NEW GLOUCESTER — Saying it’s time to change how it helps troubled teenagers, Opportunity Farm may go from being a residential home to a residential school this fall.

It is exploring merging with a Camden organization and allowing students to earn high school diplomas directly from the farm. Now students attend the nearby Gray-New Gloucester High School.

For more than 100 years, Opportunity Farm has helped at-risk youth. “They’ve had a bump in the road and dropped out of the traditional school,” said board member Betsy Kelly, who is chairing a merger committee. “They’ve had a tough upbringing or have barriers to education in their house,” which could include alcohol issues, low income or no steady income. Opportunity Farm offers teens a place to live with structure, academic guidance and high expectations.

Recent changes in state funding have meant a loss of MaineCare money and students, Kelly said. This year it has 15 students, it can hold up to 30.

“Looking at our history, we’ve been open for 100 years. We started as a farm, then we added academics, then girls. It’s time to reassess,” Kelly said.

Merging with the Community School in Camden and replicating its programs would attract state education money for some students. The rest would be paid for through grants, foundations and private fundraising, officials said.

Camden has two programs that would be offered in New Gloucester. One would be a small, residential alternative school “for eight students at a time. They attend nine months a year,” said Meg Sideris of the Community School.

She described the program as rigorous, hands on, and offers career exploration. Teachers work with teens to find areas they’re interested in, then give opportunities for students to work in that field. The school is small. “Our gym is the YMCA. Our library is the public library,” Sideris said.

The second program is for teen mothers. “Their curriculum could include household budget, nutrition, childhood development,” she said. Because many young mothers have problems with transportation and child care, “our teachers go to them.”

As planned there would be 50 students at both the Camden and New Gloucester sites next year. The school would find a new name, one that would incorporate Camden’s Community School and New Gloucester’s Opportunity Farm.

Merging “would benefit us because we’d have a strong partner,” said Camden’s Sideris. “We’d be getting the ability to fundraise in southern Maine. And these great kids are going to be residents in our state.” It’s important to help them complete their high school education, Sideris said. There is a need for their programs in southern Maine, she added.

Camden and New Gloucester have different strengths, Kelly said. “We have more of a donor base and history. They bring a better program than what we have.” The change would help combat the number of dropouts in Maine, she added. “We’re really excited. These are kids who are just lost.”

The Opportunity Farm would continue to provide stable, family-style homes for at-risk youth where students have to help with chores, give back, but also have healthy fun, Kelly said.

A final decision on a merger would happen in the next few months, Kelly said.

For more information on the two organizations go to www.thecommunityschool.org and www.opportunityfarm.org

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