NORTH ANSON — On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Rebecca Ellis worked on algebra homework with student Taylor Bartlett in the cafeteria of Carrabec High School.

Ellis, a 2011 graduate of the high school and now a psychology major at the University of Maine at Farmington, has returned as an AmeriCorps service member to tutor and mentor students.

She is one of five members who have been recruited to participate in the program, a small step toward fulfilling the potential of a $726,800 federal grant awarded to the district in August to hire up to 34 AmeriCorps members during the next three years.

The grant was awarded as part of AmeriCorps’ School Turnaround program, which places service members in schools that the U.S. Department of Education has designated as needing improvement.

“It’s definitely a great opportunity to get experience working with kids and being in a professional atmosphere,” said Ellis, 20, who began at the school this week. She said she heard about the program from her brother, a teacher at the school and decided to apply because it would be good experience and look good on a resume.

As a half-time member, Ellis earns money that can be used to pay college tuition, something she says has allowed her the time to volunteer instead of having to work a part-time job for extra money.

Service members earn stipends and scholarship money — up to $17,500, with the actual amount depending on the number of hours they work — which starts with a mininum 300-hour commitment.

Yet despite the reasons Ellis cited for participating in the AmeriCorps program, a site coordinator overseeing the program said the number of applications the program has received so far has been low. About 30 more people are needed. 

“We are trying to fill these spots as soon as possible. The sooner they are filled the better, because then people can start working and their hours can go towards the educational reward,” said Eleni Margaronis, a site coordinator for Learning Works, a Portland-based education advocacy group that is overseeing the administration of the grant to Carrabec and four other Maine schools that also received federal AmeriCorps grants in August.

A total of $2.2 million was granted to the schools, which include Spruce Mountain High School in Jay, Ellsworth High School, East End Elementary School in Portland and Riverton Elementary School in Portland.

Nationwide, AmeriCorps applications are rising, so Margaronis said she was a little surprised that more people haven’t applied for the opportunity at Carrabec. The national organization provides stipends to college-age students while providing community service to needy areas.

In 2011, the organization received 582,000 applications for 80,000 positions, according to the most recent data from the Center for National and Community Service, which is responsible for operating the AmeriCorps program. That number is up from 360,000 applications in 2009, spokeswoman Samantha Warfield said. She said the program doesn’t track of the number of applications by state.

Spreading the word

The slow application rate at Carrabec and Spruce Mountain, where Margaronis is also a site coordinator, might reflect the fact that the area is sparsely populated, so fewer people are available.

“I really don’t think people in this area know about AmeriCorps. It’s something we’ve been advertising and promoting, trying to get people to figure out what this is. AmeriCorps in general does amazing things throughout the country, and the opportunities after anyone participates are endless, whether they want to do things in Maine or travel,” Margaronis said.

One of the program’s biggest benefits for young people is the chance to make contacts and get references as well as gain experience in a potential career field such as education, she said.

Members who commit to a range of hours are compensated with stipends and the opportunity to earn educational awards that can be applied to student loans or their current college tuition. Older volunteers can transfer the educational award to a family member.

Carrabec High School Principal Regina Campbell said she is happy with the service members the school has found so far and hopes more people will apply. The school is part of North Anson-based School Administrative District 74 and also serves Anson, Embden, New Portland and Solon. The school is in Somerset County, where unemployment rates are the third-highest in the state.

There are 262 students at the high school, according to the Department of Education.

Critical role

Applicant shortage aside, the school has filled one critical position, that of a full-time AmeriCorps member who will spend 1,700 hours at the school and oversee the day-to-day functions of the program.

Among the others hired are two part-time members who have committed to 900 hours of service, and two minimum-time members who have committed to 300 hours of service. Openings for 29 more minimum-hour members are still available.

“We’re just at the brink of starting. I’m very happy with the people we have, although we are still looking for more people to work with our students,” Campbell said.

Three years ago, Carrabec High School failed to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards and was designated as a school in need of improvement. And although Maine received a two-year waiver from the requirements, the school has made progress toward meeting them. The graduation rate has increased nine percentage points, from 75 percent in 2009 to 84 percent in 2012, according to the Department of Education.

Proficiency rates on the SAT, which in Maine is used to evaluating high schools, also have improved, although they remain below the state average. In 2009-2010, 40 percent of students met or exceeded mathematics and reading standards on the SAT. During the 2012–13 school year, 45 percent met or exceeded standards in mathematics and 42 percent in reading, while the state average was 48 percent in mathematics and 49 percent in reading.

The school is looking actively for more AmeriCorps members, through open houses and informational meetings with parents and students, said Margaronis. They also have started a small list of students who are applying for the program, she said.

Recruiting at the University of Maine at Farmington and Thomas College has yielded a lot of initial interest, but both are a long drive from Carrabec High School, Margaronis said.  She said the travel time — about 45 minutes from either campus to North Anson — might deter some college students from joining the program.

“We get to build a foundation this year. I’m really hoping that once we get the word out there, we’ll have more people reaching out, doing community service and helping students build the programs they need,” Margaronis said.

Rachel Ohm —  612-2368
[email protected]

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