When Barry Russell attended White Head Elementary School in the 1950s, he had about 20 classmates to play with on the field.
“At recess you’d go outside and play when the weather was good,” he said. “We played ball alongside the school.”
But today, with an enrolment of just three, the tiny island school has more swings than students. The playground is quiet, a sign of the times on White Head Island.
The remote fishing community in the Bay of Fundy is only about six square kilometres in size, and one of the hardest places to reach in the province. Located off the southeastern tip of Grand Manan, it takes two ferry rides to reach the island from mainland New Brunswick.
A little more than 100 people call White Head home and its dwindling school is the smallest in the province. With enrolment dropping into the single digits, it faces an uncertain future.
Some residents can recall a time when nearly 500 people lived on the island.
Duane Banks is a third-generation White Head Islander. His grandparents relocated from Nova Scotia in the early 1900s to be close to prosperous fishing grounds.
The waters at the time were teeming with scallops, lobster, pollock, cod, herring and halibut.
“The fishing grounds were so rich here,” he said. “Back then the fish used to school right out of water — it was unbelievable.”
The shores of White Head were surrounded by fish plants, lobster pounds and seafood operations. Fishing is still the main way to earn a living, but the industry is mostly reduced to lobster.
Banks, now 50, said it was a special place to grow up, with plenty of work, many kids around and “no shortage” of things to do.
“It was nice. It was a close-knit community, almost like a big family.”
‘So cold we’d go home’
Russell, 73, is a retired lobster fisherman and also a third-generation islander. His grandmother moved from the Fredericton area for a teaching job, married and never left.
When Russell attended the elementary school, it was a wooden, two-storey building, kept warm — or as best as possible — with an oil space heater.
In those early years, there was no insulation and no indoor plumbing.
“We sat at our desk with our jackets on, our ski pants, our boots, our mittens,” he said. “And then when you get just so cold, we’d go home.”
After completing Grade 6, Russell and his classmates moved on to high school on Grand Manan. There was no car ferry in those years, so a lobster boat — captained by his grandfather — brought the kids across on their way to class.
“We went to school in all kinds of weather,” Russell said. “Woke up in the morning, listened, hoped it was blowing hard so you didn’t have to go.”
Each time a storm would start to roll in, the high school announced early dismissals for White Head students, giving them time to reach home before the sea became too rough.
Information Morning – Saint John7:46White Head Island
The ferry rides weren’t always comfortable. On windy days the boat would rock and water would fly over the deck.
Banks lived close enough to the wharf that he could watch it pull into the harbour and run over to catch it at the last minute.
“If you didn’t learn much at school you learned on the ferry,” he said. “That was a great spot for doing homework as well because it would give you a half an hour ride.”
All grades in one room
The current White Head Elementary School is a small building with blue metal siding, set back on a hill overlooking the ocean.
It’s similar to a modern version of the one-room schoolhouse, with two classroom areas divided by a library space in the middle.
The teacher and three students now at the school could not be interviewed.
Wesley Silliker is the principal of both the Grand Manan Community School and White Head Elementary. He said the small school offers a special experience that is hard to find these days.
“You grow up with your classmates, I think that’s something that you would miss out on in a bigger school,” Silliker said. “There’s a certain beauty to it that you wouldn’t get in other places.”
The school began to offer kindergarten in the early 1990s, further expanding the age range in the room.
When Banks was a student, he said, it was “kind of intimidating” at first to be in the same room as classmates from Grades 1 to 6.
“You got to experience a little bit of everything, not just people your own age — you were also right there with people six years older than you,” he said.
Banks’s two children also attended the school. His daughter moved away to Saint John, where she works as a nurse, and his 19-year-old son still lives on the island and fishes with him.
Unique teaching challenge
Melanie Colwell was Banks’s teacher. Starting out in 1973, she taught every grade and later worked as a supply teacher and education assistant.
“Eventually when numbers got small enough, all the grades were in one classroom and you just circled around the room as if you were teaching groups of children,” she said.
During Colwell’s time working at the school, enrolment reached as high as 21 students. But in her final year, there were just seven students and there was no one in Grade 1.
Colwell, 67, said the combined grades allowed students to excel and learn quickly. When younger students finished assignments, they would listen to lessons for the older grades.
When Stephanie Fitzsimmons was at the school between 2003 and 2010, she was one of two teachers in the building along with an education assistant for 8 to 10 students.
Fitzsimmons lived on Grand Manan and would take the ferry to work each day. When it stopped running because of a mechanical problem, residents found a ride home for her in a fishing boat.
“The community was really supportive,” she said. “If there was anything we ever needed they would kick in and fundraise for it.”
Having the same students for many years led to strong connections.
“You kind of got to be family with them.”
‘I don’t see any future’
White Head Island has lost services in recent years.
The J.F. Morse and Son General Store was the meeting place of the community and sold everything from gas and groceries, to fresh meat and hardware supplies. It closed a few years ago.
With the general store gone, the elementary school is the centre of the community, hosting Christmas concerts and annual picnics.
It’s not the most convenient life. Buying groceries, seeing a doctor, or getting gas all require a ferry ride to Grand Manan. But to islanders — it is home.
“It’s peaceful, it’s beautiful here,” Colwell said. “You can hike, you can swim, you can do a lot of different things, kayak boat, go whale watching — things that you don’t normally get to do on the mainland.”
Our way of life may disappear.– Resident Duane Banks
White Head still has a small post office, but there are concerns it could be turned into mailboxes. Some fear the school could be next — a devastating blow to the island’s future.
“I don’t see any future for it really because there’s no new kids coming, no new families coming,” Banks said. “It’s sad really, it’s a part of the culture here.”
Protected by geography
Faced with declining enrolment, the Anglophone South School District moved older grades to Grand Manan in recent years after receiving permission from parents.
Now the school only offers kindergarten to Grade 4. But the island’s geography might protect it in the short term.
Rob Fowler, the chair of the District Education Council, said it’s challenging to speculate what might happen if enrolment drops lower or there are no more kids coming up.
With municipal elections postponed, the council is in a transition phase, and there are no immediate plans that could impact the school.
“If they were just down the street from another school it’d be a no brainer,” Fowler said. “But you take that ferry ride into consideration and the age of the children — that’s not anything anybody wants to get into.”
Russell, a lifelong resident, agreed.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed, I think everybody on the island,” he said. “I would hate to see it close.”
At his kitchen table, Banks looks out at the ferry landing and shuttered general store. The way of life he once knew may never be the same.
“To me, it feels like it’s going to be like it was on Wood Island, eventually the government stepped in and moved everybody off,” he said.
“When you think about it, there’s only a hundred people here. It costs the government a lot of money to maintain roads and stuff like that. Our way of life may disappear.”