NORTH ANSON — A small group of high school students gathered around their teacher, Fran Sirois, as he laid a tape measure between two stakes in the ground outside Carrabec High School.

“Now this is where it gets a little tricky,” said Sirois, a technical trades teacher. “Watch what I’m doing, guys.”

The students watched as their teacher coached them on how to mark elevation and boundaries, important first steps in constructing a new greenhouse outside the school. They looked through a transit, a tool that provides a reference point for level ground, and carefully placed metal posts in the ground, marking the four corners of the greenhouse and measuring the depth that each post was driven into the ground to keep the structure level.

It was a task that required them to use geometry, trigonometry and algebra, but also their hearts.

The new greenhouse, which will be completed in a few weeks, is one example of a community service project that several students at the school are working on this year as part of a new service program called Learning Works AIMS HIGH AmeriCorps that was introduced at six schools in Maine last year.

“It’s going great,” said Principal Regina Campbell. “The AmeriCorps group has definitely become part of our school community and community at large. We have a lot of students that are either working as volunteers or are receiving their services. It’s definitely an asset to the school overall.”

The program is a pilot project of Learning Works, a Portland-based educational nonprofit organization, and the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that funds volunteer opportunities and service work. AmeriCorps is best known for its role in placing volunteers, usually recent college graduates, into existing service projects around the country, but the AIMS HIGH program focuses on making volunteer opportunities available to students and community members around schools in their area.

In 2013, Learning Works received a $2.2 million grant from the Maine Corporation for National and Community Service, a state branch of the federal agency, to support schools in Maine such as Carrabec that received federal school improvement grants to fund academic programs. As part of the federal School Turnaround Initiative, the grant was awarded based on the need to increase educational achievement and graduation rates.

“What we try and do is work with schools that are already working to improve their academic performance by supporting them with AmeriCorps members and additional resources,” said Ethan Schechter, program director for AIMS HIGH.

Last year, the program, which is overseen by a site coordinator paid for by the grant and has been funded through the 2015-2016 school year, established a tutoring program that works with students before, during and after school. This year, there is a new creative writing class that an AmeriCorps member established with a teacher and that is run by student editors. A school garden was established that produced squash and tomatoes for cafeterias in the district.

The district also received a $2,800 grant for the greenhouse project that will pay for the greenhouse itself, seeds and fertilizer, and a field trip to a local farm to see a greenhouse in operation.

“The main thing we’re trying to get the kids to understand is that they have the capacity to grow their own food,” said Solomon Heifets, co-site coordinator for the AIMS HIGH program at Carrabec and Spruce Mountain High School in Jay. “It’s a chance to observe the natural process of growing things and the process of decomposition at the end of the growing season, but it’s also a chance for valuable community service. They’re not just feeding themselves; they’re feeding their classmates.”

In addition to providing for a full-time site coordinator, a job Heifets splits with another AmeriCorps member, AIMS HIGH has funding for up to 31 AmeriCorps members to commit to “minimum time” service — 300 hours. The positions are open to both students and community members.

A few students have already signed up to become members and will work towards earning a $1,195 educational award that can be applied to college tuition or student loan debt in exchange for 300 hours of service. Older community members can also transfer the award to their children or grandchildren.

“It’s good job experience because you have to manage your time and it gets you used to responsibility,” said 18-year-old Christian Miller, a senior who said he tries to fit in time for tutoring around sports practices. He is on three teams — golf, baseball and basketball.

Almost all students who participate in the program start with tutoring, but one of the goals is to get them involved in volunteering around the activities they already do.

“It’s useful job experience and also community service,” said Eli Pease, 18, of Lexington Township, a student who was working to build the greenhouse on a recent afternoon. “I’ve actually been wanting to learn surveying so I think it will come in handy at some point.”

In 2013, Carrabec was awarded the AmeriCorps grant through Learning Works. All six schools in the AIMS HIGH program have been designated as schools in need of improvement under federal No Child Left Behind standards. It’s still too early to measure the impact of the program on academic performance, but the groups are working on studies of the long-term impact of AmeriCorps programs like AIMS HIGH in schools across the U.S., said Schecter.

He said the garden and greenhouse are an example of something AmeriCorps members can do to engage students and show them that support is there for them when they’re struggling.

Today almost every student at Carrabec is involved in AmeriCorps in some way, said Campbell, either by volunteering or receiving volunteer services, and the goal is to get the entire school and the outside community involved. There are still about 25 open volunteer positions.

“I would love to see as many students as possible get involved in AmeriCorps while they’re here, not just for the community service piece, but also because it provides money towards the expenses of post-secondary education,” she said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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