Education Elevates Everything

A merger offers a unique opportunity to look at the combined resources we have – and we have some superb educators and facilities – and think about how we can do more. How can we rethink our education system for a 21st century world? Merging our two cities will drive this process, like nothing else can.

When a person considers moving to a new city for a job, what is the first non-work question her or she asks? It is “How are the schools?”

Not too long ago, our company hired a senior level executive who was then living out of state. He settled his family in Falmouth, rather than LA, because he and his wife perceived their school system to be better for his children’s needs. His paycheck earned here is fully spent elsewhere. How many similar stories are out there?

There is absolutely nothing more important to the future of our community – and the attraction of new talent – than a first rate education system. It is not about school buildings but about improving how education is organized and how teachers help to elevate each student.

A merger offers a unique opportunity to look at the combined resources we have – and we have some superb educators and facilities – and think about how we can do more. How can we rethink our education system for a 21st century world? Merging our two cities will drive this process, like nothing else can.

The education workgroup that contributed to our Consolidation Options and Impacts study published a lengthy “Vision for Improving Education in L-A” in that document. It starts out saying, “A unified school system offers a unique opportunity for innovation and reinvention. LA schools can be – and must be – among the best in Maine and the best for each student’s individual needs.”

The merging of school systems will surface some considerable administrative savings, but there can be no cuts in teachers or the money that goes into educating children. What goes on in classrooms is best left to professional educators working with engaged parents.

And let’s be clear, local schools will still be local. An Auburn-side student will go to EL, just as her mother or father did. Traditions are important, and they have to continue.

To make those local schools most effective we must maximize the authority of the leadership and faculty at each school. Vision is set by the superintendent working with the school committee, but then strong school leaders apply that vision to each unique school and child.

We do know we have to get kids into school earlier. They need to be in public or private classrooms by age 4, and kindergarten needs to be all day for all children.

All children need to be on reading level by grade three, or they are likely to be permanently left behind. We’ve got to set aspirations high in the middle grades, especially for those who come from difficult backgrounds. And we have to work with organizations like Tree Street and Auburn PAL to keep the most vulnerable from falling off the playing field.

Graduations rates must to get into the 90+% range. And we must expect that every young man and woman will leave our hands ready to be self-sufficient and productive.

A reinvented and larger school system can offer a greater variety and depth of courses that no other city in Maine can match. For example, the new EL might specialize in a science and technology curriculum, while LHS focuses on arts and humanities, perhaps with a particular strength in languages that are in demand by businesses. The renowned regional voc/tech program has to be expanded, given the insatiable demand there is for skilled trades persons.

And consider this idea. A larger district has the potential to attract new revenue streams, such as federal, state, and private competitive grants. The district should have sufficient resources to develop a Development Office that would be the face to foundations and alumni, promoting the district and our education “brand” similar to how it is done by private schools. If done right, revenues raised this way would exceed the staffing costs.

Both high schools would be sure to align their courses to prepare students for post-secondary education, whether college and vocational. The L-A school system would work with our strong local colleges, so that the LA workforce has a strong flow of well-prepared young adults that attract the businesses – both startups and the long-established firms -- that pay well and which, in turn, attract more talent to our area.

An excellent school system will be student centered and focused on personalized learning. What is the right combination of choices to ignite learning passions in each individual student, whether they go to college or plan a career in the trades? A combined system can offer dramatically more resources and choices for students at all levels.

The better we do these things and more, the more our school system will elevate LA.

Gene Geiger, Chair
Lewiston and Auburn Joint Charter Commission