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Aurora Institute

Deer Island-Stonington High School: Breathing Life into the Standards

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Image from the DISHS Website

This post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine. This is the second of a three-part look at Deer Isle-Stonington High School. Start with the first post on Turning Around the Culture.

West led the high school in a process that began to reorganize the school around four themes: multiple pathways, personalization, proficiency-based learning, and community-based education. He explained, “We didn’t want to be a diploma factory to just pass out diplomas. We wanted kids to be prepared. The biggest obstacle was lack of student engagement. Kids often go through the motion of doing what is expected but they aren’t invested in their own learning. If we could engage students, they would be more open to meeting the higher academic expectations.”


DISHS is creating pathways based on broad industries to “breathe life into the standards.” These pathways help students make connections of what they are learning in a larger context and create opportunities for practical application. They also serve as motivational for students. As West explained, “How do you help this kid who hates school get through it? You give them something really interesting to do that takes them outside of school.”

Right now, DISHS offers marine studies and arts with hope for a health care pathway, but students do not have to be in a pathway. Currently, twenty students are in marine studies and ten in the arts.

West explained that they are committed to making sure the pathways are flexible so students can switch in and out at any time. He explained, “We want student interest to drive pathways. We are creating pathways that connect to community resources and needs. We also want to create opportunities that have immediate application to college and career settings, not just one or the other.”

You can see how many people are connected to the fishing industry on the island by driving through and seeing lobster traps stacked high in many yards. The industry is currently under pressure because of ecological changes and a global marketplace. The demands for skills are changing, as well as the predictability. Fisherman need to think about sustainability of the fisheries and how to sell their catch to China. West explained, “Fisherman have local knowledge of what is going on with the fish, but they need to have confidence to engage with experts, regulators, and scientists.” The marine studies pathway has helped the community to legitimize the knowledge of fishermen as well as offered them a way to understand how they must navigate an ever-changing industry. West explained, “In the past there was low self-esteem.  Sometimes the perception was ‘if you weren’t smart enough to do something else, you went fishing’ – which is absolutely untrue. We are changing that because we bring in older fisherman to draw on their knowledge and share it with the students. We need to tap into everyone’s knowledge. Our kids understand and value this. Last year they made a presentation at the state house on winter flounder based on their research. The students realized that they had as much to offer as the regulators.”

The arts pathway is driven by several community partners, including the Stonington Opera House and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. Interdisciplinary courses are created that allow students to do history through the arts, English and theater through the arts, and, although it is still in development, chemistry with arts (I’ve asked Marion Austin to write about this, as I can’t even imagine this class). Currently for English, students do a symposium modeled after one developed by the Opera House. They take a piece of literature and then explore it through many artistic lenses. For example, with Grapes of Wrath, they might look at dust bowl photography, explore the music of Woody Guthrie, or create a tableau of what poverty looks like. There are, of course, written reflections along the way.

This year students have selected mortality and its connection to the human condition as a theme. At Bowdoin, they are meeting with college students in a curriculum and instruction program who visited DISHS as part of their class on rural education. (This is where the earlier mention of Shirley Jackson’s writing comes into play.) The DISHS students draw on this for their symposium and to build confidence that they are on the path to college. The college students reflect on the conversation about what is required to support students in an inquiry process on highly sensitive or controversial issues. Later, students will make a pitch for the piece of literature that should be used for their symposium. This pitch will require them to build strong skills in argumentative writing, speaking, and listening.

West explained that they also have aspirations for a health care pathway. “We would like to build a health care pathway because as a rural island, it is hard to find licensed caregivers. It would really help because even the students who want to go into nursing or other types of technical jobs in health care don’t always understand why they need to take math and chemistry. A health care pathway would help make the connection about why they need to learn it.”

Proficiency-Based Learning and Infrastructure

DISHS is in the early stages of implementing proficiency-based education, with teachers ranging from just testing it out to fully embracing it. Only the courses with freshmen have to be proficiency-based to meet the deadline set by the state, so you will find classes serving older students to be a mix of traditional, hybrid, and proficiency-based. In the pathways courses (serving about 40 percent of students), you may find highly developed interdisciplinary, proficiency-based courses with students able to demonstrate several standards through culminating projects.

As West put it, “We are not doing proficiency-based learning because we have to. We want cool pathways to inspire and engage kids. I need to be able to tell parents that pathways are leading to opening up doors. Proficiency-based learning is a means to an end. It allows us to be creative in how we structure learning.”

He also explained that when students are missing credits, using proficiency-based learning enables the flexibility to organize learning so they can earn more credits within the same amount of time. A student in a life science course can produce evidence of explanatory writing, argumentative writing, and reading information text.

Developing the Skills Students Need to Be Successful

The majority of schools I’ve spoken with have started by developing the academic competencies before they tackle those so-called twenty-first century skills (also known as personal success skills or, in Maine, the Guiding Principles).

After reviewing resources such as Tony Wagner’s seven skills, DISHS chose the Maine Guiding Principles (MGP) as a starting point. West preferred this route because the school didn’t yet have the capacity to define expectations and calibrate around academic standards. Austin added to this by stating that the teachers thought the MGP were meaningful and provided a common language for the school. From there they created cross-cutting standards.

Currently, DISHS is piloting an Academic Initiative Rubric that includes the seven behaviors they have identified as the habits of work and learning. West said that it is important that the rubric include clear and concrete descriptions of desired behaviors. As teachers and students become more familiar with the HOWL, he hopes teachers will begin to use it as a teaching tool so the behaviors can be used in other ways besides giving points.


Like many districts across the United States that have strong state leadership advancing competency education, DISHS is using what I refer to as a hybrid grading system. DISHS’s system introduces scoring based on proficiency and separates out behaviors from progress on academic standards.

However, it retains an averaging of scores rather than the philosophy that by using lower scores produced when students are just learning something, we reinforce that some kids are smart and others aren’t (as opposed to the idea that learning is a process). The grading system also indicates that receiving a 2 or less on performance indicators means it will not be counted toward evidence of meeting the standard. They are currently supported by Jump Rope’s grading system.

Filling Gaps, Building Skills, and Advancing Beyond High School

West explained that entering students are in some ways bifurcated, with a group of students above grade level and a group of students several levels below. Thus, personalizing the learning means that the school has to be prepared to support students who are going to reach college level by or before twelfth grade as well as ensuring others get help to reinforce their foundational skills.

They are beginning to reflect on their schedule to see if there is a way to draw upon the high engagement courses such as industrial arts and to provide more flexibility for students to build skills in the early part of high school. They are also engaging parents and students in the conversations so they understand why it is important to have the pre-requisite knowledge before tackling algebra. (For those interested in understanding prerequisite knowledge in mathematics, check out math dependencies.)

The district has established a bridge program in which eighth graders have to demonstrate seventh grade skills to enter into grade level high school courses. The theory is that scaffolding beyond two or three academic levels is ineffective. Thus the time to build skills is in middle school, before the four-year clock starts ticking in high school.

DISHS has an intervention block for students to get extra help. The literacy specialists work closely with students who are struggling, often going into the history classes with them to help when they have papers to write. DISHS is also using adaptive software in math, including ALEKS and Khan Academy, for skill practice. They stopped using Oddeseyware because there wasn’t enough alignment in the humanities in reaching higher order skills. West said that to be able to select the content products, teachers have to be very familiar with the content and then be willing to crosswalk across standards, skills, and depth of knowledge to be confident that a product will work.

West explained to me that summer school isn’t an option to provide additional support for most students – everyone works in the summer and teens are an important part of the fishing and tourist industries.

Online college courses are the best way for DISHS to provide more advanced courses, as there are no colleges nearby. However, college is very much part of the conversation at DISHS. DISHS has developed Project Launch, designed to support the senior transition to college, in partnership with Kim Hutchinson. Concerned that 65 percent of the students who went to college were first generation college goers and that 45 percent of the graduating class who went to college dropped out by December each year, DISHS wanted to provide additional support. The guidance counselor is doing more visioning and planning with students so they can have greater motivation and greater familiarity with the likely bumps they will encounter. Hutchinson brings intensive support for college coaching, financial aid, and the admissions process. In addition, she works with parents so they are prepared when their child’s confidence starts to flounder or when they encounter challenges. She organizes “empty nest dinners” to discuss the ins and outs of financial aid, what a normal transition looks like, and what red flags to be worried about. When students get to college, she stays in touch, doing things like helping match them with mentors and organizing pizza parties.

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