Fire Island school prospers despite its remote location Elementary school spends about $30,000 a year on each student


CORNEILLE ESTATES, N.Y. - Only 40 miles east of the crowded classrooms of New York City, there is a school with just 54 children in seven grades.

That is one teacher for every eight pupils, if you remember your third-grade math, and one Macintosh computer for every two children.

It is an elementary school that spends nearly $30,000 a year on each student. One that convenes poetry-writing classes a few steps away at the beach, where young students are encouraged to seek inspiration by closing their eyes and listening to the crashing surf.

No surprise then that the Woodhull School is one of the most successful in the state. It is also one of the most remote, the only public school on Fire Island, a 32-mile sliver of sand and gnarled pine off the South Shore of Long Island that is better known for its activities after school lets out for the year.

By Labor Day weekend, most members of the seasonal population have left Fire Island to restart their real lives.

'This is wonderful'

But several dozen hearty residents remain - most of them electricians, plumbers, cooks and others who serve the affluent seasonal population and live here year-round, despite the isolation.

For them, sending their children to this public school is a perk that they enjoy at the expense of other families: those whose luxurious homes they tend and whose property taxes make the school possible. Those homeowners, who effectively pay the school's bills, send their own children to classrooms on the mainland that are far more crowded, be they public or private.

As a New York public school, Woodhull is so striking that it is something of an educational mecca.

After touring it this summer, three New York City public school teachers left in tears. "They said, 'This is wonderful. It's a shame that the kids I teach can't have this,' " recalled Ken Lanier, the school principal.

The 79-year-old little red-brick schoolhouse is a place where children cannot avoid intense personal attention and rigorous class participation.

100 percent passing marks

In the school's only fourth-grade class one recent morning, Karen McNulty pelted her 9- and 10-year-old pupils with questions about the Judy Blume novel "Super Fudge."

"Go through the book and find two nouns," McNulty instructed her charges.

"The name 'Peter,' " answered James Ragusa.

"Company," said Kiley Phelan.

"Good, now find two verbs," McNulty directed, and the words "waved" and "go" quickly came back.

Within a minute, all seven children in the class had answered a question.

Such intimate contact has translated into high achievement, as measured by the standardized reading tests that the state gives to third- and sixth-graders.

At the Fire Island school last year, 100 percent of the students in the third grade could understand passages written on their grade level (compared with 51 percent statewide), and 80 percent of sixth-graders were able to comprehend excerpts from books like "Moby Dick" that are written for a much older audience. (That compares with 40 percent of sixth-graders elsewhere.)

Paying a price

But academic excellence comes at a price. During the winter months on this rugged island, all the markets are closed. Staples like eggs or dog food are sold at two restaurants that remain open. For bulk shopping, most people head to the mainland, which is reachable by a bridge on each end of the island. But getting to those bridges is challenging.

That is because only a precious few automobile permits are given to residents. And because there are no real roads, those residents lucky enough to have a permit must pilot four-wheel-drive vehicles over miles of beach or down narrow sidewalks. (During the summer, when cars are banned, ferries are virtually the only way on or off the island.)

The students, too, pay a price for isolation.

Many students at the Fire Island school say they feel detached from life on the mainland. They also notice the lack of diversity in their midst (the school is almost exclusively white). And they feel the absence of boys and girls their own age.

For Brittany Metcalf, age 11, the school can be particularly lonely: On the brink of adolescence, she finds herself the only girl in the sixth grade.

"The good thing is you get a lot of attention from the teacher," Brittany said, after a social studies class in which she sat at the head of a short rectangular table, three boys seated on each side. "The bad thing is, you have no one to talk to who's the same as you."

It is for this reason that the school ends at the sixth grade. Older students are transported in yellow four-wheel-drive school buses across the dunes and over the Robert Moses Causeway to middle and high schools in the Long Island communities of Islip and Babylon.

'Can't wait to get out'

"I can't wait to get out of here," said Glen Roesch, a sixth-grader. "There's barely any people to know."

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