Group strives to raise school enrollment

Posted May 13, 2010, at 8:56 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A coalition of Maine business leaders, educators, legislators and administrators unveiled Thursday an effort to increase school enrollment and provide students with in-demand job skills to improve Maine’s economy and curb its high school dropout rate.

The Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education began the Prepare Maine initiative about 18 months ago. The project will enlist the help of Maine communities, businesses and policymakers, among others, to help keep students in school and provide more Mainers with educational opportunities. The Maine Coalition introduced the project Thursday at press conferences in Portland, Bangor and Skowhegan.

Prepare Maine’s three goals are to prime more children for school and give them programs that “advance their development,” to graduate more high school students and to provide greater access to college degrees and work force training, according to Yellow Light Breen, chairman of the coalition and senior vice president of Bangor Savings Bank.

“We need to identify what is really working. Despite everything we have, we know far too little about what the best-performing, most outperforming, fastest-improving Maine schools do to generate that success,” Breen said. “We need to identify those successes, bottle them and reproduce them.”

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Maine’s public school graduation rate in 2008 was 82.85 percent.

The bottom line, said Richard L. Pattenaude, chancellor of the University of Maine System, is that the state needs to increase the number of people who graduate from high school.

Pattenaude said UMS would be working with educators and professionals in kindergarten through grade 12 to prepare Maine students for college.

The Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Maine also is working on research expected to be finished by the end of 2010 that will identify programs in state schools that will help advance Prepare Maine’s goals. In addition, UMS is working on a report the coalition will release in August detailing how it can measure its success, what challenges Prepare Maine faces and the best strategies for improving education in Maine. The Legislature provided half the funding for the $300,000 project. The coalition hopes to raise the other half from its supporters.

The Prepare Maine initiative ties in with the UMS restructuring initiative, Pattenaude said, citing online courses and degrees, and strategies to recruit and retain students as examples of collaborative efforts by UMS to offer increased educational opportunities in Maine.

“We’re working very hard to control costs so we can keep tuition down. And this year we’ll have one of the lowest tuition increases in history,” Pattenaude said.

The Prepare Maine initiative isn’t focused entirely on educators, according to Dolly Sullivan, program director for the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education. She said it’s more about getting parents, families and communities to assist in improving education opportunities in Maine.

“Parents and families have got to have high expectations,” Sullivan said.

Sherri Gould, 2005 Maine teacher of the year and an instructor at Nokomis Regional High School in Newport, said that her experience has shown parents’ involvement in their children’s education declines as students get older, and that high school teachers don’t know how to engage parents enough. Gould is a member of Pre-pare Maine, along with the 1990, 2009 and 2010 teachers of the year.

Michael T. Shea, president of Webber Energy Fuels and member of the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education board of directors, said Webber employs more than 100 licensed oil burner technicians in Maine and that they require different skill sets now from a few years ago.

“What used to be done with a wrench and a screwdriver now takes almost a degree from MIT,” Shea said Thursday.

The Prepare Maine initiative will tie in with the gubernatorial election, according to Shea, who said the project should be a high priority for any candidate. But he said the coalition board hasn’t focused very heavily on the election.

The Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education was formed in 1991 and released its first report a year later. Its mission is “to ensure that all students leaving high school will demonstrate the knowledge, skills, attitudes and understanding necessary to live productive, useful and satisfying lives,” according to its website.

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