They’re off to school in The County
It may have been windy enough in Fort Kent to seem like a fall day as children headed back to school on Thursday. For much of Aroostook County, the school year begins earlier than the rest of the state because many schools schedule a week or two off again in September for the potato harvest.
In Fort Kent, Maine School Administrative District No. 27 buses buzzed about town Thursday morning, stopping the flow of traffic every so often to gather up children, who were sporting new shoes and clothes and were carrying backpacks that were sure to be heavier on the ride home.
Four-year-old Harper Pearson, a pre-kindergarten student at Fort Kent Elementary School, started her first ever day of public school with much enthusiasm. Harper was the first of three siblings to hop out of her family car and race up the school steps just after 7:30 a.m
Her brown ponytail barely topped the silver handle of the steel front door which Harper heaved open to allow her more school-experienced sisters, Lily Demar, a fourth-grader and Emmy Lou Demar, who is starting first grade, to enter the building.
“Oh, they’re very excited,” the girls’ mother, Autumn Pearson said.
Emmy Lou Demar said her favorite part of going back to school is “playing and having fun.”
“Me too,” said Harper.
The oldest sister, Lily had a different answer.
“I like learning math,” she said.
Most schools across northern and central Aroostook, including in Caribou, Presque Isle, and Mars Hill, started on either Aug. 16 or 17 so that students and teachers can help local farmers and make some extra money as well during the potato harvest in late September and early October.
Schools in southern Aroostook and the rest of the state that don’t take two or three weeks off for the harvest won’t get started until Sept. 5 or 6.
Over at Dr. Levesque Elementary School in Frenchville, fifth grader Landon Picard was excited to be back in school on Thursday. Students in Maine School Administrative District 33, which also includes Wisdom Middle/High School, began the school year the previous day.
“I like (math) because it’s fun,” said Picard. “I want to be an architect when I grow up and you need to know math.”
Chantal Blanchette, a third grade teacher at Dr. Levesque Elementary School, was helping to supervise students in the gym prior to the first bell on Thursday, the second day of school
“The year is going great so far,” she said.
Temporary consolidation of classrooms in Caribou while awaiting completion of a new prekindergarten through eighth grade school in 2020 complicated opening day on Wednesday, Aug. 16, at Teague Park Elementary School.
RSU 39, which serves Caribou, Limestone and Stockholm, decided last year to close Hilltop Elementary School in Caribou and send its prekindergarten to second graders to Teague Park. Teague Park, which previously served grades 3 to 5, kept the third graders, but the fourth and fifth graders started the new school year at Caribou Middle School.
While some parents initially were resistant to the temporary consolidation, Teague Park Principal Cheryl Hallowell said that parents were receptive on Wednesday.
“I have not heard anything negative at all,” Hallowell said, “once the parents got in here and saw that it was the same teachers and realized it was still geared toward their students, it helped a lot. Every Hilltop teacher, except for those who retired, moved down here.”
As is the case in Caribou, many SAD 27 students and parents also are adjusting to changes this year with the closures of Wallagrass Elementary School and Eagle Lake Elementary School. On Thursday, the elementary school in Fort Kent welcomed 48 students who had attended those two schools last year. Among them, were sister and brother Payton and Paxton Devoe of Eagle Lake.
Payton Devoe started third-grade at Fort Kent Elementary School on Thursday. Paxton will begin his first day of pre-kindergarten there on Friday. The children’s mother, Morgan Wilson, who was president of the Eagle Lake Elementary School Parent Teacher Association, said the family was particularly hard-hit by news of the school’s closure. But she added that they were doing their best to adjust to the situation.
“This morning I took a very positive approach to our first day. I did not use rushing words to add to our anxiety. I wrote positive encouraging words on (Payton’s) bedroom mirror to wake up to and read aloud to herself,” Wilson said.
Wilson drove her daughter to school in Fort Kent, but intentionally avoided the road on which the Eagle Lake Elementary School building sits.
“It’s too emotional to drive past her home school and see the long grass and empty parking lot,” the mother said.
The family arrived at FKES just before the first bell rang, and Wilson escorted her daughter down the halls of the school to her new classroom.
“We passed friendly staff, I reassured her they are all there to support her,” Wilson said. “Overall we felt prepared with our visits to the school. I liked having the paperwork from the (open house) the night before. I feel completing the paperwork gave me some indication of the things they would be doing.”
Beginning at a new school is never easy, regardless of the situation, and can especially be unsettling when it comes to a child’s first ever day of school.
Christine Lister, mother of preschooler Hallie Lister, said the first day of school in Caribou helped alleviate any anxieties she had about sending her child off to school.
“I appreciated being able to come in and experience the first day of school with my daughter,” Lister said. “They let me know about new schedules and routines, allowing me to settle any concerns I may have had. I think they handled it very well.”
For incoming prekindergarten students in that district, the first day involved getting to know the school building, their new teachers, and riding on the bus with their parents.
Haley Powers, mother of preschooler Addilyn Powers, said the first day went “very well.”
“Parents got to go in the class with their kids, and it helped ease our nervousness,” she said. “I think everyone will settle in nicely tomorrow on their own.”
Powers said her daughter Addilyn was “very excited” for her first day on her own, in what she refers to as “big kid school.”
Brothers Tal and Dawson McCoy of Washburn arrived for their third day of school early Friday.
“Well, it’s going slower than I thought,” said Tal about his first week in 7th grade. His brother Dawson agreed that his first few days in 9th grade were dragging too, which could be attributed to the mid-August start.
“But our teachers said the homework will come,” Dawson said.
Back in Fort Kent, as far as Autumn Pearson’s daughters are concerned, they do not feel cheated out of some fine summer days by having to return to school during mid-August, according to their mother.
“Definitely not. They’ve been asking about school since it ended,” Pearson said.
Staff writers Don Eno of the St. John Valley Times, Christopher Bouchard of the Aroostook Republican & News, and Joshua Archer of the Star-Herald contributed to this report.