Funding Priorities

In January 2016, following several years of making grants to a wide array of organizations throughout Maine, the Foundation announced the decision to focus its resources on raising the aspirations of middle school students in rural Maine.  This change in grantmaking focus was informed by a year of research, planning, and partnership development by the Foundation’s board and staff.  Of particular interest to the Foundation were youth development program models that incorporate mentoring as a central component to program activities, such as Trekkers, based in mid-coast Maine.  As stewards of a relatively small foundation, the Board of Directors is committed to using the foundation’s limited resources to highlight and expand the reach of promising practices in positive youth development programming.

In April 2017, the Lerner Foundation announced the Aspirations Incubator Program, a 6-year, $7 million mentoring-based initiative aimed at raising and sustaining the aspirations of middle school and high school students in rural Maine communities and small cities.  This initiative will be the sole focus of the Lerner Foundation's philanthropic activities through 2023.  The Foundation will not be accepting unsolicited grant proposals during this time.

Why middle school?

Developmentally, middle school coincides with the process of defining identity and building awareness of the broader world beyond family and local community. Middle school is the right time to nurture aspirations and broaden a student’s sense of opportunity. High school students benefit from logistical assistance with the process of accessing higher education opportunities. Middle school students benefit from building personal relationships and networks of supporters who help them understand and value their own potential and nurture a belief that educational opportunities beyond high school exist for them.

  • “Every day, millions of diverse, rapidly changing 10- to 15-year-olds make critical and complex life choices and form the attitudes, values, and dispositions that will direct their behavior as adults. They deserve an education that will enhance their healthy growth as lifelong learners, ethical and democratic citizens, and increasingly competent, self-sufficient individuals who are optimistic about the future and prepared to succeed in our ever-changing world. “This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents,” Association of Middle Level Educators, (2010): 3.
  • “During adolescence, young people are constantly asking questions such as ‘Who am I?’ Where do I fit in? What do I want to do with my life…’ Identity development — the process of exploring and understanding who one is both as a unique individual and as a member of certain groups — is an ever-evolving process, but one that is particularly central during adolescence.” Mandy Savitz-Romer & Suzanne Bouffard “Envisioning: Forming an Identity that Includes College-Going,” Ready Willing and Able: A Developmentally Appropriate Approach to College Access and Success (Harvard Education Press 2012), 64-65.
  • “Eighth-grade students’ academic achievement has a larger impact on their readiness for college by the end of high school than anything that happens academically in high school” “The Forgotten Middle,” ACT (2008): 5.

Why rural Maine?

More than half of all schoolchildren in Maine live in rural areas, and the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in the state has doubled in the past 6 years. The achievement gap is high in rural schools and students that are not academically or culturally prepared for college, especially those students who are the first in their family to attend college, are less likely to complete college degrees or certificates.

  • 57% of Maine students live in rural areas; more than 2/3 of Maine schools are in rural areas.
  • 46% of rural students in Maine are eligible for free or reduced lunch (U.S. rank = 26).
  • On average, rural students graduate at a higher rate than students from urban schools (80% vs. 64%), however they are less likely to attend college (33% vs. 48%).
  • A large percentage of rural students in Maine have special education needs. (Maine Individualized Education Program (IEP) students = 15.6%, U.S. rank = 11). “Why Rural Matters, Rural Opportunity Consortium of Idaho (2014): 60.
  • The number of economically disadvantaged Maine high school graduates grew from 22% to 45% of their graduating classes between 2008 and 2014. “Maine High School Graduates: Trends in College-Going, Persistence, and Completion,” Mitchell Institute (2015): 4.
  • 38% of 8th graders in Maine are proficient in reading, 40% are proficient in math. For students eligible for free or reduced lunch, these numbers are lower; 28% are proficient in reading and 24% are proficient in math. In 2015, almost half (46.6%) of students in Maine qualified for free or reduced lunch. Many of these students live in rural areas. “Education Indicators for Maine – 2015,” Educate Maine (2015): 6, 14-15.
  • From 2010 – 2014, the population in rural areas of the United States declined overall for the first time since the 1950’s. “The State of Rural America,” Modern Farmer (2015).

Why mentoring?

Research shows that youth who have sustained, high-quality mentoring relationships with competent and caring adults do better in school and have a more positive outlook on their futures. In rural communities, where residents are more likely to be acquainted, the power of building a network of support for young people may provide the critical social capital that rural students need to navigate higher education opportunities successfully.

  • “Young people are more likely to graduate high school if they have access to a web of supportive relationships, which may include parents, adults inside and outside of school, and peers. At least one stable, anchoring relationship can act as a gateway to this wider web of support.” “Don’t Quit on Me, GradNation/America’s Promise Alliance (2015): 12.
  • “Effective, high-quality, and enduring mentoring is associated with the capacity for youth to engage in high-quality social relationships, to have greater academic achievement, school engagement, school adjustment, and to view their futures more positively.”  “Mentoring: A Key Resource for Promoting Positive Youth Development”, MENTOR (2007): 4.
  • “Youth who felt that their mentors knew their family well were almost one and a half times more likely to enroll in college than those who said their mentors did not. Even more striking, these youth were about three times more likely to be attending college two years after high school graduation.” Jekielek, S., Moore, K., Hair, E., & Scarupa, H. “Mentoring: A Promising Strategy for Youth Development,” Child Trends, (2002): 5. 

The Trekkers model

In conducting its research, the Lerner Foundation explored the Trekkers, Inc. program in mid-coast Maine and believes that it could serve as a model for other youth development programs seeking to raise the aspirations of young people in other rural areas of Maine. 94% of students who enter the Trekkers program in 7th grade go on to graduate high school, compared to 82% of their peers. 74% of Trekkers who graduate high school go on to some form of higher education, compared to 64% of their peers.

Trekkers is a local, non-profit outdoor-based mentoring program that has served the students of mid-coast Maine since 1994. Its unique mentoring model connects young people with caring adults through the use of expeditionary learning, community service and adventure-based education.

All Trekkers’ programs are designed to provide an ongoing supportive network for youth in the community, while fostering valuable life skills that will help the students prepare for life beyond high school graduation. Trekkers is unique in supporting students over the “long haul” as they graduate from one program into the next, on a six-year journey that begins when they are in 7th grade and continues until they graduate high school.

Along the way, Trekkers teaches students communication, teamwork and leadership skills, and each year engages them in designing, planning and executing a grade-specific educational expedition. Through this combination of outdoor-based experiential learning and long-term mentoring support, Trekkers students build resiliency, have an increased graduation rate and are more likely to pursue some form of post-secondary education than their peers.

Trekkers serves 200 students in grades 7 – 12, who are growing up in the six Knox County communities of Regional School Unit (RSU) 13: Cushing, Owls Head, Rockland, South Thomaston, St. George and Thomaston. This is an area that consistently registers among the highest rates of adolescent drug abuse and teen pregnancy in the state. More than 55% of the students are from low-income families. They live in communities where the median household income is more than 30% lower than the state average. Of the two high schools they attend, one is on Maine’s low-performing list and the other is in the lowest 8% in the state for graduation rate.

The Trekkers program is designed to be gender balanced (50% male; 50% female), and the student body is reflective of the demographics of the service area, where approximately 96% of the population is English-speaking Caucasian. Students are accepted into the program starting in 7th grade, without regard for academic standing, socio-economic status, or other factors.

Each Trekkers class works together throughout the school year to determine how they will complete their program-culminating educational expedition. Using consensus-based decision making, each group of students decides how to incorporate the following educational components: community service, environmental stewardship, cultural awareness, adventure-based education, and wilderness exploration. The foundation of the Trekkers model is its Youth Programming Principles (listed below). 

Trekkers’ Youth Programming Principles: 

1.     Designing Intentional Program Delivery Systems for Long Term Engagement – A commitment to creating small, purposeful learning communities and designing a multi-year, “step-ladder” program delivery system that works with students during middle school and follows them to and through high school graduation. This long-term commitment to relationship building allows for the time and space needed to adapt to the ever-changing developmental needs and interests of adolescents.
2.     Developing a Skilled Network of Caring Adults and Peer Mentors – A focus on recruiting and training caring adult volunteers and cross-age mentors (young leaders) to play a critical role in meeting the relational needs of local youth growing up in their community.
3.     Applying a Comprehensive Approach to Youth Development Strategies – A dedication to building targeted holistic youth development methods into the overall program design to help young people find success and navigate challenges during adolescence by focusing on proven promotion, prevention and intervention strategies.
4.     Creating Circles of Care – A practice of assembling support networks for young people by partnering with parents, schools, key stakeholders, health services, and other youth advocate agencies, with the goal of building high-level supports to assist in meeting the academic and non-academic needs of students.
5.     Prioritizing Informal Relationship Building with Youth – A commitment to “showing up” and being present in the lives of young people outside of regular scheduled programming.  By designing outreach in the community into the overall program delivery model, staff and caring adult mentors can build even stronger relationships with mentees and maintain relational links to students even when core programs are not in session.
6.     Expanding Worldviews – A priority for introducing students – through outdoor, experiential and travel-based educational opportunities – to the diversity of people, cultures, places and natural resources that exist outside the reach of their everyday lives. 

7.     Embracing Student Voice & Choice – A willingness to share power and give young people input into the overall educational process. 

8.     Encouraging Civic Responsibility – A desire to incorporate service into curriculum design and a commitment to enhance civil discourse.
9.     Preparing Students for Success after High School – A focus on increasing opportunities for youth to identify, explore, and cultivate their future aspirations – whether those aspirations include immediate entry into the workforce or ambitions for college – through hands-on experiences. 

10.   Utilizing Validated Assessment Tools to Promote Social-Emotional Development in Young People - An emphasis on collecting social-emotional development and resiliency data as a way to inform individual intervention strategies and influence programming – all with the intention of better detecting barriers to academic achievement in students at an early age.

FMI, visit

For links to resources we based our new priorities on, please click here.



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