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October 18, 2010 | last updated January 20, 2012 2:08 pm
2010 Next List

Class act | Yellow Light Breen, senior vice president, Bangor Savings Bank, Bangor; chair, Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, Augusta

Photo/Tim Greenway
Photo/Tim Greenway
Yellow Light Breen, chair of the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, in the children's room at the Bangor Public Library

Before reaching his 40th birthday, Yellow Light Breen had already carved out significant careers in business and education.

He was a special assistant to the Commissioner of Education during the King administration, where he supplied much of the planning for what became the "laptop initiative," one of the nation's boldest attempts to provide technology for students in every classroom.

Breen, who lives in Hampden, has since become vice president for strategic development at Bangor Savings Bank, one of the state's largest and fastest-growing lenders.

Now, he is drawing from both sides of his expertise in chairing the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, a business-backed advocacy group that has been around since the 1980s but is being revitalized under Breen's leadership. He feels so strongly about MCEE that he's cut back on all his other volunteer commitments to focus on it.

The current centerpiece of MCEE's efforts is called "Prepare Maine," and it sets lofty, but achievable, goals for Maine students.

"It's just a fact that we can't have the economy and the civic vitality we need without really taking public education to a higher level of excellence," he says.

Breen does not endorse the view that Maine schools are failing. "Compared to other states, and particularly rural states, we actually stack up pretty well. We have been doing some good work over the last 30 years," he says. The problem is that being better than average is no longer good enough.

"We have too many young people who don't graduate from high school, and high school degrees don't have the rigor we need," he says. "And we're last in New England in the proportion of college degrees."

The first step toward solutions — as Breen has stressed in numerous presentations of Prepare Maine around the state — is simply to focus public attention on the problem. He quotes survey data showing that, when asked about the state's most important public issues, people mentioned education 30% of the time as recently as a decade ago. "Now, it barely registers at 3%. We have to start changing that perception."

Breen acknowledges that Prepare Maine is, at this point, just an outline. "As we start to define some of these issues, it will get harder," he says. Yet he's encouraged by the more than 20 organizations willing to sign on as co-sponsors.

"This is too big for any one organization to take on alone," he says. "It's not just about K-12 education. It's about pre-kindergarten, and public and private colleges, and the community college system."

While many of these institutions have operated independently in the past, with little thought for how they mesh — or don't mesh — Breen says that, too, must change.

"We're entering an era in which it's going to be hard to find any new resources, financial or otherwise," he says. "That means that we have to get more efficient at everything we do in education."

The collaboration needs to extend well beyond the educational institutions themselves, Breen says. Towns as small as Jackman have accomplished a great deal in a short time. Business leadership there was instrumental in turning around a school system with a high dropout rate to one where every single high school senior is going off to college or advanced training, he says.

And what Jackman can do, Breen says, Maine as a whole can do. "It's not that these other issues, whether energy, or health care or jobs, aren't important. They are. But they don't have the central place that education has in improving the lives of every child in Maine. It's not just an issue for parents or teachers or principals. It's an issue for everyone in the community."

Douglas Rooks

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