ORONO, Maine — All he wanted, he said, was a teacher who cared about him and a program in which he felt comfortable.
Lacking that, Anthony Lary dropped out of high school, becoming another statistic in a country where 21 students drop out of school every day.
Once Lary found teachers who understood him, and programs that fit, he went back to school. Today, Lary’s a graduate of Portland High School’s alternative education program, on his way to college, working a full-time job and raising a son.
“[The teachers] were really helpful, and I think if teachers were more caring and helpful like they were, the kids can get a lot more out of their high school education,” Lary said Monday morning during Maine’s Dropout Prevention Summit, a two-day conference at the University of Maine.
More than 250 educators, businesspeople, community members and children’s advocates were attending the summit to determine what got students like Lary back to class and how to improve Maine’s graduate rate.
One in five Maine students, which equals about 3,000 students per year, will not graduate from high school, according to Department of Education statistics. Maine’s graduate rate in 2006 was 76.3 percent, which is above the national average of 69.2 percent.
Conference attendees worked Monday and will continue Tuesday to develop an action plan for reducing dropout rates with a goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2016 and, ultimately, 100 percent.
The summit is an initiative of the America’s Promise Alliance, founded by Gen. Colin Powell, which is a coalition of programs that seek to decrease dropout rates.
The summit was planned by Shelley Reed of the Maine Department of Education, teachers and students from Portland High’s alternative education program, the Shared Youth Vision Council, the Institute for the Study of Students at Risk, and the Truancy, Dropout and Alternative Education Advisory Committee.
Part of the problem in Maine is that the state has no plan for dealing with students who drop out of school and are dealing with multiple other issues, said Maine’s first lady Karen Baldacci. She served on a panel Monday with the state’s commissioners of education, public safety, labor, health and human services, and the associate commissioner for juvenile services for the Department of Corrections.
“My hopes out of this conference is that we can say, let’s identify that we have a problem in Maine, and we have a problem in our nation,” said Baldacci, a former kindergarten teacher. “Our education system has not evolved to meet the needs of the learner. It is teacher-centered, and perhaps we can identify early if the traditional [system] doesn’t work for our children.”
James Morse Sr., Portland superintendent of schools, told the panel state bureaucracy needs to work together to take on the issue and create a seamless system.
“[Regulations] have really hurt us in our ability to create a universal approach to our state and reaching out to kids,” he said. “There’s a piece here that’s missing that we really need to be addressing which is, how do we bring all this together to work for kids and that’s the issue that we face as educational institutions.”
The Portland High program worked for Lary and his classmates Courtney Connelly and Sovanaka Diep, who shared moving stories Monday about dropping out of school and what it took to get them back. Connelly is on track to graduate next year and Diep graduated with Lary.
Beth Arsenault, the teacher who has run Portland High’s program for 11 years, said the program operates with a philosophy called the new three R’s — reconnection, redemption and realization.
“That was our jumping-off point, the whole idea of reconnection,” Arsenault said. “Can you complete high school if you’ve left without reconnection? No.”
Lary said the manner in which he was taught drove him out of school as a freshman. He had been placed in a program in which students did their work on computers all day — that program no longer exists at Portland High — and teachers didn’t seem to care, he said.
In Portland’s alternative program, the students said, teachers give them freedom to complete their assignments at their own pace, and allow students to make changes in assignments after they’ve been handed in.
“[Arsenault] always gives us a chance,” Connolly said. “We always have time to go back and fix something.”
The role of caring teachers was something several students said was key to getting them through school after they returned.
Sheena Stone, who recently completed the Passages program for teen parents through Camden-based The Community School, said the program and graduation changed her for the better. Her teacher, she said, helped make it possible.
“She understood me, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted,” Stone said.
Terry Comeau, the superintendent of Southern Aroostook Community School in Dyer Brook, attended the summit to hear what the students had to say, and also to look for ways to strengthen the school’s own 3-year-old alternative education program.
“We don’t have the same resources that Portland has, but we hope we’re able to find things for people to do,” said Comeau, who estimated his school’s graduation rate at around 90 percent. “Sometimes I think those of us in the small areas think we have it all solved, and we really don’t. We’re working on it all the time, like everybody else.”