ROCKLAND, Maine — Were it not for the fisherman’s academy at Oceanside High School, 16-year-old boat captain Payten Simmons said she would have little incentive to go to class.
“I don’t know if I [would have] dropped out, I don’t know what I’d be doing … [but] it makes me want to go to school,” she said. “I like to come to school now.”
Simmons, who lives in Friendship and is the only girl out of six 11th-graders in the program, bought her own lobster boat, Fear Knot, and has been operating it for the last three years. She is the only member of the program who hauls traps in the winter and the summer, which means most of her weekends during the school year are spent hauling, sometimes with the help of her dad, who also is a lobsterman.
Simmons, who has an apprentice lobster license, is limited to fishing 150 traps, which tend to yield around 1,000 pounds of lobster each time she goes out to haul her traps. With Maine fishermen being paid on average $4 per pound the past couple of years, she makes good money.
When the option of making that kind of money is on the table for a student, “part of me doesn’t blame them for not [wanting] to come to school,” said Ian Carey, a social studies teacher at Oceanside who also teaches academy students. “I can definitely see how the value of an education is definitely clouded.”
For Simmons, who said she “was pretty much raised on the water” and has been helping her dad fish since she was 11, having something like the fisherman’s academy is a big deal. It allows her to get an education through traditional academic means, such as by reading about the history of coastal fishing, but also with hands-on experiences that provide her with actual skills and knowledge she can apply to lobstering. For example, the students are learning to work with tools at the Apprenticeshop — a nonprofit educational woodworking and boatbuilding center in Rockland — where they have been spending time with woodworking apprentices once a week to build 12-foot rowing skiffs.
The idea for a fisherman’s academy was conceived by former Oceanside Principal Renee Thompson in 2015, as a way to curb the high truancy rate at the Rockland high school, said Dwight Blue, who teaches a specialized English class to the group of six juniors.
The academy was loosely modeled after the Maritime Studies Pathway program at Deer Isle-Stonington High School, in that it caters to students whose ties to the ocean run deep and who will more than likely pursue careers working as commercial fishermen or in a maritime-related field after they leave high school.
In addition to English class, the group attends separate social studies and science classes and spends one day a week working at the Apprenticeshop. Next year, the group will work every other day in the shop.
The students are learning to build their boats with electric tools but with a special emphasis on hand tools, which Simmons said is particularly beneficial.
“That’s a great skill to learn because on the boat, you don’t have a bandsaw. I’ve learned a lot that I can actually use on the water and in my whole career,” Simmons said.
Expecting the group to “sit in a room and do any one or two things for 80 minutes is not going to happen,” Blue said last week. The woodworking and “boat building workshop environment is so much better for them and their interests [as opposed to] having them sit in a plastic seat for eight hours,” he said.
The high school curriculum is designed to accommodate the real-world interests of the students, some of whom have other part-time jobs in addition to lobstering. Garrett Young, 17, for example, operates his own lobster boat and also works part-time with the fire and emergency medical services unit for the town of St. George.
Blue and Carey rework their lessons to include material that would be useful or of interest to the group. In Carey’s social studies class, for example, he is teaching the students about the history of Maine as it relates to the ocean and fishing. So far this year, the group has also been working to create an online lobstering dictionary, which Carey hopes to finish by the end of the year.
In Blue’s class last week, he read “The Ledge,” by Lawrence Sargent Hall aloud to the class — a short story based on the true tale of a man, his son and nephew who, while on a duck hunting trip in December 1956 on an island off Harpswell, found themselves stranded after their skiff floated away. All three hunters died.
“That’s one thing I would always make sure of — that my skiff was tied down,” Noah Morse said in class after Blue finished the short story. Morse, who also has an apprentice lobster license, said he plans to attend a technical school after graduation.
Getting the students to even consider college or expand the expectations that they’ve set for themselves has been a feat of the program, Carey said.
“One of the good things I’ve seen is that they’re not just thinking [exclusively] about fishing now — a couple of them are very able to at least consider colleges, like the Maine Maritime Academy,” he said.
But even if some still don’t plan on pursuing higher education, that’s OK, too. Keeping them in school and showing them that learning in the classroom has value is an important lesson in itself, Blue said.
In some ways these students, because they’ve been holding down multiple jobs and independently lobstering since they were early teenagers, are more mature than their peers.
“We talk about money every day in class — you can just tell it’s so important to them, [and] they think about it all the time,” Carey said.
But, the teacher added, he wants his students to recognize that getting an education is about more than just preparing for a job. One of his goals recently has been to ask them, “‘If money wasn’t an object, what would you do?’”
“They may not understand yet that there’s more out there in life,” Carey said.