SAD 52 closing school, for now

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TURNER – The 20-year-old River Valley Alternative School will be closed for a year starting in June to evaluate its programming and possibly expand participation to towns outside SAD 52.

The nationally recognized school has “strayed from its founding principles and is no longer consistently meeting the standards set for it,” SAD 52 Superintendent Hanson said.

“The school has lost its ties to the community and become distracted from its mission to create and provide alternative ways of teaching and learning.” This is especially problematic at a time “when expectations for student achievement are rising,” he said he told district directors meeting Thursday.

“Only 12 of the current 31 students in the school are earning the five credits this year to continue studies in their program next year,” the superintendent advised. Total costs of the program are $220,000 for this school year for 24 students plus seven more on superintendent’s agreements from other towns. There were four graduates in 2005, and possibly only two this June, he said.

“I cannot support it educationally nor can I support it fiscally,” he said. “Most importantly, (it) needs a fresh start elsewhere to change perceptions.”

He recommended a consultant be hired and the towns of Livermore, Buckfield, Greene and Leeds be approached, “and collectively we work toward the design of a new concept.”

SAD 52 directors from Turner, Greene and Leeds voted 8-1 to follow his recommendations.

Hanson said the adult education day program will be available to all River Valley school students 17 years old or older by the start of the school year, and he will work with Leavitt Area High School in Turner to develop programming at Leavitt for the other six students.

The are six full- or part-time teachers at the school will receive consideration for openings that occur in the district for which they are qualified, he said.

River Valley Alternative School is housed in a building across the street from Leavitt Area High School. Sixteen years ago, it was featured on NBC Nightly News as a national model for preventing dropouts, and one of the school’s co-founders, Bill Nave of Winthrop, was named Maine’s 1990 Teacher of the Year and one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.

Hanson acknowledged the school once had an outstanding reputation because it actively recruited dropouts and encouraged transfers from Leavitt Area High School. At least 50 students attended the school each year, 70 percent of them going on to higher education. He said students had direct and productive ties to the community, school programming was varied and individually based and students attended the school by choice and were not placed on the basis of behavior.

Today, however, the program image in the community is no longer positive, learning is self-paced and book-oriented with loss of community ties and the world of work and regular attendance is not mandated, he said, so teachers at times are in the classroom but students choose not to attend.

The decision to close the school has brought opposition from two longtime teachers, Ric French and Louis Dineen.

They said that since the board’s first discussion of closure March 23, none of the directors have visited the school or talked about the problems they see with any teachers or interim director Pat Jacobs.

They said they welcome positive changes, but they don’t want the students to be abandoned.

French and Dineen said the Leavitt high school guidance office could have referred up to 16 students to the program but didn’t, and they said they know of half a dozen dropouts who would have been prime candidates for the alternative school but were advised they couldn’t go there. They also explained that some alternative students can’t go to Leavitt because they are under court orders to stay away or have been expelled.

Dineen said a comment was made by the administration at the March 23 meeting that administrators have been watching River Valley Alternative School fall apart for three years, and a parent asked why nothing had been done and got no answer.

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