November 6, 2011

Syntiro committed to collaboration

Local organization’s work for education continues to evolve

By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

READFIELD -- When a group of educators started a new nonprofit organization in 1986, they gave it a very specific name to go with its mission.

click image to enlarge

SUPPLIES: Syntiro employee Jenny Hartung poses with some of the decorations and other items the company uses for conferences.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

For several years, the Maine Support Network for Rural Special Educators brought together far-flung special education teachers for support and training.

As the organization broadened its focus, it shortened its name to the Maine Support Network. But last year, President Kathryn Markovchick and her colleagues decided that even that was too narrow and didn't reflect the work they were doing on a national and international level.

They renamed themselves Syntiro, the Greek word for "support."

It's a time of change for Syntiro, which moved into a new office on Readfield's South Road in March and had to let go of about half its staff after Maine lost a federal college access grant Syntiro administered for several years.

Now Syntiro is looking for new projects while keeping up with ongoing work in the areas of teacher training, self-determination and collaborations with other organizations.

"It's all about support and how we can make things work in schools today," said Therese Burns, an assistant director. "We're always out there beating the path to find whatever new things we can and figure out how to get them to teachers in classrooms."

Markovchick was teaching at the University of Maine at Farmington in 1986 when she started working with the Maine Support Network. Margaret Arbuckle, a UMF colleague, and Judy Enright of Skowhegan had written the grant to the Maine Department of Education to start the project.

There was a high turnover rate among special education teachers, Markovchick said.

"The teachers said they needed to have contact with other special ed teachers, and they needed to have information about what was current," she said. "This was in the mid-80s, when there was one or maybe two special ed people in a building."

The Maine Support Network organized regional and statewide conferences for the teachers.

Markovchick started working with the organization full time and moved it to Readfield because she lives nearby in Mount Vernon. Regional School Unit 38 serves as the fiscal agent for Syntiro because the involvement of a public entity is required for many grants.

A change in the approach to special education guided Syntiro's evolution.

"Twenty years ago, we separated kids based on what we thought their learning needs were," Burns said. "Now we've come full circle and put all kids together. You need a lot more skills."

The staff also monitors teachers' and schools' needs, as well as grants available at the local and state level.

"We keep our eye open for cutting-edge work in schools," said Rick Wilson, operations coordinator. "A need will pop up, and funding streams will become available. Sometimes when we get a grant, it leads us in new directions we didn't have much experience working in."

Syntiro does not choose projects at random, though.

"There are a couple of things that are sort of core to us," Markovchick. "We developed celebratory learning. It integrates a lot of good meetings, good learning, good leadership. We're all learners in this together. And then the idea of growth and people attaining what they're able to attain is also one of the core, guiding principles that we have."

Syntiro prides itself on fun, interactive, "celebratory" training sessions. The staff running the sessions deck out tables with a theme -- complete with colorful tablecloths, pencils and toys -- then model methods and activities for the teachers.

Syntiro's programs this year include the Maine High School Equivalency Program for migratory and seasonal farm workers; Ticket to Work for Social Security disability beneficiaries; and developing open-source digital textbooks in conjunction with Fayette School Department.

(Continued on page 2)

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