PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — More than 50 years ago, it was a familiar scene: Students woke up with the sun in Aroostook County during September and October. Clutching lunch pails and jugs of water, they walked or took buses to potato fields to start picking.
Lucky older teenagers got to work on the harvester while the younger workers picked, spending three weeks or more helping to harvest The County’s major crop while earning cash for school clothes or other purchases.
These days, it is much different in some parts of the region. With the invention of state-of-the-art harvesting equipment, fewer County farmers hire students to pick potatoes.
With fewer students working, school districts around the region have changed or eliminated harvest breaks in the region.
Others, however, are continuing the tradition.
Right now, the state is seeing some of the warmest weather of the summer, and in central Aroostook, some students are back in class.
In SAD 1 in Presque Isle, high school students are among them. SAD 1 includes Presque Isle, Castle Hill, Chapman, Mapleton and Westfield.
“It is hot,” Presque Isle High School Principal Eric Waddell said. “We started school on August 11. There has been some grumbling about being back in school when it is so nice, but it hasn’t been too bad.”
The high school observes three weeks of harvest break starting Sept. 21. While the high schoolers are out working, the elementary and middle school students are in school studying. Their first day is Tuesday, Aug. 25.
In SAD 42 in Mars Hill, the situation is a bit different. The district serves students from Mars Hill and Blaine as well as tuition students from Bridgewater and E Plantation.
Superintendent Roger Shaw said Wednesday that the entire pre-kindergarten through grade 12 population takes a three-week harvest break.
“We survey our students every year, and last year 64 percent of our high school students worked during the break,” he said. “The year before that it was 63 percent. The majority of those are working in the fields or on the harvester, because we do break it down.”
Shaw noted that much of the land in his district is farmland, and some of the larger potato growers, such as County Super Spuds in Mars Hill, are located in the area. What Mars Hill and the other towns in the district do not have, he added, are fast-food restaurants and other stores where teens can make money.
“The kids can work the three weeks of harvest and earn money they need to buy the things they need,” he said.
“The growers have told us that they need access to the students, and the students are out there working,” said Shaw, whose own children worked during harvest. “We do not have elementary students working, but we have found it would not be cost-effective to keep those children in school and dismiss the others.”
The practice of letting older students out and keeping younger students in school has been considered and implemented by several districts. There is a cost to the practice, as schools still need to shuttle elementary and middle school pupils to school for the time that they are not out for harvest recess. They also must pay affected teachers and other staff. But that can sometimes be balanced, and students who take the break get out of school weeks earlier than those who do not.
In SAD 33 in Frenchville and St. Agatha, school began on Tuesday. A two-week break for students in all grades in the district begins Sept. 18.
High schoolers in the Caribou school department returned to school this week and will take a three-week break beginning Sept. 18. Other students start school on Aug. 26.
Students in SAD 70 in Hodgdon have revisited the harvest break idea several times and came up with an idea in 2008 that Superintendent Robert McDaniel said Wednesday is working.
All students in the district, which consists of the towns of Amity, Cary Plantation, Haynesville, Hodgdon, Linneus, Ludlow and New Limerick, will start school on Aug. 26. The entire district will go on harvest break for a week, Oct. 5-9.
Older students who intend to work the harvest can stay out longer to do so and the school helps them complete the missed schoolwork. The school communicates with growers to ensure that students are working.
“We only had five or six kids take advantage of the program last year,” he said. “I thought there would be more.”
A similar policy is in place in SAD 29 for students in Houlton, Hammond, Littleton and Monticello. Students will start school on Aug. 26 and the entire district will go on harvest break Oct. 5-9. Older students can get permission to work longer.
In Mars Hill, Shaw said his district would review the break policy again, if necessary.
“Right now, it is vital to the farmers, and the kids use it to buy things that they need,” he said. “It works.”