The problem is wicked, as they say. As we conclude the third year of pandemic schooling with a severe educator workforce shortage, rapid leadership turnover, growing cultural polarization, and the clarity that our one-size-fits-all model is critically outdated, it is time we recognize the truth. Our schools are barely treading water, if that, despite the very best efforts of our educators, who have endured unbelievable strain, and a proactive Maine Department of Education.

Wicked, complex, problems are solved only by those experiencing the issue, in this case students and educators. But we aren’t listening to them.

And Maine students are losing hope. Almost 9 percent of Maine teens attempted suicide and more than double that seriously considered it in 2019. And that was before the pandemic. The statistics are worse if the teen is gender non-conforming, non-hetersexual, Hispanic, or identifies as a person of color. Only 56.6 percent of Maine teens in 2019 felt they mattered. And fully 20 percent of Maine students were chronically absent this year while school vandalism has skyrocketed. Why? One student recently shared with me, “The kids vandalizing the school are not the ones using slurs, and they are not the ones being discriminated against. They just feel hopeless, like nothing can be done to make this school a place that cares, so they might as well trash it.” What does it mean for our collective future when this doesn’t register as an emergency?

Deep listening and showing care through action is needed. And that’s on all of us. Entire communities have been devastated following recent school tragedies. Similarly, our entire community is experiencing a slow motion devastation as our youth lose hope, as they stop investing themselves in their future — in our future.

For the past year, the Ed Forum of Maine has initiated 150-plus small group discussions with educators, students, industries, and communities as a part of our Maine Education 2050 initiative. We ask what youth need from their education to thrive in the coming decades and how we can create schools that become community assets for all ages as Maine, and the world, faces an uncertain future. This is immediately crucial work and an interim report will be presented at the November Maine Education 2050 Summit, co-sponsored by us at the Ed Forum, Educate Maine, and the Maine DOE. Major themes of a need for care, connection, flexible thinking, and entrepreneurial spirit have arisen. Also clear is the poignant desire by students and educators to be heard, and for that listening to lead to local action.

Youth develop hope when they are invited to honestly express and examine challenges and collaborate with adults to take actions, however small, to make life better. We have seen this recently at a high school where we have partnered with Cortico at MIT’s Center for Constructive Communication to train students to facilitate small group conversations, analyze what they hear, and develop solutions that are impactful and workable for the full school community. One student told us, “I have hope for the first time in the last few years.”

Education, our public investment in the future, needs to be renewed now. Or Maine will slip backward and away from the healthy and prosperous future we want. And we can’t do this right without stopping to listen. If we have learned anything from our fellow Mainers, it is that we need to create spaces to talk with one another. Then, together, we can create new ways of educating that will meet students’ academic and emotional needs, give educators a fair shot at success, and facilitate life-long learning with schools as the hub for an educated, civically-engaged population. Mainers have the creativity and the determination to solve any problem we choose. But we have to act decisively by investing our time in listening now, before it is too late.

— Special to the Press Herald

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