LINCOLN, Maine — Sierrah Davis loves to write and comes across as intelligent, but she says she really dislikes high school.
So about a year ago, the 17-year-old dropped out of Mattanawcook Academy. This anguished Davis’ parents and friends, who were alarmed already by her penchant for skipping school, she said.
“School wasn’t really working for me,” Davis said. “I didn’t like the people that were there and it just wasn’t a fun environment for me to be in.”
Davis is back at school now — sort of.
The Lincoln resident is among 17 students enrolled this year in the Carleton Project, RSU 67’s alternative education attempt at keeping students in high school. And her teacher, RSU 67 alternative education coordinator Christopher Betts, said she is doing well.
“Do you want to read this?” Davis asked Betts during a recent class writing exercise.
“Sure. What is it?”
“It’s not done, but …” Davis said.
Betts skimmed pages. “This is your metaphor piece?”
Betts walked a few steps away and turned back. “Do you want me to edit edit it, or do you want my content opinion on it?”
“If you want,” Davis said.
Except for the identification card hanging on a chain around his neck, Betts could pass for a student himself, with his baseball cap, sunglasses, pullover zippered sweatshirt and jeans. His students call him Chris.
And that relaxed approach, Betts said, is one of the reasons why the Carleton Project works.
Since RSU 67 began working with the Carleton Project in August 2011, the program has been pretty successful, RSU 67 Superintendent Denise Hamlin said.
Nine out of 13 students, teens who had dropped out or were in danger of dropping out, graduated the first year. Four dropped out of Carleton. This year, one student returned to Mattanawcook Academy. The rest are on track to graduate in the next two years, Betts said.
An initiative of Hamlin’s, RSU 67’s involvement with Carleton answers a need administrators have seen within the school system and been pressing school board members to answer for years, said Henry Pietras, principal at Mattanawcook Academy, which has a dropout rate of 1 to 3 percent annually. This is about average in Maine. For the 2009-10 school year, Maine high schools recorded a graduation rate of 82.82 percent and a dropout rate of 3.46 percent.
RSU 67 partners with Carleton. Carleton is a Maine Department of Education-approved private school serving a total of about 75 freshmen to seniors annually in Bangor, Presque Isle, Houlton, Lincoln and Winthrop, said Jennifer Walker, the project’s executive director.
The program graduated 38 out of 75 students statewide last year, Walker said. Since 2000, more than 400 have graduated from Carleton programs statewide, Walker said.
Carleton forces students to identify goals for themselves in their first year after graduation from the program and to immediately develop a plan to achieve them, Walker said.
“We do our best there to meet their needs on that individualized level so that every student knows that we have a vested interest in their education, meeting them where they are at academically,” Walker said. “And we’re not stopping there, but helping them meet their goals after graduating high school.”
A fluid curriculum
It’s the room that Carleton Project students gather in, but the back of the main wing of Northern Penobscot Tech in Lincoln looks more like a student lounge than a classroom.
Two brown sofas sit perpendicular, about two-thirds into the room, with single-seat school desks at their far ends. On one recent day, the classroom wasn’t as crowded as it might have been. Eight project enrollees were at Ella P. Burr School combining their child psychology lessons with real-time observations of grade school pupils, so four Carleton Project students sat sprawled on the couches, their feet on green plastic chairs in front of them.
Two other students, finished with their work, talked quietly at a circular table, one strumming an unplugged guitar. Puzzling over their creative writing assignments, the Carleton students who hadn’t yet finished their work tapped laptop keys as Betts buzzed around offering encouragement and advice.
Carleton students shaped this atmosphere, Betts said, by saying that they could learn in a casual, nontraditional atmosphere. Unlike most public school teachers, Carleton Project instructors have a great deal of freedom to tailor the learning experience to students’ needs, a key component to the project’s success, Betts said.
“This curriculum is very fluid. It can change on a daily or hourly basis,” he said. “Are you an auditory learner, a visual learner, a tactile learner? Then let’s figure out a project together so that you can prove to me that you know the knowledge in that venue.”
“If a student is getting frustrated, then I say don’t do it. Put it down. That’s what I don’t want: students to disengage with the learning process. I want to keep them finding what works for them, because that’s what the rest of us have to do in the real world,” he added.
The most challenging students
Not all Carleton students are dropouts or at risk, Walker said. Many are considered talented and intelligent and are referred to the program by their host schools simply because their teachers feel they would do better in a more individualized setting.
Yet many Carleton students, Walker said, are those whom most public school administrators would consider the most challenging. Those students’ problems include early pregnancy, drug addiction, abusive parents and learning disabilities.
Mike Hammer, superintendent of RSU 29 in Houlton, likes how Carleton’s program “is targeted toward what they need to know. If they need one or two credits in math, they get it done. Its use of technology is good, too.”
“I would like our own teachers to be able do what they do [individualized learning] in our own classrooms,” Hammer added.
Since its launch in 2000 in Presque Isle, the program has enjoyed slow but steady growth, Walker said. It expanded into Winthrop four years ago, Bangor in 2009, and Lincoln in 2011.
Now the program is exploring its partnership with the University of Maine at Presque Isle to see how it can most quickly integrate Carleton graduates into UMPI, Walker said.
Hamlin said she believes Carleton is among the vanguard of individualized learning programs that public school efforts will soon pattern themselves after.
“It is flexible. It is fun. We have great kids we work with,” Walker said. “I think public schools are getting onboard with customized learning and the kinds of things that we offer. These ideas are coming to the surface and we are excited that they are finally getting onboard with them.”
As for Davis, the 17-year-old says she looks forward to getting her high school diploma and pursuing a career as a writer.
“I have put poems in magazines and stuff which will soon be out there,” she said. “I don’t think that would have happened if I was still in high school.”