PORTLAND — The school district will host an amnesty day in May, when students who have dropped out of the city’s three public high schools will be invited to return.

The event will be held on a Saturday at the Portland Exposition Building — a site chosen because it’s not a school, not associated with a particular neighborhood and large enough to accommodate a large number of one-on-one conversations.

Organizers plan to contact 50 to 75 students who recently left Portland, Deering or Casco Bay high schools, with the hope that many of them will come back to class in the fall.

“We want to open the door completely, without judgment,” said Beth Arsenault, who heads the alternative education program at Portland High School. “It’s more than a day event. We’re trying to put out a different message, which is that we really want you in school.”

Arsenault, a member of the district’s school completion committee, suggested the amnesty day. She was inspired by similar efforts in Portland High’s library, which allows students to return long-overdue books once a year without fear of paying fines.

While dropouts face no fines or punishments if they return to school, organizers chose the word amnesty to encourage participation and show a willingness to address students’ concerns.

Maine’s largest school district has set a goal to increase its graduation rate, following a statewide dropout prevention summit last summer.

The overall graduation rate for Portland’s three public high schools was 75 percent in 2006-07, compared to a statewide rate of about 80 percent. The national rate ranged from 66 percent to 71 percent from 1996 to 2006.

The school completion committee had planned to hold a community summit this spring, but there were too many conflicting school events, so it has been postponed to the fall.

Arsenault said the amnesty day will help teachers and others gather information they need to help at-risk students stay in school. Many students who drop out come from unstable, low-income families that struggle with drug abuse, physical and sexual abuse, homelessness and other problems.

“We want to find out what wasn’t working for them, in school and out, when they decided to leave, and what we can do to make it better,” Arsenault said. “Having it straight from the horse’s mouth, there’s no better way to make a lasting impression.”

Arsenault said general information gathered at the amnesty event will be shared with teachers during a districtwide staff development day before school starts in the fall.

“It’s not about pointing fingers,” Arsenault said. “It’s about recognizing we have a problem and working together to fix it.”

The amnesty event will include food, music and door prizes. Organizers also plan to invite Portland elementary school teachers, who often represent the best school memories for at-risk students, Arsenault said.

To invite former students to the event, organizers are developing a Facebook page and reaching out through friends and classmates in the district’s alternative education programs.

Organizers have yet to pick an exact date for the event, but it will be held in late May, Arsenault said, when many dropouts realize they’re missing proms and graduations and other year-end events.

Following the amnesty event, teachers and counselors will help former students develop a plan to ease back into school, possibly by attending alternative summer classes.

“We want to give them an opportunity to get back in on their own terms,” Arsenault said. “We want to help them succeed this time.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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