ROCKLAND, Maine — Amy Smith was a senior in high school when she got pregnant. Once she finished high school in 1989, she decided to be a full-time mom and put aside her dreams of going to college.
She had her baby, and later three more. In 2006, when that first baby was old enough to look at colleges, the long-receded dream resurfaced. By this time, Smith was in her mid-30s. It had been years since she last had sat in front of a chalkboard.
“I doubted whether I could even do it. I hadn’t been in school since 1989 — without computers. I had a lot of anxiety about everything. I didn’t think I would be up to par with the college level class,” she said.
So when she talked to someone about financial aid, she was told to try the pilot Maine College Transitions program being tested by the Maine Department of Education. She gave it a shot.
Under the program, which has been full-fledged for four years now, adults who want to go back to school gather in college transition classrooms all around the state and work to bring their math, reading, writing and computer skills up to college level. The classes are free and mostly help adults, but some recent high school graduates enroll to boost their academic prowess too. The classes are offered for one or two semesters depending on the student’s skill level.
For eight hours every Monday for 15 weeks, Smith brushed up on her academics and learned what college life might be like.
The dozen other people in the trial college transition program were in situations similar to hers. Most were around her age or a bit younger. Most of them shared the fear that they would be the oldest person in a college classroom.
And, by summer of 2006, she was done. She was ready to start her first college course. She picked psychology at the University of Maine’s satellite campus in Belfast.
“I wanted to take one and see how it would go,” Smith said. “I didn’t have a problem. I didn’t struggle at all. I got an A. It was easier than I thought it would be.”
So she took more classes.
Four years later, she walked away as valedictorian of UMaine’s Class of 2010 — a class of about 1,700 graduates.
Now 40, the Lincolnville woman is halfway through her master’s degree program in history. She wants to get her doctorate and teach.
For all of this, she credits the transition program. That was what gave her the confidence to pursue college.
“Sometimes you just need that first connection. I may have had the ability [to go to college without this program], but socially and being in a classroom would have been intimidating for me. This got that base built where I could jump off from and dive into that whole new world,” she said.
“That’s what the program brought out of me, my love of education. I like to study. I know that sounds crazy. I learned I liked math. I’d always been a good student, but I got pregnant so young. The transition program sparked that love of learning in me again.”
Maine College Transitions classes are offered through adult education programs in school districts throughout the state. At least one class is offered in every county, with about 40 college transition programs available throughout the state from South Berwick to Fort Kent.
Classes are usually free, though some programs charge a small fee for supplies, which is typically less than $100.
Entering students are assessed first to help teachers determine in which areas participants will need the most help. Typically, adults could use help catching up in math, but the program also assists them with reading, writing and computer skills to prepare for college classes.
In addition, the program teaches participants such basics as how to sign up for classes and what “three credit hours” means.
“It works because it’s a soft landing. It gives students a place to explore whether they’re ready for college. It works because we’re giving them tools: confidence and academic tools and self-management and college knowledge. It’s practice college,” said Larinda Meade, coordinator of Maine College Transitions.
Meade considers the program, which is funded by about $700,000 annually from the state Department of Education, an economic development tool.
According to a department memo from 2009, Maine has 847,268 working-age adults and 583,224 have not completed an associate degree or higher.
“Our common goal is to increase the number of adult learners who graduate from Maine’s public universities and enter Maine’s workforce,” states the memo about the college transition program.
About 1,300 people take advantage of the program each year, with about 40 percent of them immediately going on to college.
“[Maine] needs to increase our numbers of students who have college degrees. It’s an economic development issue. This is one of the ways to do that,” Meade said. “The more people we have with degrees, the more we can attract businesses looking for a work force.”
Further, many 20-somethings who don Maine’s college graduation caps tend to leave the state, creating “brain drain,” meaning Maine educates its youths and then they take that education to other states.
According to Meade, the people in her program have roots in Maine — families, jobs, homes — and don’t intend to go anywhere else.
A summer version of the Maine College Transitions program launched in Rockland on Tuesday, July 5. It attracted only two students. Both are young and plan to attend college in the autumn.
Rebecca Albright, a kindergarten teacher by day, took on the task of teaching the teenagers about math fractions.
“What do you remember about fractions?” the teacher asked.
“What is this top number called?”
They didn’t know.
“The numerator,” she said.
With that cue, Brandon Fuller, 18, of Appleton remembered that the bottom number in a fraction is the denominator.
They talked about slicing up a pizza and cooking recipes and paying money — all uses for fractions.
“I know money,” said 18-year-old Nikki Gray of Cushing.
An hour into the class, the two students who didn’t know the top of a fraction from the bottom were adding, subtracting and reducing the numbers.
“I couldn’t do any of this last night,” Gray said about her homework.
“You’re doing great,” Albright told her.
“I haven’t been to school in three years, but once we did a couple, I remembered. It’s good because I start [college] classes in two weeks,” Gray said.
Gray graduated at 16 from Georges Valley Regional High School. Recently, she looked around at her family and decided she had more to prove.
“I’m the only person in my family that will go. I want to show them I can,” she said. “This [class] will help me a lot to refresh my skills. I haven’t studied in years. Just today I’ve learned a lot.”
Gray plans to start a degree in liberal studies at the University College at Rockland this fall and then maybe move to a university with dormitories and more people. But it’s all a little scary.
“I want to know what I’m getting into. It’s intimidating and exciting,” she said. “I want to start here and make sure it feels right. I want to be here. I need to learn this.”
Her sole classmate, Fuller, graduated from Camden Hills Regional High School in 2010 and took a year off to work at an automotive parts store. He said in that year he lost a lot of what he had learned in high school. He plans to go to Kennebec Valley Community College in September.
This isn’t a typical college transition class for Albright. Usually she has about 15 students and they’re all older, and therefore their memories of things such as fractions are a little fuzzier. In two hours, her two young students made it through two chapters in the math book.
“With my last class, fractions took five weeks,” she said.
She has taught the class for five years now and thinks the program is an important confidence builder.
“A lot of students come in really scared, but they leave with the sense that they can do it,” she said. “This boosts confidence. They just haven’t done this work in so long. It sets them up for success in college because they have the foundation they need.”
For information, visit maine.gov/education/aded/dev/transitions.htm or call Larinda Meade at 756-8560.