LOWELL -- Gateway Cities, old manufacturing cities like Lowell, Lawrence or Fitchburg that often struggle with job growth, have made economic development a key priority over the years.
But education is very important, too, those who gathered at a Gateway Cities forum in Lowell Wednesday said. Good schools can attract residents and prepare children well for college and the workforce.
"Education is a more difficult nut to crack than economic development," said Ben Forman, the research director for MassINC, the nonpartisan thinktank that has worked with Gateway Cities to plot ways to match the economic and educational achievement of the rest of the state.
Higher achievement levels in such cities, which also include Springfield and Worcester, could have a significant effect on the state. One-fourth of Massachusetts students are in Gateway City schools, according to MassINC, but only 22 percent of those cities' residents have college degrees.
Those schools have historically trailed the achievement levels of other Massachusetts schools, but the gap is narrowing.
In math MCAS scores, for example, Gateway City schools once trailed the state average by 12 percent just more than a decade ago. By the 2011-12 school year, that gap had closed to about 2 percent. Science and English language arts have also had similar gains.
At Wednesday's forum, which included representatives from schools and community programs in the Merrimack Valley, officials talked about how to create new educational models and then incorporate those models in area schools.
A main piece of the discussion was around dual-enrollment programs in which high-school students can also take college courses. Such programs help high-schoolers earn college credit and stay focused on earning advanced degrees, forum participants said.
Middlesex Community College has 400 students in dual-enrollment, including a "very strong" enrollment program with Lowell High School, said Carole Cowan, the Middlesex president.
"We could easily double that number," she said.
Lori Weir, who oversees school partnerships for Northern Essex Community College, had a similar sentiment. The college's dual-enrollment program with Haverhill, for example, has 70 students and could top 100 next year, she said. Dual-enrollment could be far larger if only there were more funding, she said.
Early-education funding was also called critical for students' success.
In Lowell, only about one-third to 40 percent of students enroll in pre-kindergarten classes, said Patricia Murphy-Painchaud, the early childhood coordinator for the city's schools. Students who don't receive that early education can fall behind on language, social and emotional skills, she said.
"We have a lot of work to do around that," Murphy-Painchaud said of increasing early-education participation.
Forum participants also spoke of the need to make sure high-school students go to college. Teachers who support and encourage students are critical to that, said Brian Martin, the headmaster of Lowell High School.
"It takes more than a village," he said of broad support for education. "It takes an incredible amount of resources."
That's where assets like the Lowell Community Health Center come in. Linda Sopheap Sou, the center's director for teen block programs, said that about one-third of the center's focus is on community-support programs that empower youth to make responsible decisions.
More than 300 a year are served by the programs, she said, and about 5,000 through outreach initiatives.
Colleges, cultural institutions, public transit and a diverse population are all attributes in cities from New Bedford to Chicopee that can help improving schools, said Forman, the MassINC research director.
"We have outstanding assets in all our Gateway Cities," he said.
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