RSU 29 students thrive after grade switch, say administrators (Bangor Daily News Article)

posted Aug 20, 2015, 6:11 AM by RSU 29 Webmaster   [ updated Aug 20, 2015, 6:15 AM ]
(By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff)  HOULTON , Maine— Despite a year of significant change in the RSU 29 school district, teachers and administrators within the schools said that students adjusted well and there were no serious problems this year.

“We really could not have asked more from our students,” said Candy Crane, principal of the Houlton Elementary School. “They really stepped up, adjusted well and they did everything that we expected of them. It was a great year.”

The numerous changes in the district, which serves the communities of Houlton, Hammond, Littleton and Monticello, were caused by the closing of the Wellington School in Monticello at the end of the school year in June 2014. The school board voted to close the school due to declining enrollments and rising expenses. Closing the school, which served 66 students from pre-kindergarten through grade three at the time, was expected to save the district $109,000 a year.

As a result, all pupils but the third graders from Monticello began this school year at Houlton Elementary School, approximately 13 miles away.

All the third graders from both the shuttered Monticello school and Houlton Elementary were sent across the street to the Southside School, which had previously only served students in grades four through six. That move led to the sixth graders being moved up to Houlton High School, which at that point had only housed seventh through 12th grade students.

Crane said that Houlton Elementary School had a huge kindergarten enrollment this year, with 75 youngsters, and a total school enrollment of 412 students. The administration did not have to make any changes to the facility, she said, and there were no changes to instructional material. She added that the district’s transportation director worked “very hard” to rework bus routes so that students from Monticello did not have to spend too long on the busses or rise too early.

“There was one or two complaints, but that is it,” she said.

At Southside School, Principal Cindy Peterson also said the entire school of 290 students worked together to “create a great school environment.”

“We spent spent a lot of time on team building for students and for our staff, because half of them were new teachers who had come from other schools,” she said. “We had an open house over the summer to ease any anxieties our new students had and their parents had. We seem to have gotten everyone on the same page so that everyone in the building feels like this is a family.”

She said that the biggest challenge, especially for the third graders who came over from Houlton Elementary School, was the lack of playground equipment. While the elementary school has a substantial playground, Southside has only aging basketball hoops, slides and tetherball equipment.

“The biggest complaint is that there is nothing to do out there,” said Crane. “There is fundraising going on to see what can be done over the next few years to get equipment there.”

Next year, however, there will be some changes, including returning to having students eat lunches with their peers in the same grade and ending a pilot project called “looping,” which had some home room classes staying with their teacher for two consecutive years in a row.

At the high school, Superintendent Mike Hammer said Friday that the sixth grade change also was a success.

“I think it worked out really well,” he said. “Next year the sixth, seventh and eighth grades will be on the same schedule and they will not have to be separated as much. The concerns that some of the parents raised about bullying and the sixth graders mixing with the high schoolers too much never materialized. I credit the principal and the vice principal for that. We were able to keep them separated, the sixth grade had recess at different times, and we were able to keep separate entrances for them, so there were few problems.”

At this point, Hammer said he cannot give a dollar amount for how much was saved by closing Wellington School, but said the district did save funds by closing the facility.