PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The Maine School Administrative District 1 board of directors will consider alternative options for Presque Isle High School’s annual harvest break after hearing from farmers who rely on student workers and from parents and others favoring ending the three-week break.
The MSAD 1 board held a workshop on the topic Monday night, listening to testimony from five speakers in favor of keeping the break and five speakers in favor of ending or changing it.
The board decided to pick up discussions on the topic at a Feb. 5 workshop and look into an idea raised by one of the speakers, workforce expert Christy Daggett, who suggested creating a program for students to work agricultural jobs while still keeping a traditional school schedule.
Currently, SAD 1 elementary and middle school students are on a traditional school year calendar while high school students start classes before Labor Day and break for three weeks during harvest.
According to surveys by the district, 14 percent of Presque Isle High School students worked at area farms during the harvest break last year, 8 percent worked at the MSAD 1 educational farm and 35 percent worked in non-farm jobs. But 43 percent of the students apparently weren’t working, a major concern cited by speakers in favor of ending the break, along with the impact to the school schedule for elementary and middle school students.
The harvest break also costs about $70,000 more a year for additional transportation and school operating expenses to accommodate the differing elementary, middle and high school schedules.
While potato farming has become highly mechanized and automated, many farms still hire some high school students for a two-to-three week window to work jobs in the fields or at storage facilities.
Nick McCrum told the board that his family farm’s business hired 15 students from Presque Isle and other high schools last year, representing about a quarter of their harvest workforce.
“The loss of harvest break would ultimately lead to our farm and others bringing in migrant labor,” McCrum said. “We feel that that’s not an ideal situation because those dollars would not stay in the local economy.”
Cole Staples, a 2016 Presque Isle High School graduate, said his family potato farm in Presque Isle hired 15 Presque Isle students last year and ran two shifts to accommodate youngsters with sports and other activities and commitments. “We obviously need these students to function effectively during harvest,” he said.
Frank Bemis, a local lawyer and father of three children in MSAD 1 schools, spoke against the harvest break “as it’s currently constituted.” Bemis said he worked harvest jobs in high school, but that he thinks the break is too disruptive to the whole K-12 system and to parents.
“As it’s presently constituted and certainly if you decide to make a district-wide decision to include harvest for all children, you’re serving a minority, not the majority of the students,” Bemis said.
Daggett, workforce development manager with Aroostook County Action Program and also a mother of three children in MSAD 1 schools, told the board that the harvest break is “an imperfect tool” to address regional economic needs and “meet the needs of all youth.”
Daggett said that the district could “maintain the harvest employment in a co-op form where high school runs along a traditional September to June schedule but students who wish to work harvest, including my kids, can do so and receive school credit.”
Daggett said she has found similar models used by schools in Ontario, Kansas and Massachusetts, and that other schools in Maine have used the model for skilled trades training.
“This model would require some forethought on the front end, but would pay dividends in the long-run compared to the present approach. A good co-op program ensures students build employment competency while they’re working, that they learn important skills like communicating with employers and punctuality,” Daggett said.
“Seperating the co-op from the narrowly-defined three weeks of potato harvest also would benefit other employers,” Daggett said. “We could make more youth workers available to farmers across the spectrum.”
Daggett said that the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Skowhegan is in the process of setting up a similar co-op program. She said she also would send more information on the model to school board officials.