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At Mahar, state launches promotion of public colleges

ORANGE — For high school students looking for a strong academic program without incurring large debt, public colleges are the best route to take, said faculty and students of Massachusetts public schools at a panel at Ralph C. Mahar Regional School Thursday.

The event was one of four in the state department of higher education’s “Go Public” series — a new initiative this fall designed to inspire interest in the state’s public colleges among Massachusetts high school students.

“I will be very honest. I really do not see much difference between a public institution and private institution,” said Robin Bowen, vice president for academic affairs for Fitchburg State University, who has worked at schools small and large, public and private.

“I would say the quality of the education is as strong, if not stronger, in a public institution,” she told a crowd of about 35 students and parents gathered in the school’s auditorium.

It was a theme echoed by three other administrators and four student speakers — all representing public schools in central and western Massachusetts.

Amber McHale, a 19-year-old Orange native and graduate of Mahar Regional, said that she was a good student until the age of 15, when, “I started to feel traditional high school wasn’t for me.”

But rather than drop out of high school, McHale chose to enroll in Mount Wachusett Community College’s Gateway program — which allowed her to finish her high school degree while taking college classes.

After her high school graduation in 2011, McHale continued taking classes at the college. She is now in the process of a transfer to Holyoke Community College.

“If my experience at Mount Holyoke is like MWCC, I anticipate continued success in my future goals,” she said. “My recommendation: go public.”

Greenfield Community College Student Trustee Michael Lewis, 53, told attendees that after a poor high school experience, he traveled the country for 30 years. He worked in an array of jobs — something that he said is not possible today, in a poor economy with an increasingly competitive job market.

But at GCC, he found an “accessible open door,” something that he believes all Massachusetts public schools offer to their students.

“It’s an excellent first step,” he said. “You have the chance to reach for the stars. You have a chance to find out who you are and what you do.”

But often negative stereotypes about the quality of education deter students from considering public schools, said Sen. Stephen Brewer, D-Barre.

“(They think) ‘If I have to go public, it will be some kind of a third grade education,’” he said, at the start of the panel. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“If you have the dream and initiative to be what you want to be in the world, we want to make sure you have this kind of opportunity,” he said.

Members of the campus leaders panel — Bowen, GCC President Robert Pura, MWCC President Daniel Asquino and University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy — took a few minutes to pitch their schools’ academic and cultural opportunities. They invited attendees to come for a tour.

And four students — McHale, Lewis, Stephanie Close of Westfield State University and Jessica He of UMass — all shared how their decision to overcome concerns about attending a public school was the right one for their future endeavors.

A video of Gov. Deval Patrick briefly discussed the five UMass campuses, nine state schools and 15 community colleges.

He also urged students to take four years of math and three years of lab science courses during high school.

“That’s one of the best things you can do to get ready for college-level work,” he said.

The event was designed to raise interest in public schools, while also increasing awareness about how students can prepare for college courses, state officials said.

Thursday’s event was the only one of four west of I-495. The attendance was much lower in Orange than at the Haverhill and Plymouth “Go Public” events, which had each seen about 300 to 400 people, state officials said. A fourth event was also held Thursday night, in Boston.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

Correction: This story has been updated from the version that ran in Friday’s print edition. Amber McHale is transferring to Holyoke Community College. This information was incorrect in Friday’s story.

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