Friday, August 10, 2007

Education that matters

Franklin County is one of the more interesting rural areas of Maine. The more time I spend there, the more I’m coming to recognize that it also may offer solutions to other parts of rural America. The county’s people are entrepreneurial and infused with a Yankee cussedness that turns challenges into opportunities.

I posted something back in June, at Words Matter, about some of the people making things happen in Maine's western mountains. There are others.

The county is also home to a great new local publication, The Daily Bulldog. TDBG was founded by husband and wife team, Bobbie and Woody Hanstein and is attempting to be the news source of record for this region of Maine. Bobbie has extended an opportunity for me to write semi-regular articles, focused on workforce training and education, highlighting some of the positive things happening in the area.

Here is my latest article, from the August issue of the paper, setting btw, opposite Maine writing legend, Al Diamon.

Building a network to the future
by, Jim Baumer
[Published in The Daily Bulldog, August 2007]

Education is a key component in any region’s economic future. The skills necessary for success in the workplace require greater sophistication than ever before. While there was a time, not too long ago, when a post-secondary education wasn’t essential that time is now gone. Without additional training, today’s workers are sure to be left behind, unable to compete in a global marketplace.

The formation of The Franklin Community College Network provides an important catalyst, promoting educational opportunities and eliminating obstacles and barriers that in the past, may have prevented many in the area from accessing, or even considering college as an option.

How did this forward-looking partnership come together; a diverse cross-section from Franklin County and beyond, representing business, education, economic development and faith-based groups?

Gary Perlson, director of Community Education for MSAD #58, at Mt. Abram High School, points to a meeting that took place in June of 2005, between representatives from Central Maine Community College, the local regional technical high school, as well as members from adult and community education.

The Triple Convergence

Perlson points to a “triple convergence,” which helped to facilitate the formation of the Franklin County Community College Network.

On June 5, 2005, Dr. Scott Knapp, president of Central Maine Community College, met with area educators to discuss the possibility of offering community college classes in Franklin County.

Knapp solicited input from members of the county’s education community, which included Perlson, Reva Merrill, from Foster Regional Applied Technology Center and Ray Therrien, director of Franklin County Adult and Community Education.

During that meeting, President Knapp directed a unique question Perlson’s way.

“I still remember this meeting; most people don’t let me talk about my dreams—they want the concrete; the sequential,” Perlson recalled. “Dr. Knapp asked me to talk about my dreams for Franklin County.”

Perlson recounted sharing his vision with Knapp and the group.

“I envision that wherever one goes in Franklin County—every business, every school, every public building is a college campus—that instructors from this area with advanced degrees are teaching people from this area; that our community members are able to transition to on-campus colleges, four-year schools, because they’ve had this community college experience.”

Meanwhile, as this meeting was taking place with Knapp, another group in Franklin County also envisioned and were planning for community college classes being offered to area residents. Neither group, however, knew about the other.

In December, 2004, Doug Dunlap, a professor at UMF and pastor of the First Congregational Church in Wilton, along with Fen Fowler/Western Maine Community Action, Paul Scalzone/CEI and Steve Cole/Opportunity Center of Northern Franklin County, attended a conference sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in Sante Fe, New Mexico. The focus of the conference was rural economic development.

“At this conference, we learned that there was a direct and positive correlation between the economic development opportunities for rural communities and their proximity to a community college,” said Dunlap. “After returning from Sante Fe, our group decided on three goals, one of which was the establishment of a community college presence in Franklin County, unaware of what was going on with Gary’s group,” said Dunlap. “We felt this was important because we were the only rim county in Maine that didn’t have a community college at the time.”

These two groups, operating along parallel tracks, were destined to come together.

“Franklin County is a small county in the sense that everyone knows everyone else,” said Dunlap. “We all shop at the same supermarket, eat at the same restaurants, see each other at sporting events. Word got out about our two groups and Rick Batt, from Franklin Community Health Network, offered to host a meeting on July 16, 2005, bringing the two groups together.”

This 10 am meeting, facilitated by both Dunlap and Perlson, represented 27 different organizations. Interestingly, two hours later, the Maine Community Foundation’s Western Mountains Advisory Committee was meeting in the very same room. Several of their members, having read Thomas Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, were looking to fund a networking approach to building educational capacity and infrastructure.

Were these three things a coincidence? Maybe; however, these three things working together, helped to propel the formation and provide funding for what was to become the Franklin County Community College Network.

With the writing of a proposal and subsequent awarding of a network-based capacity building grant from the Maine Community Foundation, a unique approach to rural education had the capital it needed to move forward.

“The grant, while not the focus of the network, helped provide the underlying rationale of what this group’s formation was about—economic development,” said Perlson. “While all of us believe in the intrinsic value of education and we want our people to be successful and get a college education, the underlying reason for this network is the economic survival of rural Maine.”

Alison Hagerstrom, executive director for Greater Franklin Development Corporation, the fiscal agent for the grant, echoes the economic importance of increasing educational opportunities for the county and having community college classes offered in Franklin County.

“I regularly talk to businesses, looking to relocate,” said Hagerstrom. “They all expect to have to retrain the local workforce; what they want to know is whether there is a community college nearby to help support their efforts,” she said.

Community College Classes Come to Franklin County

In the fall of 2005, three classes were offered at one site, launching community college classes in Franklin County.

Kirsten Brown Burbank, assistant director of MSAD 58 Community Education and an adjunct professor for community college courses in Franklin County, remembers how everyone originally assumed that the classes would be located in Farmington.

“If we had continued to offer classes only in Farmington, many students in the other parts of the county would have been left out,” said Brown Burbank. “We’ve gone from three classes (fall of 2005), all at one site, to now, we are offering 12 classes, at five different sites throughout the county,” she said.

Since the launch of classes, Brown Burbank has taught College Writing each semester. In speaking with her, Brown Burbank’s enthusiasm and passion for her students is apparent. Students, many taking their first college class ever, are getting a special opportunity to learn from a caring instructor, one who is approachable, as well as being gifted as an instructor.

The network’s community liaison, Betty Gensel, sees enrollment growing steadily, which bodes well for future success, as well as more course offerings.

“We started with 74 students in 2005,” said Gensel. “Our spring registration saw 231 students, accounting for 358 total registrations (some students taking multiple classes). Our rate of students matriculating has also increased; from 21 percent, to its current 33 percent.”

What should be readily apparent about Franklin County, which makes it different than other rural areas of the state, is the willingness of community members to meet challenges head-on, such as bringing college classes to the county and finding creative solutions to problems, utilizing available resources—most often, the ingenuity and creativity of the community at large.
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