School helps keep community afloat


At one point the young waterman, pleading with the Somerset County School Board not to close the state's last one-room public school, stopped and bent nearly double at the podium.

"My nerves . . . I am not used to this," he apologized to the table of officials and his fellow villagers who packed the Tylerton Elementary School on Smith Island last Tuesday evening.

The young man, Everett Landon, needn't have worried. He was eloquent.

He told how he had recently married Carol Ann Corbin, a girl from Tylerton, and moved down from Rhodes Point. The two villages are where about half of the island's 400 or so people live, with the rest in the "capital city" of Ewell.

It was a more momentous move than outsiders might realize -- for a couple of reasons.

First, though Landon's home on Rhodes Point is in clear view and about a half-mile across the channel from Corbin's in Tylerton, the little towns are, in ways, islands within an island.

A Tylerton joke tells of a local cat that must have swum over from Rhodes Point. How can you tell? Easy -- it goes "meow-uh" -- a reference to subtly different and allegedly coarser speech patterns of the latter town. It never fails to get appreciative laughs, at least in Tylerton.

Secondly, Everett Landon's move and marriage were welcomed as a ray of hope in Tylerton, where the population has declined since 1980 from 153 to nearly half that.

Only two babies have been born in Tylerton in nearly a decade -- which brings us to the heart of this week's hearing -- in the entire school, pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, only three children would remain when the next school year begins.

If the principal and teacher's aide, both island women, were allowed to also teach seventh and eighth grade, that would keep a grand total of six kids at the Tylerton school for two more years (normally, they board the island's school boat for the 20-mile daily round trip to Crisfield, beginning in seventh grade).

But even six kids translates to per-pupil spending of nearly $10,000, board members said -- about double the average for mainland schools in the rest of the county.

There were no villains or angry words spoken at the hearing. Everyone knew the schools are strapped for money.

Every extra dollar for Tylerton is a cut for somewhere else. Board members have already endured wrenching decisions to close or downsize small schools elsewhere in this, one of Maryland's poorer counties.

But islands are not like anywhere else. It is both their charm and, if the board should vote against Tylerton at its regular meeting next Tuesday, their fatal flaw.

There is at once a freedom, an independence to living in the middle of Chesapeake Bay; and also a severe lack of options.

If oysters fail, a waterman or his wife cannot drive to part-time work in Salisbury as they can in other seafood communities like Hoopers, Tilghman and Deal islands.

And if school on an island closes -- well, Everett Landon said it very well:

"It's not just parents that raise kids. It's a community . . . church, school, neighbors.

"You take away the school, and you take away the future. Me and my wife are thinking, we'd like to have kids. But without a school, we'll probably end up moving away."

And more than most places, that would be the undoing of this island community.

The school custodian, for example, is also central to the town's effort to build a state-approved crab picking facility, without which most families wouldn't survive economically another year.

Her husband has heart problems, and she depends on the health insurance from the custodian's job. If the school closes, she will probably leave for the mainland, and the crab picking co-op almost certainly will fail.

Similarly, it would be quite difficult for one of the teachers to keep looking after her elderly mother in Tylerton if she had to work elsewhere.

And the families of the younger children in Tylerton made it clear they do not find it acceptable to "bus" their little ones across a mile or two of water to the school in Ewell. Before long, they'll be gone.

In sum, with a school, Tylerton's future is questionable. Without it, it's finished, nothing questionable about it.

Without the Tylerton school, I never could have moved my family there from 1987 to 1990 to run environmental education trips for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

I'm not sure another school in Maryland, public or private, could have accommodated my family's educational needs so well as that cheery, one-room building in Tylerton.

On the one hand we had Abigail, a natural student who as a seventh grader now, attending school in Salisbury, scored well enough on the SAT's to qualify for most colleges.

With such a range of grades in a single room, and two teachers for (at the time) 13 students, it was an easy matter in Tylerton to shuttle Abby back and forth to whatever level kept her challenged. She also got to "help teach" the rest of her grade -- two island boys who were far more interested in crabbing than academics.

Then there was Tyler, diagnosed at age 2 as severely learning disabled, and enrolled almost exclusively in special schools until he began fourth grade in Tylerton.

Tyler would certainly be a different kind of student for the school; but individual differences there were accepted and even expected.

A particularly difficult student, the teacher would say, might seem peculiar, but not so peculiar if you knew his family for several generations back, as they mostly did there.

And in fact, our own peculiar little boy flourished. The rest of his class -- two island kids -- were assigned to help him keep organized; and if he got frustrated with homework, he would just go chat with the teachers at night.

Tyler now attends a large public high school in Salisbury where he is consistently on the honor roll and has every prospect of attending college.

Everett Landon told the school board that his wife "still keeps her teachers from the Tylerton School in her prayers." If Tyler doesn't, he ought to.

A few things ought to happen now. The county should keep the JTC school open two more years, until the "big" class of three kids finishes eighth grade.

Meanwhile, the town must attract more children. Efforts are under way to look into the prospects for bringing in orphans or foster kids.

Finally, the state, which built the 22-year-old school, should try to utilize its unique location for special summer and weekend courses, to ease the county's financial burden.

It's far more than a school decision about to be made here. It's nothing less than the future of one of the state's unique and most irreplaceable cultures.

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