HOULTON, Maine — Despite the misgivings of one school board member, the SAD 29 board on Monday evening voted overwhelmingly in favor of creating an alternative education program for junior high school students.
Only board member Paul Cleary opposed the new program which will target at-risk seventh- and eighth-graders at Houlton Junior-Senior High School. The final vote was 10-1.
SAD 29 educates about 1,300 students from the towns of Houlton, Littleton, Hammond and Monticello.
In May, several teachers and administrators in the district told the board they felt that students in grades six through eight could benefit from an alternative education program. At this point, at-risk students in grades nine through 12 can enroll at The Carleton Project, which is housed inside the Houlton Higher Education Center and is approved by the state Department of Education. The Carleton Project started in 1999.
The original proposal to expand the alternative program to grades six through eight was expected to cost $89,000 the first year. When some board members expressed reservations about the price, however, the proposal was scaled back to provide services for just seventh- and eighth-graders. Officials said on Monday evening that the remodeled program would cost between $50,000 and $65,000 this school year, depending on the salary of the teacher. In May, district officials said there were nine seventh-graders and 14 eighth-graders who possibly could benefit from such a program.
On Monday evening, they told the board that the program will serve 10 to 12 students the first year.
Marion Gartley, who is the district’s special education coordinator, told the board that some students in the junior high need an alternative setting because they simply aren’t making it in the regular classroom.
“We are talking about kids whose whole life is dysfunctional,” she said on Monday evening.
High school Principal Marty Bouchard said the district has a number of programs in place to help at-risk students. They include hiring outside tutors and one-on-one specialists to work with students, paying for risk assessments, or modifying their schedules. But such measures, which Gartley referred to as the “Band-Aid” approach, aren’t always as effective as hoped, Bouchard said.
“Sometimes we have a kid go to junior high for four consecutive years,” he said. “And sometimes these students take away from the teacher’s chance to move the entire class forward educationally.”
Cynthia Hillman-Forbush, a board member and longtime educator, said she wanted to see data showing that the district had students spend four years in junior high. She also did not think that setting $600 aside for professional development for the alternative education teacher was enough.
District officials told her that one student dropped out after realizing he would be spending a fourth year in junior high, and several other students had been held back in junior high for one or two years.
Cleary has opposed the plan since early on. This year’s $12 million budget is up 2 percent over last year, and cuts in staffing chopped close to $300,000 off the budget, he pointed out. Those positions included a part-time junior high music teacher, a long-term-permanent substitute teacher in the industrial arts program, a library ed tech and a certified occupational therapist aide.
“Back in April or May during our budget discussions, we cut positions and transferred positions,” Cleary said. “We don’t know what we will get in terms of state aid next year, and we are adding a position? I don’t think now is the time to add any new positions. Next year’s budget will be just as tough or tougher.”
Cleary added that the board had to give the alternative education program a chance to see if it was working, which he believed would require a three- or four-year financial commitment.
“You are dealing with people’s lives when you cut positions,” he said.
Board member Fred Grant said he felt that the impact of the junior high alternative education program would reverberate throughout the high school. He said he felt that the program would be so successful that the district likely would have to expand it next year.
The board ultimately voted 10-1 in favor of creating the program, which will be housed in a room at the high school. The program will begin this fall.