Ensuring that 60 percent of Mainers obtain a post-high school credential of value can't be accomplished without involving everyone here
EDITOR’S NOTE: This Special to the Press Herald was written by Katherine Johnston and Megan Diver and published on November 26, 2019. We have reprinted it below and it appears online at pressherald.com/2019/11/26/commentary-helping-diverse-students-thrive-is-an-economic-imperative-for-maine.
Maine has a long history of welcoming diverse populations who have come to Maine from all parts of the world seeking opportunity, community and quality of life. Today, Maine is seeing our school-age population diversify rapidly. That is why our organizations, Educate Maine and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, recently partnered on a report titled “Helping Diverse Students Thrive,” in which we look at the unique challenges students from diverse backgrounds face, and specific strategies to make sure Maine is welcoming and supporting diverse learners as best we can. The success of all students, including diverse learners, is not only the right thing to do, it is an economic imperative for Maine.
While there are several success stories to point to in schools that are embracing diverse learners, we still have a long way to go in terms of ensuring that our communities, schools and workplaces are welcoming and supportive of learners from diverse backgrounds. Diverse students face significant challenges that, for many, impede their ability to succeed in school. English learners, students who are economically disadvantaged and students from various racial and ethnic groups are still lagging behind the state average on a number of measures. They have higher rates of school absenteeism. Data show they experience a wider achievement gap – the difference in school performance for diverse students vs. their peers overall – particularly for students learning English. The gaps start early and persist through high school, affecting high school graduation rates as well as enrollment and persistence in higher education.
We know we need to address these achievement gaps to grow Maine’s economy, resolve Maine’s workforce challenges and make sure all Maine citizens can succeed. How do we do that? Our report recommends a number of approaches. Those include making sure school practices and policies support all students; that we are providing ongoing, relevant professional development for educators and school administrators; and that we are recruiting and retaining diverse educators and school staff. Schools and communities can take specific actions to develop culturally inclusive curricula, provide implicit-bias training for staff and promote nontraditional pathways into the teaching field in order to diversify Maine’s educator workforce. Thoughtful and dedicated engagement of parents and communities is also key.
Academic success beginning early on is a big indicator of future success in school and life. Making sure all kids feel welcome and supported in our schools is an essential foundation for student success. This will help our state’s employers, economy and people prosper. It is one of our organizations’ shared missions as members of the MaineSpark coalition.
MaineSpark unites schools and universities, nonprofits and foundations, government agencies and businesses with a common goal: By 2025, 60 percent of Mainers will have a degree or credential of value that positions them for success. This goal simply cannot be accomplished without helping all Maine people – of all backgrounds and skills – achieve educational and professional growth.
The goal of the strategies outlined in “Helping Diverse Students Thrive” is to help build an educational system in Maine that is welcoming and responsive to diverse students so they can thrive here. These learners represent a tremendous opportunity to grow Maine’s economy and future workforce, and quite possibly attract more needed in-migration to Maine.
It is noteworthy that supporting diverse students also benefits Maine in unique ways. Research shows that students who are exposed to a variety of cultures in their schools are more creative and innovative in problem-solving.
Working together, Maine’s schools, businesses and civic leaders can support the success of our increasingly diverse population in education and the workforce through better information on the needs of these students combined with concerted action. Our state’s economic future depends on it.
Katherine Johnston is Project>Login program manager at Educate Maine, and Megan Diver is senior government relations specialist at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.