FARMINGTON — Regional School Unit 9 is moving forward with plans to establish a career and technical education center at Mt. Blue Middle School.
Tuesday, June 23, RSU 9’s Board of Directors unanimously approved next steps for establishing the CTE, which will be funded by a $2.5 million donation from the Bjorn Foundation.
The next steps include approving the donation and starting planning and building committees with representation from the foundation, local businesses, administrators, parents and RSU 9 staff.
The donation will fully fund the construction of a new wing at Mt. Blue Middle School, which will be home to “the Bjorn Center for Career and Technical Education.”
Though it wouldn’t initially be affiliated with the Maine Department of Education’s CTE programs, it will be based off of the framework from RSU 9’s Foster Career and Technical Education center in order to provide younger students with “hands-on learning,” Mt. Blue Middle School Principal James Black said in an interview.
Superintendent Chris Elkington said in an interview the Bjorn Foundation approached RSU 9 a number of years ago about opening a CTE at the middle school, but the conversations were put on hold in 2020.
Elkington said Dick Bjorn, founder of the Bjorn Foundation, saw “there were a lot of great opportunities for kids to use their minds in different ways and that there are a lot of job opportunities out there that our communities in RSU 9 really needed.”
A PowerPoint presentation for the board included a statement from the foundation that “Mr. Bjorn and his foundation sees a critical need in our community to give young people greater opportunities to engage their hearts, minds, and hands in learning. They are willing to entertain supporting this need through a building expansion at MBMS.”
Black and Elkington both said this will be one of the first programs of its kind in the state.
Though in the early planning stages, administrators are considering programs on information technology, architecture/construction and hospitality & tourism.
The new 5,000 sq. foot extension off of the B-wing will include three new large, open-space classrooms, a smaller classroom and more storage for the middle school.
At the board’s June 14 meeting, Elkington said the spacing could change depending on the final cost of things.
The Bjorn Foundation will fund the entire construction and purchase of equipment, Elkington had told the board.
From then on it will be up to RSU 9 to cover the costs.
The district would have to cover increased electricity, cooling, cleaning and upkeep costs, an additional teaching position, and program materials.
However Black and Elkington said they believe other teaching positions can be adjusted to provide the center with educators.
“For a cost of less than $100,00, we believe that we can build a center for hands on-learning that’s going to [prepare students for] a lot of the jobs that will be needed in our communities in the future,” Elkington said.
Black believes the impact of the middle school’s center will spread across the whole district.
Black said this center can help provide opportunities for alternative forms of learning, prevent drop-out, engage students in their overall academics and prepare them for the Foster Tech program.
“At the middle school, kids really struggle here. There’s a lot of changes that are going on, they’re coming from elementary, and then they leave here as almost high schooler,” Black said. “So [it’s about] getting them hands-on programs, stuff that keeps them active.”
“It’ll give us ways to connect with kids, keep them connected to school,” Elkington said. “If students are more interested in school, they’ll be more focused on other schoolwork … and have some areas that they may not have known that they might be successful in.”
He added the programs could increase attendance and grades and reduce behavioral issues.
Black believes the Bjorn Center for Career and Technical Education will “be a model for schools in the future.”
“We have a huge need, around the country, for folks that are going into the trades — there’s just not enough folks going into the trades,” Black said. “I think [the center] is going to show kids the opportunity, like, ‘Hey, these are really high paying jobs and there are things that you may have a passion for already.’”
Administrators are also hoping the center can eventually open up to students outside of RSU 9.
Elkington anticipates the center could be finished and ready for students in the 2023-24 or 2024-25 school year.
“I’m excited to see what the future holds over the next two or three years as we get this project underway,” Black said. “It’s going to be a pretty groundbreaking event once this is all said and done. It’s a dream come true.”