What do you do if you are an educator who continually sees students not making that connection between academics and their importance to what one does after high school?

If you are like Waterville Junior High School Principal Carole Gilley and Mid-Maine Technical Center Director Peter Hallen, you put your heads together, think outside the box and come up with a plan.

Theirs is a compelling one.

Gilley and Hallen presented their plan, which they call a pilot project, to the Waterville Board of Education Wednesday night.

They said they recognize there are students who come from families that value education, talk about it and make college a top priority.

But then there are those students Gilley and Hallen worry about — the ones who struggle, seem to lack direction and have trouble envisioning their futures.

By the time they get to high school, it is often too late to help instill in them a good understanding of how academics are key to having a career and what possible careers they might be interested in and pursue after high school.

The Mid-Maine Technical Center, which is based at Waterville Senior High School, has a career and technical education program for 11th graders where they can explore career interests, but Gilley and Hallen think youths should be exposed to that information sooner — like in seventh and eighth grade.

Pursuing that idea, Hallen asked a steering committee to look at student data and talk about the concept of student readiness. Members discussed the fact that many students who aspire to go to community colleges do not meet the minimum requirements to get in so they have to take remedial courses which do not offer credits toward a college degree. Often, they give up on college altogether.

Hallen said the committee formed a subcommittee to pursue the matter further. The subcommittee included students, staff and guidance counselors.

“We were hearing from students that they were disconnected from their academics, not because teachers were doing something wrong, but because academics weren’t important to them,” Hallen said. “We heard it from the teachers, too.”

It is clear, according to Hallen and Gilley, that students who take careers in education courses are more likely to attend school, stay in school, graduate and be successful, and the committee started talking about the concept of ensuring not just career or college readiness, but a combination of both — career and college readiness.

“What we realized is, all we have to do is fit it into the schedule and find a teacher and develop a curriculum from scratch and make sure that every kid coming to the junior high connects their academics to what they want to do after school,” he said. “It may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s not.”

Gilley and Hallen got to work, figuring out how to make such a program work.

The subcommittee and staff from the junior high took a field trip to the technical center and toured its career and technical education space, which includes stations, and thought about how to replicate that at the junior high school.

Gilley identified a former shop area at the junior high that was perfect, and the operations department transformed it into a warm, welcoming, inviting room. A planning committee met for the first time to discuss starting all seventh-graders in the program in 2017-18 and eighth-graders the following year.

“We’re going to begin with baby steps,” Gilley said. “This is a planning year. We want all students to be exposed to it. It’s going to be about 30 hours.”

Students will learn about career skills, jobs in the service fields of criminal justice, medicine, culinary arts, the military, early childhood education, construction and other areas.

“We want to see this grow, we want to see it catch on, we want to add eighth graders the second year,” Gilley said. “We want them to have a plan going into high school. We want them to make connections starting in seventh grade. We know these kids have got to be engaged. They need to be engaged sooner.”

Gilley and Hallen said they know there are many questions yet to be answered about their program, including who is going to run it and how it will be funded.

“The greatest help we’ll need is obviously with funding,” Hallen said. “The trick is going to be getting this to be an approved CTE (career and technical education) program. We’ve got to do some work.”

Gilley is up to the challenge of trying to ensure the program becomes reality.

“We’d be the first in the state to have this at the junior high level,” she said.

Schools Superintendent Eric Haley listened to their presentation and recalled when he was the high school principal many years ago and worked with students who were reluctant to delve into academics and who constantly asked what relevance academics had to the real world. But when they did hands-on learning, they understood how algebra, for instance, is used in home-building and auto body activities, according to Haley.

“I’m excited about this because we have just too many freshmen coming in not attached to why they’re here,” Haley said.

It will be interesting to see where this pilot program goes, how it is funded and most importantly, how it will benefit students.

In this world of tight budgets, unfunded mandates and school officials doing more with less, it’s inspiring to see educators thinking outside the box to ensure all students have a job, a chance, a future.

Like any forward-thinking school officials, Gilley and Hallen looked at what works and what doesn’t. And then they explored what can be and, with enthusiasm, devised a plan.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 28 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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