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Aurora Institute

Deer Isle-Stonington High School: Turning Around the Culture

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Image fom the DISHS Website

This post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine. This is the first of a three-part look at Deer Isle-Stonington High School. (You can also learn about Biddeford School DistrictCasco Bay High School, and Noble High School.)

“We are a small school, but accomplishing big things is not impossible” – Todd West

I knew something was a bit different about Deer-Isle Stonington High School (DISHS) when I first contacted Todd West, Principal, about the dates of a possible site visit and he replied with, “Of course. How about Hurricane Island for the Eastern Maine Skippers Program or Bowdoin College for our arts pathway?” At first I was hesitant…do a site visit without visiting the school? Then I realized it was an all-around brilliant idea.

I have heard DISHS described as a school “of the community” and “in the community.” After talking with West and seeing DISHS in action, I would definitely describe them as a school “in and of the community.”

When I found the DISHS team at Bowdoin (luckily, I hadn’t picked Hurricane Island for the trip, as its ferry ride had been canceled due to a storm), the twelve students in the arts pathway were glowing. The overnight visit to Bowdoin was part of their interdisciplinary English and theater class. Building upon the Stonington Opera House’s “Living Room Project” Symposium, where great works of literature were the inspiration for a number of artistic explorations and performances, DISHS was developing its own symposium. Under the guidance of teachers Marion Austin and John Lincoln, students considered different books and then prepared a pitch for the book they wanted to use in the symposium (developing their oral communication and argumentative writing skills).

Students sat in on several courses, including “Shakespeare on Film” and “Narrative Structures,” to consider how they might adapt the selected book, thinking about both narrative and visual techniques. They also participated in a discussion of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery in a curriculum and instruction class. Bowdoin students had visited DISHS earlier in the year as they thought about rural education, and would later use the conversation with high school students to think about how to construct and facilitate discussion with students on provocative or potentially painful personal issues.

As we walked between buildings, we talked about the ins and outs of standards-based grading, including whether being clear about expectations made a difference in the quality of the learning experience and whether there really is something that can be called perfect in the process of learning or in the artistic endeavor (in the first year of understanding proficiency-based education, I frequently encounter teachers who translate proficiency into 100 percent until they have a chance to think more deeply about what it means for a student to provide evidence of understanding and applying skills). Later, I listened in as students spoke with a DISHS alum now at Bowdoin about her choices, her experience, and what to expect during the transition to college.


Now that you have a taste of DISHS, let me try to explain their approach to teaching and learning, their implementation, and their proficiency-based structure.

Deer Isle-Stonington High School is based on an island three hours north of Portland. When West arrived eight years ago, he found that after introducing himself to teachers, each one would say something like, “You are the eighth principal I’ve had in ten years” or “I’ve greeted six principals during the eight years I’ve been here.” Leadership turnover was only one symptom of a school that had lost its way. School climate was at a low with 300 suspensions per year in a student population of 172, and students were refusing to come up to the podium when they were recognized for their academic achievement. The result was that the graduation rate dived to 57 percent, the lowest graduation rate in the state. The community, based on a thriving fishing industry, was also grappling with its own issues as ecological changes and the global economy impacted the daily demands of many of the parents.

Starting the Journey

In his first year, West said that the school board raised a concern that some students were applying for early completion to get out as fast as they could, while others were graduating without the skills to go to college without remediation. So the school board established a task force to look at the senior year. As West listened to the school board talk about the fact that they were graduating students who weren’t skilled, he pointed out, “When you say we need to make sure students have skills, you’re talking about standards-based education. You are talking about making sure students can do things when they get a diploma, not just get through school.”

Thus DISHS took the first step toward proficiency-based learning. (For those of you just learning about competency education, standards-based education drives the education through standards. Proficiency-based learning or competency education takes a huge leap by saying that schools will do what it takes to help students become proficient in those standards. Thus, the goal shifts from sorting students to ensuring students succeed.)

The Power of Culture

Getting a Grip on the School Climate

The school felt it was at a low point, so that’s where they started. The first steps were to address the school culture and learning environment. Student behavior was an obstacle. In the first semester of West’s tenure, an awards ceremony was held where students wouldn’t come down from the bleachers to receive the award. Learning and being smart was uncool.

West explained, “We really worked on student culture. We had to help students understand that it is okay to be successful. We set some expectations about behavior, such as it wasn’t okay to distract others from learning. We validated every student’s aspirations. We set the tone of I want you to graduate, and when you graduate, I want you to be able to get a job and be successful in it or go to college without remediation. Setting high expectations changed the school.”

Creating a Culture of Collaboration among Staff

Staff culture had to be transformed, as well. Staff worked in isolation with very little collaboration. West set the expectation that teachers would collaborate in any way possible. For example, budget requests had to be approved by the department – not requested by individual teachers.

The next step was to build strong PLCs. Parallel with the NEASC accreditation process, West guided the staff toward building consistent academic expectations across the school. The challenge was that DISHS had a staff of twenty teachers with many one-person departments. West said, “You can’t have a one-person PLC. So we made a conscious decision that the first phase in setting up schoolwide expectations would be around cross-cutting skills such as making sure our students were creative problem solvers and communicators. These are skills that could be taught at any level any class and any grade.” They created two PLCs – one was ELA, social students, art, and foreign language and the other was math, science, technical arts, and physical education.

They spent three years understanding those skills, with teachers designing assessments around those standards. They were reviewed by the PLC and then to West for ultimate approval. West explained, “This was an important process. There were times when the assessment rubric was inconsistent with the instruction, such as when it would ask for students to analyze but the teacher didn’t ask the same. When I didn’t approve something, the teacher and the PLC had to reflect more deeply on what it meant to build alignment across instruction and assessments.”

Teachers started to see the benefits of collaboration. If they could put heads together, they could create products of higher quality. The PLCs helped to build more trust as teachers learned to critique each other with the understanding that it was in an effort to provide better instruction for students.

West said that their success in transforming the school has been done through constant coaching and professional development. Early on, teachers went to Dufour trainings on PLCs. They’ve been able to arrange three different coaches in school who work closely with staff: Great Schools Partnerships provided a coach to support the development of PLCs and the leadership team, and the Rural Aspirations Project provided two coaches for developing the pathways and proficiency-based learning, including helping to deal with the nitty gritty details that have to be addressed when establishing partnerships with community members.

West explained that combination of changing the culture for teachers and students, along with dropout prevention strategies, has had a direct impact – the graduation rate at DISHS has been 90 percent for three years in a row.

Jumping in When State Opened up Innovation Space

When state legislation introduced by state senator Brian Langely opened the door to school innovation, a local parent who had deep roots in the local fishing industry saw an opportunity to create the marine studies pathway. A small team, including West and marine trades teacher Tom Duym, began talking to community members one by one, each introducing him to someone else. A meeting was held with fifteen fishermen to talk about education – what did they find useful in high school, what do they wish they had learned, and what do people entering the industry now need to know and be able to do. He also established important relationships with community organizations such as Penobscot East Resource Center. In turn, these relationships produced resources. Fishermen offered to take students out on their boats, foregoing their own income for the day. Penobscot East Resource Center has become an important part of the marine studies pathway, using their own resources to serve as the “hub” for the Eastern Maine Skippers Program.

In building relationships and talking with people with all types of knowledge, West was honoring what is really special about the community and engaging them in shaping their own future. West explained, “There is a trade-off in engaging the community so deeply. When community members offer their resources, we, as educators, give up control. We have to enter into collaborative problem-solving. This requires more flexibility on the part of the school. The community isn’t always going to fit into our schedules and our timelines.”

By 2012, the school board committed to a full transformation. Tune in for more on Deer Isle-Stonington High School.

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