BANGOR – High school dropouts and curriculum standards were topics Wednesday night at a gubernatorial debate run largely by high school students.

The Maine Coalition on Excellence in Education and its sister organization, Prepare Maine, asked all five candidates on Tuesday’s ballot to focus on education.

They did.

In an unusual format, high school students asked the questions, each taking a turn at the microphone to inquire about the cost and quality of education. With students on the stage, the candidates did not engage each other about their differences.

Instead, they adopted softer tones, addressing the students directly as they answered various questions.

The candidates — independent Eliot Cutler, Republican Paul LePage, Democrat Libby Mitchell, independent Shawn Moody and independent Kevin Scott — offered various ideas about how to keep teenagers from dropping out of school.

“We need to find those kids and we need to find what motivates them,” LePage said, adding that he thinks the state must devote resources to reduce the dropout rate.

Mitchell said she wants Jobs for Maine Graduates, which targets at-risk students and already is in some high schools, to be offered everywhere in Maine.

She also said schools must keep up with the changing times. “Technology is so much a part of a student’s life,” she said.

Cutler said too many students drop out, and some who graduate aren’t ready for college. Schools must be maintained so communities can provide education even to students who don’t finish in four years, he said.

“Twenty-two percent of kids who graduate and start out at the University of Maine need remedial courses,” he said.

Moody said schools must do “exit interviews” with dropouts to find out what’s keeping them away from school. Also, schools need to be proactive to help at-risk students, he said. “Identify kids at risk early on.”

Scott said core standards are important, and he would want to make sure the standards are relevant to the changing economy. “Maine is a nimble state, a capable state,” he said.

Across the state, students gathered for 20 watch parties for the debate. With the election just days away, some people are still trying to decide who they will support.

A crowd of about 175 attended the debate in Peakes Auditorium at Bangor High School. Each candidate got to choose someone to introduce them, which set the tone for a cordial evening.

Cutler chose a college Republican who is supporting his campaign, while LePage and Moody had their daughters say a few words. Mitchell and Scott chose younger children to talk about why they support their candidacies.

The candidates will meet again tonight for a live broadcast debate. The event’s sponsor, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, announced late Wednesday that LePage had decided not to participate.

In a written statement, News Director Keith Shortall said he was “disappointed” that LePage pulled out, but the debate will go on as scheduled at 8 p.m. at Bates College.