FORT KENT, Maine — Twenty St. John Valley students are on the front lines of a new program combining high school and university classes that may well be the future of education in Maine.
A joint project between the University of Maine at Fort Kent and Fort Kent Community High School, the juniors are taking part in Early College High School, or, “The Pleasant Street Academy,” a first of its kind in Maine, and everyone from the students to faculty to the governor have high hopes for this pilot program.
Based on the Early College High School Initiative sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Pleasant Street Academy allows high school juniors and seniors to complete requirements for high school diplomas while also earning college credits.
“University and high school curriculum are coming together replacing core course requirements at the high school,” said Scott Voisine, UMFK dean of community education. “It’s up to the students how far they want to go with it.”
Participating students could earn enough credits to complete a two-year associate degree or their first two years of a baccalaureate degree before ever graduating from high school.
The Maine Department of Education already funds traditional early college programs around the state allowing high school students to take a maximum of six university credits a year, earning duel college and high school credit, but they do not meet their core requirements.
“As an example, a [high school] student taking English composition in that early college program in their senior year would get college credits for the class on a [college] transcript and high school elective credit,” Voisine said. “That English class would not replace their senior English requirement [and] they would still need to take their senior English course.”
This fall the first are taking courses in English composition and information technology.
“The classes are being offered at UMFK and at the high school,” Voisine said. “We spoke to the sophomore class last year and explained what the program is and to see if there was interest.”
Turns out, there was plenty of interest and a lottery system was used to select the first 20 participants out of the 40-student application pool.
Last month Gov. Paul LePage took a moment out of a swing through the St. John Valley to speak to those students on the UMFK campus.
“I hope you succeed,” LePage told them. “If you do this program will do two things — it will help put the St. John Valley back on the map and if you are successful then we can bring this program to the rest of the state.”
LePage said he hopes programs like UMFK’s early college experience and his own push for the five-year high school model will better equip students entering universities.
“There’s a big gap between high school and college in this state,” LePage said. “Fifty-four percent of students going on to community college need remedial [classes], and 20 percent going on to university need remedial [classes], and we don’t need to be educating kids twice.”
He said UMFK was chosen to pilot the program in recognition of the school’s “thinking outside the academic box.”
UMFK President Wilson Hess said the start up of the Pleasant Street Academy comes at a “time of transition in and scrutiny of public education in this country.”
He said programs like the academy have the potential to have significant positive impacts on local, state and national education.
“Especially for those of us in rural America this has a lot to do with elevating interest in higher education and aspirations to achieve,” Hess said. “UMFK is fortunate in that we happen to be doing something at a time when the governor and chancellor are very interested in this.”
Brittany Theriault is a 16-year-old student from Fort Kent is part of the first 20-student group.
“I knew that this would not only be a great experience but it would really get me ahead in my education and put me further ahead once I graduate high school,” she said. “I hope that this program continues throughout the years to really get students started and on track for the future.”
Alexis Desjardins, 16, also from Fort Kent shares that enthusiasm.
“I plan on getting lots of classes done without having to pay the college fees that normal college students have to pay,” she said. “I already am enjoying this experience and can’t wait to see what else this new program brings to us.”
The Pleasant Street Academy is funded jointly by UMFK and SAD 27, and Voisine said he hopes to incorporate private fundraising as the program expands to include other St. John Valley schools.
“We are part of this community,” Voisine said. “We need to be a catalyst for community education.”