SAD 29 forms group to decide future of harvest break

Posted Dec. 06, 2011, at 8:37 p.m.

HOULTON, Maine — The SAD 29 school board will be eyeing the future of harvest break once again after a voluntary survey sent out to roughly 600 parents of students in grades 7-12 indicated only 19 students worked the harvest.

The survey has been used by the district for decades to determine how many students work during the break, which now runs for one week for all students. Superintendent Mike Hammer said that 119 people returned the survey, and figures showed that 19 students in a district of approximately 1,300 worked the break during the last week of September.

“I do believe there is a way to continue harvest for those who still want to go out,” Hammer said on Monday evening. “I think we need to form a focus group with farmers, students and staff to examine this issue a bit more closely and figure out how to move forward.”

SAD 29 consists of the towns of Houlton, Littleton, Hammond and Monticello and has four schools.

The school board has debated the future of the break for more than a decade, as growers rely more on mechanized equipment and less on pickers. The board adopted a split break during the 2007-2008 school year, which allowed seventh- to 12th-graders to take three weeks off while pupils in prekindergarten through sixth grade received only one week off. They have since allowed just one week for everyone, but older students who want to work longer can do so. Arrangements are made for them to keep up with their homework. Hammer said that 15 students got a waiver to work longer than a week during this year’s break and the school checked with growers to ensure those students were indeed working for the farmers.

According to the SAD 29 survey results, 64 parents said that they wanted to see the harvest break continue, while 55 did not. Forty-four respondents said that they would like to see the break extended to three weeks again, while 75 people were not in favor of it.

Any attempts to end the break in the past have received criticism from growers, parents and students.

The Houlton district and SAD 70 in Hodgdon are the only two southern Aroostook school districts that continue to let students out for harvest recess. During the 2010 harvest, only five students in SAD 70 worked during the harvest.

In 2001, 250 students in SAD 29 worked the harvest, down from 309 students a decade ago. In 2005, 59 students from the district worked over the break.

Despite the dwindling student participation in the harvest, “the survey showed that more than 50 percent of the 119 [survey] respondents wanted the break to continue,” he told the board.

Elizabeth Anderson, who represents Houlton on the board, said that everyone on the panel has a “cultural appreciation” for the harvest break.

“But how do we adapt it so we aren’t breaking a whole school for a handful of students?” she asked.

The board also was concerned with Hammer’s report that a number of the students who picked did not do well academically when they returned to school this year. Such concern has been voiced for several years by parents who no longer support the break, as they have echoed statements made by teachers that students, especially younger ones, tend to forget what they learned in the month before the break. Working parents also have said they have a difficult time finding child care over the break if their children are not taking part in the harvest.

This past February, several local farmers attended a meeting and urged the board to continue the break. Some even suggested that it be longer, a wish that Hammer said they communicated to him again during a recent meeting. They praised the work ethic that it teaches youths, as well as the financial lessons. Growers who employ pickers also have said that potatoes picked by hand tend to have less bruising.

The board did not make a decision on Monday evening, but gave the go ahead for Hammer to form the focus group and explore the issue.

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