Maine's high school graduation rate has improved by five percentage points in four years, the state Department of Education announced earlier this week. In 2009, just over 80 percent of high schoolers graduated within four years; the statewide rate last year was 85.3 percent. The numbers in Portland were a mixed bag: At Deering High School, the rate leaped from 76.5 percent in 2011 to 81.6 percent in 2012, but at Portland High, the graduation rate fell from 83.5 to 73.3 percent.
Meanwhile, school systems are facing huge financial challenges on several fronts. In his biennial budget plan, Governor Paul LePage proposed flat-funding for public schools and a cost-sharing arrangement between the state government and municipalities that would require school districts to pay for a portion of teachers' retirement contributions (currently, 100 percent of those contributions come from state coffers). On the federal level, looming sequestration (a series of automatic cuts set to go into effect March 1) would mean the loss of $2.7 million for the state's primary and secondary schools (the equivalent of 40 teacher and aide positions, according to the White House Press Office).
It was against this multifaceted backdrop that Portland Mayor Michael Brennan unveiled on Monday a new education initiative: Portland ConnectED, a partnership between several high-profile organizations and agencies in the city, including the Portland Regional Chamber, the United Way of Greater Portland, Southern Maine Community College, and the John T. Gorman Foundation, which focuses on advancing opportunities for disadvantaged young people and families in Maine.
Portland ConnectED's initial efforts will include amping up early childhood education, ensuring children reach grade-level reading proficiency by third grade, improving high school graduation rates, and paving a smooth path between high school graduation and some type of post-secondary education, whether enrollment in a four-year college or pursuit of an associate's degree. Part of this final goal includes the creation and funding of an endowment "dedicated to supporting post-secondary enrollment, persistence, and completion," although Brennan doesn't know quite yet what form that support will take. The details of the endowment, including how much officials hope to raise, are still up in the air.
What he is sure of is that Portland ConnectED "will help the community live up to a promise that all residents find a career within the global economy right here in Portland," where he notes that 42 percent of people over the age of 25 have undergraduate degrees. In other words, we have an entrepreneurial workforce, one that is "able to keep pace with changes in the economy," he says, and we need to keep growing that demographic in order to continue luring high-wage, skilled jobs to the region.
And it's not just about the economy, Brennan points out. "This is also about making sure that we have citizens that can participate in the democratic process," he says, connecting educational achievement with social and civic engagement.
Of course there are several disparate programs around Portland that address many of ConnectED's priorities in their own ways, and this effort aims to combine some of those energies.