New school offers a bright future

I have been watching and listening to the ongoing debate for the new Valley Unified High School from the sidelines for the past two and a half years and feel that I have a unique perspective to add to the discussion. 

I have been involved with SAD 27 since fall 1987 as a teacher and as an administrator for the past three years.  I also have an outside perspective as a teacher and administrator in several other high schools with populations from 150 to 600 students.

Research finds that there is a “sweet spot” for a school population. A recent study suggests that the ideal school size is 600-900 students. A school should be large enough to provide critical, interesting and varied learning pathways for its students but small enough to foster relationships between students and staff; keeping students from falling through the cracks.   

When I began teaching at CHS in 1987 we had a population of 500 students.  At this time there were three distinct pathways: business, college and trades at our school.  Many electives were offered in all subject areas to meet students’ interests and needs. Graduates from Fort Kent attended prestigious colleges throughout the country.  Loring Air Force base closed in September 1994 and sent an economic wave which slowly shrank every school district in this once-vibrant County.  The loss of services to our students was slow and gradual. Programs and electives diminished as staff positions were lost. During the same time state and federal special education mandates increased and more funding was funneled in this direction.  The loss of programs was slow enough that students and parents barely noticed. The cumulative change was most certainly devastating to the offerings for our students. Fortunately, CHS is endowed with a gifted and caring faculty that helped do more with less. 

I left SAD 27 from 2013-2017. During this time there was a loss of numerous AP, science and English electives and several key faculty. I was principal of Fort Fairfield Middle High School with a population of 150 students during this time.  Even with an excellent teaching staff, it was hard to deliver personalized education where students were able to find the coursework to motivate them. It was one size fits all.  Currently, Madawaska is in a similar situation and Wisdom even more so. Students must settle for a bare-bones curriculum and very few courses that can allow them to see the numerous career opportunities that are available in today’s world. Unfortunately, SAD 27 is also moving in this direction as CHS is currently at 250 students.  

Being that Fort Kent is “the little town that could”, we have fared better than most County schools.  Our cooperation with Madawaska and SAD 33 allowed us to develop a trades program at the Saint John Valley Technical Center.  We were able to develop the first early college high school program in the state through our affiliation with UMFK. Through incredible hard work and a labor of love, our Valley Unified administrators helped procure a $100 million grant from the Maine Department of Education to build a new school to house the tri-district students.  If we were to combine grades 7-12 today, we would be at 708, which is within the educational sweet spot once enjoyed by both Madawaska and Fort Kent.  Numerous, forward thinking pathways are already being envisioned for the merger.

As a lifelong educator, I am very excited for the children of the upper Saint John Valley. The programming in this “state-of-the-art” facility will certainly offer opportunities that students in the best schools in Maine and New England already enjoy.  Valley Unified Middle High School will enable them to be competitive in the expanding world marketplace or be productive contributors to our community if they decide to stay here.  This new school will be internally integrated with a technology center and continued college access.  Middle school students will have better access to sampling trades programs so they can be better informed on their high school career pathway.  

Unfortunately, we have only one opportunity for this dream to become a reality.  The $100 million offered by the state DOE is for one new school; it cannot be split among the three current schools for renovation.  If we decide against this merger, the funds will be allocated to another group of districts elsewhere in the state.  

Our three high schools are old, tired and not energy efficient.  CHS, bless the old girl, will need new electrical and plumbing systems sooner than later. The waiting line for school renovation funding is long.  Local taxpayers would most likely shoulder the burden of these necessary and critical renovations. 

I simply compare our two options for the educational future of the upper St. John Valley like this: Most adults have had the opportunity to buy a new car or keep an old one.  The old car is inexpensive to run for a few years, but after a while it needs major systems replaced.  The body begins to lose its luster and interior gets worn and ripped. Without major repairs it becomes unsafe and an eyesore.  The new car, on the other hand, can run for quite a while before it needs financial input.  It is more fuel efficient, technologically up to date and helps the owner feel confident –and yes,special.

Our school scenario is quite close to the automobile one, except a rich uncle is buying the car.  At this point we are not sure what it will cost to run the new school, but we know that repairing the old buildings will cost local taxpayers a small fortune to update, modernize and still provide our children a quality education.   

The citizens of our three communities have the opportunity to weigh in Feb. 11 and 12 with a straw poll for the Valley Unified Middle High School school site in Frenchville.  If the yeas outweigh the nays in each community, the process will continue.  The school plans will be worked up, costs calculated and residents will find out what the true costs to taxpayers will be in the long run.  If the nays win, the process will most likely end, taxes will likely go up, the quality of our children’s education may suffer as funds will need to be spent on infrastructure.  

A new school, no matter the location, will offer our children and communities a bright future and a sense of pride that will last generations.  Families will stay in our area and others will be drawn here for a unique way of life. Keeping our current facilities will most definitely signal the beginning of the end, a slow and certain decline in our educational offerings. People will leave to avoid higher taxes and our communities will crumble like our schools.  Our children deserve the best. Let’s give them the opportunity by getting all the facts of costs for both scenarios. Vote “yes” in February to get all the facts so we can have an educated debate and make an informed decision on the future of our schools, community and way of life. 

John Kaletais the principal of Community High School and Valley Rivers Middle School in Fort Kent.

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