WATERVILLE — Officials from several Waterville schools are hoping to get the city nationally recognized for its educational programs, and community members expressed excitement for the initiative at an introductory event this week.

About 150 people attended a two-hour meeting Tuesday night at Waterville Senior High School to hear about the program and discuss ideas for enhancing learning opportunities in Waterville — in and out of school, for people of all ages.

The initiative comes as developers — and Colby College — have started to take interest in downtown Waterville, renovating defunct mills and building a boutique hotel and arts center, among other efforts.

The event yielded several suggestions, ranging from adding affordable housing to making teacher salaries more competitive to forming a 24-hour day care for children of parents who work late-night or early morning shifts.

One resident suggested starting a business incubator grant program to fund entrepreneurs willing to set up shop in Waterville and bring jobs to the area.

Tuesday’s event was hosted by SPaRC, a coalition of institutions including the Waterville public school system, Educare early childhood program and several colleges and adult education programs in the area.

SPaRC, which stands for Strengthening, Partnering and Reinforcing Community, was formed last year, spurred by an idea that started with Eric Haley, superintendent of Waterville Public Schools.

The group is working with consultants at the American Institutes for Research to collect and analyze data about the current educational climate and “create recommendations for how we can collaborate to make our city a national model for community-wide education,” according to its website.

“I think it’s awesome,” participant Carrie LeVan said of the initiative Tuesday. “I hope that something comes out of it.”

Michelle Holmes, left, and Natalie Miekewich, write down strengths about Waterville’s educational environment in an exercise at the first SPaRC public meeting Tuesday night. The meeting took place in the cafeteria of Waterville Senior High School. Morning Sentinel photo by Meg Robbins

Haley said the idea for SPaRC came to him as the Alternative Organizational Structure with Winslow and Vassalboro was dissolving, allowing him to dedicate more time to educational leadership. He said he heard Colby College President David Greene give a speech about Colby’s plans to encourage development and bring businesses to Waterville.

“So I wrote him and said, ‘Do you see a vibrant city without vibrant schools?’ And in about 15 minutes, he said: ‘No, I don’t. You and I need to talk,’” Haley told the crowd Tuesday. “And we started talking about what can we do synergy-wise as a city. Not just Waterville schools, but collectively. There are many businesses that offer education because they need to. They have specific things they need their employees to know.”

It is the first time since Haley arrived in 1985 that leaders of Waterville public schools, Educare, Kennebec Valley Community College, Thomas College, Colby College and Mid-Maine Regional Adult Community Education have sat down and tried to plan improvements for the community.

Gathering input from the public is a crucial part of the process, which one of the SPaRC effort’s leaders, Sherry Brown, said is similar to creating a comprehensive plan for a municipality. Brown teaches English at Waterville Senior High School and sits on the SPaRC steering committee.

“This isn’t a model that was successful in California and we want to try and bring it here,” Haley said. “This is from us. You each have a perspective about what education has or has not done for you.”

At Tuesday’s event, attendees broke into small groups to talk about strengths and barriers they have observed as well as “innovations” they desire.

Some expressed excitement about parents and kids exercising together and supportive teachers. Others voiced concern about not having enough after-school programs or transportation to them.

The biggest barrier people at LeVan’s table pointed out involved access to infant and early childhood education. That needs to improve, LeVan said.

“That was a consistent theme across the board,” she said. “It was on everyone’s list.”

Sarah Staffiere, center, engages in a group discussion about strengths and barriers of the area’s schools and educational opportunities at a SPaRC meeting Tuesday night at Waterville Senior High School. SPaRC hopes to present a plan of action by June 2020 based on community input and data analysis. Morning Sentinel photo by Meg Robbins

Luke Brooks-Shesler, president of the Waterville Elementary Schools PTA, said he would like to see more intergenerational collaboration.

“I think we should increase the involvement between retirees and older folks and the schools themselves, starting maybe with the Muskie Center,” he said.

Haley introduced the discussions with an example of a potential innovation: “How can Waterville combine all the buses moving around so that maybe we could have a public transportation system?”

The 24-hour early childhood care idea received vocal support from the audience. Another participant suggested creating a dorm for at-risk students, where life skills are taught. Another participant urged turning mills into aquaponic farms to create jobs and supply the schools with local food.

Ron Peck, a Waterville resident with children in the public school system, said he thought the idea of bringing various stakeholders together Tuesday was a great idea.

“I think it’s exciting. It’s a much larger turnout that I expected,” he said. “It’s exciting that so many members of the community are focused or willing to put time into making education better.”

The next opportunity for members of the public to give feedback and participate in the SPaRC initiative will be at a full-day data-interpretation event Feb. 26, which will be limited to 100 participants. Before then, members of SPaRC plan to reach out to groups across the city, including the South End Teen Center, Alfond Youth Center and others.

Small task forces will meet from March to May, and SPaRC organizers plan to present an action plan in June.

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