A sign marks the line between the small towns Starks and Anson in Somerset County. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald file photo

STARKS — For the past four weeks, a few Mt. Blue High School students have been frequenting the Community Center for two hours every Wednesday evening for internet access and tutoring as they navigate yet another quarter of hybrid learning.

The program is a result of the Regional School Unit 9 Drop Out Prevention Committee. It has been brainstorming since September how to address connectivity inequity among students during remote learning.

“Getting kicked off Zoom due to internet issues at home is not acceptable, but in our more rural towns, with only one broadband provider, that is our reality for too many families struggling with hybrid or wholly remote learning,” Carol Coles of Starks, a member of the RSU 9 board and the committee, wrote in an email.

Weld and Starks were identified as the most vulnerable when it came to students without internet access,  but due to limited funding, the pilot remote program was focused on Starks.

“We looked at the number of students enrolled and Starks has more students enrolled in the school district than Weld,” Franklin County Adult Education Director Nancy Allen said in a Zoom interview.

Allen also serves on the Drop Out Prevention Committee and provides tutoring along with two others. She sees this pilot program as a preventive measure so students don’t end up at the Adult Education Center later due to falling behind.

“I had some time that I could do it,” Allen said. “I also felt very strongly that we were going to lose kids if we didn’t do something and that’s very important that they don’t drop out. My goal is that they stay in and make the connections.” 

Six students regularly attend the tutoring session where Allen has observed a number of setbacks imposed by remote learning. One student has no internet access at all while at home and downloads material at school during in-person learning days to prepare for remote days.

The hybrid schedule has also slowed the establishment of the student-teacher relationship and it requires more email communication which can be intimidating for students and of course, requires internet.

“The school district has done everything they can,” Allen said. “They’ve handed them hot spots, they’ve tried to see if it’s the hot spot provider, things like that. But there’s a real limit out there.”

With the help of grant funding, Coles is assessing Starks’ connectivity as the first step in developing a plan that would improve internet access for the town.

“I also am trying to document current internet status and develop a plan for improvement through a successful one-year duration small Phase 1 Planning Grant from the ConnectMaine authority that I wrote as a volunteer on behalf of the Town of Starks,” she wrote. The grant is for $5,000.

Meanwhile, the pilot remote program in Starks has one week left before funding is depleted. The initial funding came from a Gear Up Maine grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, which invests in preparing “students who are economically disadvantaged for postsecondary education,” according to the website.

The committee initially hoped to implement this pilot remote program to two other disadvantaged communities and offer the tutoring sessions twice a week, but there was not enough funding. The district is now seeking grant money to continue the program in Starks for the remainder of the school year.

Allen estimated that the program costs about $1,200 for five weeks of operations with the town offering the Community Center as a resource.

“I am immeasurably proud of our little town of 640 for its adoption and support of this pilot and its ongoing strong commitment to educational opportunity,” Coles said.

Allen, who has seen the results firsthand, said the effects of the program have been incredibly positive. Students’ grades have improved just in the past month, along with their sense of accomplishment as they turn in overdue work that had been looming over them.


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