“What can we all do to help you?”
Three years ago, the state labeled Deer Isle-Stonington High School as one of 10 “persistently low-achieving” schools in Maine. Now DISHS is drawing nothing but acclaim as a result of the dedication of principal Todd West and his faculty to school-wide improvement, from the ground up.
Being labeled one of the lowest-achieving schools impacted not only the reputation of DISHS, but also the students’ opinions of their education. “The damage that that did to the psyche of the school was incredible,” said Leslie Billings, special education/math teacher. “There’s got to be a better way. For many students, their thought process was, ‘If you’re going to be at the bottom, then what’s the point?’ For some of the students, there is no pride in the school because of that.”
But DISHS staff have worked overtime—and without additional funding—to prove their school is making progress. They have launched professional learning communities (PLCs), advisory periods, and student assistance teams (SATs) to better their school—and if you need more evidence, let the numbers do the talking. In 2012, DISHS posted a 94 percent graduation rate (continuing the school’s steady climb from a 58 percent graduation rate in 2009).
When DISHS applied for a $1.5 million federal School Improvement Grant but did not receive the funding, West and his faculty refused to give up on the goals laid out in their proposal. Despite the absence of additional funding, the staff used existing resources to move forward with as many pieces of their plan as possible. In order to make substantial changes, they had to get creative.
The first step: developing two PLCs comprised of DISHS faculty. As a PLC group, staff members discuss best practices, solicit input from other teachers, and learn how colleagues operate their classes.
“We’re constantly trying to improve the school, and the teachers’ decisions decide how we’re going to improve the school,” said Seth Laplant, life sciences teacher.
“A lot of it is about improving our practices,” said Terry Siebert, world studies teacher. “We found out that kids tend to write much, much differently depending on how hard the teacher is going to be looking for grammar, et cetera. So now we are coming up with common rubrics.”
DISHS’ road to recovery also included revamping the school’s bell schedule. Teachers agreed to take 10 minutes from each of their classes to make time for 45-minute focused study periods, called advisory, four days a week. Students spend two days on targeted intervention, one day on silent sustained reading, and one day on math catch-up. Incorporating focused study time into the schedule allows students who are unable to stay after school to receive additional assistance during the school day. Those who do not require extra help are encouraged to investigate other interests during advisory periods.
Teachers running advisory classes have the same set of students all four years. Advisers build close relationship with their students and attend individualized SAT meetings to act as advocates for their advisees eight times per year.
“We’re looking at every kid frequently, and we take the list of kids and flag the ones that are having some type of problem, behavior, academic, or whatever,” Billings said.
During SAT meetings, which were adopted as a result of West’s vision, administrators and teachers talk with students to discover the root of their academic challenges. “The focus isn’t on what you [as the student] can do,” Siebert said. “It’s on what can we all do to help you?”
For additional support, the school has established a credit recovery program for students lagging behind; a student who fails a test but earns a score above 60 percent may be struggling with only one key element of the tested material. Through credit recovery, teachers can determine which aspect of a unit the student needs to re-learn. Then a senior, for example, can continue to move with his or her class mates. “They can fix that [aspect] and get senior standing again without having to take the classes over for an entire half of the year,” Laplant explained.
Despite DISHS’ vastly improved graduation rate, the school must continue to combat a common economic factor steering kids away from their high school diploma: the fishing industry. Stonington, known for having the top lobster port in the state, offers tempting alternatives to education. Some island families have well-established fishing businesses, and a few DISHS students have already attained their commercial lobster license.
“We’ve always kind of fought, ‘Why do I need to go to school when I can go on the boat and make more money than you do?’” Siebert said. To encourage fishery-inclined students to complete their secondary education, DISHS offers technical classes in marine trades, such as machining and welding. West is working to develop a marine trades pathway – a program in which students can focus much of their study in multiple subjects around the marine trades theme.
Although DISHS is a relatively small school, its new system can be replicated on a much larger scale. Logistics may differ, but bigger schools require more staff support—providing more hands on deck to foster such a system. Within larger high schools, Laplant suggests breaking up PLCs by grade level to replicate the benefits of a small-school setting.
“I think in some ways it might be easier in a big school,” said Tom Duym, marine trades instructor. “You’re wearing so many hats in a small school. In a larger school, [teachers] tend to focus in on a specific issue.”
On a small island like Deer Isle, parent and community support in such a venture is vital—and has become extraordinary, teachers say. The public backed the development of the school’s learning center, which offers targeted assistance to students, and Billings estimates parent responsiveness and approval of the school’s efforts to be at 75 percent.
West’s leadership and faculty enthusiasm, however, remain the driving force behind the school’s continuous progression. “The group [of educators] we have assembled right now is a cohesive group,” Siebert said. “There really is a whatever-it-takes kind of attitude.”