Getting students involved in their school is perhaps the most important part in preventing them from dropping out, leaders at four northern Oxford County high schools say.

Administrators at Bethel, Buckfield, Dixfield and Rumford high schools are taking steps to reduce their dropout rates and meet the needs of every student.

Buckfield Junior-Senior High School had a dropout rate of 5.6 percent for 2008-09, which is higher than the state average of 3.4 percent, according to the Department of Education’s data for that school year.

Principal George Reuter said because the school is so small, with about 200 students in grades 9-12, one child leaving can make a percentage difference.He said the school tries to engage students any way they can with hands-on activities and extra academic help. An after-school program is designed to help with homework and provide something fun to get involved in, such as the vegetable garden that students in grades seven to nine plant and care for.

There’s also a “prime time” period three times a week at the high school where students can receive help in any subject. All high school teachers are available during that period.

At Mountain Valley High School in Rumford, where the dropout rate was 3.2 percent in 2008-09, Principal Chris Decker said prevention doesn’t start in high school. It begins much earlier.

If children feel connected early, chances are they will remain active and involved members of their schools right through graduation, he said.

But for Decker, who has been involved in dropout prevention for three years, it’s the high school that is getting his concentration. He, along with GEAR-UP coordinator Barbara Radmore, hold monthly meetings with parents off-site to brainstorm ideas about what works and what doesn’t. The next meeting of the Student Success Team is set for 5:30 p.m. March 3 at Rumford Public Library.

“We don’t have a high dropout rate,” Radmore said. “But we’re addressing those at risk.”

Also, every other month staff gets together to brainstorm methods that might work for youngsters at risk. Bullying has been addressed by offering a hot line monitored by a staff member trained to follow up on reports safely and confidentially. That website is http://tinyurl.com/CRT2HELP.

At Telstar Regional High School in Bethel, where the dropout rate was 3.4 percent for 2008-09, a Students at Risk/Drop Out Prevention Committee has also been meeting to work on the issue. The committee is broad; it includes staff who teach all age levels, administrators, community members, students, parents and at least one student who has dropped out.

The group is looking at different learning styles as well as methods to bridge academics and careers, Principal Dan Hart said. They are also looking at literacy for the high school level. It’s offered in all other grades, Dean of Students Charlie Raymond said. Falling behind can precipitate a student dropping out.

A proposed dropout prevention plan is tentatively scheduled to go before the school board in April.

Hart and others at the high school are also looking to possibly reform the way education is presented in the future.

Principal Mike Poulin of Dirigo High School in Dixfield said his school has no formal dropout prevention committee, but does have several layers of offerings aimed at connecting students to their school and offering academic help when needed.

For example, the school offers an adviser/advisee program. Youngsters stay with the homeroom teacher for all four years. There are also the Peer Assistant Study Session and Teacher Assistant Study Session programs. Freshmen needing academic help can get that help after school with a teacher. Those in the higher grades get tutorial help from a University of Maine at Farmington student during the school day learning labs.

Poulin also has lunch with a small group of seniors every Friday, as sort of an “exit” interview, he said. During those lunches, students make suggestions that might improve the school.

“But the overwhelming majority of kids like it here,” he said.

The school’s dropout rate was 1.8 percent in 2008-09.

Dirigo, along with Mountain Valley and Buckfield, all part of Western Foothills Regional School Unit 10, also have an alternative education program for middle and high school students. The region eventually plans to bring all three former districts under one dropout prevention program.

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