Inside Mt. Blue’s Success & Innovation Center

12 mins read
Dan Ryder and Becky Dennison in the Mt. Blue Campus’ Success & Innovation Center.

FARMINGTON – Okay, let’s start with the room. Because the room seems to have pretty much everything in it, and that’s a decent analogy for the Success & Innovation Center.

The center is sort of a classroom, in the sense that it’s got the suspended ceiling, cinder block walls, desks and chairs – well, an eclectic mix of stools and rolling chairs, but whatever – and it’s located inside a school. But it’s got other stuff too: programmable robots and sound mixing equipment and a gigantic poster from Black Panther and potted plants and the fun half of an arts & crafts store. It looks like Doctor Emmett Brown’s laboratory from Back to the Future before Marty blew it up with that huge speaker. It’s got everything.

It also has a large collection of students, reading, tapping away on laptops and moving in and out on a schedule that only they and the center’s directors, Dan Ryder and Becky Dennison, seem to understand. Ryder, who describes the program as providing students with a “marriage between passions and standards,” talks around a student building composite images to create a video game map that will feature Morocco, circa 1942. The student is doing a project on Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, for a World History class.

Any student can have more than a hundred different ideas at once, Ryder said, and every teacher has 18-plus kids in their class. The Success & Innovation Center puts resources behind some of those hundred ideas, providing space and time. It’s based off of the multiple pathways concept; in education vernacular the term refers to providing students with a route to find success in and after school. The idea that all students don’t learn the same way forms the basis for the center’s existence.

Providing collaborative space for students to explore different routes to meet standards has gotten enough traction in the education world to earn its own term: makerspace. In Maine, several local districts were awarded an action resource grant through the GEAR UP program to fund student support mechanisms like makerspaces. The three-year grant awarded to Mt. Blue was to develop a pilot program based off the multiple pathways system.

Ryder, a veteran English teacher who has repeatedly launched initiatives that challenge traditional, non-standards-based education, was a natural fit to help get the pilot off the ground. What makes the Success & Innovation Center unique, according to Ryder, was the inclusion of social and post-secondary education support.

“We try and meet any needs,” Ryder said. “Academic, social, career – all of the buckets that add up to be a successful student and a successful human.”

Becky Dennison was working as the College Transitions coordinator, effectively helping people entering post-secondary education, when the GEAR UP grant became available. She had actually done graduate work at the University of New England on the concept of how to provide resources and support to students. It was a natural fit with the makerspace concept.

“It wouldn’t work without the personalities that we have,” Ryder said. “We balance out each other really well.”

At the end of its first year at Mt. Blue, the Success & Innovation Center has worked with approximately 400 of the 650 students at the school. The nature of that interaction can vary dramatically from student to student. Some are referred the center by teachers who think the student could benefit from the center, while others self-refer after hearing about the program from peers. It isn’t an alternative for regular education programming, Ryder says, but an augmentation, a collection of resources accessible to students and teachers alike.

While some may be struggling in a traditional classroom, the center also serves honors students that arrive to take advantage of the room’s resources. Recently, Ryder said, such a student was using the center’s cut printer to create thank you notes to colleges that had accepted her.

Ryder also works directly with other teachers on specific projects. For example, the center has robots (this sounds weird until you look around the room and then you realize of course they have robots). An Earth Science class used them to plan a simulated exploration of a new planet. They had to learn how to code the robot to avoid terrain. Another group of students is developing a dating app to demonstrate their knowledge of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The center also holds “pop up classes” during lunch time, introducing students to a new program or piece of equipment. An earlier one this year featured a 3D printer.

While the GEAR UP grant provided some start up funding, it predominantly covers the salaries for Ryder and Dennison. Most of the technical items belong to Ryder, stuff he’s collected over the past few years.

Dennison said that making the space comfortable for students is a priority, hence the potted plants and beanbags. The idea of using a creative medium therapeutically isn’t a new one – art therapy, dance therapy, etc. – but Dennison and Ryder argue that working on a school project can also provide inroads into what a student might be going through.

“The process of making and creating can be therapeutic,” Ryder said. An example he used featured a pair of Spheros – they look like plastic spheres filled with batteries and microchips – that can initially be controlled via remote. A student might use the Spheros  for a while, then be asked to learn how to code the devices for preset commands. As they work and overcome the more challenging aspects of the device, Dennison and Ryder might try to dig deeper into how the student is doing. The process, Dennison said, can be immediate or it can take months.

Of the roughly 40 or so kids that make up the center’s regulars, Dennison and Ryder estimated that 20 have an unsuitable living situation. That just represents the kids they see – the center isn’t a special education program and it isn’t designed to supplant guidance, who is responsible for a large caseload. Unsuitable living situations can range from lacking basic utilities, to issues with parents or guardians, to students who are literally homeless.

“We have kids that have a home life that would freak people out if they knew the specifics,” Dennison said. It’s amazing, given their specific challenges, she added later, that some of their students show up at all.

Dennison figures out what a student needs and uses her connections to get it, a process she termed “knocking down road blocks.” Half a dozen emails or phone calls go out a day, ranging from big, long term issues: contacting New Beginnings to arrange housing, down to short-term fixes: a student going on the senior class trip who doesn’t have a tooth brush. Sometimes, Dennison said, it’s as simple as taking a student into the center’s little alcove and turning off the lights so they can sleep, because they can’t do that at home.

They’ve learned some surprising lessons from the center, Dennison said. In part due to their interactions with students, for example, Mt. Blue now has feminine hygiene products available in the bathrooms. Dennison has been discussing putting out another letter after school starts, reminding parents they can sign up for free or reduced lunch. (A perpetual problem for public school lunch programs is getting parents to sign up for the program, which provides federal funds to feed kids.) Next year, Dennison said, she going to look to secure a larger food supply for the center, although they do make use of Mt. Blue’s food pantry.

It’s little things too. During the interview, one student asked Dennison for a hair elastic; apparently the only item the center doesn’t have stashed away somewhere. It isn’t the first time she’s been asked for one and “bag of hair scrunchies” goes on the list for next year.

Ryder has plans for next year too. He’d like to keep the center open after school hours; kids often ask to stay into the afternoon or evening to finish up projects. He’d like to partner with more businesses and professionals, particularly people that have a trade or a craft that can be taught to students.

There’s another element, of course, given the nature of public education: funding. The grant will last the next two years, but Ryder is also considering how study the effectiveness of the center.

“I know what we need to do to prove to the researchers that this works,” Ryder said, referring to the research component of the GEAR UP grant. “What do we need to prove to the public to prove this is worth keeping?”

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