May 21, 2018
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Magnet school investment tiny compared to economic benefits

By Glenn Cummings, Special to the BDN

After a two-year period of self-reflection, hundreds of discussions and laborious planning, the historic Good Will-Hinckley campus in Fairfield will reopen this fall as the state’s second magnet school, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, or MEANS.

Through hands-on learning, hybrid high school-college curriculum aligned with the Maine Learning Results, and apprenticeships with local employers, MEANS will prepare the next generation of Maine’s workers using the themes of forestry, agriculture and sustainability. Add a modest state investment and MEANS will reach beyond central Maine to students from across the state.

In 2009, the school’s future was less certain. The economic downturn coincided with a shift in state and federal policy that diverted funding from boarding programs. Unfortunately, this type of education for children with heavily clinical and behavioral needs became too expensive and produced mixed results nationally. The Good Will-Hinckley board was forced to suspend all but one of its educational programs and sadly, lay off more than 100 employees.

For children who had leapfrogged between foster homes, the cottages that dot our rolling farmland — and the skilled, caring adults who lived and mentored them there — offered the first real home they’d ever had. Since its founding as a home for boys and girls in 1889, Good Will-Hinckley helped thousands of students re-envision their lives and make the transition to successful adulthood.

I came back to Maine last fall to take over an organization still reeling but ready to heal. The dedicated Good Will-Hinckley board’s exhaustive strategic planning process produced a number of options to make the organization financially sustainable, yet stay true to its mission. While Good Will-Hinckley will look a bit different in the years ahead, I’m proud to say its soul will remain committed to Maine children who most need alternative learning techniques and a path toward a better future.

MEANS will open this fall with students from the Fairfield region. Before graduating, every student will take at least one college course, likely at Kennebec Valley Community College, with whom we are completing a deal that will co-locate KVCC on 680 acres of our current 2,450 acres.

Consider the benefits: According to Prepare Maine, 21 of 100 Maine high school students will drop out before graduation, and 28 will graduate but not enroll in any college program. That’s half of our population already ill-prepared for careers, let alone careers that pay a living wage or grow our economy. Yet research indicates that introducing college courses during high school builds academic confidence, increases preparation for higher education and clarifies career choices.

To achieve broad-based funding support for this model, we have secured a philanthropic partner that will provide both near-term funding for the school and ongoing support tied to each student. Gov. Paul LePage demonstrated his support by including MEANS in his biennial budget. He understands state funding is needed to board 70 students from across Maine who will join 125 day students, bringing enrollment to 200 within a few years.

The Appropriations Committee is set to consider funding a portion of MEANS boarding costs at $730,000 a year. Given our existing infrastructure, cottages, farmland, classroom buildings and museum, $730,000 seems a modest investment compared to the incalculable returns. Much more costly to our state would be the expense incurred if these students drop out of school, or float through uninspired to learn, finding themselves with limited options.

Magnet schools offer a theme-based approach to learning for students who are drawn to certain subjects or learning modals. Maine’s first magnet school, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, has become a renowned institution for some of Maine’s highest-achieving students, proudly boasting Rhodes scholars and Ivy League alumni. It only seems right that MEANS will target students on the cusp, students with the potential to thrive when given an educational experience that bridges education and career training.

With a small yet cost-effective investment in those kids, our state’s economy will reap significant benefits — as will those individuals.

Glenn Cummings is president of Good Will-Hinckley. He is also a former deputy assistant secretary of education for the Obama administration and former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.

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