Three hours from Portland, Maine, and two hours from the state capital of Augusta, picturesque Deer Isle has two towns on it (Deer Isle and Stonington), a combined year-round population of about 2,500 people, and not a single fast-food chain—or any chain store for that matter. Those who live beyond the narrow, turquoise suspension bridge connecting Deer Isle to the mainland are called PFAs (“people from away”), even if they work or attend school on the island.
At the southern end of the predominantly middle-class, overwhelmingly white island lies a small but bustling harbor. In 2015, Stonington port brought in $63.8 million worth of lobster, landing it the title of Maine’s no. 1 commercial fishing port. The influence of maritime culture is evident at every turn: The local convenience store opens at 3:30 a.m. in the summers to accommodate early-to-rise fishermen. Above the entrance hangs a mural of one of these men in trademark yellow, waterproof overalls. Driving down the island’s main thoroughfare, Route 15, one sees rectangular lobster traps piled by the dozen in front yards, draped with multicolored fluorescent buoys. Residents are protective of their island culture, and fittingly, the rocky granite shores that meet East Penobscot Bay can sometimes be covered in a thick, dramatic fog.
This maritime culture isn’t just for adults. It seems as though every single young person here works full time in the summer, and those who aren’t on fishing boats or in related maritime jobs work at the ice-cream stands, seafood shacks, and art galleries that open to accommodate tourists and seasonal residents. In fact, some students here can make more money fishing in one summer, when lobsters are most active, than their teachers can make in a year. Says a longtime local high-school teacher and island native, Terrance Siebert: “A student we had five years ago could already pay $40K to put a new motor in his boat.” Certainly not everyone on Deer Isle fishes, but that work fuels the local economy.
This entrepreneurialism makes Deer Isle a special place. “In many rural communities, everyone dreams of leaving. Not here,” says Paul Sacaridiz, the director of a local arts institution.
But getting young people to stay in school is another story. At the island’s only high school, Deer Isle-Stonington High School (DISHS), there has been a sense among some students that school is just standing in the way of going off and making money, and some of their parents see school as basically a lousy babysitter.
According to an op-ed from the DISHS principal Todd West in 2010: “A sizable and important minority of our students have low educational aspirations, perform poorly in courses and often fail courses, regularly do not attend school, and cause frequent discipline issues.” When West assumed the position in 2007, there were over 200 suspensions in a total population of around 150 students. The students getting in trouble were often boys and usually “the fishing kids,” according to West.
DISHS always had vocational marine-trades classes for those “fishing kids.” These classes, held in a shed at the back of campus still used today, had the stigma for being a place where unruly boys were sent to keep them out of trouble, a sort of holding tank until they could drop out to join the family fishing business or get a commercial fishing license. These discipline challenges created a negative school culture that affected even the strongest students.
In talking to parents and community members, West realized that the very things distracting some students from school were the key to drawing them back in. The dropouts, troublemakers, and low performers weren’t “un-educatable,” but the curriculum wasn’t always tapping their unique interests and talents. “Our students were inquisitive and hardworking, just not when they walked through our doors during the school day,” says West.
In response to a particularly dismal year of dropouts, a team of DISHS staff, teachers, and community members launched a school-wide improvement plan in 2010. The plan included a concerted effort to prevent course failures, more formalized teacher collaboration, and the creation of the marine-studies pathway. With an emphasis on project-based learning and real-world experiences in the community and on the water, the marine-studies pathway allows students to take up to 75 percent of their core-curriculum requirements in classes aligned to their interests. Students can explore traditional academic topics through marine themes: They can learn algebra and geometry through boat building and navigation, write argumentative papers about winter flounder fishing, and study U.S. history through the lens of the fisheries. Graduates this coming spring will be the first able to take the majority of their classes in the marine-studies pathway all four years.