A new way of helping freshmen transition into Belfast Area High School launched this school year has put a spotlight on the issue of student attendance, particularly those who are regularly absent from the classroom.

"We can't help anybody who is not here," said BAHS teacher Molly Ross during a presentation about the progress of the freshman academy model to the Regional School Unit 20 Board of Directors Tuesday night, March 25.

Ross, who is one of several high school teachers who created the model through a series of staff meetings held over the previous summer, said research shows how important it can be to keep high school freshmen engaged in their studies and succeeding as best they can.

"Freshman year is so huge," said Ross, adding that statistics have shown that up to 80 percent of those students who fail their freshman year will not graduate from high school.

Ross and a second high school teacher who helped create and implement the academy model, Aaron Winslow, told directors they began to notice absence appeared to be an ongoing issue for a small percentage of freshmen. In addition to those students who were chronically absent, there was another set of youths who were either regularly late to class, arriving to class unprepared or who continually did not participate while in the classroom setting.

The overall problem of regular student absence was unveiled, explained Ross, as the freshman team teachers engaged in their regular meetings, which are aimed at discussing ways to keep instruction and penalties for handing in late assignments consistent, as well as finding ways to support students who would benefit from an intervention from their teachers.

In some cases, Winslow said, it's giving incoming freshmen the tools to be good students. At the start of this year, the team raised enough funds to supply each freshman with a planner, which students are required to bring to each class along with a writing utensil and notebook. The idea behind that was to show students how to keep track of assignments and manage their time effectively.

If a student continually comes to class without those items, Winslow explained, his or her teachers would meet with that youth and explain the importance of coming to class prepared each day.

In some cases, however, Ross and Winslow agreed the student in question is dealing with problems outside of school, and the meeting reveals that student may be performing to the best of their ability considering the adversity they face when school is not in session.

"Maybe they don't have a bed to sleep in at night," said Ross.

In those cases, Winslow said, the staff does the best it can to be supportive..

But what Ross said she's learned from the team meetings and the student interventions has helped her do her own job a little better, too.

"It's made me a more compassionate teacher," she said.

Ross and Winslow also agreed the team meetings have given the freshman level teachers a means of support that they did not previously have, in that they now get the assurance from one another that they are not alone in the struggle to educate kids who do not always take school seriously.

"Sometimes if a kid is giving you a hard time, you think it's just you," said Ross.

Now, meeting together a few times per week, Ross said they can recognize a problem and find solutions together.

BAHS Principal Steve Fitzpatrick said the high school carries an attendance rate of about 92 percent, on average.

"We want to do better," he said. "We want them here 100 percent of the time."

Ross and Winslow said part of the problem is the attitudes they've seen in some parents, who either may not take education seriously due to their own school experiences, or may fail to recognize the importance of scheduling appointments and vacations outside of school hours when possible.

"We need to change the culture about school in a lot of ways," said Ross, adding that hair appointments and a youth's desire to stay in bed rather than get up and go to school were among some of the excuses families have offered for their child being absent.

For the continued success of the freshman team teachers, Ross and Winslow requested the continued support of the board, noting that more professional development, maintaining the group's ability to have regular team meetings and making attendance a district-wide priority would keep the freshman academy on the right track.

Winslow said the software the district currently uses, Infinite Campus, has capabilities RSU 20 has yet to take advantage of, one of which is a "robo-calling" feature. That feature kicks out pre-recorded calls to parents' cell, home and work phones to report their child's absence whenever they fail to arrive to class in the morning.

Director Tony Swebilius asked what the plan was for these freshman next year, when they are sophomores.

Winslow said some schools have continued the academy model-style of learning through the second year of high school, and then allow the students to work independently during their junior and senior years.

"But we hope as they mature and are getting through their second year of high school that these are habits they'll just keep using," he said.

Fitzpatrick said one positive aspect of the academy model is the reaction he's seen from parents and students who have participated in meetings with the team staff this year.

"Parents and students are seeing a group of caring adults, their teachers, talking about them," he said.

"You're paying attention to these kids, and they know it," said Swebilius.

In other news, Board Chairman Tony Bagley presented directors with a draft of the withdrawal plan for the City of Belfast, and sought members for the negotiating team state law requires of the RSU board.

Bagley further stated that district lawyer Dick Spencer with Drummond Woodsum out of Portland said the board could put up any director for the negotiations team except for those residing in the municipality seeking to withdraw. In the end, Directors Stephen Hopkins, Denise Dakin, Bagley and Swebilius signed up for the task. The group scheduled a meeting for Friday, April 4 at 6 p.m. at the Central Office, at which time the team will go over the draft plan and suggest changes, if needed, before returning the document to the district's attorney for further review.

Belfast Director Christopher Hyk questioned why the law would allow membership of directors who hail from towns that made up the former School Administrative District 34, which included Belfast. He explained the reason for his apprehension was that the buildings and equipment that came from the former SAD 34 were funded by taxpayers in all six of the former SAD 34 towns, not just Belfast residents.

"Don't they also have a conflict of interest like the people of Belfast?" he said.

Bagley said the towns in the former SAD 34 are not seeking to withdraw as a group, but as individual municipalities, and therefore those from outlying former SAD 34 towns could negotiate on behalf of the district.

Bagley further told directors to prepare to be busy in the coming months, as Spencer told him a negotiations team must be selected to work with each withdrawing town. When Bagley told Spencer that all eight RSU 20 towns are now pursuing withdrawal, the attorney's response to Bagley was, "have fun."

"We're setting a precedent that's never been set in the State of Maine," said Bagley.