St. John Valley

What Maine needs is more kids who believe their future is here

By Scott K. Fish

Four years ago, Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner and I were trading economic development ideas for rural Maine. Commissioner Chris Gardner said finally, “What Maine really needs is more kids.” This week I asked if Chris believes “more kids” is still Maine’s best economic idea.

Chris said, “Absolutely. More than ever. There are [1.3] million people in the great State of Maine. How many kids do you think are born in Maine each day? The answer is 35. You couldn’t fill one school bus with the kids born each day in Maine.

“Now count the obituaries. We have a math problem. Our take-aways are more than our gazintas. Result? We’re dying,” Chris said. “We have to turn and face that truth — but we don’t want to. We mask it by talking about issues that are political and polar. Everybody’s got an opinion on energy and taxes, nobody differs on dying. We all should agree we need to stay alive. We don’t have enough kids.

“If we want to attract young people, we have to do what young people want,” Gardner said.

“Washington Academy is a tremendous example. Everybody’s saying we’ve got to consolidate schools. In Washington County, Lubec High School closed. The sardine industries on the Downeast coast, and the forest industries in Millinocket — people forget it was those industries that built Portland,” said Gardner. “Now we think Fairchild Semiconductor built the entire State of Maine, right?

“Lubec’s high school closed because they ran out of customers. Everybody says our schools cost too much. No, they cost too much per student,” Gardner said. “Washington Academy said, If there aren’t enough kids here, where are there more kids? Over there! Washington Academy started an international program. Instead of focusing on what they didn’t have, they focused on what they did have.

“While other Maine high schools are fighting declining enrollment, Washington Academy moved up from a Class C high school, to a Class B high school because of increased enrollment. Instead of treating the symptoms, they treated the illness. Statewide, that’s what we need to do,” said Gardner.

“Maine spends millions of dollars telling the world: ‘Come to Maine on Vacation, Stay a Lifetime,’ and ‘Maine: the Way Life Should Be.’ But, we look at our kids and we say, ‘Run as fast as you can and don’t ever look back. There’s no future for you here.’ Those are two conflicting messages. We need to change that. If we don’t go young, we are done. Maine is the way life should be,” Gardner said.

“I look at Washington Academy, Shead High School in Eastport, and what I see is: a great student-to-teacher ratio; teachers who want to make a difference, no crime, no smog, and your kids can walk to and from school every day and not get killed,” he said

“The most important person in any community is in fifth grade. They’re smart enough to recognize the world around them is a place; more than just a playground. And they still think they can do anything, achieve anything, right in their hometown.

“But by sixth, seventh, and eighth grade they’ve hung around the kitchen table a little too much,” Chris said. “They’ve heard their parents grouse, watched the news, heard the negativity. They’ve already got it beat into their brains that, “There’s nothing here. Why am I staying here? I can’t wait to graduate high school. The first day I’m graduated high school I’m outta this place.”

Chris Gardiner said, finally, “We need to go find those fifth graders and start changing the way we talk to them.”

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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