ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
More than 25 million American children ride the bus to school on a typical day. Far fewer take airplanes. Elizabeth Miller of WCPN ideastream went to some islands in Lake Erie where the school commute is about five minutes with very little traffic.
ELIZABETH MILLER, BYLINE: It's nearly 7:30 in the morning when a small, five-passenger Piper Saratoga plane takes off from the mainland in Port Clinton, Ohio. Pilot Bob Ganley is on his way to pick up students heading to school.
BOB GANLEY: There's two doors in the airplane, OK? We're not going to use them, but we do have life jackets.
MILLER: His first stop is Middle Bass Island, about a mile away from the school. Instead of a bus stop, Max Schneider’s father is dropping him off at the Middle Bass airport to meet the plane. There are only a few inhabited islands on Western Lake Erie. The school on Middle Bass closed in 1982, so Max and four other students go to Put-in-Bay School, located on South Bass Island. Their school bus will be this Piper plane. Today, Ganley has two Middle Bass students to pick up, 10th-grader Max and ninth-grader Cecilia.
CECILIA: Not too much communication goes on in the morning.
MILLER: After landing at Put-in-Bay's airport, Max and Cecilia walk to a big yellow van waiting in the airport's empty parking lot. They join two teachers who earlier flew over from the mainland. In the summer, golf carts and bikes carry thousands of tourists across these streets. But this time of year, there are only about 400 people on this island. The ride is short, and the van pulls up in front of the school right before school starts.
Max's mother, Katie Schneider, teaches English here, and her family lives on Middle Bass a mile away. But during these winter months, she rents a place near school just in case the plane can't fly.
KATIE SCHNEIDER: If they know there's weather coming, then they'll stay just because they don't want to be late for school or miss out on school.
MILLER: A round-trip flight to school on this island costs the Middle Bass school system nearly $100 per student per day. But Katie Schneider, who pays her own fare each week, says she and her husband John have never considered making the move to Put-in-Bay.
SCHNEIDER: Middle Bass is our home. And that's where he grew up. That's where he was raised. That's where our family history is.
MILLER: Put-in-Bay School is much like any other on the mainland. There are state tests, after-school clubs and even prom. But Put-in-Bay Superintendent and Principal Steve Poe says it's the smallest public school in the state.
STEVE POE: We have 81 students pre-K through 12, average class is about a half-dozen to eight students. That makes us unique with the individual attention that our kids get.
MILLER: Max's 10th-grade class has only three students. And his sister Lucy is in eighth grade - her class includes just five boys and three girls. And since they live across the lake from most of their friends, Max says they try to make the most of their days at school.
MAX SCHNEIDER: Living on the island, I really don't get to hang out with a lot of the kids a whole lot because I'm usually, you know, back at Middle Bass. And you can't hang out when there's a mile of water between you.
MILLER: Air transport also comes into play when it comes to the school's sports teams. The entire community shows up for games to cheer on the Put-in-Bay Panthers. It all seems like a normal school event until you realize you're on an island three miles from shore.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Thank you for the folks from our opponent today for bringing milk to the island. We are appreciative.
MILLER: That's right, milk - something you appreciate even more when living on an island in the winter. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Miller.
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