BANGOR, Maine — As schools throughout Maine head into February vacation, several hundred eighth-grade students in the area will have an important decision to consider.
Ben Deschesne, 13, is one of them. He attends Veazie Community School. The town does not have a high school.
That means that Deschesne has his pick of pretty much any school in the region. Like students who live in other towns without high schools, such as Eddington, Glenburn and Orrington, his home district will pay a state-set tuition rate to the district of the high school he chooses to attend next year, as long as the school admits him.
Such students present an attractive prospect for high schools in the area, as budgets are tight and the student population has declined steadily in recent years.
Enrollment at Maine’s public schools has dropped by more than 15,000 since the 2006-2007 school year, according to data from the Maine Department of Education.
Many school districts rely on students enrolling from outside their district to remain financially solvent. This has led to increased competition to attract them.
At Brewer High School, for example, about 50 percent of the student population comes from outside Brewer, according to Andrea Jordan, the school’s academic liaison for secondary studies. About 10 percent of the Brewer School Department’s revenue comes from tuition.
A months-long courting process begins in January with students, teachers and parents giving presentations at sending schools. Then comes a series of Step Up Days, where eighth-grade students are invited to spend part of the day at prospective high schools and some students spend a day shadowing a high school student.
At Brewer High School on Wednesday, eighth-graders were guided through Step Up Day by upperclassmen wearing plastic hard hats — a tribute to the major construction project underway at that school — and taught by teachers dressed entirely in orange and black, the school’s colors.
At Bangor High School last week, visiting students were welcomed by the JROTC color guard and a singing of the national anthem, before current students gave a tour of the building. At various junctures around the school, the eighth-graders saw performances by the school’s choir and band and a one-man play.
“What I tell the kids is you need to get a sense of how the school feels,” said Bangor High School principal Paul Butler. He said Bangor tries to present the students with a blend of academic and extracurricular experiences.
“They need a first-rate curricular experience,” he said. “But that’s not all they want to hear.”
Parents do not attend Step Up Days, but are invited to each of the schools for presentations by students and faculty where, in some cases, data are presented on metrics such as student test scores and class failure rates.
Parents and students also can look up data on graduation rates, test scores, attendance, percentage of teachers with master’s degrees and more on any school in the state on the Maine Department of Education’s website.
This year’s crop of eighth-graders will be the first required to graduate with a proficiency-based diploma, meaning that in order to graduate, they will have to demonstrate that they meet certain standards identified by the state.
Most families interviewed for this story also are considering John Bapst Memorial High School. The private school is not tied to any school district, making its recruitment process particularly crucial. Sending districts will pay the tuition to John Bapst if a student decides to enroll there.
About 80 percent of the student population at John Bapst comes from sending districts, according to head of school Mel MacKay. Though it is a private school, 65 percent of its budget comes from these towns.
More than 200 eighth-graders filled John Bapst’s auditorium on Step Up Day. The school also has been courting families from China for its international program.
“If you believe that competition makes us better, then this is a mechanism that allows all the local schools to be focused on quality,” MacKay said. “It’s also a great little bit of preparation for the college decision making process.”
For parents and their eighth-grade students, having options can be stressful.
“I think it makes it harder, especially with friends splitting up and going to different places,” said Bridgett Fowler, parent of an eighth-grader who attends Holbrook School. Fowler said her son Zach is looking at John Bapst, Brewer, Bangor and Hampden high schools.
“I don’t remember having to worry about this stuff,” added Libby Butterfield, whose son is also an eighth-grader at Holbrook School. “This should be an easier decision.”
Butterfield and Fowler said that the size of the schools, their academic programs and where their sons’ friends go to school all would contribute to the decision they have to make.
Deschesne is also worried about his decision.
“It kind of sets a stepping stone in my life,” he said.
Deschesne said that he’s interested in both psychology and the military. Bangor High School seems to him like a good place to start to pursue a career in the military, while John Bapst is strong in science, so he feels his high school choice may affect the rest of his life.
“Pick a school that is right for you,” MacKay told the eighth-graders last week. “You can’t go wrong.”