Hopeful Signs and Pigeon Holes

I went up to Milan Village School to check in about their positive outcomes with state testing. They got off the schools in need of improvement list after years on it. Principal David Backler credited technology and good use of data with their success. You’ll be able to read more about the school’s success in next week’s Berlin Reporter.

He also said something else that was intriguing. He said he was preparing students to go to the best colleges in the country, but making sure to instill in them a connection with Milan and the surrounding region. They need to be successful, he said, but some of them hopefully will want to come home afterward to make their lives here.

It’s such a great idea, and I’m not sure it has been employed well enough. I know Berlin residents have a deep-seated pride for their city, but it almost seems in spite of where they come from rather than rooted in it. The Berlin type of pride seems to me more akin to people who leave New Jersey: they’ll fight you if you say something bad about it, but they sure don’t want to live there anymore.

Principal Backler made the point that this area has so much to offer, from hunting to hiking and skiing to snowmobiling. There is something for everyone, he said, and the kids need to be made aware of those opportunities.

Unfortunately, the region has been pigeon-holed. People look to Berlin as a place to go if you like ATVs and sleds, but not if you want cross-country ski trails and road biking. The mountains in Coös County are as spectacular as those in Carroll or Grafton (some would say more), and the opportunity for diverse recreation abounds.

But then I look at a study released a couple months ago by the UNH Carsey Institute that said Coös County youth aren’t engaged enough outside the classroom. They are left idle, the report said, particularly males, which leads to trouble.

Why? Why are kids in northern New Hampshire idle? There is so much here, so much to root them to this place, to make them want to come back, to occupy their time and lead them down the road toward becoming successful young adults. And it doesn’t cost a ton of money; compare buying hiking boots to the cost of a pair of hockey skates.

What the North Country has, most places can’t offer. The region hasn’t figured out how to connect itself to the those assets, and it has trouble connecting others as well.

Coös is selling what it knows, not what it has. It’s assets are greater than just ATV trails, wood and prisons, but those are the economic foundations the region is familiar with. I drive past mountains, trails, cliffs and rivers that if they were in North Conway would be swarmed every weekend. They are almost always empty. And what’s more, I see assets for rooting the region’s youth in their home while teaching them the skills to grow up and be creative, driven, inspired adults. Parents spend thousands to send their children on Outward Bound expeditions just across the border in Newry, Maine. Why is there no capitalization on the exact same assets here in Coös?

Because it’s been pigeon-holed. The region sees itself in one way, and it has hard time seeing anything else. The assets are there, waiting to be plucked. A few people are starting to use them to their advantage, like Principal Backler. He makes for hopeful signs, despite the pigeon holes.

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