Commissioner Stephen Bowen’s remarks at Literacy for ME launch in Lewiston

Good Afternoon,

My name is Stephen Bowen. I am the Commissioner for the Maine Department of Education, and I thank all of you for coming out today for this important event.

Sometimes the students that we are all here to serve ask me what our job is at the Department, and I have yet to find a good, succinct answer to that question, one that captures what see the Department’s role as being.

We are here to support our schools and educators, that’s clear. And we are helping them to help our students achieve and aspire and be prepared for success after high school – in college and careers and as engaged citizens.

But at the end of the day, we are an economic development agency. We are here to create jobs.

That may not be the answer that many people would have expected, but at the end of the day, we have a state Department of Education so we can help educators and family prepare our young people for the world that awaits them  – and not just to help them get jobs right out of high school, though that is important, and not just to help them prepare for further education after high school, which, we hope,  will eventually lead to better jobs, but to help them create the jobs of the future by encouraging creativity, imagination, critical thinking, collaboration and all those other skills and habits of mind that we know will be critical to the future economy.

We live in a new age. All around us, here in Lewiston, are the sites of old textile mills where kids fresh out of high school – maybe not even with a diploma – would go to work and earn a decent living for the rest of their lives.

Those jobs, we all know, are gone. They are gone, and they are not coming back. Many of the jobs of today and most of the jobs of tomorrow demand new kinds of skills and knowledge. These children we serve each day won’t simply be asked to do routine work requiring limited skills and knowledge. They must be able to analyze, interpret, problem solve, collaborate with other, understand and work with technology in new ways, take information – floods of information coming at us all the time, 24/7 – and make it into knowledge. In a world where 300 billion emails are sent every day, our students need, more than anything, to be literate.

Literacy, let’s all remember, isn’t just reading. It is, broadly speaking, how we make meaning out of the world. It is critical not just to our economic prosperity and our ability to keep and create jobs, it is critical to our health and well-being, it is critical to our civic life, and it is critical to our larger culture and our communities.

That is why work has been underway for more than a year to develop a comprehensive statewide literacy initiative that is not just about schools, but is about involving whole communities in a concerted effort to expand and improve literacy education in Maine.

This is not just a one-off initiative. It’s part of a strategic plan aimed at improving student achievement through an ABC approach – one outlined earlier this summer by me and the Governor. The letters stand for Accountability, Best Practices and Choice. At least two of those – B and C – are relevant today.

We have limited capacity in state government to actively support schools with technical assistance. But we can help in identifying and sharing best practices. What we are talking about today is getting communities to collaborate and develop and share best practices, and the Department will be sharing resources with communities online, too.

In terms of Choice, I am talking about “choice” in its broader meaning: changing the way we do school, so that kids have more options for learning in ways that make sense for them. We must deliver literacy skills in multiple ways and through multiple groups – not just school.

So, if there’s one thing I hope people take away from today’s event, it’s this: you – whoever you are, whatever your job or your role in your local community – you are an essential part of building literacy skills in your community. You should contact your school or after-school or community program, the Rotary Club, the YMCA or Adult Ed program. Ask who your community is going to send to one of the six regional workshops coming up in the next two weeks, at which the Department will be providing assistance and support to communities that want to embark on these local efforts.

Finally, I want to thank Lee Anne Larsen, who is the literacy specialist at the DOE, and the dozens of other people from around the state who have worked on the State Literacy Team and participated in the Critical Friends Group. The enormity of work that went into this plan will never be fully know to the people who will benefit from it. But I know, and the Governor knows. And we thank you for that.

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