SKOWHEGAN – Any improvment plan has to begin with a series of questions. Among the most important are, where are we strong and how can we build on our strengths?

As Mainers, we know our challenges, but we are also blessed with a bounty of assets — breathtaking landscapes, industrious, independent people and a rare sense of community.

Another strength may be the cornerstone of our future prosperity: Maine people believe deeply in the importance of education.

Evidence of this commitment can be seen in the intense interest of communities in the success of their local schools, burgeoning enrollment at Maine’s community colleges and the enthusiastic loyalty of the graduates of the University of Maine system. Thanks to the Harold Alfond Foundation, Maine is one of a few states in which every child born receives a “starter” allotment to begin college savings at birth.

Policymakers in Augusta also appear to possess this understanding. My experience as a legislative leader revealed that the education agenda mostly transcended partisan politics and was universally seen as a foundation to success. With today’s strong leadership at the University of Maine and Maine Community College systems, and within many local school districts, a new opportunity exists to move Maine forward.

Under the old adage that opportunities are often disguised as hard work, Maine educators, nonprofit leaders and policymakers, including the governor himself, are rolling up their sleeves to offer a new set of ideas to move Maine education to a new level. These strategies include:

More early college programs:

According to Prepare Maine, of 100 Maine high school students, 21 will drop out before graduation and 28 will graduate but not enroll in any college program. That’s half of our population already ill-prepared for careers, let alone careers that pay a living wage or grow our economy.

Research indicates early experience with college courses during secondary education builds academic confidence, increases preparation for higher education and clarifies career choices. The University of Maine system and Maine’s community colleges have increased their commitments to these programs, and even more can be done. New models that create seamless connections between high schools and higher education will enhance overall educational achievement levels.

Embrace career-focused education:

A recent Georgetown University study shows that almost 25 percent of two-year, occupation-focused degree holders earned more than the average bachelor’s degree graduate.

Former Gov. John Baldacci made great strides in this area by investing in a vibrant community college system that already has made college more accessible to thousands of Mainers. Community colleges are suited toward strategic alignment with a region’s work force needs by training students for a career path upon graduation.

Enrollment is soaring and community college capacity is tightening. Career and technical education will help fill work force gaps and offer a pipeline to four-year colleges and universities.

Improve our college completion rate:

Nationally, only about half of students who pursue a bachelor’s degree complete that degree and only about 22 percent of first-time, full-time community college students complete their degree within three years. Maine’s completion rates are slightly higher, but still do not bode well for Maine’s economic future, or for the social fabric of our communities or families, where cycles of poverty and lack of postsecondary education will make a secure economic future difficult for many. Programs that adapt to the needs of working students, provide personal connections between students and faculty and offer effective remedial classes will maximize our completion rate.

Support new models for K-12 success:

Over one-fifth of Maine students do not complete high school. Disillusioned with traditional approaches to instruction, these students often thrive under different models.

Familial, behavioral, emotional, and educational challenges also prevent them from seeing how college could realistically be part of their lives. Gov. LePage knows first-hand how education provides opportunities for all kids to work toward a better life. He can relate to kids who need a stable home, a caring teacher and an alternative education structure equipped to help them realize their potential. Educational organizations like Good Will-Hinckley are eager and ideally positioned to host dual-credit degree programs to help students for whom traditional approaches to teaching and learning are not effective.

Maine lawmakers must view Maine’s last-in-New England ranking of populations with a college degree (36 percent) not with defensiveness but as motivation. Rethinking how we move Maine’s economy forward — by investing in our future work force and providing innovative education structures and career training for all students — will recapture our students’ attention, not to mention their spirit. All of Maine will benefit as a result.

– Special to the Telegram