FORT KENT, Maine — Ryan Dionne will be the first to admit high school was not his thing.
The 17-year-old from Fort Kent was in danger of losing his junior year and looking at an extra year of schooling to earn enough credits to graduate.
“My first three years of high school were not good,” Dionne said. “I was pretty much a bad student and never did my homework.”
Then something of an academic safety net scooped him up when he enrolled in The Other Pathway to Success, or TOPS, a program run by the SAD 27 adult education office.
“This is a program designed for students who find themselves in the 12th grade and in danger of not graduating,” said Peter Caron, SAD 27 director of adult education. “The idea is to get them help now so they can prepare for college before they risk dropping out of school.”
Dionne had to apply for his spot in TOPS and must adhere to specific academic requirements.
TOPS and other programs offered by adult education also are aimed at Mainers finding themselves out of work and ill equipped to find new jobs.
“With programs like TOPS, we are meeting the needs of a broad range of people,” Caron said. “Over time people’s skills erode and you may find yourself looking for a job that requires a whole new set of skills; that’s where an adult education program comes in.”
SAD 27 has joined SADs 29 and 70 in the Houlton and Hodgdon areas, SAD 1 in Presque Isle, SAD 24 in Van Buren, SAD 33 in Frenchville, the Caribou Adult Education Program and the Madawaska School Department to form the Aroostook County Adult and Community Education Collaborative.
Working together, Caron said, has allowed the separate districts to become one voice advocating for adult education programs in the county.
Two years ago, for example, the collaborative submitted a single grant proposal for funding through the Maine College Transition Initiative.
The county group won the grant and shared $30,000 that otherwise likely would have gone to a single district because of stiff statewide competition and the small population base in northern Maine, Caron said.
Money from the initiative will help adult education enrollees get into college classes and will give participants help in areas including college planning, career counseling, financial aid, admissions, academic preparation and placement testing.
“Data shows that by 2015 Maine will need an additional 40,000 workers with higher education degrees to meet projected labor needs,” Caron said. “A percentage of those will need to come from adult education programs.”
“We know that a college degree can be worth an additional $21,000 to $25,000 a year in added earnings,” Caron said. “Because we are dealing with adults who have been out of school and who really want to remain in the area, a percentage of those additional earnings stay in the community.”
Over the last five years in Aroostook County, 15,852 people have enrolled in work force training and retraining programs such as TOPS and the college transition program, 6,860 have taken part in literacy and academic programs, and more than 1,100 GED diplomas have been awarded.
“In times of economic downturns the need for adult education programs shoots up,” Caron said. “We have to be creative to come up with topics that people need.”
“One of the obvious commonalities we all share is access to institutions of higher learning,” said Otis Smith, director of the adult education program in SAD 70 and 29. “It just makes sense to cooperate and share resources.”
Throughout Aroostook County, adult education directors are seeing more and more individuals who have lost jobs because of layoffs or company shutdowns.
“You can’t get into a job for 40 years anymore,” said Suzanne Rojas, president of the Maine Adult Education Association. “Everything has changed.”
Rojas, director of the SAD 48 adult education program, said adult education programs offer a safe haven of sorts for anyone re-entering the classroom.
“Coming into a program after you’ve lost your job is scary and outside your comfort zone,” she said. “We try to make them feel like family and we understand what they are going through.”
For some people, finding new jobs means learning entirely new skills or going for a postsecondary degree.
“For example, over the last three or four years we’ve seen people who assumed they knew all they had to know about computers enrolling in our courses,” Smith said. “They’ve kind of woken up and realized they didn’t know enough to change jobs.”
In addition to the area of computer technology, Caron and Smith said, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of individuals enrolling in classes related to jobs in the health field.
College campuses in The County also cooperate with the adult education programs.
“There is a continuing demand for health care training,” Smith said. “In fact, we offer off-site classes for Northern Maine Community College nurse training courses [and] this is a huge benefit for people in our area who want to take those classes but can’t travel to Presque Isle.”
The end result, all three adult education directors agreed, is that members of the community are re-entering the work force rather than facing unemployment.
“We want to make opportunities accessible,” Caron said.
It certainly has worked for Dionne, who can arrange his class schedule around his part-time job.
That in turn allows him to earn enough money to pursue training in the culinary arts after he graduates from TOPS in four weeks.
“This program really opened my eyes to what I can do,” Dionne said. “It gave me something to focus on.”
Like Dionne, Stephanie Lapointe, 21, of Wallagrass had found herself at a bit of a loss when it came to her academic future.
A high school dropout at age 16, she moved to Fort Kent this past year and decided to enroll in the SAD 27 GED program after her father, Duane Lapointe, enrolled in classes at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
“He was my inspiration,” Lapointe, who is also applying to UMFK, said. “But without the classes and college training [in adult education] I would not have even thought about going to college.”