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2019 brings new opportunities to address education issues

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — There will be new opportunities to address issues in education going into a new year with a new governor and Legislature, saysTim Doak, superintendent for school districts in Caribou and Fort Fairfield.

Doak and other Aroostook County education administrators have worked with members of the Maine School Superintendents Association and Maine School Boards Association to develop an aspirational platform for state education policy in 2019.

“It’s an attempt at MSSA and MSMA to be proactive toward education in Maine,” Doak said recently. With a new governor and Legislature both signalling support for more robust education funding, Doak said that schools will have an opportunity to make new changes and investments based on community needs.

The platform covers issues that include career and technical education, proficiency-based education, and funding for social and emotional support services. Doak said that Aroostook County school districts need to address those and other issues in order to address long-standing regional challenges such as the declining, aging population.

“Education is the one thread that holds us all together,” Doak said. “If we’re going to grow our future workforce in Maine, it’s going to happen in our schools. Now is the time to not reflect on what we did in the last 100 years, but what we’re going to do in the next 100 years.”

Among younger students in particular, Doak said he supports the idea of providing mental health counseling in schools, with counselors perhaps being shared between school districts.

“Mental health issues are one of the biggest things that I find are affecting Maine schools right nows,” the superintendent said. “We have kids going home to homes that aren’t like we originally grew up in, in Aroostook County. You have brothers and sisters cooking meals, marijuana on the table, the opioid crisis. Some kids come home and the parents aren’t there any more.”

RSU 39 Superintendent Tim Doak, far left, and Assistant Superintendent Jane McCall, left, speak with Caribou residents Dorothy and Dave Wakem during an open house to show off the newly constructed RSU 39 Central Office for administrative staff in Caribou on Friday, Dec. 15. (Chris Bouchard | CME)

More and more children are dealing with what Doak calls “SAT,” or stress, anxiety and trauma.

“I think that stress, anxiety and trauma is at a higher level than it’s ever been,” Doak said. “When they’re focused at home on stress, anxiety and trauma, it’s very hard to learn math or be an improved reader.”

Doak graduated from Fort Fairfield High School in 1986, earned a teaching degree at the University of Maine Presque Isle and taught high school history in Madawaska, where he later became superintendent. He then went to work as high school principal in Fort Kent during which time MSAD 27 was one of 13 Maine districts to receive a Bill Gates-funded Great Schools grant.

In Fort Kent, Doak was part of launching the dual credit program where high schoolers can earn college credits. More than 70 Maine schools now offer dual credit programs.

“My daughter walked out of high school in Fort Kent with 28 credits toward UMaine Orono. We’ve had students earn 45 credits from high school.”

Doak said he thinks programs like that make a lot of sense in addressing the state’s workforce needs, along with career and technical education and an overall stronger emphasis on workforce readiness in the context of proficiency-based education.

“We all need to think like entrepreneurs in education and we have to have the business people who deal with Maine’s workforce at our table,” Doak said. For instance, he asks, “Could an engineer sit in on our science and math curriculum meetings?”

Doak said he also thinks that more students can participate in career and technical education, or CTE, including as young as in 9th grade. Most students in CTE programs start in 11th grade, spending roughly half their day in regular classes and half in programs like building trades, agri-science, or heavy equipment training.

“CTE is a vital program for Maine’s future workforce,” he said. Students at Caribou’s CTE center, for instance, can earn a commercial driver’s license and start working in a profession that regionally is in high-demand.

Doak also advocates for  what he calls “2+2+2,” or two years of CTE, two years of community college and two years of university.

“You start off maybe in a Presque Isle or Caribou tech program in agriculture, take two more years of business courses at NMCC, and then take two more years of agriculture at UMPI. You end up with a four year degree.”

This kind of arrangement could lead to more young workers who also have business skills, and could help fill in the gaps from retiring business owners, Doak said. An auto repair service, for example, could pass the business along to an employee rather than closing the shop, he said.

When it comes to issues such as school funding and regionalization, Doak said it will be up to local communities to lead the way, such as in sharing positions like superintendent or special education directors.

The most recent push for regionalization “came a little fast,” Doak said. “You’re expecting schools to jump on board too fast. There’s some time that’s needed to do that.”

Efforts at regionalization have become controversial, particularly when it comes to school closures. Limestone voters are in the process of withdrawing from RSU 39, which also serves Caribou and Stockholm, after the majority of school board members voted last year to send Limestone High School students to Caribou.

“Every town, if they want to be on their own, they should be able to do it,” Doak said.

But other regional education initiatives are cropping up and may show promise, such as sharing teachers in speciality classes like foreign languages via videoconferencing. Easton and Ashland are currently sharing a Spanish teacher and Doak said he is investigating this as an option in Fort Fairfield and Caribou.

He said he’s aiming to ask all the high school principals in central Aroostook County districts to consider setting the same class time schedules so that schools could more easily share teachers.

There also is the issue of attracting a new generation of teachers and raising teachers salaries. In Caribou, Fort Fairfield and Presque Isle, starting teachers earn less than $32,000 annually.

Many education leaders support raising starting teachers salaries to around $40,000, but want to see state funding available for that, Doak said.

“Maine is last in New England in teacher salaries. We have to figure out a way to address this.”

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