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The “drop out” rate issue

Click here to see the full Deer Isle-Stonington High School—Low-Performing School Archive.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked me about the 57 percent graduation rate at the high school last school year. I was the logical person to ask this question seeing that I have been dealing with “at-risk” students for 20 years. This figure shocked me. Did we really have that high a drop-out rate? After asking questions, doing a little research and crunching the numbers, I found the answer. According to the state of Maine, a “drop-out” is a student who enrolls in the freshman year and does not receive a Deer Isle-Stonington High School diploma in four years. This definition does not take into account students who take five years to get their diplomas. Nor does it accept students who have left school and received their G.E.D. How about those who choose to enroll for a semester and then decide to home-school? No. Lastly, a student who leaves the area without any forwarding address is also considered a drop-out.

Going by the state’s strict definition, we do have a 43-percent “drop-out” rate. Out of the 39 students who entered as freshmen in 2005, only 22 graduated with a high school diploma after four years in June 2009. Of the 17 students who did not walk across the stage last June, three of them will graduate this year and nine will have earned their high school equivalency diploma, or G.E.D. That makes 34 students, or 88 percent, who will have received a diploma by this June. Yes, even after all the number crunching, this rate is still too low.

Traditionally, we have always had a problem with students leaving school early because of our fishing economy where students feel a high school education is not needed to be successful. Taking this into consideration, there are many reasons for this last year’s particularly high drop-out rate, starting off with the actual students themselves. Over the past 30 years of teaching on the Island, I have encountered a phenomenon of a few exceptionally challenging individual classes that defy reason. The just-graduated class is one such example. Excuses for this phenomenon, such as high teacher turn-over throughout this class’s 12 years, lack of consistent high school principal leadership for its first two years (I am including my stint as acting principal), and a strange dynamic within the class, are all reasons that help explain this abnormally high rate.

Even with all these reasons, were there some actions that we could have taken to have decreased this rate? Looking back over the years, we (teachers, guidance counselors, principals and community members) tried many different strategies and interventions to help the students succeed in high school. We tried tutoring, alternative scheduling, mentoring, school-to-work, parent conferences and counseling. Some of these strategies worked, some worked part of the time, and others did not seem to affect the negative behavior or add to a positive learning attitude. Could we have done better? Probably, but with my many years of experience in dealing with “at-risk” students, I had run out of my “tricks” from my bag and felt quite helpless when a student would walk into my office and ask for the “drop-out papers.”

That was the past. Yes, the drop-out rate is bad, but we continue to work hard to guarantee all students will get a great education. Under the leadership of the principal, Todd West, we have made great strides to help those students who need more support to be successful. Teachers willingly offer to be at school early or stay late in order to help students academically. Both the learning center and student assistant teams have proactively reached out to students before they have failed. We have programs, such as school-to-work, mentoring, college coaching, and Senior X, where community members have generously donated their time and knowledge to help our students. Both teachers and counselors spend countless hours trying to help students overcome obstacles in their way toward getting their education.

These strategies and interventions have made a difference. When last year’s graduating class were freshmen, 12 students failed 18 courses their first semester. In this year’s freshmen class, only one student failed one class. With the School Improvement Grant for which we are applying, more opportunities, such as an expanded learning center, a late bus run, and more teacher tutoring during the school day, will be offered.

All these efforts will help, but they can not guarantee success. Over the years we have had good years and bad years in dealing with our “at-risk” students. This past year was a bad year. We need to do more for these students, and we are. Even though the state has labeled our high school as having one of the highest drop-out rates, I feel this does not take into account that more than 70 percent of these “drop-outs” will have actually earned their high school credentials by June.

Michael Wood

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