Chilmark School considers itself a community

Multi-age classrooms and project based learning are trademarks, and parents approve.


The bright, sparkling airs of an Antonio Vivaldi violin concerto danced in the entrance to the Chilmark School on an early morning in March. Students, staff, and parents gather there daily for the all-school meeting they call “morning circle.” This morning Vivaldi, the 18th century Venetian violinist and composer, joined them.

Susan Stevens, Chilmark School principal since 2009, invited The Times to visit to discuss some of her school’s hallmarks — its project based learning style and multi-age classrooms — as well as the allegiance that has formed among its staff, students, and parents. And she wanted to highlight the commitment the town and its parents have for the town school.

“It’s really more of a community,” Ms. Stevens said.

That sense of community has to do with its small size, she said. Chilmark is a K-5 school with about 45 students. There is also a pre-K class of about 20 in the building.

Hillary Keene, a resident of Chilmark, has four children, all of whom have gone to or still attend the Chilmark School.

Ms. Keene, who spoke with The Times in a recent phone conversation, said that while the school is unusual with its project-based learning and multi-age classrooms, it’s the teachers themselves, and the community that chooses to send its children to the school, that lead her to conclude, “Something special is going on there.”

The school strengthens students socially and emotionally, Ms. Keene said, and because of its small size, and because its classes are multi-age and project based, individual students find their individual learning styles accommodated.

“It’s a great life lesson, started very early,” she said.

Emmett Taylor, 7, a second grade student at the Chilmark School who lives in Aquinnah, spoke with The Times about some of his favorite things about the school. “I like that everyone in the school gets along perfectly,” Emmett said. “We have our own school garden, and I like that after school we have a lot of camps.”

In the school garden, Emmett explained, the students grow pea shoots, strawberries, and potatoes. Dance camp and film camp are the two afterschool choices that came to mind.

Sarah Waldman, a resident of Vineyard Haven, spoke with The Times last Monday. She has two children at the Chilmark School, one in preschool and one in kindergarten.

“I really love the community at that school,” Ms. Waldman said.

Countering misconceptions

Though the small number of students contributes to that strong sense of community, it’s a characteristic that also figures in an ongoing debate with neighboring West Tisbury. There is long-term dissatisfaction among some West Tisbury taxpayers over the costs their town bears to finance operations of the Chilmark School. A West Tisbury special committee created by town selectmen has been searching for what they describe as a more “equitable” sharing of school costs among the three up-Island towns. With Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury form the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD).

At a meeting in January, the committee recommended to the West Tisbury selectmen that Chilmark pay for its own elementary school’s operating costs. They said it made no financial sense to have the UIRSD operate two school buildings for grades K-5, when West Tisbury could accommodate the district’s total enrollment.

In response, staff and parents at the Chilmark School are trying to boost enrollment, Ms. Stevens said. The school could house a total of 60 K-5 students.

Chilmark School gives tours on Wednesday mornings and hosts events such as STEAM night — short for science, technology, engineering, art/design, and mathematics — when adults come to school to participate in STEAM activities, and to understand how students learn when they do STEAM or project based activities, Ms. Stevens said. All of the STEAM activities require cooperation, collaboration, and problem solving.

Ms. Stevens eagerly countered misconceptions about the tiny school, misconceptions that themselves have raised challenges to enrollment. She offered an example: “That our kids come out really strong. I think sometimes the word on the street is that we do a lot more playing than teaching — not that we teach through play. That’s the confusion.”

Multi-age and project based

Project based learning — learning as “doing rather than listening,” Ms. Stevens describes it — and multi-age classrooms are the school’s bedrock practices. They make the Chilmark School unusual among Island schools, Chilmark parents and faculty believe, and they are the important reasons why students and parents interviewed by The Times, some of them residents of other Island towns but at the school through the school choice program, want their kids at the Chilmark School.

“So we don’t do a lot of paper-and-pencil tasks,” Ms. Stevens said. “They do a lot more activities.”

Emmett talked with The Times about a whaling project his second grade class is doing. Noli Taylor, his mother, explained that his teacher worked at Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway in Vineyard Haven as a sailmaker for many years, and that she chose to engage her students in a year-long focus on whaling. Students recently visited the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

“We made a whale port out of blocks,” Emmett said. Each student was given a job at the whale port. Emmett was the rope maker.

Last Monday, Ms. Waldman described how she sees project based learning in action.

In the fall, kindergarten and first grade students worked together on a project about monarch butterflies, and it was a part of their entire school day. They learned about the science of butterflies, math lessons focused on pattern blocks and colors, and they made crafts and books about butterflies in art class.

The project culminated in a monarch festival, hosted by the students, that raised nearly $900 to donate to a monarch sanctuary, El Rosario Sanctuary in Michoacán, Mexico, whose goal is to protect critical habitat for the butterflies.

“It was a big, full-circle project that really touched every part of their classroom,” Ms. Waldman said.

Another attraction to parents and teachers are the multi-age classrooms. Kindergartners and first graders share a classroom, as do second and third graders, and fourth and fifth graders. Recess and lunch are school-wide.

During recess, one may find a girl in kindergarten playing soccer with a boy in fifth grade, Ms. Waldman said. This allows children to foster friendships that aren’t necessarily based on age or gender.

Ms. Keene said she is especially pleased with the teachers’ abilities to recognize and support the different styles of learning of each of her four children. “I was impressed at how the teachers have been able to really understand where each child was in each period as they progressed through the school,” Ms. Keene said, “and really looked out for them.”

Ms. Stevens, in her interview with The Times, said her goal is to create “independent thinkers,” a cultivated ability that helps children be comfortably themselves. It may mean different styles of learning, or it may be as simple as wearing an unmatching outfit.

“We start encouraging independence, and the parents start encouraging independence,” Ms. Stevens said.

Adelaide Keene and Olivia Knight, both Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School seniors, graduated from the Chilmark School, attending from kindergarten through fifth grade. In a conversation with The Times, they discussed the positive ways multi-age classrooms shaped them.

“I remember how incredible it was to be a kindergartner and play with fifth graders,” Adelaide said. “I think that it made us more able to befriend people of all different ages and backgrounds, because there weren’t any limitations as to who we could be friends with.”

Olivia added that they got to know younger students also, who sometimes were four or five years younger. “It’s cool to watch everyone you knew getting older,” Olivia said.

They said that their graduating class, roughly seven, was tightly knit. They also said that there was a strong connection between the students and teachers, as well as a great deal of mutual respect. Adelaide said this has made her comfortable around adults.

The Chilmark School offers a college scholarship to former Chilmark School students who write an essay about how the school affected their lives. When Olivia dropped off her essay, she said she hadn’t seen her teachers in years, but they knew her and remembered what had interested her.

“I’m so thankful that we went there,” Adelaide said.