St. George student Bryson Mattox, currently in 10th grade, is pictured as a middle school student soldering a circuit board that was used in a probe to measure temperature and salinity of a local marsh. Credit: Courtesy of St. George Municipal School Unit

A small one-town school district in Maine is working on a $1.5 million project that will create a dedicated space for career and technical education programming to serve its elementary and middle school students.

For the last year, the St. George Municipal School Unit ― which serves about 200 students in grades K-8 ― has been fundraising for the new career, technical education and makerspace building project. School officials hope by introducing their students early on to technical education opportunities, they will gain the skills and confidence to consider different career options later on in life, all while meeting the needs of the local workforce.

“We really see this as the future of public education and we see it as key to rural economic development,” St. George Municipal School Unit Superintendent Mike Felton said. “We think it’s going to help prepare our kids to meet the needs of the jobs that are already out there and address some of the labor shortages in the technical fields, but also help give them the skills to create new businesses in the industries of the future.”

When it comes to career and technical education, the district has offered a makerspace program in recent years, which will be able to expand in the new space. Through this program students work with 3D printers, CNC routers and a laser cutter to design and create a range of objects.  An off-site boatbuilding program through a partnership with the Rockland-based Apprenticeshop, has also been available to students.

But outside of these opportunities, students largely have to wait until high school for exposure to other technology and trades-oriented programs, like carpentry or welding, when they can elect to enroll in classes at the Midcoast School of Technology.

That wasn’t always the case.

Generations of St. George students took home economics and shop classes through the Lillius Gilchrist Grace Institute, which was founded in the town in 1936. But when the institute closed in 2012, access to those programs ended.

“It’s been something that we’ve heard over the last couple of years that people really have wanted to have back in our schools,” St. George Municipal School Unit School Board Chair Kristin Saunders Falla said.

Felton said bringing shop classes back has been one of the priorities of the St. George district since it formed seven years ago after withdrawing from Regional School Unit 13. Students attend the district’s single K-8 school and then can choose from several local high schools in neighboring districts to attend.

The fundraising effort to construct a stand-alone facility to serve St. George’s growing makerspace program and other trades-oriented curriculum launched last spring after the district received a $250,000 grant from the Maine Department of Education for the project.

Through other grants and fundraising efforts, the district has since raised about $700,000, and is hoping to raise the remaining $800,000 needed in the coming months so construction can begin within the next school year. The building itself is slated to cost about $1.2 million, but the district has built in a $300,000 contingency to their fundraising budget in case of higher than projected construction costs.

The new building, which the district hopes to open by the 2023-2024 school year, will feature workshop space and equipment dedicated to carpentry, metalworking and boatbuilding, as well as the larger makerspace. There will also be a classroom and gallery space to showcase projects made by students.

A design rendering of the new career, technical education and makerspace building that the St. George Municipal School Unit is working to bring to life.

With the new space, the district will incorporate the hands-on style learning opportunities that technical education offers into curriculums for each of its grade levels. The students can then build on this foundation when they reach high school and have the option of enrolling in Midcoast School of Technology programming.

Currently about a dozen high school students from St. George are enrolled in programs at two regional technical schools. The district anticipates that the new technical education and makerspace building will prompt more students to enroll in these high school level programs, according to Felton.

“We want a Pre-K through 12th grade [career and technical education] program,” Felton said. “It’s not pushing out anything that we do, it’s incorporating [career and technical education] in it and the ethic of students being able to design, build and create in whatever they’re doing, and also learning technical skills along the way.”

By introducing students to technical and trades-oriented education earlier on in their learning career, it not only gives them an opportunity to get a headstart on developing confidence in their skills, but also getting exposure to different career options that they might not have considered, according to Felton and Midcoast School of Technology Director Bobby Deetjen.

“Most students understand what a lawyer does, most students understand what a doctor does, or a teacher, a firefighter — your classic career fields that everyone talks about at five, six, seven [or] eight years old and throughout school,” Deetjen said. “But they don’t necessarily know what a welder does, or what a carpenter does or what an auto technician does or a diesel or small engines tech does. So having that kind of be incorporated inside of their curriculum is going to be more valuable than anything.”

The type of early introduction and currucilum integration of technical education programming being pursued in St. George is a first for the region, according to Deetjen, and would make it stand out in the state.

“St. George is really going to be one of the first schools in the state that’s really exploring this type of model and I think it’s going to be something that will catch on because people will start to see the value,” Deetjen said.

Bringing career and technical education into local schools is a way for rural communities, like St. George, to invest in their own economic development, according to Felton.

By equipping students with a range of technical skills, Felton said it can help them to stay within their communities after graduating and still have access to well paying in skilled labor fields that are essential to the community.

As a small and relatively new school district, the $1.5 million project is ambitious for St. George. While there is still quite a bit of fundraising left to do to have the facility by the 2023-2024 school year, Felton said he’s hopeful they will be able to reach their goal and that the district is committed to doing the work to bring the project into reality.

“If you don’t dream big you’re doing your kids a disservice,” Felton said.