Madison Bleau, a seventh-grader at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham, is serving on the Maine Department of Education’s first student cabinet where she plans to advocate for alternative education opportunities like her school’s aquaponics project. Darcie Moore / The Times Record

TOPSHAM — Madison Bleau and classmate Cailey Buckner were busy bringing a leaky glass tank back to their aquaponics operation on the sunny second-foot balcony at Mt. Ararat Middle School.

Fish swam in tanks near grow beds for vegetable plants under grow lights. The students are responsible for keeping the fish alive and use the fish waste to fertilize the plants using a filtration system.

Bleau and Buckner are learning about aquaponics as part of the school’s alternative learning program. The experience inspired Bleau to join the Maine Department of Education’s first student cabinet earlier this school year to promote alternative education programs across the state.

“I got to talk about what I do and how much fun it is,” Bleu said. “I remember talking a whole lot about giving the kids that opportunity I had because some people do have a hard time focusing in regular classrooms where they have to sit down and focus one subject for a series of time.”

Bleau was one of 33 students selected from more than 300 applicants for the student cabinet. It is made up of students from all 16 counties in Maine in fourth grade through the first year of college. The student cabinet was created to include student voices in decision making at the state level.

The cabinet will meet quarterly with Education Commissioner Pender Makin to talk about educational opportunities and policy improvements. During the kickoff meeting a month ago, students identified the equity of access to education as a top issue.

“Whether that is expanding programs like alternative education or what has been considered ‘gifted and talented’ education, internships, higher education or AP courses, our students want a broader range of opportunities,” said Kelli Deveaux, spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

Bleau’s teacher, John Hawley, said his students are learning engineering and culinary skills — along with aquaponics — while learning the same subjects as other students. They are starting a drone project soon.

With about 600 students attending Mt. Ararat High School, there was a waiting list at the beginning of the school year for one of the 12 slots in the alternative education program. Teachers identify the students they feel would best benefit from the program and who aren’t as engaged with the traditional method of instruction.

“I would love to grow,” Hawley said. “It could be something to work towards in the future.”

Bleau wants to make sure all students get the chance to learn in the way that best suits them.

“Everyone is good at something, and even if it’s not sitting in a traditional classroom learning for a certain amount of time, everybody can do it,” she said. “Sometimes in different forms.”

Mt. Ararat Middle School seventh-grade Madison Bleau crouches next to the fish she and fellow members of the school’s alternative education program raise through their aquaponics project. Darcie Moore / The Times Record

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