LIMESTONE, Maine — This town 2 miles from the Canadian border is home to five churches, a post office, an ATM but no bank, Mike’s family market, a hairdresser, and a nonprofit coffee shop that runs on donations. There is no stoplight.
It is also home to the second-best public high school in the entire country, according to new rankings from U.S. News & World Report.
Even the administrators at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics are a bit baffled as to how the tiny magnet school beat out 17,000 other high schools across the nation.
“I really didn’t believe it,” Alan Whittemore, the dean of enrollment, said about seeing the rankings posted online. Initially, he thought perhaps one of the computer geniuses at the high school had hacked into the U.S News rating system.
M.S.S.M., as the students call it, is not a typical public school. It’s a boarding school, but tuition is free for all students from Maine; room and board, though, is $9,300 a year. A rigorous application process requires prospective students to submit SAT or ACT scores, recommendations, and essays. The school has about a 75 percent acceptance rate, according to Whittemore. There are no set grade levels: Freshmen learn alongside juniors and seniors, taking whatever class fits their interests and skills.
The students are very bright and the isolated setting, in a part of the world where winter stretches on endlessly, nurtures an offbeat and intensely close community, as if a girl who could recite 70 digits of pi and a boy who spoke exclusively in iambic pentameter got together and designed a school for kids just like them.
“They’re intensely clever, all the time. They’re very curious, all the time,” said Mark Rhodes, the wiry and energetic head of the math department, who is greeted in every classroom he enters with shouts of “Dr. Rhodes!”
Like about half the faculty, Rhodes lives on campus in housing provided by the school.
Rhodes used to teach at Colby College, but got bored. Now he teaches upper-level math classes at the high school and is not bored at all. The students keep him entertained intellectually, both in terms of academics — one freshman recently took multivariable calculus — and through a series of elaborate, cryptic pranks in his classroom.
For example, Rhodes arrived one day to find a map of California (blue, ordinary) sitting on the floor. He picked up the map, contemplated it briefly, and discarded it on his desk. The next day there were two identical maps of California sitting on the floor.
“Uh oh,” he said. And so it continued, one more map each day. He gestured around the room: Six cardboard boxes filled with maps of California under his desk. Neat bundles of maps of California were stacked on nearly every surface. He now has thousands of maps of California. The students are able to keep a running total using the sum of the first n natural numbers.
“What’s this place like in the winter?” he joked. “They find things to do.”
Classes are rigorous, almost like college, and infused with a kind of humming nerd excitement and sense of purpose. A free period is spent testing a handmade robot’s journey through an underwater obstacle course. When the stars come out, students set up their telescopes for astronomy class. About half the school’s 130 kids are on the competitive math team.
During a two-hour biology lab, students crunched through the woods behind the school, avoiding pockets of snow, and gathered around a tree. George Johnson, an affable 18-year-old who was nominated to be prom king this year and is a self-described libertarian, volunteered to walk deeper into the prickly brush to help with the identifying. Spruce or fir?
“Yeah, there’s resin blisters,” Johnson said from behind the trunk.
“It’s a fir!” shouted Haileigh Luce, a junior.
“If you grab it and it doesn’t poke you, it’s a fir,” Debbie Eustis-Grandy confirmed.
The students learned about everything they saw: They discussed grouse droppings (“pelletized cellulose,” Eustis-Grandy explained), how an alder tree prevents self-fertilizing, and why dogtooth violets bloom so early. One student pointed out a rainbow; Eustis-Grandy explained it was actually a halo caused by the refraction of sunlight on ice in the atmosphere.
In a classroom outfitted with a couch and a poster detailing Kurt Vonnegut’s theory of the shape of stories, Sawyer Lachance, 18, Skyped with his literature teacher, who is on the verge of retiring and is currently teaching from Cape Cod.
“We’ve been talking off and on about what the role of the novel is,” Lachance said.
M.S.S.M. was founded in 1995, a year after the Limestone area was decimated by the closure of the Loring Air Force Base and the resulting loss of more than a thousand jobs. Families moved; the former elementary and high school buildings emptied out. Then-governor John McKernan proposed a math-science magnet school, and the state Legislature approved. Classes take place in the town’s old high school, and the dorms are in the converted elementary school.
Students from all over the state attend, as well as international students — 13 currently, hailing from South Korea, Russia, Ukraine, China, and Italy. Otherwise, the school is mostly white, with Asian students making up 9 percent of the student body and black and Hispanic students together making up just 2 percent. Maine pays the tuition of state residents, but international students pay full fare — $34,300, plus room and board and a nonresident fee for staying with host families during breaks.
Racheal Jeon, 19, is from South Korea; she heard about the school through an agency in Seoul.
“I didn’t know where Maine was. I didn’t know where Limestone was,” she said, while eating from a pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream and examining her calculus homework. “It shocked everybody in my family that it was farther north than Toronto.”
Whittemore calls the school a “working person’s boarding school,” noting that 40 percent of families are on financial aid to cover room and board. Still, it’s tricky to compare M.S.S.M. to traditional public schools, which have no fees, and, typically, no criteria for admission.
“If you’re trying to rank them, it’s probably not a particularly useful or fair rank, in the sense that they’re so different,” said Casey Cobb, a professor of education policy at University of Connecticut who has written extensively about magnet schools and school choice. Even in admissions processes where anyone can apply, like at M.S.S.M., the ones who do are typically more privileged, Cobb noted; they know how to find out about such programs and negotiate the application process.
“That system, even though it seems really fair, it’s advantaging those already in advantage,” Cobb said. “It ends up, I think, being a little bit like a semi-private school.”
M.S.S.M. feels like a brainy beehive, a refuge from the world, and also, it seems, from the troubles that have beset some other New England boarding schools in recent years: sexual misconduct by faculty; sexualized hazing by students. Some students at M.S.S.M. sighed when asked whether their campus, too, has been rocked by controversy. Yes, they said.
“Our eyewash stations were broken for 2½ years,” said Anna Foo, 18.
“Students were like, ‘We need to have labs because we need to take science classes,’ ” Johnson said. “Some of the administrators had taken their sweet time to try to solve this issue.” The eyewash stations are now fixed.
On weekends, students travel by bus to Presque Isle to visit the mall or the movie theater or to run errands at Walmart.
Back on campus, they can sign into opposite-gender wings during specific times (a girl has to shout “Girl on wing!” in the boys’ wing and vice versa) — but cannot be in an opposite-gender dorm room. Still, there’s a lot of dating.
“The common occurrence on weekends is that every single couch is taken up by a couple,” Foo said.
The kids find other ways to entertain themselves, too. There is vigorous “boffer,” a sport where people fight with foam and PVC pipe weapons wrapped in duct tape. Twice-a-week boffer meets provide students with a fitness credit. The main rules are that you have to fight with honor — and, to win the finals, answer an Anglo-Saxon riddle.
There’s also the Lettuce Club, which buys dozens of heads of lettuce from Walmart and, on the appointed day each year, distributes them to the contestants. They then race to eat the entire head of lettuce as quickly as possible. The winner becomes “Head Lettuce” and earns a champion belt.
“I tried it and I couldn’t do it,” said Dolcie Tanguay, 17, shaking her head. Participation in Lettuce Club is high.
“Do you think it’s more or less than math team?” Johnson wondered aloud.
Another tradition is the “LAN party,” when students get unlimited Internet access (it turns off at 11 on weeknights) and can stay up all night playing video or card games.
The school was first ranked nationally in 2007, last year it didn’t make the cut at all, and in 2017 it ranked No. 19. The dining hall made a sheet cake to celebrate that year.
The kids weren’t too invested in the No. 2 ranking this year, but they remain hopeful that there will be cake before finals begin, when they will need to really hunker down and get to work.