HOULTON – Over the past few decades, the number of potato growers and the total acreage they cultivate has declined.
That has prompted many Aroostook County school districts to change the way they schedule their traditional harvest break, a recess each fall that allows students to work during potato harvest.
During a meeting earlier this week, the SAD 29 board officially decided to join in the trend.
The board decided to schedule a split harvest break for the 2007-2008 school year, with board member Kim Thompson voting against it.
A split-break policy will allow seventh- to 12th-graders to adhere to the customary practice of taking three weeks off each fall to help growers harvest potatoes.
Pupils in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, however, will receive only one week off.
Under the new policy, students in grades seven through 12 will break for harvest Sept. 17-Oct. 5. Pupils in kindergarten through sixth grade will adjourn from school Oct. 1-5.
A split break is expected to cost the district a little more than $25,000, a figure that reflects costs for transportation and wages – SAD 29 still will need to shuttle elementary and middle school pupils to school for the two weeks that they are not out for harvest recess and pay affected teachers and other staff.
The move came after months of discussion, study and surveying of parents, students and SAD 29 staff.
Discussion about the future of the harvest recess has waxed and waned in the district for more than a decade.
Some have argued that the three-week break is disruptive to education and asked that it be discontinued. Others have praised the virtues of the recess and asked panelists to keep it going.
In late 2005, the school board discussed the future of the recess after 661 parents of children in SAD 29 responded to a harvest survey that questioned them about their thoughts on the break. Of those, 194 favored continuing the break and 467 were opposed.
At a public hearing a short time later, however, no one spoke out in favor of discontinuing the break.
Instead, many supporters of the recess spoke approvingly about the responsibility and work ethic that students learn while working during the potato harvest.
Last January, the school board directed Superintendent Steve Fitzpatrick to organize a committee to brainstorm ideas about how to deal with the annual recess.
That committee eventually suggested that a split harvest break might be the best idea, and Fitzpatrick compiled a cost analysis to illustrate the financial impact.
Some SAD 29 teachers said in a survey that was presented on Monday evening that they favored sticking with the traditional break, mostly due to the cost to taxpayers and out of fear of the potential impact on families.
Some worried that the move would split families with both elementary and high school students and decrease the amount of time they could spend together, since one student would be in school while the other was on vacation.
On Monday evening most school board members said that they agreed that a split break was a good compromise to satisfy growers, educators and parents.
Several school districts in Aroostook County now adhere to a split harvest, including SAD 70 in Hodgdon and SAD 27 in Fort Kent.
Several other districts only schedule the break for high school students.
SAD 29 will continue to collect data to learn how many students work during harvest, and will review the harvest break situation when they consider adopting a school calendar for the 2008-2009 school year.