Tiny Md. island hoping to find way to increase population

SMITH ISLAND, Md. (AP) -- Janet Evans could become a legend.
 
Not because she's known to steer a skiff across the channel to work at Ewell School, where she is a teaching principal. Navigating a work or pleasure boat around Tangier Sound is a way of life on Smith Island.
 
It is not unique, either, that Evans knows the name, age and grade of the children at Ewell School.
 
All 11 of them.
 
Ewell School is among the smallest public elementary schools in the state and the nation by enrollment. So small that in 2013, the schoolhouse in the village of Ewell on the offshore Smith Island ranked 919th out of 920 public elementary schools in Maryland -- and that was two years ago, when there were 13 students.
 
The dwindling enrollment mirrors Smith Island's existence that is so fragile that county and state agencies have teamed with residents to develop strategies and tactics for growth and sustainability.
 
"The population declined since 2000 from 360 to 276 in 2010," noted Gary Pusey, director at the Somerset County Department of Technical and Community Services. "What is the future? This is what the study is about."
 
Evans could conceivably become remembered as the last educator on the island.
 
"We've stayed at 10 and 12 for maybe the last five or six years, but we only stayed there because we had a family to move in the community and brought in some children" for school, Evans said.
 
"The majority of the kids are Smith Island children, and are probably the last children in their family," she said. "There's not going to be another sibling.
 
"After these 11, there are two kids," she said.
 
The "two kids" belong to Bobby and Kristen Smith, a surname with a long history on the island that makes up three villages: Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton.
 
The Smith family is the talk of the island.
 
"The oldest boy is 2, and now they have a new baby, Evans said. "They are the youngest kids around here."
 
The school is not the only institution hoping to fill seats.
 
"I remember when we had to have 125 bulletins; now we print 100," said the Rev. Rick Edmund, pastor at the United Methodist Church congregations in each village. "The Smiths have had a baby. I try to stay up on the island's views and represent that. I am the island ambassador of sorts."
 
Evans anticipates a steady loss of two school students annually over the next few years. By 2020, the student population will be at seven, based on current and anticipated enrollment. By then, the two Smith children should be in kindergarten and third grade.
 
Next year, the same 11 children are expected to return. "There are two students in fourth, two in fifth and two in sixth," Evans notes.
 
Currently she teaches all grades except third and seventh. "We don't have anybody in third grade this year," she said. "We don't have seventh-graders this year. Next year our two sixth-graders will be in seventh. This is the only school with a seventh grade except (the intermediate school in Westover)."
 
Evans has been a teacher at Ewell for 32 years, 10 of which as a teaching principal. There are two assistants, Leslie Marsh of Rhodes Point, a para professional, and Kristen Corbin, an instructional assistant.
 
On one recent spring afternoon, Evans sat in the school gymnasium where the entire student body gathered for relays. Her staid persona gave way to a broad grin as the children meandered an obstacle course around the gym.
 
"Come on, Bradley," she shouted to a struggling contestant.
 
Sounds from gleeful youngsters quietened to acknowledge "Miss Janet," who had stacked ice pops in a nearby freezer for them after the games.
 
She recalls years ago when Smith Island had a population to support three schools, one in each village.
 
"At one time, the population was in the 600 to 800 range; I heard my mother speak of it," Evans said. "I've had five generations of family here. I grew up in Tylerton and went to a one-room school. That's when I decided I wanted to become a teacher."
 
Between 2001 and 2004, enrollment fluctuated between 33 and 25 students, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. Then the number of students dropped significantly during the 2004-2005 academic year, to 18. By 2009, enrollment was down to 13 students, according to department data.
 
The elementary school on Rhodes Point closed years ago. Then the school on Tylerton closed, leaving Ewell School to serve all three villages.
 
By the 1970s, a school boat was transporting middle and high school students daily between the island and Crisfield. Until then, older students from the island would board for the week with families in Crisfield so they could attend school.
 
"My sisters spent the week on the mainland," Evans recalled about her older siblings. "I rode the school boat and went home every night."
 
She left the island for several years to earn a degree in education at Salisbury University, then returned.
 
"They were looking for a teacher and I think they were glad when they heard about me," she said. There were three teachers and an aide then.
 
"This is all I've ever known," Evans said.
 
When Hurricane Sandy brushed Smith Island in 2012, it opened conversations about the community's future.
 
"There was a thought that some grant money would be used to buy out some families, primarily elderly people," Pusey said.
 
But residents balked at the notion.
 
Opposition "was so strong, we focused more attention to what is the future," Pusey said.
 
A series of meetings with Pusey's office, state agencies and residents has been underway recently. The idea is to hear what residents want for their island, and to develop strategies to achieve their goals.
 
Said Pusey: "My opinion from what I'm hearing is a similar theme from all three villages." They include:
 
. Preserve the way of life and lifestyle of watermen;
 
. Keep local development and the economy viable;
 
. Maintain consistent and reliable transportation to the mainland; and,
 
. Maintain an upgraded infrastructure, including roads and a waste-water treatment plant.
 
Rate payers on the mainland share a small portion of the expense to maintain the wastewater treatment plants. Anthony Stockus heads Somerset County's Sanitary District and said there are plans to consolidate plants on Tylerton and Ewell, a move that would reduce expenses and make operations more efficient.
 
"I don't know if it is ever going to be cost-effective," Stockus said of the county's costs to provide sewer service. "Regardless of the number of people there, we have to prepare for the number of lots, properties."
 
Creating one wastewater plant in Ewell would reduce costs for "labor chemicals, electricity, and especially labor, with two operators," he said. "In winter, the bay freezes over and transportation is a problem if an operator has to get from one island to another, say, if someone is on vacation or is sick.
 
"Smith Island is a unique situation because it is the only" offshore community "of its kind in Maryland that I'm aware of," reachable only by boat or air, Stockus also said.
 
Evans wonders why a technology firm can't come. There are a few bed and breakfasts, a couple of restaurants, an Exxon station, a mom-and-pop grocery, a post office, a Smith Island cake bakery and the Methodist church.
 
"I hope we can figure something out," Evans said. "I don't know why they can't establish something with technology."
 
To date, there have been three public meetings on the island. Another is set for May 30, and a final meeting in mid-June should unveil a visioning document that incorporates ideas collected during earlier sessions.
 
Ideas range from establishing year-round industries that would attract working families with children, to seasonal attractions and maritime entrepreneurs to help lure more summertime tourists.
 
"We need to increase the population, but you need that enticement," Evans said.
 
Maxine Landon, a resident at Rhodes Point and a member of the Somerset County Sanitary District, wants the state to issue new waterman licenses.
 
"Right now, a young person can't get a license unless they get it from someone who has one," Landon said. "If the younger generations can't work the water, they're gonna leave the island."
   ------
Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/



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