Deer Isle-Stonington High School to set students on path for life aquatic

Deer Isle-Stonington High School Principal Todd West (right) visits a technology class in March 2010 to work with freshman Alec Eaton (left), 14, of Deer Isle and Curtis Weed, 17, of Stonington.
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Deer Isle-Stonington High School Principal Todd West (right) visits a technology class in March 2010 to work with freshman Alec Eaton (left), 14, of Deer Isle and Curtis Weed, 17, of Stonington.
Posted Sept. 26, 2012, at 7:36 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 26, 2012, at 7:56 p.m.
The lobster boat Rough Rider III cruises into Stonington Harbor after a day spent hauling lobsters.
Brian Swartz | BDN
The lobster boat Rough Rider III cruises into Stonington Harbor after a day spent hauling lobsters.

DEER ISLE, Maine — Call it an acknowledgment of Deer Isle-Stonington’s generations-deep ties to the ocean: A nascent program at the island high school will prepare island teens for a maritime future, either in marine sciences or in fisheries.

The idea is to link some Deer Isle-Stonington High School students’ education to the industry they’ll likely wind up in after high school, or to put the youths on a path toward higher education in a field that makes sense for them. It’s called the “Marine Studies Pathway.”

The vision is that students enrolled in the pathway will dive into a marine-related curriculum, spending a significant portion of school time in the community, on the shore or in the water. The program is scheduled to launch in fall 2013, and school officials have been meeting with education, nonprofit and private-sector groups to plan for implementation.

Those groups — such as Blue Hill’s Marine Environmental Research Institute, College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Penobscot East Resource Center and others — are brainstorming ways to teach students in a hands-on, aquatic environment that seems relevant to them.

Teens will learn from teachers, industry insiders and community members with ties to the fisheries and marine sciences in Penobscot Bay. The curriculum could include classes such as navigation, marine biology, marine engineering, public policy and debate, and technical and entrepreneurial writing.

Students will achieve the same standards as those in traditional high school programs, but the Marine Studies Pathway will put them on track for oceanic careers or college programs.

Deer Isle-Stonington principal Todd West gave an example Wednesday:

Angus King is in the news these days, and everyone is wondering about his wind energy deals,” West said. “So maybe students would investigate wind farms at sea. Are wind farms profitable? Should Maine encourage offshore wind farms?”

West said that answering those questions would require several traditional disciplines — the science of energy production, the social studies around policy and regulation, the math of budgeting and profitability, and the English language skills of advocacy and policy work.

Now imagine the educational possibilities surrounding this year’s abnormal Maine lobster season, which loomed over these island communities.

“Instead of dividing learning up into discrete disciplines, it connects it all,” West said. “Hopefully by connecting it and making it relevant and authentic to the kids, it engages them.”

The program is West’s brainchild. He took the helm at DISHS in 2007, during a low point in the school’s history. In the 2007-08 school year, the school had the lowest graduation rate in the state, at 57 percent. The next year, the state slapped a label on the school: “persistently low-achieving.”

Since then, the school has turned around dramatically. Last year, the graduation rate was at 83 percent, West said Wednesday, and the school is on track to hit the 90th percentile this year. Implementation of pathways — marine studies in 2013 and a health care pathway in 2014 — will help engage the remaining students still slipping through the cracks, he said.

“Marine studies definitely has an appeal to the young men, and health care is where a lot of our young women are looking for college and careers,” West said.

Stonington is Maine’s top lobster port, and it shows in the student body. West said that a handful of students graduate each year ready to begin life as lobstermen, with their own boats and commercial licenses in hand. Many more, he said, are sternmen or have family ties to the lobster industry.

But the Marine Studies Pathway isn’t a track designed to get students hauling traps. The goal is to prepare them for any number of maritime careers, or for college.

“It’s easy to focus on the kids who want to enter the fishery, but we don’t want this to be a vocational program,” West said. “Our last graduating class is a fantastic example of the kind of results we’d like to see.” Last year, four students graduated with commercial lobster licenses in hand. Three others were accepted to Harvard University.

In August, Community School District 13 gave West the go-ahead to continue developing the new program, and Superintendent Mark Jenkins said Wednesday that West has “the full support of myself and the school board.”

Now, teachers are getting on board, too. A group of DISHS faculty will head to Hurricane Island sometime next month, where they’ll work with Hurricane Island Foundation to lay the groundwork for the Marine Studies Pathway, said John Dietter, the foundation’s executive director.

Foundation staff will be involved in the program at the high school and at its Center for Science and Leadership on Hurricane Island, Dietter said. It makes sense to connect Deer Isle-Stonington’s education to its primary economies, he said. That kind of hands-on marine education is already happening on the island, he said.

“To be a successful lobster fisherman today, you need to understand the biology of the lobster, the economics of the fishery, the public policy affecting the fishery, and you need to be an effective public speaker,” he said. ”When you engage students in this stuff, they’re interested.”

Meanwhile, West has big plans to include other schools in the program. He envisions a network of coastal schools working together to provide relevant, hands-on education to students destined for the life aquatic.

“Every school on the coast has this group of students,” he said. “We’d like to engage every high school, from Vinalhaven to Eastport.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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