Technology education bill could affect potato harvest breaks at schools in Aroostook

Posted March 16, 2012, at 9:24 p.m.
Last modified March 19, 2012, at 9:56 a.m.

HOULTON, Maine — Proposed legislation seeking to coordinate school calendars between school districts that share a Career and Technical Education Center, or CTEC, could affect the potato harvest break at some Aroostook County schools.

The legislation, LD 1865, An Act to Enhance CTEC, was sponsored by Sen. Brian Langley, R-Hancock County, as part of Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to give students more power to choose the school setting that works best for them. A work session before the education and cultural affairs committee is scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday.

As part of the legislation, districts sharing a CTEC would have to develop a common school calendar with no more than five dissimilar days. The current limit is nine days.

David Connerty-Marin, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education, said Friday that such action will reduce the likelihood that scheduling conflicts will interfere with students’ ability to attend technical education classes. He said that the bill was drafted in response to school officials who have said that such conflicts interfere with learning and cause logistical problems.

According to Connerty-Martin, all of the schools sending students to a center will have to be in or out of session at the same time except for five days.

“If school A is out of session and the others are not, that counts as one dissimilar day,” he explained. “And if school B has another day off and school A doesn’t, that counts as a second day. The calendars have to be almost perfectly aligned.”

SAD 29 in Houlton and SAD 70 in Hodgdon are part of the Region Two School of Applied Technology, along with SAD 14 in Danforth and RSU 50 in Stacyville. The Houlton and Hodgdon districts customarily take a week off for harvest break, but the others remain in session. Under the existing scenario the schools would reach their dissimilar days limit very quickly.

Sen. Langley, who taught at the Hancock County Technical Center, said Friday that students who are taking such classes need to meet national standards in order to have a smoother transition into college.

The senator said that the issue of potential problems with potato harvest break arose during a public hearing in Augusta earlier this week. But he said that a representative from the Maine Potato Board also acknowledged that participation in harvest break has been dwindling for years.

Last fall, just 19 students in grades 7-12 in SAD 29 worked during harvest. Officials in SAD 70 saw similar numbers, with only five students working during the break in 2010.

There are three other CTEC in The County; the Caribou Technology Center, the St. John Valley Technology Center and the Presque Isle Regional Career and Technical Center.

Frank McElwain, superintendent of RSU 39 in Caribou, said that his school sends some of its students to the Presque Isle center. Although all of the sending schools recess for harvest, Fort Fairfield stays out for one week, while the others take two or three weeks.

“The problem is that the waiver option has been taken out,” he said. “That is troubling.”

He wasn’t sure how the schools would address the issue.

Fern Desjardins, superintendent of SAD 33 in Frenchville, said that the St. John Valley center serves students from Wisdom Middle-High School, Madawaska Middle-High School, and Fort Kent Community High School.

“We all work together to make sure our calendars match up as closely as possible,” she said. “I think we’ll have a calendar that is as close as it will ever be during the next school year.”

Langley said that the bill as written does not include the possibility of a waiver for districts such as SAD 29 and SAD 70, but he suspected it would come up on Monday.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen spoke in favor of the bill earlier this week.

If it passes, the measure also would ensure that students receive credit from their home high schools for all courses they take at a CTEC. Sending schools also would have to ensure that bus schedules and other logistics do not prevent students from being able to participate in the full number of hours of instruction at the CTEC. Finally, the bill would require the community college system to review courses and award college credit to students who complete college-level work at a technical center.

Connerty-Marin said Friday that he hadn’t heard of the calendar provision being an issue anywhere except for in the Houlton and Hodgdon schools.

Mike Howard, director of Region II in Houlton, said Friday that officials are looking into a possible compromise that would allow some students to participate in the harvest while taking a class through the technical center.

The center, he said, is looking into creating an agribusiness program so that interested students can work with local farmers during harvest and other parts of the year.

“This would be a seed-to-table type program,” he said. “It would give them a lot more experience then they would get from just working one week over harvest.”

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