Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Black Fly Loop

[Mt Abram Regional High School]

[Sugarloaf; where the beautiful people come to visit; also, one of the area's major employers]

[A Logging truck, sans his load]

[One of many "swamp donkeys" you'll see in your travels in N. Franklin Cty]

[Downtown Rangeley; another popular four-season tourist destination]

One of the best parts of my job is the unique, passionate people I get to meet and partner with, working in the context of workforce development. Secondly, the five counties that I cover in Area III are some of the most beautiful and also some of the most interesting rural areas in the state.

Franklin County, which most people know from driving through Farmington, on their way to ski areas in Rangeley, or Kingfield, is like the flyover country of the Midwest. People think of it as merely territory on the way to a destination, or a place to get gas or a quick bite. Rarely do these visitors care to understand the complexities that make up rural counties like Franklin, or really get to know the people who live and work there.

In my own work life, much of my focus in Franklin centers in Farmington and I rarely get much further north than the county’s largest town and center of commerce. Friday was different, however.

I first met Gary Perlson when we were panelists at a MELMAC conference forum, last fall. We had the opportunity to chat briefly and find out that we both were parents of Wheaton College graduates. In talking with Gary and hearing him present, I made a mental note that here was one passionate dude, with an obvious vitality and energy that is immediately obvious when you meet him.

Gary has been one of the driving forces behind the Franklin County Community College Network, bringing community college classes to Franklin County. In addition, Gary is also the Director of Adult and Community Education at MSAD 58/Mt Abram Community Education Center, in Salem Township.

I have been given an opportunity, in my role with the Local Workforce Investment Board, to write a semi-regular feature in a new publication for Franklin County, called The Daily Bulldog. My first article in the monthly print edition (they also produce a daily online edition capturing what’s happening in one of Maine’s more vibrant rural counties in the state) was on the WorkReady Credential Program, of which I’ve been active partner in various collaborations since last fall. For my next assignment, I am going to tackle the network that is helping to expand educational opportunities for all of the county’s residents, by offering community college classes, in partnership with Central Maine Community College.

To many folks, particularly those who live in Portland and points south, Farmington would be considered rural Maine personified. As a true Mainer, let me tell you, Farmington is not rural and in fact, to many other residents of Franklin County, Farmington receives far too much focus and represents an “elitist” element that isn’t representative of the rest of the county, particularly the northern regions of Franklin County.

Both Gary and Kirsten Brown Burbank, Gary’s Assistant Director, were very gracious hosts for my Friday visit. Gary and I spent time talking about the genesis of the network that has become Franklin County Community College Network. He also spent some time talking about Mt Abram Regional High School, where the Community Education Center is housed.

It was apparent in speaking to Gary and hearing some of the stories about the school and the work that he and Kirsten do that this is one of the top high schools in Maine and not only Maine, but the U.S. Not only that—it may have one of the prettiest locales of any high school anywhere.

MSAD 58 was formed in 1966, comprising the communities of Avon, Kingfield, Stratton, Strong, Phillips, Eustis and unorganized townships, like Salem, a result of the last major wave of school consolidation, stemming from the Sinclair Act. The current building that houses the school was officially ready for occupancy in November, 1969.

Mt Abram Regional High School is Maine’s only high school located in an unorganized township and serves an area that is half the size of Rhode Island (without any traffic lights, btw) and the average student will travel 60,000 miles during his/her four years of high school attendance.

Why Rural Schools Matter

While the state and specifically, the governor, insists that all of Maine’s budget woes will be solved by combining school districts and at least on paper, he has made a passable case for it, those of us who try to understand rural issues know that it won’t be painless, nor will it benefit all areas of Maine, particularly places like northern Franklin County.

As I’ve written before, one of the key aspects of rural schools, beyond the quality education that most provide, and often, much more cost-effectively than more populated school districts, is the community component that they represent. In rural Maine and other rural areas of the country, the local school is the community rallying point and glue that brings together folks separated by distance and remote locales. An apt illustration of this will be Mt Abram’s role in helping the area communities pay their final respects to a former student and hero, Richard Parker.

Parker, a 26-year-old soldier, from Phillips, was killed in Iraq when a roadside bomb detonated as his unit’s convoy passed. The Army National Guardsman graduated from Mt. Abram in 1999. The school gymnasium will provide a place for a community visitation on Monday and on Tuesday afternoon, 300 people will gather for a full military funeral ceremony. When I visited the school on Friday, the chairs and gymnasium had already been set up, somberly awaiting Monday night’s visitation.

If you close a school like Mt Abram, or if Mt Abram were to consolidate with Rangeley, would the sending towns and their students in the northern reaches of the county still receive the high quality education in a combined school?

Mt Abram is one of eight high schools in the state selected as part of the Great Maine Schools Project through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and The Mitchell Institute. 85 percent of Mt Abram students go on to higher education. Currently, the school has 11 students (out of a student body of just over 200) that are involved in a trades pre-apprenticeship program, learning welding and other manufacturing-specific training. Perlson and Brown Burbank have instituted an effective Pathway Partners initiative at the school, which helps raise aspirations, skills, and attitudes of MSAD 58 students and helps build a future for the area communities, as well as the local economy.

Partnering with area businesses, government and organizations like the Maine Mentoring Partnership, the MELMAC Foundation, America’s Promise and the United Way, this program provides a seamless transition from school life to a successful career/life path for every student.

What ultimately drives home the importance of the school (as if one needs any more evidence after spending time with Gary, Kirsten, or talking with the school’s principal, Jeanne Tucker), is experiencing the size of the district, or even part of the district, as I was able to do when Gary took me around the “Black Fly Loop.” The Loop took us east to Kingfield (and Sugarloaf), then north to Stratton and Eustis. We then headed southwest on Route 16 to Rangeley and then east on Route 4 through Madrid, ending at Hillbilly’s, at the Avon Mall for lunch. After enjoying good local grub at the former Beanie’s, we headed back to Salem Township, passing through downtown Phillips, before ending up back at scenic Mt. Abram.

My time with Gary and Kirsten fit very nicely with some of my recent writing and presentations that I’ve been giving. As I’ve been trying to help business leaders understand the crossroads we are at with training the current workforce, as well as tomorrow’s workers, I recognized that a small rural high school, located in Northern Franklin County is doing exactly what I’ve been talking about for the past year.

I don’t know how everything will shake out regarding school consolidation. If history is an indication, the needs of the local communities for quality education and preparing their students for the 21st century are probably at the bottom of the list. Hopefully, maybe this time, the focus will shift and end up giving precedence to the needs of local, rural people, not scoring political points and creating positive media spin for the administration in power.

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