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January / February 2003

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Learning to be Part of the Knowledge-Based Economy


Learning to be Part of the Knowledge-Based Economy
Maine Adult Education's focus on family literacy, education and job skills is essential in economic development

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When Kathy Hebert was laid off from her lumber mill job in Bethel, Maine, last year, she didn't even know how to turn on a computer. At the age of 45, the high school graduate assumed her options were limited to the manual labor she had done all her life, such as another mill job — with the prospect of being laid off again — or working as a housekeeper at the nearby ski resort.

After being referred to the local adult education center, Hebert's outlook improved markedly. She learned how to turn on — and use — a computer. She brushed up on her math and writing skills. But, most importantly, she learned that she could thrive in college and, ultimately, embark on a career that didn't involve "sucking in sawdust."

"The adult education program is, in my opinion, probably the most important money this state will ever spend," says Hebert, the mother of two who is now enrolled in Mid-State College in Auburn. She is on her way to earning an associate degree to work in a medical office.

"I don't want an unemployment check every week. I want a job. And the only way to get a job today is through education," she says.

Hebert's story is repeated hundreds of times each year as mills and other manufacturing facilities close or downsize in the state. The Maine Adult Education System is the safety net that catches many workers like Hebert and prepares them for new jobs that often require new skills, including technical expertise and the ability to solve problems, and to develop and share ideas.

Working in schools, workplaces, correctional facilities and other sites, adult educators prepare students for the job market and post-secondary education. The University of Maine, through its Center for Adult Literacy and Learning (CALL) in the College of Education and Human Development, provides the training and support needed by these educators to reach out to the more than 120,000 adult students who use the system each year.

For 25 years, the Maine Department of Education has contracted with the university, through CALL, to provide staff development, technical support and leadership to the approximately 3,360 practitioners in the state's adult education system who are spread from Fort Kent to Kittery. The center, located in Orono, provides professional development, technical assistance, and instructional and professional resources to directors, teachers, counselors and support personnel in all of Maine's adult education programs. The programs serve about 65,000 adults enrolled in academic and vocational courses, and another 59,000 taking a variety of enrichment classes, from nutrition to computer science.

CALL, which has a staff of six, also serves as the State Literacy Resource Center for the adult education system.

With the university's leadership, the state's adult education system has been tailored to ensure that adult learners gain the skills they need to succeed in the workplace, their communities and their families. If, for example, a student says she needs to be able to better communicate her ideas to co-workers and supervisors, the adult educator would focus on teaching those skills. The university trains adult educators to provide this type of instruction and has helped develop a system to ensure that the desired outcomes are achieved.

"Adult Education is a bridge to a better life and community," says Evelyn Beaulieu, director of CALL. "And now, we have a definition of quality instruction, a consumer-based definition of the skills adult learners need for success, and common standards and language statewide."

Today's workers need four key skills to succeed, says Beaulieu. They are strong interpersonal skills, the ability to communicate well and to make well-reasoned decisions, and a commitment to lifelong learning.

Not all adults who use the system want to come away with all these skills, simply because they are busy with work and family commitments. But according to Beaulieu, once they have seen how they benefit from education, they are likely to return to gain additional training and skills. Plus, the shift to a student-centered approach has meant that fewer adults have dropped out of classes because they see the value of the coursework.

Employers also have responded positively to adult education's focus on equipping students to thrive in many realms.

"They say, ‘Yes, that's what I want,'" Beaulieu says.

In addition to job skills training, adult education offers opportunities for students to improve literacy skills, complete high school or earn a GED. People from other countries may learn English and survival skills through adult education, which also offers courses at correctional facilities throughout the state.

The adult education system is funded by local taxes, state subsidies, federal grants and registration fees. CALL services are funded, in part, by federal Workforce Investment Act monies that the state receives.

With the university's guidance, Maine has been a leading state in developing standards and performance measures for what adults need to know and be able to do as successful workers. Maine is one of five states that are developing benchmarks for success-ful adult education courses. Such courses must use a "real-life" curriculum that weds academic instruction with skills that students themselves say they want to acquire.

"We play a strong connecting role throughout the education system and a vital role in economic development, helping people improve their skills and attain more education," says Rebecca Dyer, acting state adult education director at the Maine Department of Education.

Attaining more education has made a world of difference to the Hebert family of Bethel. Not only did Kathy lose her job last year, so too did her husband, who had worked as a heavy equipment mechanic. Through adult education, he earned a GED and landed another job.

"Not having a diploma was a big hold back," Hebert says. "He wouldn't have gotten the job he has now (without it)."

by Kay Hyatt and Susan Young
January-February, 2003

Click Here for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.


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