School with a view

Mackinac Island students enjoy life off the beaten path

Mackinac Island Snowmobiles
The Mackinac Island Public School, a school with a spectacular view of the Mackinac Bridge and mainland, serves nearly 80 students and operates year-round. Students ride in horse-drawn carriages or take their snowmobiles to school each day.

Imagine taking a horse-drawn carriage to school every morning, going to the dock to get groceries and school supplies from a boat each week, and carrying a cooler to keep your food from freezing. Where would you be?

The answer is Mackinac Island. This most renowned of Michigan summer tourist destinations is also a year-round city in itself, with a school, a bank, and plenty of snow.

The school, located near the waterfront, boasts a spectacular view of the Mackinac Bridge and the mainland and has an enrollment of between 70 and 80 students year-round. All but one of the school's 10 teachers are full-time residents of the island.

Though the fall and spring months are easygoing with stores and restaurants open for residents and the many visitors to the island, winter brings a whole new face of quiet beauty, empty streets, and logistical juggling.

In late October, all but a few hotels and restaurants close their doors and only one of the ferry lines operates. Several small grocery stores remain open, but all of the food must be shipped by boat or plane from the mainland.

As ice forms over the Straits of Mackinac, the ferry can no longer operate, and the only way to the island is by a small plane-a round trip ticket costs $34. Usually, an ice bridge forms between the island and the St. Ignace portion of the mainland. At this point, people often ride their snowmobiles across the "bridge" to reach the mainland.

Outings to the movie theater on the mainland, trips to grocery or other stores, or shopping or dinner out, are all subject to the weather and travel options available. Groceries often must be stored in coolers to keep them warm so they do not freeze on the plane or snowmobile trip to the island.

For the students and staff of Mackinac Island Public School, and the island's 500 year-round residents, these logistical details are simply a way of life-and one they consider a small price to pay for the majestic view and the benefits of living on the island.

The Mackinac Island School serves students in grades K-12 and also offers a preschool program. In addition to the teachers, the school employs a small support staff and a superintendent, Gary Urman, who also serves as principal, shop teacher, and athletic director.

Urman, who has been with the school nearly 18 years, says his is an enjoyable job. With such a small staff, he noted, no one minds having to "push the broom around," if necessary.

"Everybody here models hard work, cooperation, and kindness," he said.

Regarding the unique location of the school, and the logistics the staff and students face to get food and supplies and to simply live, Urman concluded, "We're not really isolated, but we're not on the beaten path either."

A typical but solid curriculum is offered to the school's students, including math, science, English, social studies, foreign language, art, music, and physical education. And through the Internet and distance learning programs, Mackinac Island students also are able to take a variety of classes with students from other schools, including advanced placement and dual enrollment courses for college credit. Currently, many of the high school students are enrolled in a Japanese language course with another school district. Class is held through two-way video conferencing, where students can ask and answer questions in real-time. The school also offers services for special education and learning disabled students.

One of the frequently asked questions the school receives is, "How do your students participate in extracurricular sports and activities?" As with everything, the students and staff do not allow the logistical details to limit their activities. The school has sports teams, including basketball and volleyball, and others as the interest permits. Some years, the teams are co-ed; in others, they are not. Mackinac students travel, often via plane, to other small school districts, or fly the other school's teams to the island for a weekend of competing. Due to the cost and time to travel, the teams often play numerous games over the course of two days. And, if they play on the island, the teams camp out in the school's new gym for the night.

Students also conduct fundraisers for class trips. In past years, for example, students have raised enough money to travel to France, Italy, and other countries.

Urman also points out that the school boasts a 100 percent graduation rate, and nearly all of the students go on to college.

When asked if the Mackinac Island school ever has a snow day, Urman says, "Not likely!"

Students and teachers at the school have published a booklet, "We Live on Mackinac Island," to answer frequently asked questions about the island and their school. To obtain a copy, send your request and $2.50 for shipping to the following address: Mackinac Island Booklet, c/o Michigan Education Report, 140 W. Main St., Midland, Mich., 48640. Quantities are limited.