BY WALTER GRIFFIN
FOR THE MIDCOAST BEAC0N
BELFAST — Waldo County’s alternative high school has far exceeded the goals envisioned when it was formed two decades ago.
Now taking students from RSU 20, the expanded district that consolidated the former SAD 56 in Searsport with SAD 34 in Belfast, Belfast Community Outreach Program in Education, or BCOPE, provides an alternate choice for students having difficulty fitting in. Approximately 40 students attend grade 10 to 12 at the school each year, most of whom graduate.
“It definitely met a need that existed in our schools and certainly exceeded our expectations,” RSU 20 Superintendent of Schools Bruce Mailloux said. “The kids that go through that program continue to come back and visit. It’s a very loyal group and the program has been a very positive impact on their education.”
Belfast Area High School principal Butch Arthers said the program works because it deals with each child on an individual basis. Though not necessarily at-risk students, the youngsters attending BCOPE work under an individual learning plan while taking on group projects aimed at teaching collaboration and team building.
Arthers credited Bill Gifford and Butch Richards with getting the program off the ground 20 years ago and former director Helen Nichols with taking it “to another level” during her stewardship. Arthers said the high school has learned from BCOPE as well by implementing some of the practices taught there.
“I think they have really been a good resource for us,” Arthers said. “We’re looking to reach a certain type of student, not necessarily kids who are acting out or kids who are flunking. Kids that have distractions at home or elsewhere or are having difficulty succeeding in the presence of 600 other kids.”
BCOPE program director Gary Skigen is one of three teachers and two education technicians who oversee the students. Skigen said the program has been well received by the community and that many local businesses and nonprofits take an active interest in the students.
Skigen listed the Maine Community Foundation as one agency that has provided grants that had enabled BCOPE students to experience training in wellness programs such as yoga, tae kwon do and acupuncture.
For another, Skigen said, members of the band Steel Rail Express have volunteered their time to give some of the students drum and guitar lessons. Northport music producer Bruce Boege provides studio time for the school’s aspiring musicians.
Another example is Wooden Boat Magazine which donated the rowboat kit the students are working on this winter in the school’s greenhouse. Then there is the woman in Monroe who is providing some of the female students with horse therapy.
“The kids work with and around the horses to better align themselves, get some feedback and personal growth,” Skigen said. “The kids get really peaceful working with the horses and it gives them a sense of confidence.”
Along with their daily instruction at BCOPE, many of the students also take classes at Waldo County Technical Center, a resource that has proven beneficial, and Unity College, which offers outdoor activities, such as rope and rock climbing.
“The program is really for students that don’t necessarily fit in the mainstream classes but can really be successful in an alternative setting. Some have looked at the program as an easy way out but it has the same curriculum as the high school and they graduate with the same diploma. Our kids have gone on to four-year and two-year colleges, technical school and the military,” Skigen said.
“Our job is to teach them accountability. If you come in here with a chip on your shoulder, our job is to teach you how to get a job or to go on to further your education and to be successful,” he continued. “We’re smaller and we can give these kids respect. They respond well to respect.”