Open house highlights higher education for everyone

Farmers used to show off their produce and bakers their pies in this building, but with the loss of farms and manufacturing in the area it has become the home to higher education in Western Maine.
Farmers used to show off their produce and bakers their pies in this building, but with the loss of farms and manufacturing in the area it has become the home to higher education in Western Maine.

By Ann Wood

PARIS—Yellow buses carry kids to school, but a certain yellow building can carry teenagers and adults to college and beyond—right here in Western Maine.

The Oxford Hills School District has moved its administrative offices into the building that the University of Maine System and the Central Maine Community College share, which has created a new partnership that means to direct area residents—everyone from high school students to older folks—to the sort of higher education that best suits them.

As a precursor to the School Administrative District 17’s Aspire Higher March on Oct. 22, the big yellow building will hold an open house on Wednesday, Oct. 1, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the University, Community College and School Center at 232 Main St. in Paris. All are invited to tour the facility and meet staff, and at 5:30 p.m. a reception will be held for Aspire Higher Scholarship donors. At 6:30 p.m. scholarships and prizes will be given away. The open house is free.

“We want people to know that you have your education needs met from [pre-kindergarten] to master’s degrees in one spot,” Rick Colpitts, the superintendent of the Oxford Hills School District, said on Friday.

The yellow building, which is the last remaining Oxford County Fair structure set on the campus of Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, was renovated and officially opened a decade ago with the University System, Community College and state’s CareerCenter housed inside. The CareerCenter has since relocated, and when the state said it needed support, SAD 17 offices moved right in.

Colpitts sees it as a great fit—high school students can walk across the parking lot and try out college courses with actual professors or interactively on television and online. The college even offers high school students’ classes with a tuition free grant. The whole point is to show students they can do it—and to aspire them to move forward with their education.

Before the university system and college moved into Western Maine, those who wanted to take a college course needed to drive and hour or two, Lisa MacDonald Cooper, director of Off-Campus Learning for CMCC, said. The problem, advocates found, was threefold—access, affordability and aspiration. The solution was to bring all of the resources needed to complete college degrees to rural Maine, and it seems to be paying off.

High school students are heeding the call. Last year, close to 77-percent of high school graduates said they were interested in college and 66-percent enrolled, Colpitts said. That’s a hike from 2001, when 67-percent of graduates said that they intended to enroll in college and 42-percent actually did, he added.

But it’s not all about young adults. Christine Lee, administrator specialist for the University System, says that plenty of adults walk through the door and that she and MacDonald Cooper are able to personally direct them to what they need, whether it is community college classes, university classes or even adult education. This, Lee and Colpitts said, is necessary to promote economic prosperity in Western Maine—once local manufacturing plants closed, people needed jobs that required a higher education.

While administrators hope that people who come through the door at open house decide to further their education, they think that inspiring them to aspire higher is key and point to Oxford Hill High School graduates who have done exceptionally well. The pilot of Air Force One is a graduate, Colpitts said, as is the man who developed the wireless pacemaker and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, to mention a few.