It’s a steamy Wednesday afternoon and a cabin deep in the woods near Katahdin Iron Works is humming with activity as nine high school students prepare lunch. They dance around one another in heavy work boots as they slice vegetables, shuck corn and form burgers for the grill.
The students have spent the morning logging through Brewer High School’s Forestry Immersion Program, a new six-week summer program in which students live in the woods, learn how to use logging equipment and earn class credits through hands-on experience.
Kyah Morrill, who will be a sophomore this fall, signed up because she wanted to take a chance and try something new. After a bout of homesickness almost made her leave in the first week, Morrill now considers the other students her family and hopes to participate in the program next summer.
Clockwise, from left: Michele Maybury operates a processor, which cuts down trees, limbs them and cuts them to length; Trevor Levensalor (left) and Stephen Phillip, both going into their junior year at Brewer High School, operate a Forwarder to stack trees that have been cut and limbed near Katahdin Iron Works on Thursday. “I’d love to do this every day of my life,” Levensalor said; Mark Savage, a Brewer High School outdoor education and physical education teacher, hooks a cable to a log for student Jess Best to haul with a skidder near Katahdin Iron Works. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
“This program brings together kids from different backgrounds who would never hang out together and makes them friends,” she said. “I met most of these kids three weeks ago, but we’re a family.”
The alternative education program now featuring seven Brewer students and two from other schools is part of an effort to engage students who may struggle in a traditional classroom setting or are chronically absent or disengaged, a population that rose during the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered schools and forced students into online and hybrid learning.
“I think in Brewer, our kids bounced back as well as any, but everyone went home and not everybody came back,” Superintendent Gregg Palmer said. “We’re trying to find ways kids can earn credits, graduate and find something they want to do.”
In the 2021-2022 academic year, 39 percent of Brewer High School students were absent from school at least 10 percent of the time, far exceeding the statewide average of 28 percent, according to state data. The school’s chronic absenteeism rate sat at 24 percent in the 2018-2019 school year, though district and statewide rates rested at about 16 percent.
It is part of a national trend. Last year, 72 percent of U.S. public schools reported an increase in chronic absenteeism among students following the COVID-19 pandemic compared to a typical school year before the pandemic, the National Center for Education Statistics said.
The program is based in Brownville on land owned by the Appalachian Mountain Club and funded entirely through a nearly $100,000 state grant, which allows the school to offer the program to students for free.
Students receive math and science instruction through real-world tasks, allowing them to earn three class credits, the equivalent of half a school semester. For instance, students use geometry formulas to build a shed and study the different types of plants and hardwood trees while on hikes.
They stay at Katahdin Iron Works during the work week, then travel home on the weekends. They sleep in tents on wooden platforms they built and cook all their own meals. Students also connected a water spigot to a nearby steam, so the camp has access to fresh water. All they have for a bathroom, however, is an outhouse.
Mark Savage, a Brewer High School outdoor education and physical education teacher, has wanted to launch the program for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic gave the department a reason to start it.
Clockwise, from left: Trevor Levensalor (right) and Stephen Phillip, both going into their junior years at Brewer High School, walk out to a logging road for a lunch break after operating a Forwarder to stack cut trees near Katahdin Iron Works; Students participating in Brewer High School’s Forestry Immersion Program, work together to prepare a meal in the school’s rustic cabin on Thursday; Homemade signs and signatures of students decorate Brewer High School’s outdoor education cabin near Katahdin Iron Works. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
Savage said teaching students in hands-on settings and allowing them to show what they know through real-world application helps “meet students where they learn best and gives them an opportunity to enjoy learning.”
“We have one student who can do the pythagorean theorem in his head, but he can’t put it on paper, and if he doesn’t show his work in class, he’s wrong,” Savage said. “Out here when we’re building a shed, he figured out what length of metal we needed because it’s the hypotenuse of a triangle.”
Morrill also discovered a newfound passion for the science of logging and doing so in a way that preserves forests and helps them thrive.
“I didn’t know much about trees before this, but there’s so much to learn,” she said. “I want to be part of the generation that helps these forests and save what we have left.”
Nathan Violette, a junior from Lincoln High School, doesn’t see himself seeking a career in the logging industry, but he has enjoyed the opportunity to unplug deep in the Maine woods and believes his newfound confidence, team building and life skills will serve him as he pursues a veterinary degree.
For Trevor Levensalor, a Brewer High School junior, however, the program has given him a preview of what he wants to do as a career after graduating. Although operating the massive logging machines was intimidating at first, Levensalor said the process of cutting trees to a precise length and stacking them neatly “doesn’t feel like a job, it’s a hobby.”
“It’s an experience I never saw myself doing in high school,” he said. “I thought high school was going to be a boring four years, but this is the best thing I’ve done in a long time.”