How One Down East High School Turned the Ship Around

Dec 7, 2016

Ten years ago, Deer Isle-Stonington High School was considered one of the worst schools in the state, as measured by the dozens of students who were dropping out and heading to work on the water. But today, more students in this Down East fishing community are staying in school and graduating.

Much of that change can be traced to how the school has opened its doors, and its ears, to the community.

At first glance, Kimberly Larsen’s classroom at Deer Isle-Stonington High School looks like any other English class. Students read passages from “The Perfect Storm,” then Larsen asks them to compare the language of the book with the fierce action of the movie version.

“So you have a simple, visual image of the ocean,” she says. “It does not do justice like a video clip does. Would you all agree with that?”

“Yes,” the students say in unison.

But when you look a little closer, you’ll see how this classroom is different, in some ways.

First, there are only about 10 students — all young men, most wearing camouflage hats, boots and waders. They are sons of local fishermen, and every book in the class is about the sea. Today it’s “The Perfect Storm,” but tomorrow it might be “Moby Dick” or “Robinson Crusoe.”

Larsen says this is a big deal, because many of these students used to be the troublemakers in Deer Isle. But when they’re connected through academics in which they have interest, that changes everything.

“My feeling is it’s a safe environment,” she says. “If they stumble, stammer, nobody’s gonna say anything. This is a safe zone, so to speak.”

Few would have described Deer Isle as a “safe zone” 10 years ago.

Principal Todd West remembers that when he arrived here, it was considered one of the worst school environments in the state. Students cussed and skipped class. Almost 10 percent of kids dropped out, many to work on their families’ lobster boats.

“Here, we had more suspensions than we had students,” West says. “The student culture was really quite wild.”

So West added a number of changes. Rules dictating exactly what students were allowed to do, and a new system that let teachers work together and share resources.

That in itself led to substantial improvement. But the school also wanted to bring in new voices. So one night, about four years ago, it brought in a group of area fishermen and asked them a question.

“You’ve been out of school anywhere between 10 and 40 years, what did you use in high school that’s been useful?” West asked them. “And what did you wish you learned that would make it more useful, and what would you like future fishermen to know now?”

The answer? The community wanted these future fishermen to learn more about business and fisheries ecology. And they said these students needed to know how to advocate for themselves — to stand up for their communities and their industry.

Science teacher Tom Duym teaches a Navigation class at Deer Isle-Stonington High School, one of several classes taken by students in the school's marine studies pathway.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

The school took notice. And it developed a specific, four-year “marine studies pathway” for these students, with classes that related directly to their possible future careers at sea.

For English, there’s maritime literature. For social studies, there’s a class called History of New England’s Fisheries. Students can even take a class called Navigation, where they learn geometry and trigonometry through the lens of boat navigation. At the end, they can apply for a license to steer a Coast Guard-certified vessel.

These classes have also expanded to seven other Down East districts. The schools now work together to help educate future fishermen, instead of watching them drop out and leave.

While these classes have led to more engagement from students who’ve traditionally been hard to retain, it does raise an important question. Is it fair to promote different standards of education for each student?

“For me, this is a 100-year-old dilemma in public schools,” says Chuck Dorn, the dean of academic affairs at Bowdoin College.

Dorn has worked with schools throughout Down East. He says schools like Deer Isle face a difficult decision: Is it an obligation to give the exact same education to every student? Or is it OK to customize that education for students of different academic levels?

“Which of those things is more fair?” he says.

This is a concern that other town residents share as well. Some parents think it’s unfair that some students can graduate with different requirements than others. However, Principal West says the school is trying to balance the two by creating many pathways, in disciplines such as art and health care, in addition to marine studies.

Dorn says it’s impossible to deny the results so far. Today, the school’s graduation rate routinely sits above 90 percent. And many of the students seem to embrace the change.

Caleb Hardy, a sophomore with sideburns and camouflage waders, comes from a family of fishermen and fishes out of Stonington. But last year, as part of the marine studies pathway here, he got to do something his dad and granddad never did: he went to Augusta and testified on a bill affecting student fishermen like him.

“This bill should be passed so I can pursue the career I dream of,” he told the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee. “Thank you for the consideration.”

“I never thought I’d be testifying up in Augusta. Talking about fishing. Representing my town,” Hardy says. “I know a lot more about my town. I can be a lot more involved. Make change happen. Which benefits all of us as a fishing community.”

He says he’s not sure whether he would have survived his freshman year without the program.

“Actually, the first year, I would have failed my classes, probably,” he says. “The first year, just making it easy, making me want to learn.”

Hearing these stories from students such as Hardy gives school administrators confidence that the approach is working. And the idea of these academic pathways is one that Maine’s Department of Education has singled out as an effective strategy to help students succeed with new proficiency-based diplomas.

Dorn says it’s not a model that will work in every district. But he says it illustrates the idea that the search for new kinds of education must extend beyond the walls of your school.