Superintendent Tim Doak speaks at the Caribou Community School ribbon cutting in July 2021. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

CARIBOU, Maine — Enrollment in the RSU 39 school district in Caribou has jumped by more than 100 students this fall, driven primarily by kids moving into the district from downstate or other parts of the country.

A total of 205 new students enrolled in RSU 39 this year, though that number includes about 90 preschoolers and kindergarten students who are aging into the schools.

The rest are new to Caribou — 84 kids having moved from other in-state schools and 26 from out of state. Five kids returned from homeschooling.

The number of incoming students is unprecedented for the area, at least in recent memory, Superintendent Tim Doak said. Even the 90-student preschool and kindergarten class is larger than usual. Doak estimated the annual average for that group is 60 kids or fewer.

Aroostook County, like much of rural Maine, saw a massive spike in homebuyers during the pandemic as families left crowded cities to come to places less affected by the spread of COVID-19. With more parents working remotely and kids attending school online, it was easier than ever to pack up and relocate. The high enrollment bodes well for a community that’s struggled for decades with the outmigration of its young population.

Now that school is, for the most part, back in-person, the students new to the area are in school with County natives for the first time.

Doak said he was thrilled to see the influx, and hoped that parents would see the value of schools like Caribou’s beyond the pandemic.

“Most County schools are no different than private schools,” Doak said. “We know every kid by name, we know every parent … They get more attention at a Dr. Levesque [Elementary] or a Fort Fairfield Elementary than they would at any private school somewhere else.”

Caribou Community School alone has seen 50 new students enroll from other Maine schools or from out of state this fall. Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican

Tamara and Lance Lovewell and their six school-aged children bought a house in Caribou sight unseen in June, and were thrilled by the quality of schools waiting for them in northern Maine.

Several of the Lovewell children have special needs, and Tamara Lovewell said the programming for those kids is better in Caribou than it was in rural Washington state, where the family moved from.

While they weren’t escaping city life, Lovewell said her family was looking for the same things as everyone else moving to rural Maine: close-knit community, beautiful landscape and outdoor activities. The Lovewells spent the past year traveling around the country with a fifth-wheel camper before settling in Caribou.

It’s a story Doak has heard a surprising number of times this year. Caribou just built a brand-new elementary school, but while Doak would love for the new school to be the draw, he said it’s clear people are coming to The County to change their entire way of life.

“The landscape is beautiful, there’s no crime compared to where other people live,” Doak said. “We’d love to have more jobs — everybody would — but if you could work out of your house, why wouldn’t you live here?”

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.