By Mike Wilson

Some of the most innovative middle and high school education in the state is happening in western Maine – thanks in part to the Center’s old friend Ryder Scott whose creative work with local school districts is leading to greater student engagement with their community, and improved learning results.

Water testing at Covered Bridge on Ellis smThrough our Community Revitalization program, the Center is increasingly aware of how essential quality education is for rural communities that want to attract and retain families. We’re learning that successful programs are grounded in understanding local demographic challenges and a need — increasingly acknowledged by educators and the community — for K-12 education to adapt to meet the demands of the future workplaces and college classrooms that young people will enter. 

“At a time when any third grader with an iPad has unlimited access to information,” Ryder says, “preparing students for success increasingly includes designing learning experiences that challenge young people to develop 21st Century skills: working in teams, thinking interdependently, and communicating effectively through multiple platforms.”

The Center first worked with Ryder when he was fresh out of college and volunteered at several Promise of Place education conferences we convened back in the early 2000s. Today he works for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension as Statewide Director of 4-H Camp and Learning Centers – a job that grew from his leadership of the Bryant Pond 4-H Camp in the Maine West area where he pioneered some of these innovative education programs.

First among these is Telstar Freshman Academy. Through this partnership with Telstar High School (MSAD 44), every student starts their high school experience with a full year of field-based experiential education at the Bryant Pond 4-H Camp and Learning Center. There, they explore agriculture, ecology, outdoor recreation and other experiential activities as the basis for most of their academic studies.  (Check out this video to learn more.)

While it has faced challenges since its launch five years ago, Telstar Freshman Academy has already resulted in measurable academic improvement and increased student engagement. More recently, with a six-year award from the Emanuel and Pauline A. Lerner Foundation, Ryder and his team at Bryant Pond launched a multi-year Aspirations Incubator program to provide mentoring and enrichment programs to selected students – starting in seventh grade and continuing through high school graduation.

Re-engaging with Ryder and his work has led the Center to discover other innovative learning programs across the Maine West region:Water testing Sunday River sm

  • Buckfield High School Sugar Shack and Greenhouse uses hands-on agriculture experience, including production and sale of maple syrup, to teach about biology, economics, technology and other issues.
  • Roberts Farm Preserve, a partnership between the Oxford Hills School district and the Western Foothills Land Trust, engages students of all ages in hands-on science, engineering, community leadership and sustainable agriculture.
  • Junior Maine Guide is a new interdisciplinary program in the Oxford Hills that engages high school students in skill development and career opportunities in the local forest economy.

In part through the work of Maine West, teachers and students at Buckfield and Telstar high schools are now involved with the Maine Forest Collaborative – a new program of the Rural Aspirations Project designed to “empower students to actively contribute to the vitality of our forest communities today and in the future.” Being piloted in six Maine Woods school districts, this new program engages students in exploring their local forests and working directly with business, community and organizational leaders to develop creative solutions for a thriving and diverse forest economy.

As I’ve delved into these programs as coordinator of the Maine West initiative – a collaboration among 14 non-profits to increase connectivity across the economic, education, health and conservation sectors in western Maine – I’ve become highly aware of the challenges facing local schools, and the difficulty of making change in large community institutions with long histories and shrinking budgets. At the same time, I’ve been inspired by the commitment and creativity of local teachers who often take it upon themselves to innovate and find new ways to prepare their students for the future.

The work we see taking shape in local schools in the Maine West area is the kind of thing we believe can help the region stand out to prospective residents and motivated teachers – and the kind of work we hope to see replicated in communities across the Northern Forest. We believe teaching and learning that is grounded by the landscape and the needs of students’ home place, and educational experiences that align with the demands of a changing economy, can help attract and retain local residents who value education and the opportunity to raise their family in a rural community. 

At the Center, we’re inspired to work with Ryder and other local partners to continue to expand the capacity of schools and communities across the Maine West area to support each other to take advantage of what still believe is the Promise of Place.