East Grand School students Izzy Cowger and Alan Emery on a school trip along the West Branch of the Penobscot River this summer. The school recently expanded its offerings with a program that pairs students with local businesses. Credit: Dave Conley

DANFORTH, Maine — A developing program at East Grand School gets kids out from behind desks and into paid jobs that may become local careers.

The school’s small business pathway opens doors for students who don’t want to go to college or who are learning technical skills without local work opportunities. The new pathway not only partners kids with local businesses, it teaches them how to start their own business.

“One of our big concerns was for kids who wanted to stay here locally, but were not always prepared to be employed,” said Superintendent Margaret White. ”We asked the question, ‘how can we keep them in our community?’”

As the recipient of several Maine Department of Education awards, the school is able to pay students who are working in the community and develop a space to house the program, slated to open next May.

A boon for both the business and student, the businesses train and mentor the students and the school pays the students for their work hours.

Traditionally there have been few career options in East Grand’s rural location and students did not have a lot of exposure to careers because of the region’s limited workbase that has historically been in forestry, healthcare and teaching, said East Grand Extended Learning Coordinator Angela Cowger.

“They really don’t have a whole lot of awareness of what’s out there,” she said.  

The Maine Department of Education came up with a Rethinking Responsive Education Venture Award also known as RREV. And White said East Grand School applied.

Basically, if you created something outside the box, they would help finance it, White said.

Many of the schools that applied went with outdoor programs, but the East Grand School outdoor program has been going for two decades and was really well established, she said.

“For years we wanted to start a small business pathway because a lot of our kids who want to stay in the area are not sure what to do,” White said.

They submitted their RREV application to the state saying they wanted to partner with the local hardware store. It was the perfect fit, they had a large area, they had an employee there with the kids, they could work there and perhaps stay in their jobs after graduation. But somebody moved to town and bought the hardware store. And so they started looking for other businesses willing to partner with the school.

They got a $250,000 RREV award to pay for a modular unit to house the program on the school campus. A $250,000 DOE Extended Learning Opportunity Award, pays student salaries who are working in the community as part of their education.

RREV also awarded East Grand an additional $100,000 for taking sustainability training this past summer and fall.  

Students are in workplace settings from Houlton to Danforth and several have already been hired to continue their employment. Others who were in work placements for careers they thought they wanted, discovered it wasn’t for them.

Cowger said that a student who had dreamed of becoming a physical therapist worked at the Houlton Regional Hospital and realized the work was not for her after a three-month extended learning placement at Houlton Regional Hospital. She switched to work in the critical care unit, loved it and went on to become a nurse.

White said they are currently designing the modular unit and there will be a space where kids can learn how to start their own businesses and even a space to get it off the ground, White said.

“The students are willing to experiment if they have a safe way of doing it, “White said. Everything’s in place except for the actual building itself,” White said. “We have kids interested but haven’t had the space to do it, and that’s where we are heading.”

There will be a commercial kitchen set-up in there as well as other things, she said. They have a student who wants to go into cosmetology and the space will have at least one chair and they will be able to configure the space to meet student needs,  White said.

The extended learning program also partners with the outdoor education program, offering students a chance to use their new outdoor skills in jobs in the area.

Third-year East Grand student Alan Emery is in the school’s extended learning program and the outdoor program, giving him the opportunity to work as a cook at Maine’s Wildlife Management District Zone 1 Moose Camp. Emery worked with two other cooks to prepare meals, he got water from the stream for dishwashing and showers, collected and cut firewood for camp stoves and helped break down camp.

Emery said he never really liked school that much, but now these programs help him and he’s going for his Maine Guides license.

“I hope the program keeps morphing along with what the students need to be successful in the workplace,” White said. “And I hope they keep meeting the needs of the community and once established they can stay.”

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...