Flipping school: How a business in Machias is getting kids ready for college, a career

It’s relatively easy to pinpoint some of the state’s biggest problems. Poverty, health care costs, energy prices, high-speed Internet access, a shrinking workforce and post-secondary degree completion are just a few that come to mind. It’s far harder to come up with specific solutions and actually carry them out. But that’s what’s happening as part of a new initiative in Machias.

A partnership between Machias Memorial High School and information technology company Axiom Technologies is starting small. Since the fall, a handful of students go to the business twice a week for a computer class. They are learning how to take apart a computer and put it back together. They are being taught about networking, troubleshooting, security and servers — all things any student pursuing some type of computer science degree in college would need to know.

Aaron Mattox, 16, a junior at Machias Memorial High School, disassembles and reassembles a computer at Axiom Technologies. Mattox is part of a small group of students participating in a pilot project this year, earning college credit for a class offered at Axiom, which is owned by Susan Corbett. The partnership between the school and business came about after Principal Brian Leavitt participated in Leadership Maine: Education Leader's Experience program run by the Maine Development Foundation. The program connects school administrators with business owners to complete projects that address some of Maine's long-standing problems, such as post-secondary degree completion.

Aaron Mattox, 16, a junior at Machias Memorial High School, disassembles and reassembles a computer at Axiom Technologies. Mattox is part of a small group of students participating in a pilot project this year, earning college credit for a class offered at Axiom, which is owned by Susan Corbett. The partnership between the school and business came about after Principal Brian Leavitt participated in Leadership Maine: Education Leader’s Experience program run by the Maine Development Foundation. | BDN photo by Tim Cox

Through the class, the three participating students have the potential to earn up to 12 college credits. They simultaneously get high school credit. And no matter where their lives take them, whether into a computer field or not, they will have transferrable skills that make them more competitive in the job market.

High school Principal Brian Leavitt has a couple more goals, too. He wants to set a model, particularly for rural districts, to increase the likelihood students will not just enroll in some form of post-secondary education but finish their degree. To do that, the course gives them a taste of college — and, through earning college credits, a head start. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education College Completion, about 30 percent of Maine public college students pursuing an undergraduate degree complete it in four years; about 50 percent graduate in six years.

“If we can get kids working on their college degree now in high school, and they have maybe a semester out of the way before they get to college, then they’re more apt to stay,” he said.

And Leavitt wants to do more to fill a gap in the workforce. A 2011 study by Southern Maine Community College found that Maine is facing a severe shortage of workers in computer, information and related support services. If the state continues to produce graduates at its current rate, it’s estimated there will be a shortage of 977 IT workers by 2018. Machias Memorial High School doesn’t have any classes that focus on information technology, and the University of Maine at Machias doesn’t have a computer science degree program.

The idea for the pilot project was born when Leavitt participated in the Maine Development Foundation’s first Leadership Maine: Education Leaders Experience program in 2012. The year-long program, for about 30 education leaders from across Maine, focuses on ways they can collaborate with businesses to address, in their own schools and communities, some of the most critical economic issues facing the state. The program is funded by Unum and organized in partnership with the Maine Principals’ Association. The next enrollment period starts in January.

As part of the program, Leavitt met business leaders across the state, including those who had participated in the Maine Development Foundation’s flagship Leadership Maine program. One was in his backyard: Susan Corbett, CEO of Axiom Technologies. They clicked. Charged by the program to find a way to boost college attainment, they got to work. Leavitt, who used to teach entrepreneurship, said they both enjoy thinking of what’s possible and breaking down roadblocks.

Susan Corbett, CEO of Axiom Technologies in Machias. | Tim Cox

Susan Corbett, CEO of Axiom Technologies in Machias.

And there were a few to break down. Once the two devised the general plan, Corbett brought in her staff — which includes a former teacher — and settled on a general computer skills course called CompTIA. Then, with a budget of zero, she set out in search of extra computers. PC’s for Maine, a nonprofit in Belfast, gave her 12 computers for free. Her next endeavor? Approval of college credits for the course. That agreement came through Thomas College in Waterville. The Sunrise County Economic Council in Machias agreed to help the students pay for future certification exams.

Then, all she needed was the course curriculum. A company called Learn Smart quoted her a price of $15,000. She said she couldn’t do it and began looking into other options. But a couple weeks and several phone calls later, the company agreed to a deal that would cost only $1,700, Corbett said. The school found the money, and the first class started in September. Soon, Corbett will rotate the students through her tech support department, so they can work with customers and get real-world, hands-on experience.

“This is a public-private partnership,” Corbett said. “We think it can be a nice pilot project, and it can be implemented throughout the state.”

Aaron Mattox, 16, of Machias is one of the students in the class. He said he appreciates being in a place of business because it gives him an idea of what it would be like to actually work in the information technology field. He said he wants to go to college, become a computer technician and perhaps one day own a business.

“I think it’s awesome. It’s nice knowing what it’s actually going to be like instead of hearing about it and then getting out there and finding it’s completely different,” he said.

Going into the course, he said he had some knowledge about programming, but he didn’t know how to physically put computers together.

“When you look inside a computer, you just see a bunch of boxes and wires, and when you turn it on you can see it can do anything, and that’s really cool to me,” he said.

Aaron Mattox, 16, a junior at Machias Memorial High School, disassembles and reassembles a computer at Axiom Technologies. | BDN photo by Tim Cox

Aaron Mattox, 16, a junior at Machias Memorial High School, disassembles and reassembles a computer at Axiom Technologies. | BDN photo by Tim Cox

Usually a university or college teaches high school students seeking college credits, so it’s unusual for a business to take the lead. But there are benefits to learning a college course in a workplace environment.

“So what if it’s never been done before? It doesn’t mean we can’t try,” Corbett said. Other high schools have looked into their model, she said, which could translate to many areas of study.

Finding what hasn’t been done before is part of the process.

“One of the things we’re all susceptible to is having our blinders on or thinking small in our own particular arena,” said Carol Taylor, program consultant at the Maine Development Foundation. When people talk to others across the state, “you start realizing this is a statewide problem and you feel empowered to do something about it.”

Windham High School Assistant Principal Kelli Deveaux also participated in the first education leaders program and worked with other administrators across the state to address the question: How can Maine raise the aspirations of students in a way that provides what the workforce needs and ensures those students are competitive?

One thing Windham High School has done in response is bring in business leaders from a variety of companies to talk about the job opportunities that exist and what students need to do to take advantage of them.

“Right now students know ‘I’m supposed to go to college,’ but I don’t know that we’ve adequately given them the ‘why’ they need to go to college,” Deveaux said.

The school also started a robotics lab this year. It was created after examining where the school could improve — in an effort to spark student interest in an area that will help Maine grow. One of the biggest misnomers in Maine is that there are no jobs, Windham High School Principal Chris Howell said. There are. Bridging the gap between education and business has helped make that clear.

And businesses want to help. Unum provided a $100,000 grant to support the first two years of the Education Leaders Experience program “to better understand the work our educators do,” said Cary Olson Cartwright, assistant vice president of corporate social responsibility at Unum. “And it gives educators an opportunity to learn about a variety of career opportunities and the skills needed for the emerging workforce.”

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is a writer and storyteller. As editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News, she writes the newspaper's opinion on matters from Kittery to Fort Kent.