Alternative Organizational Structure (AOS) 98 Superintendent Keith Laser offered the wisdom of Bob Dylan’s 1963 hit “The Times They Are a’ Changin’” at a breakfast meeting at St. Andrews Village Oct. 31 on the future of the Boothbay schools. Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Patricia Royall organized the meeting, "Re-Envisioning Education for the Boothbay Region." She and the Rev. Sarah Foulger moderated.
“What has changed? There isn't a kid in our school who doesn't have one of these,” said Laser, holding up his mobile phone. “Think of how this has changed the landscape.”
Laser said most students are not graduating school into a mill job or onto a fishing vessel anymore, but they are going into jobs that demand critical thinking skills – a truth school districts in Maine and across the country are facing. He said the education model used throughout the U.S. dates to the 1800s, and the school day and calendar have not changed dramatically since.
“The goal of public schools in their minds was to prepare young men and women to take their place in the industrial age. So much of that model has not changed. We still have bells – 42 minutes and … they come out of math class, they change their brain and they walk into English class or Spanish class. Those things have not changed in well over 100 years … We're preparing our kids to a certain extent (for) an industrial age society when we all know that's not the world we're in anymore.”
Foulger said a Chamber meeting last year found the things young families want most out of a community are meaningful work, affordable housing and good education. Foulger noted the current cost per pupil – just over $20,000 – is about $5,000 more than anywhere else in Maine.
“Sixty-five percent of primary school children will end up working jobs that don't exist today,” said Foulger. “Not only do we need to be prepared to change, but we need to equip our children for a very fast-moving world.”
Most of the Oct. 31 meeting centered around brainstorming how business community members feel about the state of education on the peninsula. Separated into groups by table, attendees tackled four main questions:
What are your perceptions of the Boothbay Harbor schools and what do you consider the five strengths and five weaknesses?
What resources, training, classes would you suggest for the high school to offer to help these students succeed?
What do you feel would be the impact to our business community if our schools close and residents are given a voucher to attend schools off the peninsula?
What ideas do you have to create a 21st century learning environment for our schools?
Many agreed the student to teacher ratio, special needs programs, volunteering, scholarship opportunities, student aid, sports programs, and community support are strengths. Weaknesses included the schools’ dated infrastructure, low enrollment, and a general lack of diversity. Notable suggestions for a better approach to education involved hands on learning with local businesses through internships, apprenticeships and vocational training.
Sue Burge said her table felt there is a lack of parental involvement and that the humanities and arts programs could be stronger. Burge’s table, like others, suggested more vocational training and regionalization of education.
“Create an education hub, a regional education program that may include secondary education,” said Burge, adding, proactive efforts are needed for school funding. “In other words … where are those dollars? State and federal? … We need to get on that list.”
Boothbay Region High School graduate Brooke Alley said she returned after college to work for LincolnHealth. Scholarship opportunities, sports engagement and community support were her table’s outlook on three big strengths. Alley said customizing learning and work experiences to students and providing more opportunities outside the classroom would help with concerns of a lack of class options and help students understand why certain educational standards are necessary.
Rounding out the discussion, Edgecomb Selectman Mike Smith’s table echoed many of the same sentiments – class sizes, community support, professional staff and student aid as strengths and the state of the buildings, population and student enrollment as weaknesses. Smith said because closing the schools is a nonstarter, the region must begin to understand funding and solutions will only come from within the region. With that, Smith shared an idea he suggested to his table: a five-year high school diploma or certificate. This would include an option to go to college after a fourth year or to extend to two-years' vocational training after junior year.
Said Smith, “… This is funded by the taxpayer, it keeps the kid home for one extra year … (and) it provides maybe between the fourth and fifth year an internship wherever they choose be it Bigelow, be it a shipyard. There are great opportunities down here for internships … I mean, if we're thinking outside the box, maybe we need to really think outside the box.”