AUGUSTA, MAINE — A NEW concept in learning is making a quiet debut in Maine public school districts this fall. State educators hope it will halt the growing dropout trends and help graduating seniors fit the changing needs of Maine's work force. Called the ``Maine Common Core of Learning,'' the proposal outlines a changed mission in schools in a state where students have traditionally turned to nature - craggy shorelines, vast forests, and great stretches of farmland - for their livelihoods.
Instead of dividing school work into traditional, and rigid, studies of math, science, language, and arts, the proposal takes a more-integrated approach to teaching and learning.
``What we have tried to do is remove barriers between departmental turf,'' says Clark Fitz-Gerald, a sculptor, a ``Jeffersonian idealist,'' and a member of the Commission on the Core of Learning, which developed the concept. ``We would like to see art taught in math class, and math taught in art class.''
As farmers, loggers, and fishermen slowly disappear from the landscape, educators are clamoring to change a school system that in the past didn't think twice about graduating students after eighth grade so they could begin work on the land.
``Sons aren't following their fathers into their professions anymore,'' says Irving Richardson, a teacher, ``and that's a really serious picture that needs to be addressed.''
Mr. Richardson is one of 45 teachers, artists, and business people from around the state who have for the last year and a half come together in a unique community project, begun by an executive order from Gov. John McKernan in February 1989, to address that issue.
In the past, Maine industry has demanded large numbers of unskilled workers, and - states an introduction to the core - ``without much more than an eighth-grade education, large numbers of Maine workers could succeed in valued traditional occupations like farming, logging, and working on the sea or at the mill.''
But as traditional jobs fall victim to change, a growing number of businesses looking for skilled labor are moving in.
According to the core, manufacturing jobs here have declined from 44 percent to 22 percent since 1947. Meanwhile, many businesses coming to the state are alarmed at the lack of competency of entry-level workers, many of whom still expect high-paying jobs requiring little formal education.
Whereas nationally, an average 60 percent of high school students seek higher education, 38 percent of Maine's high school graduates go on to college or vocational school. That number, the core states, must rise substantially if the state is to successfully adjust to the gradual abandoning of its blue-collar history.
To that end, the commission has developed a learning concept that teaches ``the essence of what it means to be human.'' They hope it will not just help students learn, but show them that education doesn't simply end at graduation, but continues to help them fit into the state's changing work environment and way of life.
The concept includes four categories: communication; reasoning and problem-solving; the human record; and personal and global stewardship.
The commission says it hopes to build a type of student that, like a jazz musician, is ``engaged in dynamic recreation and expression of the deepest parts of the self - the essence of what it means to be human,'' according to the core.
Commission members agree, however, that many teachers still have to be convinced of the core's necessity, validity, and worth. That battle is yet to be won, they say.
Mr. Fitz-Gerald says he has seen both excitement and opposition:
``Young teachers who are still learning will accept it. Teachers who have experience will resist it, give it lip-service, keep doing what they're doing. Transition will be a slow process. It's not like the conversion on the road to Damascus.''