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Majority of students surveyed support regional high school

FORT KENT, Maine — The majority of students in grades 6-12 attending schools in three St. John Valley school administrative units involved with the Valley Unified Regional Service Center support the construction of a new regional high school in the area, according to recent focus groups.

Peter Caron, coordinator of innovative practice and community outreach for VURSC, presented questions about the proposed regional high school to 220 students, with 35 percent of them from the Madawaska School Department, 25 percent from SAD 33, and 40 percent from SAD 27. Caron said the percentages represent a “pretty equal distribution” of students from the three school administrative units.

Last year, the state authorized funding Valley Unified up to $100 million for a new regional high school that would replace the three existing high schools and serve students from Grand Isle to Allagash. Joined under the umbrella of the Valley Unified Regional Service Center, the three school administrative units, or SAUs, continue to move ahead with the site selection and design process. Residents of the member communities will still need to vote to approve the project and the Maine Department of Education also will need to OK plans moving forward.

Fifty one percent of the students participating in the focus groups said they feel a new regional high school is a good idea, while 30 percent do not feel that it is, Caron told members of the Valley Unified Regional Board during their meeting in Fort Kent on Tuesday, March 12. Another 19 percent were undecided.

When asked where a new regional high school should be located, all of the students replied that it should be centrally located “so that travel distances are fair,” Caron told the Valley Unified board which was joined Tuesday by Maine Commissioner of Education Pender Makin. Makin attended the meeting after visiting several of the schools in the region.

Caron said that in the students’ responses to all of his questions, “for every advantage to the new high school, a disadvantage was mentioned.”

For instance, he said some students felt that combining the three existing high schools into one would improve the competitive standing of the local sports teams. Others, however, pointed out that with more athletes, there would be less playing time for some students.

“They realized that (a new regional high school) is a tremendous opportunity, but that it wasn’t going to come without challenges,” Caron said.

The students also were asked to share what they were hearing about the proposed regional school from the adults in their lives.

“A lot of it comes right down to location,” Caron said. “As to whether people see the location as being fair and equitable to everyone.”

If they were eligible to vote in local referendums and were asked to vote for or against a new regional high school, 145 of the students, or 66 percent indicated they would vote in favor. Sixty-nine of the students, or 31 percent indicated they would vote against the new school. The other three percent of students were undecided.

“So the young people who are experiencing enrollment decline and all that means, they’re saying this is a good idea,” Caron said. “We can only hope voting age adults listen to the voice of the young people.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Makin visited classes at Fort Kent Elementary School, Madawaska Elementary School and the St. John Valley Technology Center.

Makin also viewed a presentation about the work that is being done by the three school administrative units with regard to regionalization efforts.

“You must all be so incredibly proud of your schools The innovative things you’re doing blows out of the water things I’ve seen,” Makin told the Valley Unified Board.

“The fact that you’re able to work together like this is so unique,” she said. “You’re bringing everybody’s learning opportunities through the roof.”

Ben Sirois, the executive director for the Valley Unified Board who also will become the sole superintendent for the combined SAUs as of July 1, 2019, referred to Makin’s approach to guiding the Maine Department of Education as “a breath of fresh air.”

“Just the fact that she would come to this board meeting shows the level of commitment she has to education,” Sirois said.  

The next meeting of the Valley Unified Regional School Board of Directors will take place Tuesday, May 14.

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