LEWISTON – To boost the number of students going to college, 25 Maine high schools are aligning with the Department of Education and Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates.

The high schools – including those in Lewiston, Turner, Poland, Livermore Falls, Paris and Rangeley – have agreed to be leaders in a statewide campaign to ensure that on graduation day, every student has had the right courses to go to college, even if they don’t choose college.

This will mean that students who don’t plan to go to college may face higher expectations and tougher classes, said Lewiston High School Principal Gus LeBlanc. Changes may not be noticeable to those already planning on college, he said.

“We’ve always had certain expectations that our students going to college would do certain course work. We need to look at all students,” LeBlanc said. Future expectations “will be the same for all.”

The program, called the Maine Readiness Campaign, has financial backing from Bill and Melinda Gates.

The 25 schools involved in the campaign will help their communities understand why high schools need to change, said Education Commissioner Susan Gendron.

Every graduate needs to be college- and work-ready, but that’s not happening now, Gendron said. “We know from employers that they are doing more training for graduates, and about 25 percent of freshmen who enter universities and community colleges need remedial work.”

Even so, the idea that every high school graduate must be ready for college is somewhat controversial.

“There still are some educators who bristle at the word ‘all,'” said Kay Rand, manager of the Maine Readiness Campaign. “But then there are some who bristle if the word ‘all’ is not there.”

Rand, a former top aide with Gov. Angus King, recalled being moved by a letter King received while he pushed his laptop program. The letter was from a father who wrote that if the governor wanted to give his child a tool, he should give him a chain saw.

“The reality is those jobs aren’t as plentiful,” Rand said. “Even the kid who aspires to be a welder will have more options as a welder if he goes to the community college.”

While some disagree, most educators support the college-ready-for-everyone goal.

“We have support from the Maine School Board Association, Jobs for Maine Graduates. The only organization we don’t have support from is the Maine Education Association (the teachers’ union), but we’re working with them,” Rand said.

Each of the 25 schools will create a team and come up with strategies by January. In Lewiston, the community leaders include School Committee Chairman James Handy, Superintendent Leon Levesque and Lewiston-Auburn College instructor Jan Philips.

Different high schools will identify different reasons why students aren’t going to college, Rand said.

Leavitt Area High School Principal Patrick Hartnett said he’d like to start a senior project program in Turner in which every high school senior does active learning outside the school and in the community. That senior project would be like an internship.

“I want our students to apply their learning in the real-world setting,” Hartnett said. It could be doing research on a Turner farm or taking water samples on the Androscoggin River. Such a project would build connections and “excite them about moving on” and continuing their education, Hartnett said.

High school representatives will meet with Gov. John Baldacci in Augusta on Thursday to begin planning.

Each high school will receive a $2,000 grant to implement their action, with workshop and meeting costs covered. Maine is one of 10 states that has received money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve education.


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