DEER ISLE, Maine — During the 2008-09 school year, Deer Isle-Stonington High School posted academic scores and statistics that weren’t just below state averages. They were below pretty much every other school in Maine.
Just 57 percent of students graduated on time that year, the lowest rate of any school in Maine. That year’s schoolwide drop-out rate, 10.1 percent, was the highest in the state.
But just three years later and two years after the state labeled Deer Isle-Stonington High one of 10 “persistently low-achieving” schools in the state, the small island high school boasts figures that speak to a dramatic turnaround.
Just 1.74 percent of students dropped out during the 2010-11 school year, which placed Deer Isle-Stonington among the top one-third of high schools in the state. And this year’s graduation rate appears on track to hit 85 percent — with the potential of reaching 95 percent next year. Additionally, the percentage of students meeting grade-level standards in reading, writing and math increased by 22 percent, 26 percent and 19 percent respectively in the last two years.
Granted, it doesn’t take nearly as many students staying in school to achieve such wild swings when the entire student body numbers just 142 versus a school with a population of, say, 1,000 students. But Deer Isle-Stonington’s achievements were significant enough for Principal Todd West and several teachers to receive an invitation to present their data earlier this year at a New England conference for high school educators.
“Things are definitely moving in the right direction. No doubt about that in my mind,” West said during a recent interview.
Under West’s leadership, several key changes were implemented to change the culture in the school as well as to provide students and teachers with goals, guidelines and tools they needed to succeed.
One of those changes was creation of “student assistance teams” that review every student’s grades, class attendance, disciplinary issues and other indicators at least once a month. If a student is found to be slipping or struggling, the team organizes a meeting of the student, parents, teachers and an advisor to try to determine why. A plan is then developed to address the reasons, whether through tutoring, counseling or other means.
Some students will unfortunately still fail, West said, but it won’t be because the school did not try to help.
“We knew that if we were going to raise the standards, a lot of kids were going to need additional help in order to get there,” he said.
The school also created of groups of teachers — called “professional learning communities” — that gather weekly to discuss techniques, share lesson plans and, importantly, critique one another. Deer Isle-Stonington’s schedule was rearranged to give teachers 90 minutes each Friday for the group sessions without taking time away from instruction.
Seth Laplant, a life sciences teacher, said those weekly sessions aren’t just talk, they are honest critiques that are producing results in lesson plans and teaching techniques.
“The teaching culture has definitely changed,” Laplant said. “We are a much tighter faculty now because we talk regularly.”
“I think PLCs have done more to change the climate of this school than any other single thing,” Judith Hotchkiss, a literacy teacher, said during a video presented at the March educational conference. “When I first came here, people were pretty isolated in their one- or two-person departments, but now collaboration is the norm.”
Such techniques are fairly prevalent in other schools. But Mark Kostin, a senior associate at the Great Schools Partnership consulting firm in Portland, credited West and the Deer Isle-Stonington faculty with creating the “perfect balance” with teachers who embraced the systems and an administrator who emphasized them and gave teachers time to use them.
“So what stands out for me at Deer Isle is you have a leader who has really asked tough questions of the faculty, mainly, where do we want to be in the next three to five years?” Kostin said. He later added: “They’ve really tackled these problems head-on as a faculty.”
Back in March, West and several teachers gave a presentation titled “You Can Get There From Here” to more than 100 educators at the New England Secondary School Consortium’s High School Redesign in Action conference in Norwood, Mass. And in June, the group will give a similar presentation to superintendents from across Maine during a conference organized by Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.
“We are definitely interested in showcasing the work that they are doing,” said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.
Coincidentally, West’s job was in doubt just two years ago just as the new programs began producing effects. Deer Isle-Stonington was one of 10 schools around the state singled out as “persistently low-achieving.”
The designation was supposed to make the school eligible for a share of $12 million in federal school improvement funds. But an early requirement might have required the school to fire West. And although the school system applied, Deer Isle-Stonington did not end up receiving funding.
Like teachers and administrators at other schools on the list, the designation stung at Deer Isle-Stonington because they were making progress thanks to the teacher collaboration and student assistance programs.
“We felt when the state labeled us as persistently low-achieving that that was several years too late,” West said. “Things looked pretty bad when, in reality, a lot of the groundwork was laid and now we are seeing some of the results of that.”
Located on an island connected to mainland Hancock County by a historic bridge, Deer Isle and Stonington attract plenty of tourists and retirees yet maintain a firm grip on the hardscrabble fishing heritage that built the towns. For evidence, look no further than the nearly 15 million pounds of lobster landed in Stonington in 2011 — more than any other port in Maine.
Next to the school’s front door, a bulletin board showing the names of Deer Isle-Stonington’s seniors and where they plan to be next year offers a glimpse of the broad cross section of students.
Nearly every Maine college is represented on the board, as are Harvard University, the University of Vermont, Dartmouth College and other well-known, out-of-state institutions. But there also are numerous badges whose owners have written “lobster license,” an accomplishment that Laplant pointed out takes as many hours of apprenticeship training and work as some college degrees.
“We have a diverse group of students and we do our best to meet all of those needs,” Laplant said.
For years, there was a joke that many students who fish on the side were bringing home more money than their teachers. And that may be more true now given Stonington’s prominence in the lobster industry.
But West said the school’s focus in recent years has been on making sure students are being given all of the support they need to be successful post-graduation over the long-term whether they go onto college or go into a trade.
“We are trying to teach our students that they may need multiple jobs throughout their lives and to do that, they need to be ready,” West said.