14 Feb Celebrating Women Leaders in Maine Career and Technical Education
Today’s career and technical education centers in Maine are not your grandfather’s vocational schools of the 1900s.
Left to right: Julie Kenny, Paulette Bonneau, Lucille Willey, Melissa Williams, Amy Boles, Ammie London, Brenda Gammon, Kathy Sargent, Amanda Peterson
by Brian Langley, Executive Director of Bridge Academy Maine
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Programming at Maine’s CTE centers and regions is innovative, exciting, rigorous and delivers 21st century credentials of value to Maine students. But who leads these schools? Today’s career and technical education centers in Maine are not your grandfather’s vocational schools of the 1900s. Women have become increasingly involved in leadership roles at these schools — and they are making a difference. Maine has a total of 27 directors at career and technical education (CTE) centers and regions, nine of which are women. These women lead many of these schools and teach many of the programs and courses. With February being Career and Technical Education month, there is no better time to highlight the contributions of the women who account for a third of the directors in Maine.
Female directors are on the front lines along with their male counterparts as Maine faces a workforce crisis. According to the Maine Department of Labor, Maine’s labor force participation rate has decreased substantially during the pandemic. Disturbingly, there would be 22,500 additional people in Maine’s labor force today if the participation rate was the same as it was before the pandemic (Maine DOL Demographics of Maine’s Workforce, Nov 2021). Prior to the pandemic, Maine’s aging population contributed to a gradual decline in labor force participation rates in the 20-year period leading up to the pandemic (Maine DOL Demographics of Maine’s Workforce, Nov 2021). Engaging our youth and demonstrating to them that there is a pathway to high-wage, high-demand jobs in Maine requires leadership at all levels. Maine is fortunate that 33% of its CTE leaders are women, as they bring diversity and demonstrate by example to young women that all occupations are available to them.
The path to leadership in CTE is as varied as there are occupations, and this is true of our female directors. Julie Kenny from Bath Regional Career and Technology Center is one such leader, who says, “I began teaching fine arts at a high school and early in my career I found that my interest in education looked way beyond being in the classroom, which led me to enroll in an Educational Leadership program. While completing my master’s degree, I was offered the opportunity to leave my art position and create a new Commercial Arts program at the attached CTE school. I knew little about CTE but became passionate about it very quickly and knew that my future in CTE would be long standing. I eventually worked in the school as a Student Services Coordinator and took over as director a few years later.”
When asked what the motivation was to take a leadership role, Director Kenny responded, “the first thing I realized when beginning to teach at a CTE school was that it is an underutilized and misunderstood educational opportunity that deserves more attention. That in itself was motivation to become the director of a center, with the goal in mind of shifting this perspective.”
For Sanford Regional Career and Technical Center Director Kathy Sargent, her path to leadership started in the sciences: “I started in education 31 years ago as a middle school English and science teacher, transitioned to school counselor and ultimately landed in that position at the Sanford Regional Technical Center. When the director’s position became available, some staff encouraged me to apply.” Kathy was motivated to take a leadership role because, in part, the district was in transition. “I also saw a lot of change on the horizon with a new school in the design process and felt that I could provide leadership during that time.”
Similarly, Lucille Willey, director at the newly opened Coastal Washington County Institute of Technology, has a long history of championing for students. “I worked for many years in public education, both as a teacher and as an administrator,” explains Lucille. “After retiring from public school administration, an opportunity to enter the world of career and technical education came about in my community, and I decided that I needed to give it a try. It is by far the most rewarding work I have done in over 40 years in education.”
Lucille’s motivation to lead the effort in Washington County stemmed from having a front row seat in education for 40 years. “Over the years, it became very obvious to me that it is just as — if not more — important to teach career and technical skills to our students as it is to teach academic skills. For many years, we have done our communities a disservice by not providing our students with the knowledge to perform the skilled labor so badly needed for our communities to thrive.”
Melissa Williams, director of Foster Career and Technical Education Center in Farmington, took a path that combined industry and education experiences: “I started my educational career as a special educator during the school year while continuing to work in the construction/masonry/ culinary fields during school breaks and the summer break. I found that the balance between working in a school and working in the industry was beneficial to both me and my students. I was extremely fortunate to work with my father and brothers in the construction/masonry world as well as with my mom and other family members in the restaurant business. As time went on, I continued to work in construction but spent much of my energy opening my own catering business, all while continuing to work in education (k-16).”
Furthermore, Amy Boles, director of Hancock County Technical Center in Ellsworth, is no stranger to blazing trails as a female educator. “I actually began my educational career as the first ever female social studies teacher at Massabesic HS. Then I moved to Ellsworth to become a young assistant principal in my late twenties,” Amy says. “I saw what some of my students were able to do while at HCTC. They embraced their time at this school; for some achieving success for the first time. Many were very bright and went on to post-secondary. I was thrilled to become a full-time director here after they had been without one for a while.”
Region 2 Applied School of Technology Director Ammie London’s path to leadership started in the trades. “I attended NMCC and obtained dual associates in Automotive Technology and Auto Collision Repair, with the latter becoming my main focus. I went on to own my own auto collision business. During that same time, I accepted the position at Region Two as an auto collision instructor. At that time, I was the only female auto collision instructor in the east. I settled into that position and stayed for 18 years. As the years progressed, the more I came to realize I wanted to be more in the forefront of the school.”
Ammie’s motivation to lead stems from her experiences. “I enjoy the whole premise of CTE and believe that students have been under-served,” she admits, “because of the stigma that has been attached to CTE for years. I enjoy seeing the growth and maturity of students through the years that were serve them.”
Maine’s female directors do not only understand workforce issues but they also bring strong family values to their leadership roles as well as a sensitivity to the underlying stigma that career and technical education is “less than” traditional academic programs. As stated by Director London, “the stigma has lessened over the years, but CTE is still very much looked down on. Being a woman in a nontraditional field like CTE, I was judged even more. For many years, it was where the students were put if they had any kind of difficulty with learning, whether it be disability or behavior. With advancements in CTE, it has slowly begun to be seen in a more positive light. The curriculum has advanced to a higher reading level, there are more expectations, and it has been realized that with less college debt a blue-collar worker has the potential to exceed gross income, compared to many of their counterparts who have a degree.
In Eastern Maine, Lucille Willey, who spent much of her career as a high school principal, observes, “I believe there is less of a stigma than there used to be, but I still hear local school professionals and people in the community refer to CTE students as those who perhaps aren’t quite capable of a four-year college experience — when that is so far from the truth. When you see these students tear into a project, solve problems, and come up with solutions, you just have to admire the intellect that goes into doing so. These students are high performers.”
Leadership is always a challenge even in the best of times. The pandemic hit CTEs particularly hard, and Director Sargent from Sanford has had her share of challenges. “I thought that leading the transition to a new building was a challenge, then the COVID-19 pandemic hit us. CTE is best delivered in person and that is what our students expected when they came to SRTC. Those early months of the pandemic, when we were remote learning, were exceptionally difficult as we were forced to reinvent so much of how we operate.”
Julie Kenny from Bath Regional is very hopeful for the future. “I do believe there is still a stigma around CTE, but there is no doubt that this stigma is being broken down and challenged,” she says. “Even in my five years as director, I have seen many mindset changes about CTE. Our student body has diversified, with more college-bound students finding a place for CTE in their education.”
The future of CTE is dependent on getting the word out to parents and prospective students. Accordingly, Ammie London describes her plan to “positively keep Region Two in the public eye as much as possible through newsworthy accomplishments in the newspaper, on television, social media and word of mouth. We will continue to include middle school as much as possible with school tours to showcase our programs and college and career fairs to show that our programs have pathways to careers. I will also continue to reach every corner of our region exclaiming the importance of CTE, whether it be in professional organizations by day or social events by night (or weekends).”
At Bath Regional, Director Kenny sees it in a similar way: “We can’t deny the fact that CTE is not for all students, but the more we expand the program offerings the better we can accommodate student needs. Other than that, keeping CTE on the forefront and on people’s minds is all we can do. We need to continue to showcase student successes to share with everyone what CTE can do for them.” Likewise, drawing on her career as a high school principal, Director Willey believes, “though it is difficult to do, I think we need to do a better job of career awareness at the junior high level and giving them more opportunities for engagement in the CTE so they are able to make better choices as juniors as to what their career path might be and whether CTE would be beneficial to them in any way.”
Melissa Williams at Foster Tech in Farmington feels that “there needs to be more creative conversations and better publicity and teaching about the importance of career and technical education for all. This includes explaining to students, families, and some school personnel the relevance of making the connection between education and careers.”
Educating adults is the path that Amy Boles sees as a solution. “We have to educate middle school and high school guidance counselors and parents who have the old view that college-bound students should not access CTE,” she believes. “There has to be training and education done to showcase that students get in to post-secondary competitive schools even when they come to a CTE school. Students get talked out of coming all the time.”
Maine is a leader in the percentage of female leaders in CTE (33%). They bring passion and determination to the job of inspiring young people to achieve. It comes at a time when Maine needs all hands on deck to supply our businesses with enough skilled workers to keep our economy thriving and provide our students with the skills to lead a rich and rewarding life in Maine. Twenty years ago, “vocational schools” was not a term with any positive connotations. These programs were considered less important than traditional academic education. In contrast, many graduates of CTE programs now earn higher salaries, are more in demand, and receive more compelling benefits than graduates of traditional four-year college degrees. February is CTE month, and celebrating its female leaders illustrates how the times are changing.
Brian Langley is the executive director of Bridge Academy Maine, a non-profit programmatic mentorship program that supports Maine high school students on their path to a high wage high demand job in Maine.
Women Directors at Maine’s CTE Centers/Regions
Julie Kenny, Bath Regional Career and Technology Center
Paulette Bonneau, Biddeford Regional Center of Technology
Lucille Willey, Coastal Washington County Institute of Technology
Melissa Williams, Foster Career and Technical Education Center
Amy Boles, Hancock County Technical Center
Ammie London, Region 2 School of Applied Technology
Brenda Gammon, Region 9 School of Applied Technology
Kathy Sargent, Sanford Regional Career and Technical Center
Amanda Peterson, United Technologies Center
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