Mike and the school board on the parameters of how this would occur,” Tom Tinsley explains. “So now there’s a three-person board that includes Rob and Don Carpenter and one other person. The objective is to have about $50,000 in the fund each year. We chose $50,000 because that is 1 percent of Mike’s budget, which is $5 million. So it’s not a lot of money relative to what he normally spends, but it is the $50,000 that you don’t have. And then Mike will identify projects and then go to this little board and the board says yes or no.”
The Tinsleys sent out a letter inviting contributions to the new St. George School Fund at the end of July. By mid-September donations had amounted to $28,000, more than half of the $50,000 goal.
“The school is educating about 200 kids from the community and then they are transporting 90 kids to high schools, so that’s what the budget covers,” Tom Tinsley notes. “So key is identifying things that are within the K-through-8 curriculum where they need a little extra push. To fund three or four things a year—the ‘Gee, I wish we could do that!’ sort of projects that they otherwise couldn’t fund—should be fun to watch.”
Cathy Tinsley agrees, returning to her point about public education being an all-hands-on-deck proposition. “These things that bring the CDC, the school, people from away and the local people all together has just seemed like a natural thing to support. The impetus is coming from the local crowd, but the opportunities to plug into some very sophisticated stuff seems like a fresh possibility.” —JW
(Anyone wishing to make a contribution to the St. George School Fund should send a check payable to the St. George Development Corporation and memo it for the St. George School Fund. The CDC address is PO Box 160, Tenants Harbor, ME 04860. Felton will provide the community with updates during the year on how the funds are being used on behalf of the school.)
PHOTOS: Top, St. George School; below, Julie Wortman