BATH, Maine — In his freshman year at Morse High School, 17-year-old Cody Gillespie’s prospects of continuing his education and going on to an engaging career looked bleak.
“I just wasn’t in the mood for school,” said Gillespie, now in his junior year. “It was looking like I was just going to barely pass high school, and that was not acceptable.”
Gillespie harbored an ambition to become a chef, but he knew even that might be impossible if he didn’t begin to apply himself in school.
Then he discovered the Jobs for Maine Graduates program, which at Morse is taught by Maria Morris. JMG, as it is known by most people associated with it, is a private, nonprofit corporation that was established in 1993 by the Legislature as a dropout-prevention and school-to-work transition system. The program now is providing a range of academic and personal support for 4,000 Maine students in 59 schools grades six through 12. According to data from JMG, the outcomes are strong. The program boasts a more than 90 percent graduation rate compared to a statewide graduation rate of about 80 percent.
Now Gillespie’s grades are better. Recently, he conquered the onerous task of public speaking when he presented a fundraising idea he hatched during the JMG program — selling ribbons to benefit an organization called AutismOne — to an audience of more than 100 people.
In short, Gillespie said the best thing JMG has done is made him realize there are steps he needs to take now in order to reach his goals.
“My whole attitude changed about school,” he said. “The program has really pushed me to get my work done. I needed to do that, especially this year because I want to go to college.”
Morris, who earned her teaching credentials in 2006 as a second career, is in her fourth year as Morse’s JMG instructor. Earlier this year, she was named to the Maine Educators’ Hall of Fame Starting 6, an honor given annually to Maine educators by Unum, a financial and insurance services company in Southern Maine, and the Portland Pirates hockey team.
Though she’s employed by JMG and not RSU 1, the Bath-area school district, she has a student roster of about 50 and many of the same requirements as other teachers in terms of grading and attendance. Though she has a classroom in the school, Morris said she prefers not to use the classroom whenever possible. That’s because being outside the classroom means she’s engaging her students in hands-on learning.
“I don’t like teaching in a canned environment,” Morris said. “I like to be authentic with what I teach.”
In recent months that has meant that Morris’ JMG students have tackled projects ranging from Gillespie’s fundraiser to a recent maple syrup event — including maintaining 110 sugar taps in North Bath and collecting 400 gallons of sap — which was attended by a large percentage of the district’s elementary school students. While her primary role is monitoring her students’ work in other classes and helping out where they need it, Morris said she has found herself helping them with more personal issues such as communication, money management and job-seeking skills. But these lessons are not forced on the students, most of whom come to JMG on their own after being referred to it by another teacher.
“If the students don’t want to be here, the program is not going to work for them,” said Morris. “They’re not made to take the class, but I really push them out of their comfort zones to take on new challenges.”
Lisa Gardner, a spokeswoman for JMG, said there are numerous reasons for a student to be involved in the program, but the major theme is that mix of potential and ambition.
“To be involved, students have to have barriers to their education,” said Gardner. “The most common ones are that students are living with serious social challenges at home. Low income is a barrier. Kids who have fallen behind a grade is another barrier. These are kids who have started to become disengaged for one reason or another. It may be that they just don’t work well under the traditional education model.”
Gardner said with its focus on problem-solving and communication skills, as well as its emphasis of linking students and companies for apprenticeships, JMG has benefited thousands of students over the years.
“It’s about personal development and time management,” she said. “It’s about someone saying, ‘I care about you and I care about what you want to do. How do we get you there?’”
JMG is funded through various sources, with 40 percent coming from state government, 30 percent from local school districts and 30 percent in the form of donations from private corporations, foundations and individuals. In some cases individual businesses step in, such as at Morse High School, which had its $55,000 local share of the program covered by Bath Iron Works for the first three years of the program.
According to Gardner, JMG’s statewide budget for the current year is about $4.6 million.
For Gillespie, who spent his after-school hours on Friday with Morris working on zoology homework, the program has changed his goal of becoming a chef.
“I want to study radiology,” he said. “I’d rather help people than just cook food for them.”