The Unusual Commute of Students on Lake Erie

Feb 12, 2017

For children on one island in western Lake Erie, getting to school means getting on something other than a school bus.

For Max and Lucy Schneider, the commute to Put-in-Bay School on South Bass Island starts with a take-off.

“I wake up in the morning, and then to get to school I go on a plane, and then I take a taxi to get here,” says Lucy Schneider, an eighth-grader who enjoys cheerleading and art class. Her brother Max is a high school sophomore who’s involved with the basketball team and robotics club.

The Schneiders live on Middle Bass Island, about a mile from Put-in-Bay. The Middle Bass school closed in 1982, so since then, students have been flying to Put-in-Bay daily.

The plane ride takes just 4 minutes. The whole commute – driving to the airport, taking a plane, and hopping into a taxi – takes less than a half hour.

The Middle Bass School district pays for the students' flights – $93 per person.

Three other kids travel from Middle Bass, and some teachers fly over from the mainland. They all meet up in the taxi that takes them from the Put-in-Bay airport to school.

The smaller scale of everything
After that, it’s like any other day at a school on the mainland; things are just done on a much smaller scale.  “We’re the smallest public school in Ohio,” says superintendent, principal and senior-class advisor Steve Poe.

“We have 81 students pre-K through 12, and the average class is about a half-dozen to eight students," he adds. "That makes us unique with the individual attention our kids get.”

Poe is an involved superintendent. He has to manage all of the students coming to and leaving his island by plane and by boat in the spring and fall.

“Some mornings, my phone starts ringing at about 5:45,” he says.

And he knows more than just the students' names.

“I know something about every kid. I know their background, where they live on the island, their interests and strengths,” he says.  “But I should – that’s my job.”

A view of South Bass Island from one of many planes used to transport students to school.
Credit MARGARET THOMPSON / GREAT LAKES TODAY

Max is in a class of three, while Lucy’s class has eight. 

The competition
Other islands in the Great Lakes have schools, too. Put-in-Bay competes against Lake Michigan’s Mackinac and Beaver Islands in sports. Lake Superior’s Madeline Island offers schooling but sends students to the mainland once they reach sixth grade.

Some students drive snowmobiles to get to the Mackinac Island school. And students traveling from Madeline Island take a ferry, a wind-sled, or drive a car on an ice road – all depending on the weather and time of year.

At Put-in-Bay, Katie Schneider teaches English to the freshman class of five. Katie is Max and Lucy’s mother and has been teaching on the island for 20 years.

She says, “When people ask me about coming to work here, I always say to them, 'If I didn’t love it I wouldn’t do it.' I have to love it to work here because of what it takes me to get here every day.”

Not a lot of afterschool time
During the winter, she rents a place in Put-in-Bay to reduce her own transportation costs and to have a place for her children to stay if flights are delayed.

Even though her children are used to the trip, Max realizes he has to make the most of his days at school.

“Living on the island, I don’t get to hang out with a lot of the kids a whole lot because I’m usually back on Middle Bass, and you can’t hang out when there’s a mile of water between you,” he says.

Max says he’d like to go to college but possibly come back to Middle Bass.  Lucy says she’d like to live on the island, too.

As for the future of Put-in-Bay School, Poe says it will continue for a while – there are seven 3-year olds enrolled this year.

Great Lakes Today is a collaboration of WBFO Buffalo, ideastream Cleveland, and WXXI Rochester.