When the BDN’s Maine Focus team first began diving into Maine educational data this fall, it wasn’t sure what it would find. Discovering that Aroostook County was at the forefront of sending young people to college was surprising.

By and large, both in Maine and nationwide, living in poverty harms one’s chances of graduating from high school and eventually enrolling in college. And as automation continues to redefine rural economies across the state, someone’s chance of rising above poverty without a college degree is fairly slim.

On the surface, Aroostook County’s economic picture indicates students should be struggling academically. The County’s 19 percent poverty rate is higher than the statewide and national average. Just 17 percent of adults over 25 have a bachelor’s degree. And nearly 50 percent of public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a key indicator of economic status.

Despite the grim statistical picture, however, high schools in Aroostook County sent 67 percent of their students to college between 2009 and 2016, a larger share than every county except Cumberland, the richest county in the state by per capita income. And of those Aroostook County students who go to college, 67 percent earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, well above state and national averages.

After talking to more than a dozen educators and administrators in The County, it still isn’t exactly clear how, against all odds, Aroostook has managed to produce some of the most college-ready students in the state.

What is clear, however, is that, collectively, Maine needs to look to Aroostook County for lessons on how regions with economic challenges — and even those without them — should be thinking about public education.

Instead of focusing on test scores or implementing new, trendy educational strategies, schools in The County focus on something much more basic: connections. In places like Easton High School, which employs 14 total staff members and features a single hallway, that means creating an atmosphere that makes the school feel like an extension of the community, rather than just a building placed within it, students and staff said.

At many schools in Aroostook, staff directories are filled with names of former graduates. And you’ll find communities that are deeply engaged with the mission of their schools and often contribute immense amounts of time, energy and money to ensuring those missions are carried out effectively.

In Easton, an anonymous donor put more than $1 million into a scholarship fund that grants every college-going student about $1,200 once they graduate from high school. Down the road in Presque Isle, local business owners contribute approximately $250,000 toward college scholarships each year for high school graduates.

For students, the understanding that both their school and community at large support their educational ambitions is empowering. Julian McKenney, a current senior at Fort Fairfield Middle/High School, said that the support is a big reason he hopes to stay close to The County for college.

“I’ve always felt a close relationship with a lot of my teachers and they know who I am,” he said. “So to transition to something where I feel like I’m in a room with a bunch of strangers would definitely be a struggle.”

Parents play an essential role, too. Despite the overwhelming majority of students from The County coming from families without college backgrounds, many students said they grew up with an expectation they would earn a college degree.

The same can’t be said for other places in Maine, where the fear of higher education pulling young people away from home prevents some parents and communities from encouraging their youth to enroll on campuses far away.

As a state made up of many rural regions with above-average rates of poverty and below-average rates of higher education achievement, Maine needs to do more to ensure its young people can compete in an economy that increasingly demands skills that require education beyond high school.

Aroostook County shows there’s no easy answer to improving educational outcomes. It takes a commitment from everyone, both inside the school and out.

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