BINGHAM — When Upper Kennebec Valley Memorial High School Principal Julie Richard received a postcard in the mail last June inviting her to nominate her school for recognition in preparing students for college, she didn’t think the chances were very high that the school would get it.

The invitation, from Newsweek magazine, was seeking schools across the country that were successfully preparing students from low-income backgrounds for college.

One hundred percent of students at Upper Kennebec Valley Memorial High School qualify for free or reduced price lunches from the state, according to the Maine Department of Education, which also gave the district an overall letter grade of C in 2014.

But in April, the department also listed the school as one of 21 High Progress Reward Schools, a designation given to Title I schools that have shown the most progress over a three-year period.

Richard filled out the postcard. On Sept. 1, the day before the first day of school, she got an email saying the high school had been selected as one of four schools in Maine for Newsweek’s “Beating the Odds” list.

The list includes 500 schools from around the country that the magazine has deemed the best at preparing students from low-income backgrounds for college. The others in Maine include Cape Elizabeth High School, Falmouth High School and Madawaska Middle and High School. Valley was 175th, the highest rank of the Maine schools.

“I was just so excited I wanted to call all the faculty and let them know immediately,” Richard said.

A member of the high school’s first graduating class in 1968, Richard came out of retirement in 2012 to serve as a district-wide principal in School Administrative District 13. The district serves students in Bingham, Moscow, Concord, Pleasant Ridge and the West Forks.

Twelve of last year’s graduating class of 15 seniors went on to college.

“I think people don’t expect it from a small school because there’s not a big pool of students to choose from,” said Charlie Savoy, a 17-year-old senior from Pleasant Ridge who is starting to apply to colleges. The University of Maine and Denison University in Ohio are among her top choices.

The Newsweek designation takes into account college enrollment rates, graduation rates, student participation in advanced level classes, SAT and ACT scores, student retention rates, and counselor-to-student ratios.

Teachers and administrators say that since getting an “F” grade from the state in 2013, they’ve worked hard at improving educational opportunity in the rural school district.

SAT and ACT scores have gone up, they say, and while the school only offers a few advanced placement classes, they’ve seen an increase in the number of students who take dual enrollment classes through local colleges.

“If a student is hesitant about going to college, dual enrollment classes are a big help in getting them more comfortable with post-graduation studies and convincing them that they can do the work,” Richard said. There are currently 16 students enrolled in dual enrollment classes out of the 64 students in the school.

For the first time this year, the school is also participating in a program called Early College for ME, which offers scholarships and mentoring for college-bound students through the state’s community college system.

They’ve also sought out grants, including a U.S. Department of Education grant called “Gear Up” that has paid for trips and projects, like a new “homework cafe” where students can do work after school hours, and a grant from the Good Shepherd Food Bank that helps them to offer fresh fruit and vegetables.

One of the most important keys to success, according to Richard, has been making sure the district continues to support field trips in a time when many districts are cutting budgets and field trips are some of the first things to go.

“There’s a culture that comes with poverty,” said Superintendent Virginia Rebar. “We have kids who could be in second or third grade and they’ve never left this immediate community. Some have never been to a restaurant. It’s really vital to give them that exposure.”

When it comes time to apply to college, students who have interacted in environments outside of their community are more likely to feel comfortable going away for school, Richard said.

High school guidance counselor Katie Flood-Gerow also said that getting kids to see and experience new places by going on trips is vital preparation for applying to and going to college, especially for students from a small, rural community.

The biggest challenge to sending low-income rural students to college is fear, she said.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” Flood-Gerow said. “If they haven’t seen anyone in their family go to college and their parents haven’t gone to college, it can be scary. Getting past that fear is the biggest thing, more so than finances or anything else.”

In her 13 years as a school guidance counselor, Flood-Gerow said she has never had a student who did not get enough financial aid to meet their need. They may not get enough at their first choice school, but students typically can get enough financial aid to go to college somewhere, she said.

Going on trips plays a big role in helping students conquer their fear, and Flood-Gerow has been known to take students on individual trips and out-of-state trips to colleges so they can see what the schools are like.

She also participated in a pilot program this summer, SignalVine, that helps students transition to college. The program was funded through the Gear Up grant the school received last year and consisted of a computer program at the school through which Flood-Gerow could send students text messages throughout the summer, answering their questions and addressing any last-minute doubts about going to college.

“It’s important to keep that line of communication open,” she said. “I tell them ‘Once I’m your guidance counselor, I’m always your guidance counselor.'”

Texting is an easy way to communicate with students because it’s a mode of communication they are comfortable with, and the computer system was more professional than using her personal cellphone, she said.

With the system in place, Flood-Gerow set up a meeting with one student to help him order textbooks over the summer and tried to set up other students with alumni of the small school who had ended up at the same college. She also used it just to check in on students who weren’t going to college and see how they were navigating the workforce.

“It was just a way of saying, ‘Hey, even though I graduated, someone at Valley high school still cares about me,'” she said.

She said the Newsweek designation is important to the school community, but only because of the work it highlights.

“A few years ago we were the ‘F’ school,” she said. “That was embarrassing and it was hard for the kids too, but I think there’s a lot of good work being done and the kids are succeeding.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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