HOULTON, Maine — For as long as SAD 29 has existed and farmers have been growing potatoes in Aroostook County, area schools have taken a recess in the fall to allow students to help with the harvest.
But prompted by declining student participation and by legislation designed to align the calendars of schools sharing technical education centers, SAD 29 district officials said Tuesday that the harvest break will be eliminated next year.
During a meeting on Monday evening, the school board reviewed the calendar for the 2012-2013 school year. Superintendent Mike Hammer said that district officials had met with representatives from the Region Two School of Applied Technology to align their calendars. The move was made based on LD 1865, An Act to Enhance Career and Technical Education Centers, which was recently voted ought to pass by the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.
It was sponsored by Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth.
As part of the legislation, districts sharing a Career and Technical Education Center would have to develop a common school calendar with no more than five dissimilar days. The current limit is nine days.
All of the schools sending students to a center would have to be in or out of session at the same time except for five days. If one school is out of session and the other sending schools are not, that counts as one dissimilar day.
Because of scheduling issues with potato harvest breaks, the proposal has raised concerns in Aroostook County.
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 limit of dissimilar days very quickly.
Hammer said that the SAD 29 calendar is aligned “as closely as possible” with the Region Two calendar, and that there was little resistance to not scheduling the break during the next school year.
“The board is supportive of aligning our calendar with Region Two,” the superintendent said Tuesday. “I believe they are supportive and see the benefits of technical education for our students.”
The decision to exclude the break was not made in haste, said Hammer.
Officials looked at the dwindling number of students working during the harvest and at surveys filled out by students and parents concerning whether they worked and how parents feel about the break. Last fall, just 19 students in grades 7-12 in SAD 29 worked during harvest.
“We looked at the numbers and the surveys and weighed that data,” he said.
The decline in Houlton and other County communities has been happening for more than two decades. While growers in central and northern Aroostook still employ a number of pickers, growers in southern Aroostook do not. The potato industry as a whole has declined as well. In the 1940s, Maine’s potato production was tops in the nation. By 1994 however, Maine had fallen to the eighth ranked potato producer and the seventh in the number of acres devoted to potato cultivation in the United States, according to figures provided by County historians.
In 2006, SAD 29 conducted a harvest survey that was targeted toward parents and teachers. The results showed that 194 of the parents were in favor of continuing the break, and 467 were not in favor. As for district staff, 97 respondents wanted to continue the recess, while 59 did not.
Hammer said that the calendar is not yet complete, as he has to schedule teacher development days and conference days, but he said that he believes that the calendar will pass.
“I expect the board to support it,” he said.