AURORA — After 32 years of leading the Airline School, teaching principal Andy Bryan is letting go. So is his wife Beth Bryan, who came to “The Airline” in 1989 as a newly minted special education teacher. Andy tagged along as an ed tech but knew the school, as it knew him, from a stint as a long-term substitute the year before.
“I’m an ed tech success story,” Andy laughed.
The love they feel for the school shone from both as they recalled the more than three decades spent there. With a pre-K through eighth-grade student population that hovers around 45 students, it is the quintessential small rural school. But the rural Airline School of 1989 isn’t the same as the one in 2021.
“The kids have changed so much, in terms of their awareness of the world,” Beth said. “Not just from the internet, but from people coming through.”
The Bryans transformed the school into a family, and most students, who come from Aurora, Great Pond, Amherst and Osborn, want to come in and be part of it, Andy said. “We’re home. We’re doing things together.”
They also brought a wide range of experiences that the school did not offer before.
“I was part of the first group they had,” said 1993 graduate Regina Leighton. “As soon as they came into our lives, everything changed for the better.”
Before the Bryans’ arrival, the school barely offered a sports program or “specials,” like music and chess. Andy changed that, even if he had to recruit first-graders to fill the basketball team.
“All of a sudden, we had every sport that every other school had. And he coached every single one,” Leighton said.
To make sure students could get to games and to chess meets — the school team has a state championship in its pocket — Andy even got his bus driver license.
“From the first year I was here, there was always issues with buses,” he said. “When budgets became tight, [I said] I guess I’m driving.” Two years ago, when no driver could be found, Andy drove the morning bus route every morning before donning his principal’s hat.
Leighton lives in Hermon now, and still gets together for dinner with her former classmates. And when her older son was on the court with his school team, Andy showed up for games.
“They’re still supportive,” she said.
On the academic side, Andy taught his seventh- and eighth-graders a bit of Greek and Latin and didn’t hesitate to make time for one-on-one attention to students.
Kirk Doyle came to the Airline as a kindergartner.
“It was just a little country school with not much to offer besides that,” he said. He returned as a third-grader in the early 1990s and found “a spirit of support that’s unlike anything I’ve seen before and since.” An only child of a single working mother, Doyle said of Andy: “He was the closest thing I had to a dad in some ways.”
The special math attention Andy gave to Doyle, who loved the subject and showed promise, began his path to his current profession as a financial advisor in Farmington.
“It wasn’t because I was a special kid,” Doyle was quick to add. “He just did it for everyone. “
Spelling bees, math meets, all became part of the school culture. As did outdoor education, highlighting the natural resources and beauty of the region. The school hosted chess tournaments and became known for holding a cross-country meet that drew middle school runners from all over the state.
“Andy developed and planned an annual invitational cross-country track meet on a course through blueberry fields and spruce-wooded trails,” recalled Ellen Elliot. “It became so popular he had to refuse schools.”
He was the kind of principal that secured a grant one year for students to be coached by a major opera company and then, with their teachers, wrote and performed an opera for schools throughout the district.
Carlos Guerrero is father to two Airline School graduates, Skyler and Coral, who were first enrolled at a nearby school.
“[The Bryans] took two kids who had given up,” he said. Both children graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School and went on to college “only because of Beth and Andy were involved,” Guerrero said. “They wouldn’t have made it. They’d gave up.”
Guerrero still volunteers at the school, he said. “I owe my kids’ education to them.”
“We’ve had all types of kids here,” Andy said. “We’ve had the people from Cape Elizabeth and we’ve also had people who move out here because it’s the cheapest land.”
And while the student body is more varied than it was 30 years ago, Beth said students are still relaxed with each other and “argue like siblings. It’s more like a family than a class. They never stay angry at each other for long.”
She added, “Persuading them to walk down the hall in a line? That’s not gonna happen.”
Like many small schools where class grades are combined, the older students pitch in with the young ones.
“In winter, there’s seventh- and eighth-graders going into the kindergarten room and putting on coats and boots,” along with playing chess and reading with them, Andy said.
He added: “I know there’s so many people doing these vital things in small schools that make them tick.”
Now the couple, who moved to Andy’s hometown of Holden several years ago, wonder how they will fill their days.
“I wonder what we’ll talk about,” Beth mused. “I’m curious to find out.”