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by Jessica Brophy
While Deer Isle-Stonington High School’s graduation rate has climbed from 57.6 percent in 2008-09 to 83.3 percent last year, there are still some students who struggle to stay in school and graduate, and many more who finish but never feel fully engaged in learning, according to Principal Todd West.
To remedy that, West and several community members and organizations are working together to develop a marine studies pathway to launch in fall 2013. The pathway represents a substantial change from the vocational courses offered in the current marine trades program at the school.
In the marine studies pathway, the majority of a student’s coursework would be completed within the marine studies framework, with many different skills and ideas taught simultaneously in project-based and hands-on learning, much of it outside the traditional classroom. Marine studies will challenge students to meet the same standards-based proficiencies as any other student at the high school, and help them be prepared for both college and the work force, said West.
Some of the students who would be interested in a marine studies pathway might have plans to become lobstermen or work in the commercial fisheries industry, said West, and others might be headed to college. All would spend part or all of some days in “classes” that might pull together a diverse set of skills such as math, English and boatbuilding integrated in a way that would still achieve the outcomes expected of all students. Many of these classes would take place outside the traditional classroom, and many would involve group projects and hands-on learning. Some courses and electives would still need to be met outside of the marine studies pathway, like advanced math courses or foreign language courses.
West used the low lobster price situation facing the industry this year as an example of the kinds of things students interested in the industry could learn about. “Asking why there are so many lobsters, if it’s water temperature changes or a lack of predators,” said West. “Students could do work where traps are set, temperatures are analyzed and data tracked—that’s statistics, that’s field science,” said West.
The idea of a marine studies pathway was jumpstarted by parent Jennifer Larrabee, said West. Larrabee has participated in the strategic planning process and is also a member of the Penobscot East Resource Center board.
“As a board member at Penobscot East, this is a conversation that comes up every year, how are we going to better educate our fleet,” said Larrabee. “I’m the parent of two boys who want to fish, and I think the education of our fleet as entrepreneurs is critical to the health of our community.”
Part of the program would be the development of the Eastern Maine Skippers Program—a program designed especially for students planning on entering the fisheries. The program will draw in students from Zones A, B and C, stretching from Lubec to the Island. High schools participating in the program will share resources, teaching materials and ideas virtually, through video conferencing and other digital technologies. Students may work together, but it is unlikely money would exchange districts, as all the coastal high schools are experiencing the same budget crunches and declining enrollment. Instead, resources will be shared to sustain a program that no one school could afford on its own.
The computing technology company Apple has a program called “iTunes U” which allows schools to record audio and visual lectures and demonstrations that are easily shared with students. As an example, West said that marine trades teacher Tom Duym might design a successful unit on navigation that could be shared with other schools in the program. West is also working with contacts at Maine Maritime Academy, College of the Atlantic and other institutions to consider potential partnerships for the program.
West admits the school is not able to teach students how to fish. “They have a system for learning that, we’re not going to improve on that,” said West. “But, they need an understanding of the regulatory system, how to have a voice in it, how to civilly debate an idea at a zone meeting, how to understand the macroeconomics of the industry.”
West said encouraging students to understand marine ecology, business and accounting skills, laws and regulations and other relevant issues will help students succeed as fishermen.
Junior Devon Olsen said he thinks a marine pathway is a great idea. “A lot of kids would be in touch with something they love to do and know first hand,” he said. Olsen wants to be a fisherman, and said he has struggled personally with biology class. He thinks that if the course were taught with a focus on marine studies, and “put in real life,” it would be something easier for him to grasp.
While there will be high startup costs—in terms of needing to pay for training, planning and curriculum development—West sees the long-term costs of the program as being in-line with current spending. West is hopeful that grant funding can help defray some of the initial costs as well, and is currently researching grant opportunities.
Not just marine studies—multiple pathways for learning
Launching the pilot for the marine studies pathway in 2013 is just the first step in implementing three different pathways at the high school, said West. The second pathway would be healthcare studies, and the third will likely be based around some combination of visual and performing arts. The goal is to pilot the marine studies pathway in 2013-14, expanding the pilot in 2014-15, with full implementation in 2015-16. A similar schedule would be used for the healthcare studies pathway, starting with a pilot in 2014-15. By the 2017-18 school year, all three pathways would be in place, assuming the pilot years were successful.
Every student in the high school would be in one of the pathways, though some classes would continue to be taught in the traditional way. All students would be expected to reach the same standards and exhibit proficiencies, whichever pathway they choose.
The Maine Commissioner of Education, Steven Bowen, has advocated for standards-based education in Maine, and many schools are beginning to move in that direction. West said the state has made it clear to administrators they are supportive of multiple pathways, standards-based education.
The school has already started to move toward standards education, said West. Currently, students are required to have a final project and meet certain graduation expectations (called “school-wide expectations”) through something called standards-referenced education. A standards-based education would mean placing more emphasis on whether students master specific skills, rather than whether they complete enough of a course to pass.