HOULTON, Maine — By all accounts, the first week of school for students in RSU 29 went off without a hitch, despite numerous changes in the district.
That was the word to school board members from principals and administrators during a Sept. 9, 2014 meeting held at Houlton Elementary School.
For budgetary purposes, the district closed Wellington School in Monticello, which relocated nearly 66 pre-kindergarten to third grade students. To make room for those students, the district changed which grade levels are contained in each of its three remaining schools — Houlton Elementary, Southside and Midde/High School.
Sixth-graders now attend classes at Houlton Middle/High School; grades 3-5 attend classes at Southside School; and grades pre-kindergarten to second grade are contained at Houlton Elementary School.
At Houlton Middle/High School, the district originally planned to run three separate schedules — one for sixth-graders similar to their previous class schedule; one for grades 7-9, using a 50-minute, 5-periods per day; and a third for grades 10-12 that featured block scheduling.
Now that school is in session, administrators discovered that plan was not feasible and has since been scrapped, according to Superintendent Mike Hammer. Houlton Middle/High School is now operating on two schedules with grades 7-12 doing a block-type schedule while sixth-grade has a hybrid schedule.
“We started to find some things that just didn’t work out,” Hammer said. “I don’t know what you (school board) have heard about our schedules. (They are) not perfect and not fixed just yet.”
Grades 9-12 reverted to a “block scheduling” format as of Monday morning, according to Marty Bouchard, principal at Houlton High School. “There were numerous unforeseen conflicts that arose from the good-faith effort to create a hybrid schedule for the seventh and eighth graders. We had a lot of things that caught us off guard.”
Some of those scenarios included instances where some students and teachers were not able to have enough time for lunch, while another had seventh-graders changing in the locker room for gym class with juniors.
Letters were sent to parents/guardians of students informing them that the schedules for grades 7-12 were reverting to last year’s format, while sixth grade is now operating on a hybrid schedule that keeps some elements of their old format, while trying to align with the seventh- and eighth-graders.
Hammer said he was also working to coordinate Tuesday’s early-release day schedule so that each school dismisses students at the same time. Currently, the district dismisses students for PLG (Professional Learning Groups) at three different times — 1:49 p.m. at HES, 1:50 p.m. at Southside and 1:55 p.m. at the middle/high school.
Hammer added he was also considering having students released at the same time each day during the week, if a way could be found to give teachers the training time they need. Previously, the district held teacher workshop days, with students attending school for either a half day or having the day completely off. That system was changed to an early-release schedule every Tuesday, in lieu of full workshop days.
“The objective is to keep the PLGs for the hour of professional development,” he said. “Maybe we change the time teachers come in. It’s still a work in progress.”
HES Principal Candy Crane said the transition has been seamless in her building, despite the fact that 17 classrooms changed locations this past summer.
“The new students (from Wellington) have made a great adjustment,” she said. “They all seem to be very happy and have been fitting in very quickly. I am very pleased with the transition,” she said.
Some of the biggest challenges at HES have been teaching routines to the younger students and making sure each student is on the proper bus for the ride home. Making sure all of the new teachers at the school get the professional development they need to succeed is another challenge, she said.
Southside School Principal Cindy Peterson said the biggest challenge at her school has been adjusting to a one-half of the staff and two-thirds of the student body being new to the building.
Transportation Director Joe Schneider said the new school year has gone remarkably well, despite so many changes. He said the district was working to resolve some traffic issues at Houlton Middle/High School.
Hammer noted the district is also now enforcing a long-standing policy in the district regarding students who are eligible to ride a school bus. Students who live in a one-mile radius of the middle/high school will have to walk to and from school. Fifth-graders at Houlton Southside School who live within a half-mile radius of the school will also be required to walk either to the school or a designated bus stop.
“We have 1,376 students and some of our routes are crowded,” Hammer said. “We will be enforcing the one-mile radius (policy) for students in town. I have received phone calls on this. It is not a new policy. There is no sense for a bus to be stopping five or six times on the same street when kids can walk to a bus stop.”
“The one-mile walk has always been enforced, but not clearly identified,” added Schneider. “With our new routing software, we can better identify those students and where the walk-zone is.”