Wednesday, October 3, 2007

We'll Educate You, Part 1

Last week I was invited to speak with students at Eastern Maine Community College (EMCC). It is always an honor to be asked to visit with college students, and I accept such invitations if I can. I learn a lot, and I love to share the many blessings of my life with young people. Beginning last year, the State of Maine is placing a lot of emphasis on community colleges; in large part because the full 4-year experience has become so ridiculously expensive (as a Bowdoin College alum, I can vouch for this). EMCC is a small huddle of 1960s era brick buildings, complete with the wear and tear one might expect after 40 some odd years. It is tightly situated between Interstate 95 (which one hopes makes it accessible, if not exactly breathable), Rollaway America, a strip of car dealerships, and Acadia Psychiatric Hospital. And it is filled with hard working, blue collar students from all walks of life: lobster fishermen, housewives rejoining the workforce, as well as first year college students. There were 20 of them in this English class, learning to interview and report on what they learn; they were all great. Hungry for life, eager to learn; a different breed from the University of Maine at Orono new media students I visited with several years ago, who were tongue-tied into their own iPod worlds. How can we, as artists and business people, better share our life experiences with the next generation of learners?

Education is a hot topic in Maine communities these days, as Governor Baldacci and the state legislature have legislated a consolidation of our local school districts. We're a rural state, very spread out; and over the years, good old Yankee desire for "local control" has wrought enough separate administrative districts to run the nation's schools. Administrative consolidation is the right idea, although the specifics of the consolidation law itself are causing serious road blocks. The biggest road block, however, is a serious misunderstanding of local control; lead, in fact, by a good-hearted but wrong-headed guy from this island. Local control ain't administrative control, particularly in regard to schools. Local control, in the best Yankee sense, is participation; and participation is something that is dying out in our small local communities. Local control of schools is about the people in the building, the principals and the teachers and the parents; not about where the superintendent is, how many meetings he attends, etc. It's about Parent Teachers Associations, and parents who spend a lot of time in the education of their own children. I will note here that we cannot even maintain a PTA in our community, because there is not enough parental participation in local education (other than basketball, that is). And "local control" is especially not about local school boards, which, in an attempt at representation, consist of well-meaning folks who know and seemingly care little-to-nothing about educational research, policy, or programs; each with their own specific memory axe ("this is how it was when I was in school . . . ") to grind.

How is "local control" best maintained and expressed, so our unique, individuistic Maine communities maintain their original essence? I'll leave that to the next, or to another, post . . .