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More in Community
Growing student aspirations in the lab and for life
ASPIRING HIGHER — Norah Maki works with senior Dan Costanzi in the OHCHS Aspirations Lab.
PARIS — “The idea for the Aspirations Lab was always in the back of my head,” said Maureen Howard, executive director of the Oxford Hills Education Exchange. “It was originally Patrick Hartnett, the assistant superintendent’s idea.”
The Aspirations Lab was to be a space where students could receive advice about and make progress on the post-secondary options that best fit them. “I kept bringing it up, but there wasn’t enough money to do it,” said Howard.
Howard tried to find an alternate solution by asking the community for donations. As a result, computers from Goodwin Insurance and chairs from TD Bank were donated to be used in the lab.
A few people were hired, but only part-time. "It wasn’t working to only sometimes have it open," said Howard. "We needed someone to be there full-time.”
Two years ago, Howard applied for an AmeriCorps grant. OHCHS was accepted to AmeriCorps, and Paul Chaffin was hired to work in the Aspirations Lab. Unfortunately, it was only a one-year program and was not renewed.
Last year, it was again accepted by AmeriCorps but no funds were available from the state of Maine.
This year, Howard applied for a grant from the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME). OHCHS was one of 15 Maine schools and non-profit education organizations chosen by FAME.
A search began to hire someone to staff the lab.
“We had interviewed many people, but Norah Maki was clearly our choice,” said Howard.
Maki is originally from western Massachusetts, but graduated from Bowdoin College in 2009. She worked for AmeriCorps at Mount Ararat in Topsham with a program similar to the OHCHS Aspirations Lab.
However, that was also a one-year program. Last year, Maki went to Switzerland, but then came back to Portland and was hired by OHCHS to work in the Aspirations Lab.
The Aspirations Lab’s main purpose is to increase the number of students applying for college; to increase the number of financial forms completed; and to give the students guidance.
The difference between the Aspirations Lab and the Guidance Office is that the Aspirations Lab has a more flexible schedule than the guidance department and is there for the sole purpose of secondary options for students. While Maki admits that at times “there are conflicting opinions,” she and guidance have gotten along well.
The Aspirations Lab offers students guidance about what are assumed to be the simple parts of applying to post-secondary school. But the process is anything but simple. Seniors have to complete the Common Application, financial aid forms, and recommendation requests.
“I can’t tell you how many students have come to ask for help on the Common App,” said Maki. She loves how informal and open the Aspirations Lab is and believes that “it’s really great to have this space for kids to have computer access.”
“Talking to the students about their plans” is what Maki likes most of all. “It’s difficult [within] the school structure to convey all the information they need.”
While Maki believes that “a traditional college path is not right for everyone," she does believe that some form of post-secondary education is necessary. In 2001, 42 percent of OHCHS graduates enrolled in some form of post-secondary education. In 2011, this number was 66 percent. To support her case, Maki said, “85 percent of jobs require secondary training.”
In Maki’s free time, she is an artist and works with text-based art. She would also like to go back to school.
“If I could afford it, I would love to get like eight more degrees.”
Maki also runs a teaching workshop for middle school students at the Telling Room in Portland. The students write their own comments on issues in the world, and then print and hang them up in Portland. Many of her students are immigrants who had no chance for freedom of speech in their original country, and are finally getting a chance to share their voices.
Howard described Maki as a “go getter” and very independent, which was exactly what Howard had been looking for.
“She’s been doing a fabulous job there.”
Unfortunately, this is also a one-year program. While Howard will reapply, it is unlikely that OHCHS will get the grant renewed. Yet, “when I go by there [Aspirations Lab], I just grin,” said Howard.
The Aspirations Lab is another opportunity that offers students a chance at success. Sixteen percent of adults in the eight towns that comprise of the Oxford Hills school district have a bachelor's degree or higher. This, and the fact that the need for post-secondary education is increasing, makes what Maki is doing in the Aspirations Lab a step in the right direction.