State seeks funding for Guard program for dropouts

Posted Feb. 01, 2011, at 10:24 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has approved an application to the federal government for funding a program under the National Guard aimed at helping high school dropouts finish school in a boot camp-type program already under way in several other states.

“Any program that helps Maine kids develop better life skills, I am 100 percent behind it,” LePage said in an interview. “That Challenge grant is a good program.”

The program is being pushed by Defense, Veterans and Emergency Services Commissioner Bill Libby, a retired major general in the Maine National Guard. He said the federal National Guard Bureau is funding the program in several states and pays for 75 percent of the program.

“There are 4,000 dropouts a year, and they have a huge impact on our economy,” he said. “There is a billion dollars in lost income over their lifetimes, and there are huge costs in health care, and there is the impact of crime from these individuals, and they have a huge impact on our state, and it is incumbent on all of us to do what we can to help these dropouts.”

The program would run for five months, twice a year with a yearlong mentoring program for the students that complete the program. Each class would have 100 students and would have intensive life skills training coupled with academic preparation for a GED.

The National Guard website lists several accomplishments of the program in other states.

More than 60 percent of the participants go on to get a GED or high school diploma.

More than half joined the work force, and about 14 percent joined the military. At the end of 2009, the most recent numbers available, 92,300 teens had graduated from Challenge programs across the country.

“We are seeking funding from private sources to pay the state share,” Libby said. He said the Alfond Foundation and the Unity Foundation have expressed interest in providing some of the funding needed for the program. He said the total cost is $4 million, with $1 million needed from state or private sources.

“This will be collaboration with the Jobs for Maine Graduates and with the Good Will-Hinckley school,” Libby said. “An important part of this will be a 12-month mentoring program for those that complete the five-month boot camp.”

He said there will be efforts to raise all of the $1 million needed for the state share, but LePage said if it falls short, he will seek to make up the difference as part of a broad set of programs to reduce dropouts in the state.

“This is only one program, and will only help some that need the help,” LePage said. “There are several things that we need to do. Most importantly, we need to bring back vocational education into the mainstream.”

He said school funding from the state should follow the student, and that may be a way to fund such specialized dropout efforts as the Challenge program.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, said he likes the concept of the Challenge program and is pleased the LePage administration is seeking to develop it. Langley spent 30 years teaching high school and praised the approach of the boot camp.

“One of the things I think we have learned here over the past few years is that one size does not fit all here in state government,” he said. “We need a community effort to solve the dropout problem.”

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, was co-chair of the committee last session. He praised the approach as one that will work for some dropouts, but he also said he was confused by what he called mixed messages from LePage.

“I’m just getting mixed messages all over the place from this governor, because he says he does not want federal money, but now he is applying for federal money,” he said. “He says he does not want new programs, and he is proposing a new program.”

Libby said if the federal grant is approved, he hopes the program can get under way this summer with initial staff and launch the first class of the program in 2012.

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