Creating brighter futures: Cathy Newell’s 35 years in Adult Education

By Amy Chapman

Newell with her granddaughter, Emma.

Newell with her granddaughter, Emma.

Anyone who has returned to school as an adult learner in SAD 44 in the past 35 years—whether the goal was to complete a high school diploma, pursue a college degree, or take classes for enrichment—has Cathy Newell to thank for helping to make those local adult education opportunities available.

Newell, of Greenwood, became director of SAD 44’s adult education program in 1979 and served in that role for 23 years. Earlier this month, she retired as executive director of the Maine Adult Education Association, a position she has held since 2001.

In January, she was honored by the Maine Legislature for her 35 years of service in adult education.

“Cathy Newell is a Maine treasure,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, speaking from the floor of the House of Representatives on that occasion. “She has been a tireless advocate for adult education and as such has created programs and helped secure funding which have enriched the lives of thousands of adults in the state as well as their families.”

Newell graduated from Vassar College with a degree in Art History and received her M.A.T. from the University of Maine. She met her husband, Charlie, while both were student teaching at Rockland District High School.

After their marriage, Newell taught Art History for several years at Gould Academy, then stayed at home to raise their two children throughout most of the 1970s.

SAD 44 had had a small adult education program since about 1970, but it began to grow rapidly in the mid-70s, during Ken Smith’s tenure as superintendent. A part-time director position was created in 1976, and Newell took the reins from her predecessor, Marie Wilson, three years later.

Community and collaboration

Newell’s philosophy about education targeted for adult learners is based on an all-encompassing approach, reaching throughout the community and beyond.

“My vision for a local program was always about how adult education could help individuals in meeting their goals for personal skill development, academic attainment, and employability,” Newell said.

Seeing how the opportunity to further their education has helped adult learners to expand their horizons has been very rewarding. “Certainly employability [is a key goal], but I always regarded adult education as a vehicle for much more.”

“An important element was how the local program could collaborate with other organizations where there was overlapping mission: the Chamber of Commerce and other economic development initiatives, as well as state agencies with local offices such as the Career Centers and DHHS.”

Over the years, Newell said, there have also been partnerships with “unique entities such as NTL, with the Community Conferences that led to the launch of other groups such as Friends of the Androscoggin, Mahoosuc Land Trust, Mahoosuc Arts, and housing initiatives. In some cases, Adult Education provided a structure and home base until a local group could get on its feet.”

Newell pointed to a number of mutually beneficial regional collaborations as well: “Family Literacy Even Start grants with Region 9 and SAD 17 adult ed programs; Federal Workplace Literacy grants with the same partners and many local employers in the 1990s. And Oxford County law enforcement and social service agencies, with the county conferences on Civil Rights and also on Poverty in the 1990s.”

She believes that school facilities exist to benefit all members of the community, and should be widely used. “That use can work to build support for education at all levels,” Newell said, citing the example of Western Mountains Senior College, which offers non-credit courses and special learning opportunities for adults over the age of 50, and has become a vital part of the Telstar program.

Newell said the local adult education program has been fortunate to receive strong support from the SAD 44 school board and administrators over the years. She is also grateful for support from the wider community, citing “the willingness of so many individuals, both from within the district and from the community, to share their knowledge and skills through the program.”

Adapting to meet changing needs

“With adult education, you never know what the changing demands will be. That’s part of what makes it fun,” Newell said.

“When I first started, the biggest unmet need was for college classes.”

Before the advent of the Internet and on-line classes, long commutes to college campuses made it very difficult for adults in the SAD 44 area, many of whom were working and raising families, to return to school.

“In 1983, ITV (interactive television) was the big game-changer. Although you couldn’t usually finish a degree through ITV classes, you could take core college courses and electives and cut down on the number of trips you had to make,” Newell said. “The ITV sites that were really successful were the ones that had an adult ed program as the agent.”

Now, through the University College program, adult learners seeking college credits can choose from a wide array of offerings from the University of Maine and Central Maine Community College, available on line, via ITV, or at the Telstar campus.

Another change was the rate at which adult learners needed to complete their diplomas or degrees. In the early days of Adult Education in SAD 44, Newell said many clients were people who already had jobs. “They didn’t need a high school diploma for work, but they wanted to complete high school for their own personal satisfaction.

“They were able to go at their own pace,” she said, “often taking one or two courses at a time over several years.”

That changed in the 1990s, when the economy of western Maine shifted away from traditional manufacturing industries.

“The closing of area mills drove people to adult ed to get the high school diplomas they needed for new career opportunities,” Newell said. “When people lose their jobs and want to take advantage of federal or state aid for education, they are not given the luxury of time. They had to move through the program quickly.”

The SAD 44 Adult Education staff worked closely with the Maine Dept. of Labor’s Career Center in Rumford to match educational offerings to the skills employers were seeking.

“There were a lot of initiatives at the state level, through the Departments of Labor, Education, and Economic and Community Development, as well as the Department of Health and Human Services” aimed at serving Maine’s many dislocated manufacturing workers, Newell said.

Looking back at some of the other ways in which the local adult education program has adapted to meet changing needs, Newell remembered one of SAD 44’s first experiences with teaching English as a Second Language.

“In the early 1980s, Bob and Jane Grover [Bethel residents who had spent time doing missionary work in Laos] helped to bring a Laotian family to the United States,” she said. Before settling in the Portland area, the family spent a year or so in Bethel to be close to their sponsors while adjusting to their new life.

“The parents were in adult ed classes, and there was a teenage boy, the father’s younger brother, who was enrolled at Telstar,” Newell said. The family members had all arrived knowing very little English, but were able to learn it through programs in the local school district.

Since that time, she said she has seen the demand for classes in English as a Second Language, once confined mainly to urban centers like Portland and Lewiston, spread to Adult Education programs in outlying areas around those cities and even to those in rural areas, as migrant workers and recent immigrants have increased the diversity of Maine’s population.

Maine Adult Education Association

Newell understood the importance of the local program’s role as part of a statewide system, and she was active in the Maine Adult Education Association (MAEA) throughout her years with SAD 44. She served at different times as its president and secretary, and as a member of the organization’s conference and legislative committees.

Adult education programs around the state pay annual dues to MAEA, which employs an executive director, a lobbyist, and a bookkeeper.

“Adult education is more than a collection of local programs—although that is the basis of much of Maine’s success,” she said. Collectively, supporters of adult education are better able to advocate for positive changes.

In 2001, Newell became MAEA’s executive director, running the organization from her home office in Greenwood.

As director of MAEA, she worked together with Maine’s college system and several foundations on the launch of Maine College Transitions, which provides adult learners with career and college planning, academic preparation, placement testing, and financial aid assistance.

In 2011, after the General Educational Development (GED) test, long the most widely-used assessment tool for the awarding of high school diplomas to adult learners, was privatized, costs skyrocketed and scheduling computerized exams became a challenge. Under Newell’s leadership, MAEA explored competing assessment exams, and recently transitioned from the GED exam to the HiSET, offered by the nonprofit Educational Testing Service.

Newell also worked on implementing a highly successful web portal (www.maineadulted.org) to provide a robust web presence where visitors can find adult education programs near them, browse the offerings of programs across the state, and register and pay on line.

Her longtime colleague Rob Wood, who recently retired as director of Portland Adult Education, said Newell epitomized effective leadership. “With a passion for adult learners she nurtured our disparate group of 100 programs into an educational system that is respected statewide.”

Keeping busy in retirement

Now that she has retired, Newell said she looks forward to having more time to spend with her grandchildren. She and Charlie have two granddaughters who live in Bethel, and two grandsons in Pennsylvania. An ardent quilter, crafter, and baker, she enjoys passing those skills along to her grandchildren.

In 1994, the Newells purchased a historic 1840s Cape Cod on North Pond in Greenwood, which they have lovingly renovated and restored, while also researching the home’s past. Long interested in local history, Newell said she plans to become more involved with the Bethel Historical Society, an organization in which she was very active prior to starting her career with Adult Education.

She is a regular at the Bethel Inn’s pool and gym, and in the warmer months enjoys swimming and kayaking from her dock on North Pond.

With a lifelong passion for politics, Newell has been active in the Oxford County Democrats for more than four decades, serving as the organization’s chair since 2001. As she packed up boxes of MAEA files from her home office to pass along to her successor, the space rapidly refilled with materials for the 2014 campaign season.

And because, as she says, “I still have a great passion for adult education,” she will continue to keep up with current events and issues that affect adult learners.

Looking back over her long career, Newell says the biggest reward for investing her energy in adult education is knowing what a positive difference it has made in people’s lives.

“The best part is meeting up with so many people in the Bethel Foodliner and having them let me know how they, or members of their family, are doing as a direct result of a class or other contact with our program.”

As Rep. Rotundo said in her speech honoring Newell, “We will miss Cathy very much in the State House, but her important work, her great work, will live on in the adults in Maine for whom she has opened doors and helped create a brighter future.”