April 17, 2013

Maine Voices: Bridge Year: A bipartisan initiative that puts students first

Adding a fifth year after high school would give every student a leg up on an advanced education.

Special to the Press Herald

- ORONO - Not all politics is partisan. Sometimes politics can be bipartisan, or, better still, not partisan at all. Gov. LePage likes to say that education policy and practice should always put students first.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Tony Brinkley is the senior faculty associate at the University of Maine's Franco American Centre. Margaret Lukens is the academic director of the university's Innovation Engineering Program. Both are members of the Bridge Year Steering Committee.

While we can debate different approaches, who would not want to put students first? And if that is the issue, then the best innovations will be defined by the problems they are trying to resolve.

Over the last few years, Hermon High School, the United Technologies Center, Eastern Maine Community College and the University of Maine have worked together to develop the Bridge Year Initiative. The initiative began as a response to a proposal the governor made during the 2010 campaign, that Maine's high schools offer an optional 5th year of education that would lead to an associate's degree. This year the governor has proposed, with broad bipartisan support, that the Bridge Year approach become available in high schools throughout Maine.

What are the problems that have created a common ground? Over a lifetime, the earning power of college graduates is much greater than it is for those who do not graduate. More than 80 percent of Maine's students graduate from high school, fewer than 30 percent go on to college and many never graduate. According to the Mitchell Institute, the graduation rate in the Maine Community College System is only 26 percent after three years.

The graduation rate in the University of Maine System is only 48 percent after six years. Approximately 230,000 Mainers have begun without finishing college. They have accumulated debt without receiving an associate's or bachelor's degree. Even those who graduate are likely to spend years repaying student loans.

These problems are systemic, not individual, but the burden of failure is overwhelmingly borne by individual students. How to put students first?

For those of us who designed the Bridge Year Initiative, the successes of Maine's Career and Technical Education Centers (CTEs) seemed to offer an approach.

More than 95 percent of the students who attend Maine's CTEs graduate from high school. Of those who go on to college, the retention rate is well over 60 percent.

What do the CTEs do to achieve this success? At the CTEs, students work together in small cohorts. Teachers are mentors, students their apprentices. Pedagogy is hands-on. Students learn employable skills. They learn the discipline necessary for success in the workplace.

The first step in designing the Bridge Year was to create a partnership in which teachers at Hermon High School, teachers at the United Technologies Center and teachers at Eastern Maine Community College could create a college track.

EMCC and the University of Maine would assure that courses meet college standards and receive college credit, but the creativity and innovation would come from the teachers involved -- from the teacher, and most of all from the students.

The program would offer vigorous training in the STEM disciplines and the liberal arts. Every student would learn a technical skill. Every student would learn the innovative practices that create successful businesses.

Students would be mentored. They would graduate from high school with a year of college credit and the opportunity to earn an associate's degree with an additional year at a community college.

They would save a year of college tuition. If they chose to go on to a two- or four-year college, their technical education would enable them to earn a degree. Maine's community colleges far exceed capacity, so the Bridge Year would offer an alternative from existing resources.

While credit transfer has been a perennial problem for the Maine Community College System and the University of Maine System, the Bridge Year would resolve the issue for all students involved.

These were the concrete goals that the Bridge Year Initiative set for itself, and this was a reasonable path that would help meet college costs. At a time when enrollments at community colleges are burgeoning, we can benefit from a pragmatic approach to the problems that brought us together. We have known for a long time that college can begin in high school. The Bridge Year Initiative is another way of doing it.

In Fall 2012, the first cohort of students began the program in their junior year at Hermon High School. In Fall 2013, the next cohort of Hermon students will join the program. Other high schools in Maine will join in. So far it is working because it puts students first.

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