The Mentor: Emanuel Pariser

Education Services

By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Mark Fleming

With 162,807 jobs, Education and Health Services support more than one-third of all occupations in the state. On the healthcare side, practitioners such as doctors, dentists, veterinarians, and nurses account for 20 percent of the total. Teachers make up the biggest share of this industry, about 25 percent of its occupations.

There is a student at the state’s first charter school, who arrived on opening day in October with a daunting reputation: Her behavior was such that she would need an adult with her at all times, teachers at her former high school warned. “We weren’t sure we could meet her needs for that kind of one-on-one,” says Emanuel Pariser, co-director of education and developer of the academic program at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley. “But as a public school, we have to take everyone who applies.”

Five months later, the girl has defied those dire expectations. She is engaged with her coursework, which is centered on the 2,450 acres of forest and farmland that comprise the campus of Good Will-Hinckley, a 123-year-old residential school for troubled youth and the academy’s parent organization. Recently she surprised everyone by being the first to volunteer when a staff member in the main office asked for help. And she requires no adult to trail her as she negotiates her eight-hour school day.

“She has been fabulous,” Pariser says. “There is something about this atmosphere that makes her feel safe. She is putting in a great effort on the work she is doing here. That is my payment.”

By that standard, Pariser, 61, must be a wealthy man. He has spent his entire career educating teenagers who have not fared well in traditional public schools. In 1973, as a newly minted graduate of the University of Chicago, he co-founded what is believed to be the nation’s first alternative high school for dropouts, the Community School in Camden. He guided the school for thirty-three years — one former student recalls him as a “father figure” — before leaving to pursue his doctorate in education and philosophy at University of Maine. He remains involved as an advisor to the institution, now named the Community Schools at Opportunity Farm and Camden, the result of a 2011 merger with a home for at-risk adolescents in New Gloucester.

Pariser began working to bring public charter schools to Maine in the mid-nineties, believing they provide opportunities to reach dropouts, teen parents, substance abusers, and other kids whose needs, interests, or skills get short shrift in public schools, where programs are often pinched by budget cuts or compromised by local politics. “It is not a popular idea in my political circles,” Pariser admits. “In Maine, at least, Democrats and the teachers union have tended not to like it. I liked it because I felt creating small schools that had a specific focus would be great learning communities for kids and their parents.”

Known for small class sizes and innovative approaches to teaching and learning, charter schools are typically founded by teachers, parents, or alternative education advocates and financed with a mix of public funds and private donations. They have more flexibility than traditional public schools when it comes to curriculum, instruction, and scheduling, and some schools specialize in a particular field, such as technology or the arts. In exchange for their independence, the schools must demonstrate that they are meeting public school academic standards, as well as the goals stipulated in their charter, otherwise they will be closed.

Charter school legislation was deliberated more than a dozen times before finally winning approval by a Republican-controlled legislature in June 2011. Pariser was hardly the only voice championing the independent publicly funded institutions over all those years, but he was one of the most persuasive. “He is such a credible advocate for kids,” says Judith Jones, chairman of the board of directors of the Maine Association for Charter Schools. “That comes through whether he’s talking to the politicians, the governor, or people in education. His long history and dedication to kids and alternative education make him a strong and respected advocate.”

For those same reasons, Pariser was the obvious choice when Good Will-Hinckley, which closed most of its programs due to financial problems in 2009, sought to reinvent itself as a high school specializing in agriculture, forestry, and environmental issues, says Glenn Cummings, the institution’s executive director and a former state representative who chaired the Joint Committee of Education and Cultural Affairs. “We wanted to develop a strong program here,” he says, “and there is probably nobody in Maine with greater depth of knowledge and experience in starting and sustaining an alternative school than Emanuel Pariser.”

It is late on a weekday afternoon, and classes are over for the day at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. The halls are empty but for a pair of students, both boys, who are sweeping the floors and emptying trashcans. Teachers linger in some of the classrooms, gathering paperwork to take home for the evening. It will be a few more hours, however, before Emanuel Pariser can call it a day. Taking advantage of some free time between staff meetings, he settles into the faculty break room, a cup of tea cradled in his hands, and reflects on the path that led him to this central Maine school, where he is creating, for a second time in his career, an innovative educational program for teenagers who don’t fit the conventional public school mold.

He was not, he explains, such a student himself. The son of teachers — his father was a biochemist, his mother a linguist — he spent his early childhood in England and Turkey, after which his parents’ careers took the family to Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston. “There was a love of learning in my family, so that was natural for me,” he says, “but I never felt I belonged in the big public schools that I attended. There was no community. I never went to any of my graduations — not high school, middle school, or college.” Chuckling, he adds, “Also, it was the sixties, so I was rebelling against everything institutional, but I never pushed it to where I jeopardized my career.”

The kids who did push it, the ones who were always in trouble, intrigued him. “I didn’t understand how they got to be the way they were,” he says. “I wanted to see if I could help create something that worked a little better for them.”

So it was that he and his first wife, Dora Lievow, arrived in Maine in 1972, hired to set up a midcoast branch of a now-defunct experimental high school in Rangeley. Fired when their plans did not mesh with the administrators’ vision, the young couple forged ahead with the Community School, whose first students were an especially tough lot, referred by the state Department of Corrections and the Department of Human Services. The private residential school enrolled eight students for each six-month term, at the end of which they were awarded a high school diploma. It was a round-the-clock education: The teenagers worked at local businesses during the day, received one-to-one academic tutoring at night, and acquired skills in such basics as cooking, paying for room and board, and negotiating differences with their housemates. “We wanted the kids to feel they had meaning in the smaller community of the school and in the larger community of Camden,” Pariser explains.

To be sure, the Community School, with its trouble-prone students, met some initial resistance in Camden, but with time it proved worthy of its name. Not only did students get to know their neighbors by working in town, but residents began coming into the school to share their expertise in subjects like gardening, carpentry, and video production, and to serve on the board of directors, helping to shape the curriculum and raise funds.

In the meantime, Pariser and Lievow honed their approach to teaching. They called their practice “relational education,” and it is a cornerstone of the program Pariser has developed for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. Simply put, relational education emphasizes a strong personal relationship between teacher and student. “When a student really trusts and enjoys being with a teacher and that relationship has a reciprocal quality to it, it creates a profound foundation for learning,” Pariser explains. “The teacher is really listening, and the student is feeling understood, and, so, even if the topic is something like math, which is a pretty cold, non-relational subject, the teacher can redirect the student’s thinking to a way that is going to work for him.”

He illustrates the concept with an anecdote about a Community School student who was convinced she could not pass her final exam. “We just talked about it,” he recalls. “She said she had thoughts that she was stupid, that she couldn’t do it. I said, ‘When you get into that spiral of thinking, try looking at those thoughts as things that don’t come from you, as something someone else told you, and then let them go, because you are perfectly capable in my eyes. And that worked for her. She allowed me to get close enough to help her unwrap that knot of self-doubt.”

Pariser’s approach works in part because the teacher’s interest is authentic, believes Andy Vaughan, a former Community School student and teacher. “My experience in public school was that teachers talked at you or down to you,” Vaughan recalls. “Emanuel really wants to find out about you. He doesn’t want to change you. He wants you to change yourself.” Pariser’s eclectic interests — film, music, sports — allowed him to find something in common with almost anyone and to teach around those shared activities, Vaughan says.

Glenn Cummings, a former public school teacher himself, agrees. “A lot of American schools are about compliance and control,” he says. “Emanuel’s philosophy is, we know each other and trust each other and we hold ourselves to certain standards. I don’t know an educator who respects teens as much as he does. He gets to know the things that have made them who they are and, more important, he knows what they care about, what is of interest to them. He gives them a tremendous amount of flexibility to show him their best. At times he frustrates fellow teachers who grew up in a fairly traditional teaching model, where if this thing happens, then this is the consequence. Emanuel’s high level of nurturing and relationship-building provides a good counterpoint to our thinking.”

The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences opened as a private school with eighteen day and boarding students in 2011. This year, as a tuition-free charter school, it enrolled forty-six students, who are taught by four full-time teachers and three AmeriCorps interns.

The school’s academic philosophy borrows from both the Community School and Good Will-Hinckley. The curriculum integrates traditional academics and individual and group projects. “A biology project on permaculture will also have elements of English and history in it,” Pariser explains, “or a project involving wreath-making and selling wreaths may have biology, math, and even some economics involved in it.”

In its application to the Maine Charter School Commission, which authorizes charter schools, the academy said it didn’t expect its students to score high averages on the standardized tests that they, like any public school student, must take. “We have some kids supposedly reading on the first-grade level, but, really, the whole instrument is just not valid for them,” Pariser says, recalling how one exasperated boy looked up from a test page of fill-in circles, and said, “Man, I’m not a bubble guy.”

“The whole wave of public education is skewed toward these tests that measure only a thin level of intelligence,” Pariser continues. “But when you have a hands-on student who can build a replica of a barn or make a masterful piece of pottery, how do those tests measure that kind of intelligence?” So, in addition to giving the standardized tests, the academy must demonstrate it is meeting its goals through teacher evaluations, surveys, and tests that better measure its students’ learning styles.

The Maine Charter School Commission can authorize up to ten schools during the first ten years of Maine’s charter school law. Besides the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, it has authorized four other schools to date: the Cornville Regional Charter School, which opened in October, distinguishes itself from traditional public elementary schools with multi-age classrooms and individualized learning plans. The Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland and the Fiddlehead School of Arts and Science in Gray plan to open next fall. Harpswell Coastal Academy, whose curriculum will incorporate marine and natural resources, farms, and forests, was approved in January.

Much to the consternation of Governor Paul LePage, an ardent charter school proponent, the commission recently rejected four charter school applications, citing weaknesses in the financial plan of one and governing boards that lacked the independence required under state law for the others. Two of the rejected charters were for online schools, a concept that Pariser, not surprisingly, says makes him “uncomfortable.”

“They do not have a good reputation at the college level, they do not serve the populations I am most interested in serving, and they do not offer relational opportunities for students to connect with mentors one to one in person,” he says. Better, he suggests, is a program like the Auburn public school’s Projects4Me, which is geared to at-risk teenagers and dropouts.

“I have a bias: To me, the first thing a charter school should do is work with under-served populations,” Pariser says. “For example, there are very few programs for pregnant teens or kids who learn hands-on. I’d like to see something for Native American tribes, who have a huge dropout rate. With arts being cut from public schools, someone could make a good case to me for an arts school, but I wouldn’t want it to be for just the superstar kids, like Fame. I’m much more interested in it serving kids like ours, who are just coming out of their shell and who might find joy expressing themselves through art.”

Pariser suggests that much of the opposition to charter schools is based on misconceptions. Chief among them, he says, is the notion that charter schools threaten public education. “Charters are simply a different form of public school,” he argues, pointing out that Maine’s law doesn’t permit corporate-funded or religious charter schools. “They will bring back students to public education who are now home schooling or who are in private schools.”

By the same token, Pariser contends, some proponents overstate the promise of charter schools’ ability to transform public education as a whole. “No one has made the case that a state was way down in the dumps in terms of test scores and then as soon as charter schools came in, all the scores went up,” he says. “Charter schools are not a panacea.”

From our March 2013 issue, read more unexpected ways that Mainers are making a living in the Pine Tree State.