BUCKSPORT, Maine — Though a major part of Bucksport’s identity — the paper mill — has all but vanished, a new defining aspect of the community was celebrated Thursday morning at the local high school.

Town officials and members of the school’s staff and student body gathered in the gym as Bucksport High School was honored as one of only three high schools in the country to be named a National BARR School of Academic Excellence. BARR stands for Building Assets, Reducing Risks, a U.S. Department of Education program aimed at helping ninth grade students make the demanding transition from middle school to high school.

“Our students are flourishing academically,” said Principal Dan Clifford of the effect the program — first implemented in 2011 — has had. “It’s been four years of hard work — really five years because we took one year to get ready for it.”

BARR allows schools to create a system by which ninth-grade teachers, advisers, the principal and other school staff meet every day to discuss how members of the freshman class are adjusting to high school life. The group discusses grades, attendance, behavior and socialization issues that each freshman may be facing and what kind of guidance might be appropriate for each student in order to keep him or her in school on a path toward eventual graduation.

The program does not place any requirements upon classroom instruction. It allows participating schools to organize staff meeting times about the freshmen around the school’s existing academic and extracurricular activities and involves a high level of communication between students, teachers, staff and parents.

Clifford said Thursday that the effect the program has had on students has been measurable.

The graduation rate at the school that serves 310 students has risen from 73 percent to more than 90 percent over the past four years. The failure rate among students has decreased by 31 percent, which has pushed their passing rate up to 95 percent.

“The majority of high school dropouts have a negative experience their freshman year,” Clifford said. “[The program] is really about forming close relationships with those students and helping them be successful in any way they can.”

In the fall of 2011, when the BARR program was first implemented, there were about 80 students in the ninth grade.

Dylan Soper, 17, of Bucksport is a senior who was one of those freshmen. He said Thursday that, with the BARR program in place, freshmen really have no place to hide if they’re having problems adjusting to high school life.

“The first day I walked in, I had big eyes, seeing all the seniors and everyone walking around,” Soper said. “It made the transition a lot smoother. I believe the BARR program certainly helped.”

The two other BARR schools being recognized for their academic achievement are Hemet High School in suburban Los Angeles and St. Louis Park High School in Minneapolis.

Officials at the Thursday ceremony said that other high schools in Maine are interested in becoming BARR schools and recently have sent staff to Bucksport to see how it works. Mount View in Thorndike, Lake Region in Naples, Noble in North Berwick and Presque Isle high schools are among those that have started in or are considering applying for the program.

Bucksport was able to implement the program in the fall of 2011 after receiving a four-year, $100,000-per-year federal education grant. Bucksport is extending its BARR participation with the help of $12 million in federal funding being administered through Portland-based Spurwink Services, which also will be used to help expand BARR to other schools in and out of Maine.

AT&T, the John T. Gorman Foundation and the Harold Alfond Foundation have provided private funding in Maine to support the BARR program.

U.S. Sen. Angus King recorded a message that was played on large video monitors during Thursday’s event. He said that increasing global competition for jobs and development means that students and schools in the U.S. need to boost their performance in order to maintain access to good employment and economic opportunities.

“This is a big deal,” King said of the BARR recognition. “Projects like this are going to make all the difference.”

King mentioned that the closure last month of the Verso Paper mill was a “terrible situation” but added that, with the BARR achievement, Bucksport is demonstrating that it will make the difficult transition to establish a new, successful identity for itself.

“You have helped put Bucksport and Maine on the national map,” King said.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....