It’s a Tuesday morning at Nantucket Elementary School. Buses are arriving. Students and teachers are streaming into the main lobby preparing for another day of classes.
These are the sights and sounds of a typical Massachusetts elementary school. Except, not quite.
With nearly 700 students in preschool through fifth grade, Nantucket Elementary School’s enrollment puts it among the largest public elementary schools in the state. During the past 10 years, elementary school enrollment here has increased by 30 percent.
“This elementary school is bigger than all 12 elementary schools I supervised in Albany, New York,” said elementary school principal Kim Kubisch, who came to the island three years ago. “Having 700 kids in one place is the biggest elementary school that I’ve been a part of.”
The increase in enrollment has forced Kubisch and the school to adapt. Outside the main building are two modular trailers that house the fifth grade classrooms. The school’s computer lab is now wheeled around the building on a cart.
And while the impact of the rising enrollment has been most noticeable at the elementary school, Superintendent Michael Cozort said the number of students has been increasing district-wide for the past five years.
Most people perceive our enrollment challenge as a challenge for the elementary school, but it’s really far larger than that,” Cozort said.
It’s a challenge that recently pushed Cozort and the School Committee to submit a notice to the Massachusetts School Building Authority that the district intends to build a new school facility and is seeking state funding to offset some of the cost.
Meanwhile, the rise in enrollment coincides with another, perhaps more significant shift in the island’s public schools. Nantucket’s demographics are changing. Twenty years ago the school district was nearly all white. Today the island’s public schools have significant percentages of Hispanic and African-American students from Central and South America, and the Caribbean, an influx that Cozort has seen accelerate in his three years as Nantucket superintendent.
“Twenty years ago, 97 percent of our student body was Caucasian. Today it’s 61 percent,” Cozort said. “And we have 21 percent Hispanic students and probably 15 percent African American of which the largest group is Jamaican. So our demographics have shifted.”
At the elementary school today, one in four students is Hispanic, and about 12 percent of all students are still learning to speak English. The school identifies these students as English Language Learners, or ELL, and they require special instruction in reading, writing and speaking. The current kindergarten class of 136 students is the largest grade in the entire district, and nearly a quarter of them were identified as ELL
In the fall, Kubisch says the school will add a fourth ELL instructor to accommodate the growing number of non-English speaking students
“I would say the biggest population we have here are Spanish speaking,” Kubisch said, “behind that would come Portuguese, but then we have Russian, we have Bulgarian, we have Nepalese, we have Thai…”
Cozort said the school system has responded to the growing number of non-English speaking students by adding a full-time interpreter to his staff. He projected that the district’s $400,000 ELL budget could soon approach $1 million as it adds more teachers and eventually a full-time, dedicated director.
But those challenges are tempered by what he sees as the opportunities of a school system that is quickly diversifying.
“I like to point to the boys soccer team, it’s like the United Nations,” Cozort said. “You’ve got an American goalkeeper, a Jamaican sweeper, a kid from El Salvador at left mid, a kid from Ireland as a striker, a kid from Mexico and Brazil, and it works, because they have a common language and a common goal. It’s pretty special. They don’t look at each other as from a country. That’s my teammate.”
School officials point to an improving economy, specifically the island’s recovering building and tourism industries, to explain the rising enrollment in Nantucket’s schools. But what’s driving immigrants to come and settle on a remote island where the cost of living is extremely high?
Nantucket resident and demographer Peter Morrison said Nantucket offers the promise of opportunity.
“Nantucket has many of the hallmarks of what we refer to in my field as an immigrant entry port,” Morrison said. “And by that I mean a place where people from all over the planet are drawn to move, to seek a future beyond the regions of birth.”
Morrison, who spent 40 years analyzing population trends for the Rand Corporation, said island’s recent immigrants were able to find good-paying and steady jobs on the island, and spread the word to family and friends who followed.
“And what happens is this conveyor belt of people who come and go seasonally with the tourist industry here, some small fraction of the individuals on that conveyor belt coming and going step off and decide to make Nantucket their home,” Morrison said.
Morrison said these new island residents quickly recognized that Nantucket’s schools offer educational opportunities their children couldn’t get elsewhere, so they strive to keep them enrolled. Despite the initial language barrier, many students have seized those opportunities.
Consider Nantucket High School senior Carlos Chavez. Chavez said his family fled El Salvador in the 1990s and settled in Boston before following his uncle, a janitor at Nantucket High School, to the island.
Chavez was just two years old when his family came to Nantucket. He learned to speak English by watching TV and through the ELL program at the elementary school.
“The program was not that big,” he said. “There was very little Hispanics at the school at that time, compared to now.”
Fast-forward to his senior year of high school, and Chavez was named homecoming king in the fall, played soccer, ran the finances for the school newspaper, and was just recognized as one of the top students in his class during a scholarship competition. In the fall, he will attend Lehigh University.
As he prepares to leave the district and the island, Chavez said the school’s goal should be to expand the ELL program, so those coming up behind him have the same opportunities.
“I think we should really put emphasis on this ELL program to really motivate these kids and give them opportunities that their parents didn’t have,” he said. “They can be first generation Americans, first generation college students and just set a new legacy.”
That legacy, whatever it may be, will indeed be a new one for Nantucket Public Schools, and one forged by students from all over the world.