From The Hechinger Report
Published May 26, 2015
By Sarah Butrymowicz
Fifteen-year-old Elliot Nevells spends his summers working on a lobster boat. The days are long and grueling, but he doesn’t mind. He comes from a family of fishermen and, like many teens in his island community off the eastern coast of Maine, already makes good money lobstering.
That’s why he surprised himself last August when he agreed to take a week off during the height of fishing season — and lose out on about $1,500 — to attend a voluntary orientation at his high school for students interested in its new marine studies program.
With a career plan that seems like a foregone conclusion, Elliot once thought he’d likely drop out. If he were in high school six years ago, that might have happened. In 2009, Deer Isle-Stonington High School had the lowest graduation rate in Maine, graduating just 57 percent of students. In 2010, the school made the state’s list of the lowest 10 performers.
Turning around failing schools, high schools in particular, is one of the most intractable challenges in public education. More often than not, schools at the bottom remain stuck there. A new federal study found 40 states lacked expertise to help school turnaround efforts.
Yet tiny Deer Isle-Stonington has found a way to defy the odds. Its strategy started with relentlessly hounding students not keeping up with their work. It grew, two years ago, to include brand new classes, like the marine studies courses, to get students excited about school. By 2012, the graduation rate was up to 94 percent, above the state average of 86 percent, and has held it at about 90 percent since then.