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Fire Island school to admit nonresidents

In a spacious classroom at the Woodhull School, the entire first- and second- grade classes huddled early Friday, gazing at a tiny tadpole in a big glass jar.

Altogether, there were six students, representing almost a third of the enrollment at Woodhull, the only school in the Fire Island Union Free School District.

The student body has steadily declined -- 10 years ago, there were 61 students at the kindergarten-through-sixth grade school in Ocean Beach. This year, the head count is 19.

Fears that enrollment will keep dropping have forced Superintendent Loretta Ferraro and the school board to act. This winter, they passed a resolution to admit nonresidents to the island school, following an example set by several small East End districts with falling numbers, such as Sagaponack, Quogue, Bridgehampton and Fishers Island.

"It's absolutely because of declining enrollment," Ferraro said. "The Coast Guard station is part of our school district, and I would say . . . a third of our students used to come from the base, and there are no longer families stationed there with young children."

Fire Island's meager year-round population of fewer than 300 is aging, she said, and the high cost of living has deterred Fire Island natives from returning to raise children.

But closing the school isn't being considered. Woodhull is a beloved community cornerstone, Ferraro said, and a 2009 study found that consolidating with Bay Shore or Islip schools would mean up to a sixfold hike in property taxes for Fire Island homeowners.

"They have the same double-edged sword that we have," said Joseph Louchheim, president of the Sagaponack Common School District's board of education. "They are in a district that is mostly second homes, vacation homes, so they get the luxury of the property tax revenue without the burden of students. They have a high tax base but low school enrollment."

Five years ago, after a year with four kids in the first-to-fourth-grade school, Sagaponack began admitting nonresidents to its one-room schoolhouse and charging outsiders $4,150 for tuition. This year, there were 18 students, six from out of the district, and no shortage of applications.

"We give preference to those who want to matriculate into whatever grade we're lightest," Louchheim said, but the district never wants more nonresidents than residents.

The scenario on Fishers Island is similar, except the school is K-12 and only recruits mainland students from Connecticut in grades 5 and up. In the 15 years they've admitted mainlanders to combat slumping enrollment and diversify the school, it's become competitive.

"We typically shoot for 10 in a class and try not to go above that," said Gil Amaral, director of guidance at Fishers Island School. The district has 65 students this year, with about half coming from Connecticut and paying up to $3,400 in tuition -- plus ferry costs from New London of about $1,500 more, Amaral said.

At the Woodhull School, mainlanders will pay about $3,000 in tuition, Ferraro said. The district also threw in some perks, such as free busing from Bay Shore and laptops for students. There are advantages for all sides: Nonresidents get exposure to a diverse learning environment, small class sizes and a low student-to-teacher ratio, while island residents get to grow their social group, Ferraro said.

"People are very interested in keeping our school district healthy and viable, many of us because we believe this school is the center of the community," she said.

But it's not for everyone. Diane Urso, a Brightwaters mom of two elementary school students who used to be president of the Fifth Avenue Elementary PSA and now serves on a parent council for Bay Shore Superintendent Peter Dion, said she's heard great things about Woodhull's academics. But she said it could be a tough transition for students who are bused to Fire Island to then attend Bay Shore and Islip schools for grades 7-12.

"To go from K-6 with five or six kids, and then all of a sudden get thrusted into the public school system in a class with 25, navigating huge buildings -- I think that change is huge for a lot of kids," she said.

So far, the Woodhull School has one taker -- a first-grader who is expected to start in September. But a few more curious students and families are visiting this month, Ferraro said.

"At this point, I think this is our most viable option, but it's my belief that it's going to be a slow start," she said. "As soon as people hear a child has come over here and been successful, then I think it will catch on."

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