April 09, 2020

Math and science school seeks statewide presence from small-town location

LIMESTONE – When it comes to focusing on your studies, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics is in a rural location that can’t be beat.

But when it comes to selling the statewide magnet school to the rest of Maine, operating in a small Aroostook County town has its disadvantages.

Walt Warner, MSSM executive director, said recently that school officials are working to change the perception of being “too far away from the rest of Maine” as they try to establish a bigger statewide presence while remaining in the small town.

MSSM officials are developing working relationships with other science and math entities in the state such as the University of Maine, using word of mouth and marketing efforts to promote the school and strengthening their relationship to the Limestone Community School and the town of Limestone.

The idea for MSSM came about as part of a townwide visioning process in the early 1990s when Limestone residents realized that the impending closure of Loring Air Force Base in 1994 would drastically cut the size of their school system. They knew they couldn’t afford to maintain their state-of-the art high school on their own, even if the elementary school moved in, so they opted to turn part of the facility into a magnet school for high school students gifted in science and mathematics.

MSSM now employs about 40 people and has an annual payroll close to $900,000 per year. In 2005, enrollment was at 107 students. This year, it’s 130. Officials expect to reach 150 students by 2008.

While enrollment hasn’t grown as quickly as anticipated, Warner said that officials have no intention of going anywhere. He believes the school has established itself as a premier institution for advanced students.

When The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor received a $15 million genetics research grant and needed to complete an educational component as part of that grant, officials called MSSM. Warner said the selection was natural – the school had developed a relationship with the laboratory through summer internships, and students had shown they were of the highest caliber.

Two MSSM seniors are taking a computational biology research course that involves traveling to Bar Harbor to do lab work. Warner said that the last time the students were at Jackson Laboratory, they were the only non-doctorates in the room.

With more than a decade’s worth of students who have tackled the rigorous education, MSSM officials believe word about the magnet school is making it around the state slowly but surely. Officials also are implementing a marketing and public relations initiative which they are hoping will help to establish brand recognition of the school in Maine.

Officials also are working with the town and local school to help ensure MSSM’s future. The school entered into an agreement with the Limestone Development Foundation and the town office this summer to help with strategic planning and fundraising that encourages Limestone’s economic development.

Warner said partnership officials are raising money and have written grants so they can hire a consultant to run a visioning retreat for the town. They expect the retreat to take place in January.

“One goal of the retreat is to focus on ways we can promote economic development in the downtown,” Warner said, “and to put in place a plan to work with the local Chamber for downtown beautification, so it will be more attractive to business folks.”

The partnership also has secured a commitment from Northern Maine Development Commission to help in writing a Maine State Planning Office grant for about $20,000 to follow up on the goals set at the retreat and to update the town’s 10-year comprehensive plan which will expire in August 2007.

“I hope that the exciting possibilities being explored create a situation where LCS can remain a vibrant and successful school, that the town can continue the progress it’s made since the base closed, and that the three of us can continue to strengthen the partnership we’ve had for the last 12 years,” Warner said.

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