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Downstate tour inspires Valley residents about possibilities for regional high school

BANGOR, Maine — Students, teachers, parents and other residents of communities from three member school systems in the St. John Valley visited a couple of facilities in the Bangor area on Nov. 15 to get ideas to possibly incorporate into a proposed regional high school and technical center for the Valley.

United Technologies Center Director Greg Miller, far left, explains one of the 19 career and technology programs to St. John Valley residents who toured the Bangor facility on Thursday, Nov. 15, to get ideas to possibly incorporate in a proposed regional high school for the Valley. (Morgan Mitchell | SJVT/FhF)

The Madawaska School Department and MSADs 27 and 33 in the Fort Kent and Frenchville areas are in the process of securing up to $100 million from the state to build a pilot consolidated school that would combine the three existing high schools, integrate technical and career training, and include some post-secondary education aspects.

Organized as the Valley Unified Regional Service Center, the school systems also acquired a $715,000 federal grant to assist in the regionalization effort, including to buy a travel bus for students and to cover expenses for tours of other school facilities. The Efficient Delivery of Educational Services grant awarded to Valley Unified is completely federally funded, with no local or state tax money involved.

A group of 23 people traveled south Thursday on the new Valley Unified bus to tour Hampden Academy, a 7-year-old high school; the United Technologies Center, a career and technology education center in Bangor; and Sanford High School, a facility that combines both high school and technology programs. Due to a snowstorm forecast Friday, however, the group only visited the two schools in the Bangor area and returned late Thursday.

The large group split into two smaller groups and toured the two schools simultaneously in the morning, before switching to visit the opposite schools after lunch.

Innovative Practice and Community Outreach Coordinator Peter Caron said Thursday that the main reason the group visited Hampden Academy was  because of its “modernity” and “how much thought had gone into it” with the school being the second most expensive one built in Maine to date.

“We wanted to have a look at it because of all of the positive things we had heard about the layout, design, and infrastructure [and how it was built] not only with the present in mind, but also the future,” Caron said. “We want to keep our eye on the future and tour schools that were built with the future in mind. It all comes back down to that.”

As he started to give his tour, Hampden Academy Assistant Principal Nick Raymond told members of the group they should keep an eye on “some of the logistics of this building, dealing with some of the aesthetics that we have in the building, and the finer details” that the visitors might want to consider for their regional school.

The entrance of the United Technologies Center in Bangor displays a scene built by students to showcase their work and interpretation of a mid-depression era Ford in front of a general store during a tour that St. John Valley residents took on Nov. 15 to get ideas for a proposed new regional high school in the Valley. (Morgan Mitchell | SJVT/FhF)

As the tour proceeded, Raymond highlighted certain design aspects that he found very beneficial as well as a few issues administrators and custodians have faced since the school opened.

Hampden Academy is sectioned off in such a way as to separate different programs. The music, arts, band and theatre departments, for example, have their own wing of the school adjacent to the state-of-the-art auditorium that was funded by private money to extend the dreams of the school’s creators since the state would only fund so much, according to Raymond.

One shortcoming he mentioned was the size of the rooms in the arts wing.

“Our band director will tell you we need a bigger band room,” Raymond said.

Private funds also were raised to expand the gymnasium, in part to accommodate more bleacher space. One issue that was discovered later, he said, was the lack of floor space the basketball team has to sit on the side of the court.

“It’s the little things you don’t think about when you’re making a 180,000-square-foot building, you lose sight of,” he said. “Those are some of the things, that down the road, may impact something that you do traditionally, or that you wish to do.”

Despite minor flaws in the design and layout of the school, high school senior Eliot Small said the sports complex is among his favorite features of the building. Small has attended the school during the entirety of his four years and has remained active in various clubs including student council, a mentorship program with the Big Brothers/Sisters, and the Maine Junior Classical League.

“The classroom design and everything we have here helps facilitate, to where we don’t have to worry, and the teachers can focus more on teaching and not have to worry about their students having proper equipment,” Small said. “The materials and technology that we use are very good.”

However, Raymond suggested that the technology would be one thing he would improve about the school.

Madawaska High School students Kassie Blanchette, right, and Emily Thibeault shoot footage during a tour of Hampden Academy on Thursday, Nov. 15, for WOWL, their school’s online news station. (Morgan Mitchell | SJVT/FhF)

“With the newer technology that we have, we wish we had the newest,” he said. “But, I think at the time, that was the newest technology.”

An alternative education program is nestled in a far wing of the school where the focus does not lie in the use of technology, but rather on the presence of face-to-face learning. Many of the students in the program suffer anxiety around the general student population, according to Raymond.

This program, according to the students in it, allows them to “actually learn from a human being,” and is not to be confused with special education. It was designed to help students learn subjects on a “more individualized” level targeted to their specific educational and social needs.

The wing was designed to have a separate entrance that students with anxiety could use to minimize their interaction with others outside of the program. With restrooms located inside that wing as well, one student said, “You never have to leave this room if you don’t want to.”

Bathrooms became a topic of conversation as the group exited the wing. Raymond said he wished the designers had put a single stall bathroom outside the male and female restrooms. He explained that the current layout of the facilities makes it difficult on students who identify as transgender and that gender neutral bathrooms should be another thing to think about for any future regional high school.

The second school that participants visited was the United Technologies Center, which serves 31 communities in the largest career and technical region in the state. Caron said it was worth visiting because of the “breadth of occupations” that are encompassed in the one facility.

“Most importantly, we went to this school because of how they link similar occupations together,” he said. “We were also impressed with the fact that the building was built in 1979 and to this day, can be reconfigured to meet the needs of today.”

The UTC supports 19 occupational endeavors from plumbing to robotics to culinary arts and hospitality management, all while incorporating the foundations of math and science.

The nearly 40-year-old building was converted and up-cycled throughout the years to accommodate the ever changing technological advances to be taught through courses and used throughout the school. The building acts as a shell while the halls, decor, and woodwork all were designed and created by the students in the various programs.

“Everything the students do is showcased,” Caron said. “How can they not walk through these halls with pride?”

Greg Miller, the UTC director, said that something as simple as lighting could take a building from ugly to beautiful, and he suggested that Valley Unified should shy away from fluorescent lighting in its new building should it have the opportunity.

“Use experts to make sure it’s safe and strong, but don’t let them talk you out of what you want for your school,” Miller said. “Think about what you would put together, not what the Department of Education tells you to put together.”

Mitchell Harvey, a 7th grader from Fort Kent Elementary School, went on the trip to tour the schools with his mother, Sylvia Dow-Harvey, who is a teacher at MSAD 27.

Harvey said he liked the opportunities to do different things that the UTC offers and thought other students would want to go to school if they had as many choices.

“If I could have one thing that I had to have, it would be to have a band program with new and not broken instruments,” Harvey said.

Dow-Harvey said she wants more for her students and is in support of unification and regionalization.

“They deserve the best that the St John Valley can collaboratively give them, not just what each small school can offer,” she said. “We are better together, not separate.”

More needs to be done, however, before the state Board of Education gives final approval for construction of any regional school, including selection of a location for it. Caron indicated Thursday that the 17 members of a site selection committee likely would be announced within a week.

He said not all of the people who went on this bus trip or who would who go on future trips would be members of the site selection committee. Other residents also will have an opportunity to go on the trip to Sanford when the tour of that high school is rescheduled.

Superintendents from the three school systems also are still seeking more volunteers to bounce ideas off of and to create a concept design focus group, Caron said,so folks who are interested should contact their respective superintendent.

Summarizing the reasons for the tours of other facilities and input from as many people as possible, Caron said, “We want to make sure that we have some good ideas for what amenities should be included in [the regional high school] not only for the present, but for well into the future.”

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