Measuring success with innovation

In 2005, I  was invited to Houlton to speak with a group of people about our efforts in establishing a private school in Presque Isle. I was impressed with the diversity of leadership in the room and remember thinking that you could never have gotten a similar group together in Presque Isle without some serious disagreement. 

At the time, I was working regularly with Gary Sanfacon, a probation officer in the Presque Isle office who traveled regularly to Houlton. Several of his clients were not attending school in Houlton, and in Presque Isle, Carleton Project was a placement option for adjudicated youth. He hoped we could start a similar site in Houlton and he understood how and why our approach to learning could be helpful to both kids and their families. 

What I remember most about the meeting is that everyone was on the same page. They knew something had to be done to provide an option for kids who had not been successful in the more traditional school settings. There was a real sense of community that was relayed to me. It was very impressive and I like to think it still exists today. 

Within a couple of weeks of the meeting, we identified a dozen students who were out of school and invited them to return to school and give us a chance to do a better job in helping them reach their goals. We set up shop during the day at the Houlton Higher Education Center. I’m still in  touch with many of those students. Many still live in Houlton and attribute their success to their time at Carleton, but I know they are the ones who did the work. You can see it in their faces. Some have children starting school this year. While that makes me feel a little old, I know they will be great parents and, above all, members of this community. This was increasingly evident in recent months as many Carleton graduates were also essential workers during the pandemic lockdown. 

We traditionally measure the success of our public schools in terms of the higher performing students. That is not new. Schools use graduation rates and percentages of those heading off to college as benchmarks for successful schools. We know many of these students head off to college never to return. Aroostook County is famous for that. But what about those that don’t leave after high school?

 It seems to me that we can’t underserve the population of kids who are more apt to reside in Houlton after they graduate.

A lot has changed in the world in the 15 years that Carleton Project has been in Houlton. Some current students were born the same year the school opened here. But change comes hard. It’s hard to support what you don’t understand. Innovative practices in education are not easily embraced. Schools like Carleton are often viewed as siphoning resources from the public schools and as places where “those” kids end up. 

Some have embraced the school. Some have not. But I can assure you, those who have taken the time to learn about it can see the value it adds to the community. 

We have all had a refresher in the importance of community with our shared experience the last few months. Houlton is lucky in that it already enjoys a unique sense of community. Maintaining its own sense of community has been the secret to the longevity of Carleton’s presence and the success of its students. Let’s hope that a greater sense of community will prove that Houlton is truly a great place to live precisely for that reason.

Alan Morris is founder and interim principal of the Carleton Project. 

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