JACKMAN — While school officials across Maine search for ways to reduce the state’s 20 percent dropout rate, Forest Hills Consolidated School regularly graduates all 15 to 20 of its seniors and sends them off with college or career plans in hand.

It might be easy to dismiss this rural outpost, on the western border with Quebec, as an example of how to keep kids in school. After all, Jackman and Moose River, the two tiny towns served by the K-12 school, don’t have many of the challenges and distractions faced by larger, more urban districts. The nearest McDonald’s is 75 miles away in Skowhegan. Crime is so rare that there’s no local police department. The local telephone directory is a pamphlet.

Except that these towns have taken a unique, whole-community approach to education that observers say is a valid example for large and small districts across the state. In the past seven years, residents of Jackman and Moose River have willfully developed a web of support for their school that includes every facet of the community, from business people to social service agencies to civic groups.

School officials and town leaders have worked together to tie academic programs more closely to student, parent and community needs, and to involve residents of all ages and interests in school and town events. In 2007, the district won a National Civic Star Award from the American Association of School Administrators and school food-service provider Sodexho for the creative ways it cultivates community partnerships to enrich student achievement.

Some of their efforts are simple, like requiring all seniors to have at least one college application or a career plan on the principal’s desk by Thanksgiving. Others have as much to do with generating community spirit as they do with rallying support for education, like the Community Night of Thanks, an awards banquet that recognizes town heroes of all ages and stripes.

“I can tell you exactly what’s special about Forest Hills,” said Peter Geiger, a member of the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education and a former chairman of the State Board of Education.

“The community has wrapped itself around education,” said Geiger, who is executive vice president of Geiger Bros. in Lewiston and editor of the Farmers’ Almanac. “They want their kids to go somewhere and be something, whether or not they come back. They want what’s best for the kids because they realize that’s what’s best for the community. They really have thought it through.”

Geiger and others working to improve Maine schools acknowledge that many districts have already taken steps to increase graduation rates. They also admit that it may be more difficult for larger, more urban districts to replicate what’s happening at Forest Hills. But they say it shouldn’t be considered impossible.

They point to cities like Portland and Lewiston, which have graduation rates of 78 percent and 68 percent, respectively, according to the Maine Department of Education. Those communities also have 50 percent poverty rates (like Forest Hills) and large immigrant populations that are learning to speak English.

They say the additional challenges facing larger districts make it even more necessary to take a whole-community approach.

“Everybody in the Forest Hills community has taken responsibility for the school. That’s what we need to do all over Maine,” said Mike Brennan, a policy associate at the Muskie School of Public Service who is co-chairman of Maine’s Shared Youth Vision Council, which sponsored a statewide dropout prevention summit last summer.

COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP TEAM

Changes at Forest Hills started in 2003, when the former superintendent, Dick Curtis, now retired, approached Alan Duplessis, who was then head of the local chamber of commerce. The school — a modest, wood-frame building on Main Street that serves 168 students in three wings — had been through several years of interim superintendents. The community hadn’t focused on the school for a while, and Curtis and Duplessis agreed that students had suffered because of it.

The dropout rate wasn’t their main concern, although three of 16 seniors in the class of 2001 — 19 percent — didn’t graduate. They were more worried about what was happening after graduation.

Only 72 percent of Forest Hills graduates were going on to higher education, according to the Maine Department of Education. That was slightly better than the 70 percent state average, but far below the number they thought should be continuing their schooling. And too often, Duplessis said, students who started college were dropping out and coming home with limited career prospects. Major employers in Jackman and Moose River include a lumber mill, trucking companies, a wide variety of recreation-related businesses and a recently beefed-up border crossing.

“We were looking to make things better all around, for our school and for our community,” Duplessis said.

So Curtis and Duplessis organized a community meeting and invited everyone they could think of, including business owners, social service providers, civic organizations and church leaders. Thirty-eight people showed up. Duplessis was disappointed at first, but he soon realized it was a pretty good turnout.

That first luncheon meeting at Duplessis’ Four Seasons Restaurant gave birth to the Community Leadership Team, an organization dedicated to promoting learning and developing a web of relationships linking all groups and individuals in the two towns. Anyone can join. It boasts 25 to 35 active participants.

The team meets monthly and operates with two basic principles: Each community member can contribute to and benefit from efforts to enhance the common good, and everyone has a role to play in providing young people with the best opportunity to succeed.

“We want (young people) to feel connected to the community,” the team’s mission statement concludes, “so once they finish their education, they will want to be a part of the future of our community and will have the skills to make it thrive.”

The team’s first major effort was to secure a $65,000 MELMAC Education Foundation grant to help start a local newspaper to promote school and community events. It also paid for high school field trips to college campuses and cities in southern Maine.

“A lot of our kids had never been to the city and a lot of our parents had never been to college,” said Duplessis, who heads the leadership team. “We were trying to expose them to things other than here in Jackman and show them what was waiting for them out there.”

To encourage more parent participation at Forest Hills, the team changed the location of the yearly informational meeting for parents of eighth-graders heading to high school. School officials hosted it at Duplessis’ restaurant instead of the school. The move pushed parent participation from 50 percent to nearly 100 percent.

“For some parents who didn’t have a good experience in school, the restaurant became a neutral spot for them to go and feel comfortable,” Duplessis said.

One of many events hosted by the team is an Academy Awards-like “Night of Stars,” when strong readers and writers in kindergarten through grade 8 are treated like Hollywood celebrities. Duplessis got the idea from Geiger, who sponsors a similar event at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston.

Instead of hiring limousines, the leadership team “volunteered” three residents to lend their Hummers to ferry honored students from home to the event. High school students dressed in tuxedos and gowns acted as chauffeurs, paparazzi, ushers.

About 35 students get medals each year and more than 200 people attend. That’s a big deal in a community of about 1,000.

“You should see the kids,” Duplessis said. “They get so excited. We’re focusing on writing this year because the students need help in that area.”

GIVING TAXPAYERS A STAKE

A side benefit of these community-oriented school events comes at budget-approval time, Duplessis said. He believes people are more likely to support education spending when they feel they have a stake in what’s happening in the school. The school’s annual budget, including 24 teachers, is $2.35 million.

The school’s superintendent, Heather Perry, and its principal and assistant superintendent, Denise Plante, are active leadership team members. They meet regularly with team leaders and strive to coordinate school programs and goals with community needs identified by business owners, social service providers and others.

Last year, the team targeted the need for a local computer-repair service so residents wouldn’t have to drive to Skowhegan to get their laptops fixed, Plante said. The school got a $30,000, three-year grant from the Rural School and Community Trust to start a computer-repair club, which also teaches small-business skills.

Students work on computers three afternoons each week and earn college scholarships, funded by the grant. Residents get free computer service. Team members hope one of four students in the club will start a computer-repair service in town after graduation, Plante said.

Joshua Warren could be that person. Before joining the club, Warren knew he liked computers and video games, but he wasn’t sure how to turn it into a career. Now, after he graduates in June, he plans to study computer graphics technology at Southern Maine Community College and earn money for school as a computer-repair specialist in the Portland area.

“It helped me to focus on what I want to do,” Warren said. “It teaches us how to run a business, provide customer service, all the things you need to be a professional rather than someone randomly hitting keys on a keyboard, trying to work things out.”

Since 2003, post-secondary enrollment among Forest Hills graduates has jumped to 98 percent, at schools ranging from Kennebec Valley Community College to Bates College to Cornell University. That puts Forest Hills in a league with Cape Elizabeth and Greely high schools, the only other Maine public high schools to send more than 90 percent of their students to college in 2003, the last year that the state tracked post-secondary enrollments.

Looking ahead, the leadership team wants to involve neighboring communities in its efforts. In May, Forest Hills will host a teen leadership conference for high school students throughout Somerset and Kennebec counties. Team members want to find out what young people in central and western Maine need from their communities.

Folks in Jackman and Moose River acknowledge that none of their efforts, taken individually, could be considered a panacea for high dropout rates in larger districts. Taken as a whole, however, Forest Hills represents a coordinated community approach to education that precludes accepting anything but success for all students.

They believe the web of community support for their young people can be replicated in other districts, classroom by classroom, school by school.

“When I think of the businesses and social services in places like Portland and Lewiston, I’m envious,” Duplessis said. “You could have a web so big.”

 

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

[email protected]