READFIELD — When a group of educators started a new nonprofit organization in 1986, they gave it a very specific name to go with its mission.
For several years, the Maine Support Network for Rural Special Educators brought together far-flung special education teachers for support and training.
As the organization broadened its focus, it shortened its name to the Maine Support Network. But last year, President Kathryn Markovchick and her colleagues decided that even that was too narrow and didn’t reflect the work they were doing on a national and international level.
They renamed themselves Syntiro, the Greek word for “support.”
It’s a time of change for Syntiro, which moved into a new office on Readfield’s South Road in March and had to let go of about half its staff after Maine lost a federal college access grant Syntiro administered for several years.
Now Syntiro is looking for new projects while keeping up with ongoing work in the areas of teacher training, self-determination and collaborations with other organizations.
“It’s all about support and how we can make things work in schools today,” said Therese Burns, an assistant director. “We’re always out there beating the path to find whatever new things we can and figure out how to get them to teachers in classrooms.”
Markovchick was teaching at the University of Maine at Farmington in 1986 when she started working with the Maine Support Network. Margaret Arbuckle, a UMF colleague, and Judy Enright of Skowhegan had written the grant to the Maine Department of Education to start the project.
There was a high turnover rate among special education teachers, Markovchick said.
“The teachers said they needed to have contact with other special ed teachers, and they needed to have information about what was current,” she said. “This was in the mid-80s, when there was one or maybe two special ed people in a building.”
The Maine Support Network organized regional and statewide conferences for the teachers.
Markovchick started working with the organization full time and moved it to Readfield because she lives nearby in Mount Vernon. Regional School Unit 38 serves as the fiscal agent for Syntiro because the involvement of a public entity is required for many grants.
A change in the approach to special education guided Syntiro’s evolution.
“Twenty years ago, we separated kids based on what we thought their learning needs were,” Burns said. “Now we’ve come full circle and put all kids together. You need a lot more skills.”
The staff also monitors teachers’ and schools’ needs, as well as grants available at the local and state level.
“We keep our eye open for cutting-edge work in schools,” said Rick Wilson, operations coordinator. “A need will pop up, and funding streams will become available. Sometimes when we get a grant, it leads us in new directions we didn’t have much experience working in.”
Syntiro does not choose projects at random, though.
“There are a couple of things that are sort of core to us,” Markovchick. “We developed celebratory learning. It integrates a lot of good meetings, good learning, good leadership. We’re all learners in this together. And then the idea of growth and people attaining what they’re able to attain is also one of the core, guiding principles that we have.”
Syntiro prides itself on fun, interactive, “celebratory” training sessions. The staff running the sessions deck out tables with a theme — complete with colorful tablecloths, pencils and toys — then model methods and activities for the teachers.
Syntiro’s programs this year include the Maine High School Equivalency Program for migratory and seasonal farm workers; Ticket to Work for Social Security disability beneficiaries; and developing open-source digital textbooks in conjunction with Fayette School Department.
RSU 38 is implementing another initiative, Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, with the help of training from Syntiro. PBIS guides schools to create standardized expectations for behavior, and RSU 38 is applying it at the elementary and middle school levels.
“The rules are all posted through the school, and there’s a line down the middle of the corridor and everyone’s supposed to keep to the right,” said Superintendent Rich Abramson, who is also on Syntiro’s board. “So we’re not pushing and shoving or knocking each other over. When you go into the bathroom, posted on the bathroom door is what your bathroom behavior is expected to be.”
PBIS already is having positive effects, Abramson said.
Another central Maine school district impacted by Syntiro is Anson-based RSU 74, one of 18 districts that was part of the state Gear Up program for college access.
RSU 74’s Carrabec Community High School focused its grant money toward increasing graduation rates, college enrollment rates, SAT scores and the number of Advanced Placement and other rigorous courses offered at the school.
Syntiro administered the grant, collecting data and serving as a mediator between local schools and federal officials.
“They would offer us help, give us suggestions, help us fill out the paperwork,” said Maurice Langlois, who was the Gear Up liaison at Carrabec. “They were also there to kind of kick us in the butt when we were falling behind on deadlines.”
But Congress cut Gear Up funding by $20 million this year, and Maine’s grant was not renewed.
Carrabec will miss the $32,000 it received annually for the six-year grant, Langlois said.
Syntiro also misses the grant, which amounted to $3 million a year. Half of that went to scholarships, Markovchick said, and Syntiro distributed most of the rest to local schools.
Syntiro had 15 employees but has downsized to eight. This year the organization’s budget will be about $1 million, some of which is going to other groups, Markovchick said.
As Syntiro explores new grants and initiatives and looks for other nonprofits to share space in its building, Markovchick hopes to find new ways to get people into postsecondary education.
“Maine is on the edge of having a lot going for it in terms of workforce development and people working together and pulling together to sort of reinvent themselves,” she said. “Because (the state is) small, I think it’s a doable goal. Everybody deserves a chance for better education, and I think we can do it in Maine.”
Susan McMillan — 621-5645