Sophomore Elv Jopling, left, and senior Michelle Morley outside Sanford High School on Tuesday. Both students are a part of the alternative learning program that the Sanford School Department plans to cut after this school year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

For as long as he can remember, Elv Jopling has struggled with his mental health. Everything got worse during the pandemic.

When school resumed in person, it was so overwhelming that Jopling, 15, wore noise-canceling headphones, had constant anxiety attacks and started to self-harm in an effort to distract from the stress of it all. After three trips to a hospital crisis unit and two suicide attempts, Jopling, who uses he/they pronouns, was offered a spot in Sanford High School’s alternative learning program.

The program is a small, supportive environment for 40 students that is housed in its own wing of the school. In the year since Jopling joined, his attendance and grades have improved, he hasn’t had any trips to crisis centers and learned to cope with anxiety without missing classes.

The program is now at risk of being cut as school and city leaders struggle to balance the needs of students with a projected $5 million in increased expenses and the accompanying nearly 30% tax increase that the city is trying to whittle down.

The prospect of losing the program has hit students hard and spurred them and their parents to fight to keep it.

“Please don’t put me back at the bedside of my child at 3 in the morning, holding their hand and praying that there’s no lasting damage because swallowing a handful of pills and not existing was an easier thought than spending one more day at that school,” Stephanie Jopling, Elv’s mother, told the school committee on Monday.


The committee heard an hour of public comment from current and former students, parents and others from the community who implored them to find a way to keep the program. They said it provides a lifeline to students and puts them on a path to success. They said they’re afraid of what will happen when it’s gone.

The school committee, which has been working on the budget for the past month, was scheduled to vote on a budget to forward to the City Council on Monday. But members delayed the vote until Thursday morning to give themselves time to digest what they heard in public comment. The council could support whatever recommendation the school committee makes – or direct it to find more cuts.


The alternative learning program has been in place in Sanford for the past two decades. Students must apply and go through an interview process to get in. The program has its own teachers and caps classes at 13 students.

Sanford High senior Michelle Morley is a part of the alternative learning program at the school that serves about 40 students who struggle with anxiety, depression and other issues that make learning in a typical environment difficult. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Students develop such close relationships with their classmates and teachers that it feels like a family, said Michelle Morley, an 18-year-old senior who has been in the program for two years. She joined after her mental health grew so bad that she’d hide in the school bathroom, shaking from anxiety attacks and calling her mom to pick her up early.

“I went from failing classes to passing everything,” she said. “I was able to learn how to study, how to interact with people in a normal way. I got one-on-one attention from my teachers.”


Elv Jopling said he wouldn’t be where he is today without the support of the teachers and students in the program.

“I feel safer. I feel comfortable being myself more,” Jopling said. “I overall feel more comfortable existing in the school.”

The idea of cutting the alternative learning program is difficult and one that no one takes lightly, said Superintendent Matt Nelson. But the school committee had to find places to cut and nixing the program would save the district $335,378 per year, largely by eliminating 3.5 teaching positions, he said.

“We’re not looking at eliminating positions or programs because they’re not effective,” he said. “All of them have a positive impact on students. That makes the challenge that much greater.”

The district is facing a $5 million funding gap next year in order to keep up all of its current programs. Expenses are up 9.2% and the district lost $567,000 in state education subsidy because the city’s valuation continues to increase.

Without spending cuts, the district would have to pass a staggeringly high 29.4%, or $4.8 million, tax increase, Nelson said.


“The challenge for us is how can we meet our needs but also make sure that what we’re doing is fair to taxpayers,” Nelson said. “The valuation has gone up, but what hasn’t gone up in people’s ability to pay.”

The school committee has worked to get that budget down to just over $65 million, reducing the expected tax increase to 9.4%.

It also plans to cut some staff positions that were funded with extra COVID-19 money. Most of that funding was used to add staff to reduce class sizes so schools could safely reopen and to address the increased social-emotional needs of students, Nelson said.

Schools are now largely back to pre-pandemic class sizes, but school leaders hope to keep some positions to cover needs that were pre-existing and impact a large number of students, including a social worker. That means making hard decisions to cut other programs like alternative learning and an attendance coordinator position that serves a much smaller number of students, Nelson said.


The day before February vacation, the alternative learning teachers sat their students down to tell them the program might be cut. That news was met with anger and grief.


Jopling spent the rest of the day crying. Morley said she was “horrified and angry” and worries that students from the program won’t be able to cope.

“I’m so sad for all the kids in Sanford that need this program. It’s heartbreaking,” said Theresa Chagnon, Morley’s mother.

Nicole Shepard said the news was devastating for her 16-year-old daughter, Dakota, a junior in the program.

“It was instant panic about having to go into the main building,” she said. “She’s already in the mindset that she’s not going to graduate.”

Stephanie Jopling hugs her child, Elv Jopling, 15, who is a part of the alternative learning program at the school. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Students and parents told Nelson and the school committee that they worry students will not have the support they need if they’re shifted to mainstream classes. They said guidance counselors already have too much on their plates.

“To put 40 students struggling with issues like I have been into a situation they know doesn’t work is just ridiculous. It’s not solving anything,” said student Jazz Sweet.


Nelson acknowledges the school won’t be able to provide the same level of support, but said the school will try to steer them to courses and other programs where they can make close connections. They’ll also have access to counselors and the school social worker, he said.

“We’re going to have to do our best to identify those students and do what we can to help them make other connections,” he said.

If the school budget that is sent to voters for approval in June cuts the program, students and parents say they will campaign against it.

Stephanie Jopling, Elv’s mother, said she promised her child she wouldn’t stop trying to save the program.

“I’ve told them I’m going to fight this until there’s nothing left to fight,” she said.

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