Spanning academic achievement and political accord

As participating students and education officials look on, Gov. Paul LePage touts the benefits of the Bridge Year Program during a gathering at Hermon High School on Monday, June 11, 2012.
As participating students and education officials look on, Gov. Paul LePage touts the benefits of the Bridge Year Program during a gathering at Hermon High School on Monday, June 11, 2012. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 11, 2013, at 12:16 p.m.

Amid the intensely partisan wrangling over education reform in Maine, the Bridge Year Program, a collaboration of Hermon High School, United Technologies Center, Eastern Maine Community College and the University of Maine, stands out as an example of what can be accomplished when the interests of students really are placed above politics.

The Bridge Year Program allows a group of Hermon High School students to earn college credits, at a significant cost savings, during their junior and senior years. The first group of Hermon High students started the program last fall and is on track to graduate in June 2014 with high school diplomas and a year’s worth of college credits. At that point, they can either earn an associate’s degree within one year or enter the University of Maine as sophomores.

More importantly, the students will leave high school with clearly defined life goals as well as skills and a plan to achieve them.

“It gave me a wider horizon for what I want to do,” said Chanel Watson, a Hermon High School junior and Bridge Year Program participant. Prior to entering the program, Watson said her focus was to “just get through high school and apply to colleges that would accept me.” Now, she hopes to move on from the Bridge Year Program to enroll at the University of Maine as a sophomore, double-majoring in business and art.

Program coordinators from all four participating schools aligned math, science, English and social studies curricula, so Watson’s high school classes will give her the equivalent of a year’s jump start on basic college requirements. She’s also learning about work ethics designed to make her a better employee after she finishes college.

The idea for the Bridge Year Program started with a conversation in a parking lot at UTC, according to Fred Woodman, the center’s director. That conversation prompted meetings among teachers, administrators, university and community college representatives, business leaders and others.

After that group identified problems and created a framework to address them, the Maine Department of Education was invited into the process. Democratic and Republican legislators, including Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, and Rep. Ralph Chapman, D-Brooksville, also joined the effort, initially more for their experience in career and technical education than as lawmakers. Both became strong advocates for the program.

Organizers worked together to remove barriers that either keep high school students from pursuing post-secondary education or lead them to drop out. To address financial barriers, Bridge Year Program participants pay $20 this year, and will pay $35 next year, per college credit hour, a significant discount on the $117 that other EMCC students pay per credit hour. Bridge Year Program participants will pay the full price per credit hour after graduating high school.

Because the Bridge Year Program keeps high school guidance counselors connected to its graduates for a year after they leave high school, Watson will be able to seek support from an educator she knows and trusts during her transition to college. “We are there with them when they hit the wall,” Woodman said.

Because the program is new, organizers will have to monitor closely how its participants’ college retention rates compare to those of students who go directly from high school to college. The focus on career preparation also requires an oversight component that measures Bridge Year Program participants’ job placement success after college.

Gov. Paul LePage has included $1 million in his proposed 2014-15 budget to expand the Bridge Year Program. Woodman said that money would be used for teacher training, summer college workshops for students and to ensure quality and consistency as the program expands to other high schools, career and technical centers, and postsecondary schools.

Based on passionate endorsements it has received from educators, university officials, Democrats, Republicans and — most importantly — students, the Legislature should ensure that Bridge Year Program funding remains in the budget.

Advancing the program requires adhering to a key lesson: Let educators at the local level work together to create quality programs that center on meeting students’ needs.

“We put our institutional turf aside,” said Tony Brinkley, a University of Maine English professor and senior faculty associate at Franco American Center, who participated in the collaborative that launched the Bridge Year Program.

Lawmakers need to follow the lead set by educators, Langley, Chapman — and LePage — by setting aside their allegiances to political institutions and recognizing the value an expanded Bridge Year Program could deliver.

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