Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, February 28, 2013
Commissioner of Education tours Deer Isle-Stonington High School
by Jessica Brophy
The state’s graduation rate has risen for the third year in a row, up nearly five percentage points since 2009 to 85.34 percent for 2012.
Stephen Bowen, Maine’s Commissioner of Education, made the announcement on Monday, February 25, at Deer Isle-Stonington High School. DISHS’s own graduation rate has climbed from 58 percent in 2009 to nearly 94 percent for 2012.
“It’s hard to say what is driving the increase [statewide],” said Bowen. “We know that a lot of work is being done.”
Bowen is currently on a tour of schools across the state in an effort to identify best practices for improving education. Bowen asked DISHS principal Todd West to share what is working for the high school.
“In 2009, we had the lowest graduation rate in the state and our dropout rate was over 10 percent, the highest in the state,” said West, noting the school was put on a list of lowest-performing schools in 2010.
Three new practices have led to the improved graduation rate and decreased dropout rate, said West.
The first was the establishment of a professional culture, he continued, with the expectation that every student would earn a diploma.
The second was the development of Student Assistance Teams, which are teams of staff reviewing the progress of every student periodically over the course of the year and making “timely interventions” when students are struggling. These SAT meetings typically include parents, the student in question, West and pertinent teachers or staff.
The third was Professional Learning Communities, or time set aside for exchange between teachers on best practices.
“Teachers are able to have that focused connection,” said West of the PLCs.
Reading teacher Judith Hotchkiss said the PLCs have allowed teachers to align assessments and standards, establishing common scoring and identifying areas of concern school-wide.
“The PLCs offer [teachers] a window into each other’s classrooms,” said Hotchkiss.
Senior Abbigail Bray said the school’s Learning Center, where students can receive focused help and learn organizational and time-management skills, is what kept her from leaving school. The center, along with the staff and teachers’ “crazy willingness to help and encourage students” helped her succeed.
“As a student I feel like I’ve grown and become more accountable,” said Bray. “I don’t think without the nurturing environment I would be. You get out of DISHS what you put into it.”
State Representative Walter Kumiega (D-Deer Isle) said he was proud of the school’s improvements. “The school committee debated for hours about PLCs and the Learning Center,” he said. Kumiega served on the school board for nine years.
Bowen said many of the school’s staff said the success of the high school was related to West’s leadership.
While the state as a whole, and DISHS in particular, is making progress with graduation rates, Bowen said there are still gaps in progress. Some of these include gaps between students with disabilities and those without, as well as students who are native English speakers and those who are not. Another gap is based on gender—more girls are finishing high school than boys.
Bowen said there are ways to address this gender gap, and mentioned the Marine Studies Pathway—under construction at the high school—as a potential way to reach more male students.
The pathway will focus on hands-on learning related to the sea, such as framing math and science in terms of data collection about water temperature, salinity and other information related to lobstering or the fisheries.
“We’re interested in how we can change the way we teach to keep students engaged,” said West. “Our tests scores need improvement, and we seriously have to ask ourselves if we need to take a different approach.”
The Marine Studies Pathway is slated to be implemented in part in 2013-14.
When Bowen was asked how schools could be expected to improve while facing reductions in state subsidies to schools, Bowen again used DISHS as an example.
“Here you have a great example of how much can be done within a school’s resources,” said Bowen.
“It’s one thing to make do with what you have, it’s another to do with less,” said Kumiega in response to Bowen. “The Legislature has a lot of work to do to maintain funding.”