FARMINGTON — Adults with the courage and motivation to return to the classroom, often years after high school, to learn new job skills, get a diploma or prepare for college got applause and kudos Thursday from family, friends and staff from the Franklin County and Mt. Blue Regional School District Adult Basic Education program.
Sixty-four adult students received skill certificates, diplomas and special awards for their achievements before a larger-than-usual recognition event that drew more than 200 to the University of Maine at Farmington’s North Dining Hall.
One of the student speakers, Charlene Cushing, 38, of Farmington, is a harness racing driver and one of the top women drivers in the United States and Canada. She has worked with horses since she was 7, but she never finished high school.
With her racing career still in full swing, she said she decided it was time to put some energy into her education.
“We have no retirement, no health benefits,” she said before the event started, describing her own financial situation and that of her husband, Mike, another harness driver.
“I needed something with security,” she said.
She walked into the Adult Ed office and got the help she needed to complete her general educational diploma, or GED. Then in the fall, she took a 14-week course designed to help adult students navigate the college culture. Cushing is now in her first year in the nursing program at Central Maine Community College in Lewiston and has a 4.0 GPA.
“Without the wonderful people at Adult Ed, I would not be here without them. I can’t tell you how much they impacted my life. And now they have become friends,” Cushing told the audience.
Cushing was one of 19 people who completed the College Transition program at the Adult Basic Ed office on Fairbanks Road this school year. They learned about career and college planning, academic preparation and technology, and got assistance with financial aid, time management and study skills.
The toughest part of going back to school after so many years? “Trying to study, run a household and a business,” she said before the event.
On Thursday, 19 adults received certificates for successfully completing the College Transition program. After the certificates were handed out, Cushing turned the tables on the staff and, to loud applause, presented them with a wood and brass engraved plaque in appreciation for their help.
The director of the Adult Ed program, Ray Therrien, told the crowd that this year there were a total of 376 students enrolled in all the programs, with 310 from the Mt. Blue Regional School District and others from the Jay, Rangeley, Phillips and Livermore Falls-based districts.
On Thursday, Mt. Blue Regional School District Superintendent Michael Cormier, State Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, and Mark Prentiss, chairman of the district’s school board, called up 23 students to present them with their GEDs; nine received their high school diplomas.
Therrien said 152 students also took certification courses this year, including 80 in the new certified nursing assistant program, 20 in the CPR class, and others studying to become pharmacy, EKG and phlebotomy technicians, or are working toward medical billing or customer service certifications.
Another 95 took classes to upgrade their technology skills, and 93 16- to 20-year-olds were taking courses to help complete requirements for a high school diploma or GED.
Adult Basic Ed is also a portal for students who want to go to college, Therrien said. The Franklin County Community College Network, which was started by a group of educators and community leaders four years ago, had 753 students enrolled this school year. There were also more than 3,000 registrations, since students often take more than one course.
The network is affiliated with Central Maine Community College in Lewiston and offers college courses at sites in Franklin County. Scholarships are also available.
When the community college program first started, there was a 21 percent matriculation rate. Now, Therrien said, it has climbed to 79 percent, and 16 of those students are in two- or four-year colleges.
Other student speakers were Jennifer Miller, Candance Dotolo and Linda Unwin. The keynote speaker was Martha Thibodeau from the Maine Department of Education, who has worked closely with the Franklin County Adult Ed program.