College & Workforce Readiness

Economic Imperative

By Joetta L. Sack — March 29, 2005 12 min read
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Gretchen Sy stands in her doorway as she talks to a student.

The signals had been there for years. Task force reports and researchers all predicted it. Then, in the late 1990s, the economic collapse in this blue-collar region of central Maine began.

First, the Cascade Co. closed its textile mill. Then the C.F. Hathaway Co. shut down, and Dumont Industries followed suit soon after. Several stores and other businesses also shut their doors around the same time. All told, about 1,200 well-paying jobs disappeared between 1997 and 2002.

Just as troubling, though, was another stubborn fact: Many of the state’s youngest workers were not well prepared for the changing job market. While Maine’s high school graduation rate, at 70 percent, is around the middle of the pack nationally, the bigger problem is that only slightly more than half of those graduates continue their educations. According to state officials, that is the lowest percentage in the New England states. And the students who leave Maine to go to college are not likely to come back, those officials say.

“We have an incredible dichotomy,” says John Fitzsimmons, the president of the Maine Community College System. “People get the importance of high school and completing it, but they don’t go on to higher education. Many people just don’t plan or have the money for it.”

To change that situation and help prepare the next generation of workers, state leaders began devising a plan three years ago to persuade more high school students to consider some form of higher education. The theory was that such preparation would bring in new employers and lead to jobs that pay well enough to keep young people in Maine and, officials hoped, reverse an overall economic decline across the state. A 2005 Maine Chamber of Commerce report showed that half the state’s employers said they had a hard time finding skilled workers, Fitzsimmons notes.

In addition, state officials chose not to focus on the high-achieving students who were already likely to attend college. Instead, they targeted the “second tier” of students—those deemed capable of doing college-level work, but who traditionally had not given much thought to continuing their schooling beyond 12th grade.

Often, those promising students simply do not know about the vast opportunities available to them, Maine educators say, and do not think they can gain admission to a college or university. And even if admitted, many assume that they can’t afford to go.

As Maine launched its multipronged effort, its leaders were convinced that nothing less than the state’s economic future was at stake.

Most states have made similar efforts, mainly through various forms of partnerships between high schools and community colleges, to help introduce the idea of higher education to populations of students who have had no exposure to it, said Piedad F. Robertson, the president of the Education Commission of the States based in Denver.

“What Maine is doing is giving it its own twist,” she says. Such partnerships “are the best idea to get students interested and realizing their potential in higher education.”

A large part of Maine’s strategy was changing its technical colleges into a community college system.

Randy Lord and his son, Kalvin, review a class schedule during a planning session.

Among other advantages, the change in 2003 gave students a broader array of degree options, and more options for course credits that could be transferred to four-year colleges.

The name change alone, though, was perhaps the largest factor in persuading high school students, parents, and guidance counselors who hadn’t been attracted to the previously perceived technical fields to take a look at the community colleges as an option, Fitzsimmons says.

The seven community colleges also allow more students to continue their educations close to home and at a lower cost than for the state’s four-year institutions. Those seven former technical colleges have seen a 36 percent enrollment increase, to a total of 10,100 students, in the past two years.

Maine’s community colleges are also focusing more on providing training in the state’s high-demand fields, such as health care and information technology, than did their predecessors.

This month, the community college and University of Maine systems announced an agreement that will guarantee admission to any UM institution for any student who earns an associate degree at a Maine community college.

High schools are changing the way that they approach students as well.

Counselors are talking to students as soon as they start high school about college options. Some schools are now offering more honors and Advanced Placement courses; they’re also offering more extensive help with entrance tests and applications for admissions and financial aid.

Some high schools have formed partnerships with local community colleges to allow students to take classes at the colleges. And all students in Maine are expected to have some sort of career plan to pursue upon graduation.

“We used to think, as you ran a high school, if you could have a low dropout rate and a good percentage of students going on to prestigious colleges, the better your school,” says Leroy Blood, a former high school principal who oversees the technical-preparation program at Kennebec Valley Community College, just outside Waterville. “That’s not the case anymore.”

Robert Herbert Takes Notes.

Working with local foundations, the state has also set up the Early College for Maine Program to help target the second-tier students.

Now operating in 25 selected high schools, the program provides structured help in filling out applications, preparing for the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams, and applying for scholarships for students who might not have been able to navigate the process on their own.

The pilot program, supported by $400,000 in state and private money each year, helps the students get into college. Once there, the students receive ongoing assistance from the Early College counselors to help them complete their courses.

“Lots of kids, when asked if they plan on going to college, will say yes, but they don’t actually have the financial or academic plans in place,” says Jean E. Mattimore, the executive director of the Center for Career Development, which oversees the Early College for Maine Program. “This puts the steps in place.”

On a recent snowy, frigid weeknight in nearby Skowhegan, parents of 8th graders who this coming fall will be freshmen at Skowhegan High School gathered for their first meeting with high school counselors.

After welcoming the anxious group, Skowhegan’s principal, Gilbert Eaton, tells them: “We want every kid to leave here with a plan for postsecondary education.”

That’s a different message from the one their counterparts heard just two or three years ago, Eaton says in an interview in his office. “We used to have the mind-set that it was OK for some kids to just get through; that the mill jobs would absorb them,” he says.

He adds that when he became principal at the 900-student Skowhegan High four years ago, the school was using an antiquated academic-tracking system that discouraged many students with relatively low grades from continuing their educations.

The high school has made several changes in the past two years in how it builds expectations among its students around higher education. Those changes, the school’s leaders believe, have helped raise the percentage of Skowhegan High students going on to postsecondary schooling from about 50 percent in the 2002-03 school year to 65 percent last year.

At the suggestion of a consultant, Eaton changed the school’s four guidance counselors’ schedules so that they would work with the same group of students from their freshman through senior years, giving them a better chance of getting to know each student’s needs.

The school also has beefed up its public-information efforts by starting a quarterly newsletter for parents, offering college-application workshops and help for the SAT and the ACT, requiring sophomores to take the PSAT, and adding career-preparation portfolios to students’ records. In addition, the school has introduced a handful of honors and Advanced Placement classes.

“We want to create an atmosphere that says, ‘You’re here for the next step,’ ” Eaton says.

After seeing dozens of jobs disappear from this area, several parents say that they are happy that the school is pushing students to continue their schooling.

“You need an education. Right now, you can’t get a job without it,” says Sara Palmer. “I would have done better if they’d done it back when I was in school.”

Traci White, a recent Skowhegan High graduate, could be a model representative for the state’s Early College Program.

She is finishing her associate’s degree in early-childhood education at Kennebec Valley Community College, an accomplishment she never thought would be possible until recently.

When she attended Skowhegan High, her grades were mostly C’s, and she hadn’t given any thought to what kind of career she wanted, says her Early College Program director, Pauline Stevens.

“In high school, everyone said college was going to be so tough, so I didn’t really think too much about going to college,” White says.

Then, during her junior and senior years, Stevens, who is employed by the community college, worked with White to boost her grades, fill out applications for financial aid, and write an essay for her college application—something White had dreaded. White ended up choosing Kennebec Valley because it was close to home.

After she graduates this May, White plans to work at a local Head Start center, and she hopes one day to run her own child-care center.

The Kennebec Valley region is the heart of a “Pine Tree Zone,” the Pine Tree State’s designation for blighted areas of Maine in need of economic improvement.

Enrollment at the local college has increased from 1,255 to 1,772 students in the past three years. The 41 percent surge reflects an influx of adult students looking for retraining, and a larger spike in new high school graduates seeking an associate’s degree and specialized training, or credits that they can transfer to a four-year college.

Knowing that hundreds of jobs are available for workers with specific skills, the college has worked with local businesses to try to offer courses for such jobs. For instance, after partnering with Central Maine Power Co., the college increased its enrollment in its lineworkers’ course, which can be completed in one year. As part of the partnership, the utility donated used trucks and other equipment for classes.

And Kennebec Valley Community College also added more classes in biotechnology after the state wooed several small biotech companies to the area. But some college officials say that those companies are struggling, in part, because they have not found enough trained workers.

During a recent applied-electronics and computer-technology class, about a dozen students hunched over their projects, occasionally turning to one another or their teacher for advice. The class focuses on teaching students skills for multiple jobs, and in turn shores up their chances of finding employment locally, says teacher Bill Dolan.

Kara Pease works on a project in her digital-logic class.

“The companies aren’t lined up waiting for them, but within six months, they will place,” he says of his students. In the past two years, he adds, he’s seen more students come to the program directly from high school, and more students go on to four-year colleges.

Classrooms in the college’s health-sciences building were built recently and equipped with hospital beds, dummy patients, radiology equipment, and other hospital hardware. Kathy Engelhart, who chairs the math and science programs, is working with several local high school teachers to bring their students to the college to use the labs for their high school courses.

If the students see labs that are much nicer and better equipped than those at their schools, they might become interested in a career in health care, she says.

That’s pretty much how it worked for Philip Clifford. He came to Kennebec Valley Community College through the Early College Program at nearby Lawrence High School and has applied to the college’s radiology program.

Clifford had no plans to attend college before becoming one of about 20 students from his class selected for the program. A freshman at Kennebec Valley, he received a $1,000 per year scholarship through the Early College Program to cover some of his expenses. A typical schedule of 30 credit hours costs about $2,000 a year.

His younger brother, Jacob, also was selected for the Early College Program.

Their mother, Cathy Clifford, says the program changed her children’s lives by offering opportunities that they would not otherwise have had. “Somebody cared about my boys, and what their grades were, and what they were doing,” she says.

Even though Maine educators are enthusiastic about the efforts to help more students continue their educations, some feel that state officials do not realize all the challenges some students face.

“I don’t think they’re always aware of the life struggles these students have to deal with day to day,” says Linda Houle, a guidance counselor at Skowhegan High. “It’s pretty difficult to talk to a student about going on to college when a parent has just passed away, or has lost their job.”

And some students say it’s tempting to move from the rural, isolated state, especially considering that salaries are higher in other areas.

Linda Houle speaks with Breanna Ames at Skowhegan High.

But Maine Gov. John E. Baldacci says that a more affluent life in neighboring New Hampshire or elsewhere in New England is a false assumption, considering that property taxes in the Granite State, for instance, are much higher and that Maine’s cost of living is considerably lower than that of most other states.

Further, the first-term Democrat said in an interview this month at his official residence in Augusta, recently passed laws that rework Maine’s tax code will ease the tax burden on residents.

“We’ve got a ways to go, but we’ve made some improvements,” Baldacci says. “As our economy shifts, we need to make sure people have the education and training to fit that employment.”

The governor, who pushed for the community college system during his 2002 gubernatorial campaign and has been active in the National Governors Association’s efforts to improve high schools, adds that he is looking for more business partnerships, privately financed scholarships, and ways to spark student entrepreneurship.

“I don’t want to educate [the students] and then see them leave; I want to give them the opportunity to put out a shingle,” he says.


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