Plan for new high school taking shape

STEUBEN — A small group of parents and students gathered at the Ella Lewis School Monday night to discuss the scope and offerings of RSU 24’s new high school.

It was the final meeting of its kind, following more than a month of discussions held in all the RSU 24 schools. The discussions were geared toward understanding what parents, students and community members would like to see in a new high school.

Sumner Memorial High School, the RSU’s only high school, is slated to be replaced in 2020. On Jan. 2, School Board officials voted to approve the current site of Sumner as the location for the new high school.

At Ella Lewis on Monday, five parents and five students met to share their thoughts on what that new facility might look like, and what kinds of programs it might offer.

Katti Meeks, who coaches basketball at the Steuben school, said she came to the meeting because she has three children in the district.

“I came from a bigger school and we were offered more, so I just want to make sure my kids get what I had,” she said in an interview after the meeting.

Katrina Kane, the superintendent of the nearby Hancock and Lamoine schools, who is working with RSU 24 as an educational consultant, started off the discussion by showing slides. Each was an image of modern, brightly lit educational facilities. Large windows poured light onto students working in open-space study areas.

She asked the group where they thought those photos might be from.

“Not in Maine,” one parent said.

“I would guess in the Portland area,” another parent suggested.

“Universally, I’ve had that answer,” Kane told them. But, she said, all of the images were of schools recently built in Maine.

Kane then said she had four questions for the group. She said their answers would be anonymous so that they could feel comfortable to speak freely. She started by asking them what Sumner already does well that they’d like to keep in the new facility.

One parent said she liked project-based learning, and hoped that would continue in the new high school.

“I like that door to the outside,” she said. “I think about that greenhouse that’s all around.”

Asked about what kinds of technical programs should be available, the parents said a home economics course would be really important to help students learn to cook and budget. They also mentioned a desire for more car building and mechanic programs, as well as computer science programs like coding.

The discussion primarily focused on preparing young people for a life in Maine. Other jobs that were referenced as a potential option for students were careers in law enforcement or forestry or as game wardens.

Asked about the possibility of middle and high school students being served in the same building, the parents expressed concern about bussing. The Sumner site is far from Steuben, they said, and could make for a long bus ride for children.

At the same time, they acknowledged that students who are in Ella Lewis from kindergarten through eighth grade can develop behavioral issues when they aren’t challenged enough by their familiar environment. Those students, one parent said, could benefit from a move to the high school facility at sixth grade.

At the end, Kane asked the students what they were interested in having in a new high school.

“Squishy chairs,” one middle school girl said.

Michael Eastman, the RSU 24 superintendent, said the goal of these talks was to get “as grounded and as straight-from-the-mouth” feedback from the community as they could during the development of the new high school.

On Jan. 16, during the School Board’s Building Committee meeting, Kane will present her findings from the conversations to RSU 24 officials. Though that will mark the end of these discussions, RSU 24 Business Manager David Bridgham said this won’t be the end of community input into the process.

“I think from the get-go we have wanted authentic input, and not just for the purpose of doing it,” Eastman said. “We’ve tried from the beginning to be as transparent as possible.”

Overall, Kane said in a phone interview after the Ella Lewis meeting, about 10 to 15 people came to each of the sessions.

“People were very engaged, especially students,” Kane said. “They had fantastic input, drawing on their experience as learners in the RSU.”

Jack Dodson
Jack Dodson began working for The Ellsworth American in mid-2017, and covers eastern Hancock and western Washington counties. He grew up in the Mid-coast region before living in New York City for five years, where he freelanced in documentary filmmaking and journalism. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, environment and immigration reporting.

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