AGNES, NALA, AND ELSE ARRIVE TO SCHOOL BEFORE THE SUN RISES DURING THE DARKER DECEMBER DAYS ON THE ISLAND OF STRYNØ IN THE SOUTH OF DENMARK.
In the middle of winter the sky is still dark as they make their way towards the center of the island. School starts around 8:00am and after riding down the empty roads, the students lay their bikes along the short wooden boundary for the basketball and soccer court next to an open field. The door creaks open and they file into the back of the two-story school building. Finn Jørgensen is there to greet them as they hang their coats on their designated hooks and tuck their boots away. Grabbing their ipads the students curl up next to each other into two different groups in the small room to decompress before getting started with their lessons for the day.
Strynø School is one of Denmark's protected village schools and in many ways is the foundation of the island. Currently there are only eleven students in attendance. They all happen to be girls.
The girls are all taught in one classroom despite being in kindergarten through the fourth grade. The girls are part of a group of children on the island that make up roughly a quarter of the population.
FINN JORGENSEN IS THE SOLE TEACHER AT THE ISLAND SCHOOL COVERING FIVE GRADE LEVELS.
Rural towns across Denmark face declining populations as more people decide to move to the urban centers in search of work. Islands face even more challenges as school and business closures threaten the sustainability of island life. Since 1906 the island of Strynø, in Denmark’s southern archipelago, has seen the population shift from 787 inhabitants at its peak to just around 200 residents today after the agricultural and maritime industries that used to sustain the residents moved elsewhere. Despite the decline over the past century, Strynø, unlike many of the other Danish islands, has been able to preserve its school, which acts as a main focal point for the community. Because the school is often threatened with closure over the municipality’s budget cuts, current residents want to ensure that the school stays open so that the island itself remains.
Finn Jørgensen is currently the only teacher, balancing the lessons for each grade working his way around the small room they occupy that is roughly the size of half of a tennis court, helping with questions and acting as both teacher and counselor. For the past few months he has take over the role of sole educator, as the other teacher that works with the older girls has been ill. Jørgensen has been an educator for over forty years and typically teaches kindergarten, but due to the illness he has been in charge of five different lesson plans each day. He tries to integrate as many lessons as possible to accommodate each girl. Despite the challenge he feels compelled to remain here.
SMILLA, FRIDA, AND SOFIA PLAY OUTSIDE OF THE NEARBY PRESCHOOL WHERE THE GIRLS OFTEN GO AFTER CLASS TO RUN AROUND AND HELP TAKE CARE OF THE YOUNGER CHILDREN.
“This school is the smallest in the Langeland commune and each year they want to close this school because it's too small and too expensive, but it's really important for the island. Most of the families that come here with children come because of the school. The other small islands have no schools and the families with the children are leaving. We are fighting for this school every year,” says Jørgensen.
Strynø residents along with LAG Småøerne, a small island local action group that works with communities throughout Denmark, work together to create more awareness of the importance of keeping the youth in their communities for the first years of their education.
“If young people don’t want to move to the island it gets too old and becomes like an old folks home. That’s why we need to keep the young people coming in so that we have kids in the school,” says Kjeld Tonder Hansen, a committee member of Strynboerne in the Settlement Group that hosts potential islanders.
EACH MORNING THE GIRLS START THEIR DAY PLAYING ON THEIR IPADS BEFORE STARTING THEIR LESSONS.
The community plays an active role in each of the girl’s lives. It is typical for them to begin to wander the island at an early age without worry because there is always someone to look out for them. It is not uncommon for one of the children around five years old to bike from one end of the island to the other on their own. They are free to roam, which is evident as the girls feel confident to act independently both in the classroom and outside of it.
The school days vary and because of the different learning levels in the small class most lessons are tiered to accommodate each girl. The desks line up along the edges and face the walls with Jørgensen’s desk and a couch taking up the middle of the room along with huge bins of paper and glue. Each morning begins in a semi circle tucked in the front of the room between the wall and couch. The girls cycle through their main takeaways from the day before, Nala, a kindergartener, talks about their Christmas pageant with the other schools from around Langeland. For more specialized learning in subjects like music or theater, the girls participate on the main island taking the ferry to practice with other children from rural schools one night a week.
When together the girls act more like sisters than classmates, braiding one another’s hair when on break and hugging when one of them is crying. They get so close to each other when they are sitting in a group that they nearly sit on one another. All of them confidently speak in class, even the shy ones. Smilla proudly displays her current creation, a large blue star to put on top of the tree. The girls can recite where each person lives knowing the exact location of all of the homes on the island drawing a map of each street as they speak. Sofia points in the air, tracing the lines from where she lives to the school, a quick five-minute bike ride away.
EACH STUDENT IS ASSIGNED A DUTY THAT THEY HAVE OWNERSHIP OVER FOR THE WEEK. NALA FINISHES SWEEPING THE COMMON ROOM AS A PART OF HER DAILY CHORE, THIS ROOM ACTS AS THE SCHOOL'S MUSIC SPACE, CAFETERIA, AND RECREATION SPOT. IT ALSO DOUBLES AS THE ISLAND'S COMMUNITY CENTER.
Parents want to keep the girls in school on Strynø because of the close proximity to home and the tight knit bond that they have formed in such a small classroom. Jørgensen believes that moving the primary school to Rudkøbing, the biggest city close to island and where children go to school once they pass fourth grade, would detract from the current autonomy that most of the girls exercise riding on their own to school. Like many other residents of the island, he also worries that the thirty-minute ferry commute would be too long for many of the children prompting families to move from the island. In small towns every part of the community is deeply connected. If the school shutters so too will the only store and preschool leaving families with no other choice other than to leave.
As for now the eleven girls of Strynø School remain together in their classroom. Their days start and end with the quiet breeze of the island. They hit the road and their lives are perfectly contained within the boundaries of the sea.
TOTAL AREA: 4.88 square km
FERRY TRAVEL: 30 minutes