BUCKSPORT — Tucked away near the top of Oak Hill, the REACH School presented itself to the public in an open house on Oct. 11.
The 15 middle and high school students at REACH invited friends, neighbors, teachers and other community members to the event, where the students spoke with pride about the qualities that make their school unique.
The 30-year-old school is an alternative for students who have social anxiety or can’t focus in a traditional classroom. But despite their positive experiences at REACH, students said that many people outside the school think of it as a depot for kids with addiction or discipline issues.
“People assume I’m a drug addict or that I’ll get pregnant here or get into fistfights,” said Katelyn Sawyer, a freshman from Bucksport. “But the kids here are really great.”
Sawyer said she too thought the REACH School was a place for troublemakers, before one of her friends started going there. Then she found out how supportive the students there are for each other.
“It’s a good place but it has a bad reputation,” she said.
Sawyer’s experience reflects that of many other students and parents at the open house: the REACH School seems more scary from a distance than it does up close.
“I thought the bad kids, the druggy, juvie kids came here,” said Jessica McGuire, a Bucksport native whose son Jesse is a freshman at REACH School. “But as I got older, my friends came here and I realized it’s a great place.”
McGuire said Jesse suffered from severe social anxiety before he came to REACH.
“He used to vomit every day, he was so anxious before school,” she said. “Now he gets himself out of bed and showers and makes friends. He’s flourished.”
“I got perfect attendance!” said Jesse, a newly-minted straight-A student, flashing a bright smile and two thumbs up.
Daniel Little, a junior from Orland, and Alex Burbank, a junior from Bucksport, both wrestle for Bucksport High School when they’re not taking classes at REACH.
The two athletes talked about how REACH students can still compete on Bucksport’s sports teams, take certain classes such as welding and walk across the graduation stage with non-REACH students.
Part of what makes REACH such an accepting environment, Burbank said, is the group activities they do together.
“We make our own maple syrup,” he said. “We have a pancake breakfast and Thanksgiving dinner.”
Those activities help the REACH seem more like a second home for students.
“The school never fails to amaze me,” said Scylvia Touponce, a senior from Sumner. “I love REACH.”
One of the guests at the open house was Bobby Conary, the chief of the Orland Fire Department. Conary has worked with plenty of local high-schoolers over the years, and he said the REACH students always stand out.
“They’re fired up,” he said. “The REACH school kids get right in the middle of things. Three of them went on to the fire academy and are still fighting fires.”