The Menemsha School still has a great old-fashioned school bell, sounded daily by a rope that dangles down from the roof.

Children of different grades still sit in class side by side and play together in a playground bordered by a foresty area they call "twiggyland." Many townspeople were educated here, in the same place as their parents and grandparents.

Today, the challenge to Chilmark is maintaining the special qualities of this rural school while making room for growth.

Last week, the town's building committee asked residents to consider two different building plans, one that would accommodate 90 students and one that would be built for 120. Although well over 100 people attended the meeting, only about 52 voted in a straw poll. It's not an easy question, residents say.

Now, the chairman of the building committee says that perhaps a compromise can be reached. One possibility, he says, is a small building, of perhaps four classrooms, which could easily be expanded to six classrooms. No proposal is final, but residents are likely to see some sort of a building question at the annual town meeting, scheduled for April 22.

"It's a pressing issue and we have some tough choices to make," said Steve Sinnett, chairman of the 10-member committee. "But perhaps there's a middle ground."

Discussion of the issue should not be dominated by the number of students, he said, but by the growth in the need for classrooms.

"We get at these numbers more by considering how to achieve the greater flexibility. It isn't numbers that's really driving it. It's the need for flexibility, so the school can grow in all directions. What we can do is have a design that doubles our space and only build part of it. Maybe there's a creative way that we can look at this."

Currently, 61 kindergarten through fifth grade students attend the Menemsha School. Of those, 53 are from Chilmark, five come from Gay Head and three from West Tisbury. About 10 Chilmark children attend school in West Tisbury.

The school grounds include the former one-room school house, built about 150 years ago. Another classroom was added to the building about 20 years ago, and students must go outside to enter the third classroom, the "tin can," which is housed in a temporary building. ("We love our tin can," says teacher Lynn Whiting, "but we'd like to be connected to the rest of the school.") Another temporary building serves as principal Rick Tomlinson's office, the teachers' lounge and the violin practice room; it is connected to the main building by a short hallway.

Like any elementary school, the walls and hallways of the Menemsha School are decorated with colorful educational displays, pictures of cloud formations, maps of the world and recent newspaper articles on Comet Hyakutake. Classrooms are equipped with computers and Internet access.

But unlike other schools, children of different ages study together, with each class comprising two grade levels. The principal teaches class every day and is known as "Rick" to students. Children working on the school newspaper are allowed to use his telephone, and they call on him to solve routine maintenance problems.

Next year, Mr. Tomlinson expects an enrollment of 65 to 70 students. He expects 75 to 80 within the next two or three years.

A new school could accommodate growth by increasing the number of classes while maintaining the tradition of teaching two grades in each room. The building committee is considering land in the center of town, which would allow the school to make use of the town library and the community center. Mr. Tomlinson said growth is coming not only from births, but from families moving to Chilmark and the region as a whole. The up-Island school district will bear part of the cost for a new school that it uses, he said.

"You don't want to put a huge school in the middle of Chilmark," he said. "That's not what we're about. We want to put in something that looks good and feels good. I think what we'd like to say to the town is: 'This is what a four-classroom school will look like and will cost you. This is what a six-classroom school will look like and cost you. What makes sense?'"

Something like that happened last week. Residents were shown preliminary sketches and given cost estimates, which showed that a larger school would actually cost less because the state won't help pay for a small school.

A building with 90 children would cost the town about $1.17 million. A building with 120 children would cost $1.69 million, but the state would fund 52 per cent of construction. The cost to the town of the larger school would be $812,000.

In a straw poll, residents voted 31 to 21 for a larger school, with about half the group abstaining. Still, some are skeptical about a bigger building.

"I'm not for a big building," said selectman Herbert Hancock. "I just figured it was too big for Chilmark.

He said that with a big building there may be hidden costs. The town will have to pay for construction costs up front, and get reimbursed later without interest. Moreover, a bigger building will cost more to maintain.

Mr. Hancock added that his wife leafed through recent town reports and found only 23 births in the past five years.

"That isn't a tremendous crowd when you figure there are 40-odd kids leaving" in the next five years, he said. "I think they should have a new building, but I don't think they ought to overdo it. I'd rather not get any state money and build a building that we need and that'll look good. I think a lot of people feel the same way."

But Bill Smith said it makes sense to build for the future. He notes that West Tisbury has had to add to its new school twice to accommodate growth.

"I see West Tisbury and what they did," said Mr. Smith, whose daughter Samantha is in kindergarten. "I just can't see paying for the school twice or three times. Why build a school three times? I'm no expert. This is just the way it appears to me. But why not just make it big enough to begin with? This school here was way too small back in ’64 when I was in it. It's no better now and it's not going to get any better. They have to build a new school. The only future this town has is the children."

Mr. Smith said the school can maintain its old character in a new building.

"People in town are worried about keeping the small school, the country school feeling," he said. "Well, you're going to keep that feeling depending on how it's run. It's not the building that makes that attitude. It's what you do to create that mood."

Teachers have already considered that. Longtime teacher Eleanor Neubert says that classes will remain project-based and that children of different ages will still work together. And they will take the old school bell with them.

But whatever the town wants, school officials say a decision should be made soon.

"The longer this goes on, the longer the crunch in the school goes on," Mr. Sinnett said. "So we need to resolve this sooner rather than later. Lets's get on with this issue and provide adequate space for the children in the school."