GRAY, Maine (STPNS) -- The Facts: We, as a nation, are in a dropout crisis. MSAD 15 is not above the crisis.

The Statistics: According to the MSAD 15 Report Card, the data for the 2006 / 2007 school year for GNG HS states a graduation rate of 78.9% and a dropout rate of 5.5%. Upon review of these numbers, one might ask, 'what's the difference and why don't they add up to 100%?' In spite of several calls to Augusta, both by myself and Superintendent Burns, there is no clear answer . We only surmised that this difference represents students who entered and either graduated early, were expelled, or transferred out. No one is quite sure how the state interprets numbers into the data. It is particularly important to note the distinction between fact and statistics. Statistics are based on data, and data can be manipulated. Regardless, we are all of the opinion that any percentage of dropouts is unacceptable.

We discussed at length the indicators that a student is at risk, who is responsible for identifying such students and what action is taken. When asked about the process more specifically, GNG HS Principal Penns commented that he works with the middle school to help identify kids at risk before they even get to the high school and he intervenes as early as freshman year with assistance and remediation as necessary. He went on to note the 'dropouts don't start in high school, they just get questioned and counted in high school', and that statistically, in many cases the problems that lead to failure to achieve in high school begin much earlier in a child's schooling. He also went on to say that at the 10th and 11th grade levels, you begin to see accumulated graduation credit deficits beginning, which, in some cases are exacerbated by social and personal pressures. There are 20 credits needed for graduation.

In addition to the Common Assessment Tests, guidance councilors and teachers keep a focus on the kids in order to identify problems. Parents and especially students can also be proactive about seeking assistance where difficulties in school are concerned.

The next obvious question; so what do you do to fix the problem? Penna responded that each student is different, faces different challenges and therefore gets an individual course of action tailored to his/her needs. There are many intervention options available to students ranging from subject specific remediation to alternative education classes in grades 10 and 11.

We chatted further on this topic during our discussion about the Dropout Summit, but there was an interesting statistical trend noted by Superintendent Burns. When all this information about dropout rate hit the press, Burns was a taken aback and disappointed with the MSAD 15 numbers. She began to look at other data about the two most recent graduating classes.

Arguably, the class of 2009 and the class of 2008 had two of the highest number of dropouts with 35 and 32 respectively. Burns then looked at 8th Grade Math and Reading Assessment percentiles for those classes. What she found was pretty startling, the dropout numbers were inversely proportionate to the assessment scores. The lower the percentile, the higher the drop out numbers. For example, the class of 2009 had average Math and Reading scores of 17% and 39% respectively, that class lost 27 of its members before senior year and another 8 from Oct. 1 to graduation for a total of 35. The class of 2008 had very slightly higher scores of Math 24% and Reading 40%. Now the incoming senior class of 2010 scored 53% in Math and 69% in Reading, and has lost a total of 12 students in the first 3 years. That is less than half the rate of the previous. The class of 2011 averaged 64% in math and 72% in reading, and each subsequent class shows gradual improvement.

The obvious conclusion to draw is that as long as achievement improves in the early grades, the dropout numbers will continue to decline. Another interesting barometer is the attendance rate, which shares a similar relationship to the drop out totals. Average Daily Attendance (ADA) at the High School has been increasing steadily for four years from 90.5% to 92.1% at the same time dropout rates continue to decline. Burns notes that not the test scores, nor the attendance numbers, nor the declining number of dropouts, are acceptable, that they just merely indicate a trend in the right direction. Work needs to continue on all fronts to see these trends continue.

To that end, several district representatives attended the Maine Summit on Dropout Prevention.....

On July 27 and 28, the Maine Department of Education held a summit at UM Orono to focus on the issue of Dropout Prevention. Superintendent Burns, GNG HS, Vice-principal Tim Richards, School Board Trustee, Sherri Robinson, and one parent from the district attended on behalf of Gray and New Gloucester.

The purpose of the Summit was not only to create awareness but to provide a forum for sharing and brainstorming about addressing the issue. The event received a ton of press, most of which centered around the success of Portland High School's Alternative Ed program. Students who left and returned to school made presentations as did the educators involved in the program.

Beth Arsenault heads up the Alt Ed program at Portland high. She and her students produced a video about the perception of the word dropout. It was presented at the Summit and can be viewed at By the way, there were GNG HS students and faculty interviewed for the video about their perception of what 'dropout' means.

The media coverage and video content made for more great conversation with Penna and Burns.

When I asked the Superintendent what she brought back from the Summit, her initial response was that it mostly reaffirmed what we already know about educating the students toward success. She went on the say that multiple paths to success are key components. Everyone learns by different methods, on different schedules, and children shouldn't be pigeonholed into one particular path. She went on to say, "Another aha was the idea of working with the community to get mentors that kids can relate to, who will interest them about things they could do in the outside world." 'Service learning', (volunteering to earn credits) to get kids connected with the community was another area that Burns would like to explore further.

After viewing the video and reading the press, I got the impression that there were faculty members at Portland actually pursuing students who had left to encourage them to return.

I asked Mr. Penna who, if anyone was in charge of pursuing kids that have left school. Currently there is no district policy in place for that. Although it appears that Portland does just that, Penna noted that it is usually social service agencies that take on the responsibility of ushering kids back to school. He went on to say that when he was a guidance counselor there, he did take the initiative to make home visits as necessary, but that it was not policy, just something he thought important.

Superintendent Burns went on to say that a better exit interview policy needs to be established at GNG HS as well.

We then discussed how a student is accommodated when they do return. According to Penna, the guidance counselor, assistant principal, student, and parent develop a plan to reintegrate each individual based on their specific needs.

Children returning in 10th and 11th grade have the option of the Alternative Ed program at GNG HS, if they qualify.

There are generally between 20 and 30 in each of the two grades in the program in any given year. The teachers are highly qualified in particular content areas, and teach mainstream classes in addition to the Alt. Ed classes they are responsible for. In addition to the teaching staff, there is a case manager overseeing the program.

There is entrance criteria and screening required for admission into the program. A student might be turned down if they aren't the right fit for the program or have a poor attitude, or plan to abuse the program as a an easy way out. Other plans of action would be pursued in such a case, however rare it might be.

Currently, neither Portland nor GNG HS provide alternate education programming in the senior year. While it may be a future consideration for Portland, Penna feels that 10th and 11th grade programs should be able to bring the student up to speed in time for senior year. He noted a few key factors to such success. Parent involvement, and school accountability along with communication aimed at keeping everyone informed about what the students are doing and why, especially where scheduling is concerned. There is also an option for students to acquire up to 2 credits through the Adult Ed Program in their senior year.

We touched on the fact that, in spite of the amazing level of worldly sophistication that today's children have, thanks to the internet etc., they are socially much less independent than previous generations by virtue of being constantly connected to parents and guardians via cell phones and such. The Superintendent commented that perhaps some staff development related to the changing social behavior of students is in order.

Another preventive step that Principal Penna would like to implement is a daily 15 minute time slot for students to gather in small groups at the end of their school day. Each group would be facilitated by a staff member. The facilitator would methodically help each student assess his/her homework assignments, upcoming tests, and help insure that the student be prepared with the appropriate study material and organized for the next school day -- before they make the mad rush for the bus to go home.

He emphasized that most of us have a similar ritual of organization at the end of our work day, yet we expect the kids to leave at the last bell, get to the bus in 3 minutes, deal with whatever extra-curricular obligations they may have, AND be prepared for school responsibilities. "Why not teach them how to get organized and give them a few minutes each day to do it"' he commented.

My overall impression from this portion of the conversation; yes there is a drop out problem, yes we recognize it, yes the situation is improving slowly, and yes we are looking at ways to accelerate the improvement.

Is RISC the answer........

Reinventing Schools Coalition (RISC)

In response to a serious dropout problem in Alaska, educators got together to try and find a solution. With the philosophy that students shouldn't be pigeonholed, and that they need several paths to graduation success, and the knowledge that standards based learning could address these issues, RISC was born. After the program began in Alaska, education guru, Robert Marzano was consulted to help make the program duplicable. There is now a goal "to transform a million kids in a thousand districts."

In response to the high dropout percentages in Maine, the Department of Education became aware of the RISC program. The state has been struggling with just the right way to promote standards based learning for years. After researching RISC, the Maine DOE decided to contract with the Coalition, and provide the tools for selected districts to pilot the program. MSAD 15 and MSAD 57 were the most receptive and ready for action, and were ultimately selected, to be the Lighthouse Districts (Implementation Sites).

According to Paul Penna, the determination to select MSAD 15 was based mostly on interviews. Staff and admin were excited about the prospect of the program. "And since GNG HS has already clarified standards for courses and assessments for those courses, we were 'shovel ready' so to say." The program will, if approved by the MSAD 15 Board of Trustees be administered district wide.

The State and RISC will provide all the training and some of the funding. Title II Stimulus Funding, which is for staff development anyway, will be used for the MSAD 15 contribution. Eventually an inexpensive software program to track standards will be needed.

A four day training seminar was conducted at the Middle School last week for educators, students and parents from both districts. Over 150 were in attendance. The focus of the seminar was to teach districts about the four components of RISC: Shared Leadership, Shared Vision, Student Centered Environment, and Continued Improvement.

For MSAD 15, at least, the goal is to use the next school year to build a shared vision about what standards based learning really is, how it will benefit the district, and what changes students, parents and teachers might encounter. The MSAD 15 Board of Trustees will be asked to decide, by June 2010, if the program is to be continued and if this partnership will really work for the district.

After hearing about the overview of the program, I had some questions: What happens when it's college application time? According to Superintendent Burns, there is a method for converting standard based grading to a traditional GPA. She went on to note that by virtue of standards based education, the least traditional grade a student could reach while still achieving a minimum standard is a 'C'.

Penna noted that there will be communication with colleges to assure that the reporting is proper as well.

One of the unique things about the program is the ability of a student to work at his/her own pace. Instead of receiving a grade based on accomplishment in a finite amount of time, the student has the opportunity to take extra time as needed to achieve the minimum standard. And, the converse is that a student who excels will be able to advance more quickly.

Currently, the State only subsidizes students for a finite number of years for education. I asked what happens if a student exceeds that limit while working at his/her own pace? Burns noted that, "the Education Commissioner, Susan Gendron, has assured us that, whatever it takes, that she can help us with, we'll get."

With so much focus on caring and community with the RISC program, I asked Mr. Penna if he felt that the kids in the High School have a sense that they are nurtured and supported. He replied, "I think the kids feel fairly supported and know that there are resources there to help them," and "the survey results, when tabulated and made public, will provide some more insight to the kids sense at the school."

Which brings us to the Survey.....

A Cursory Look at the Climate Survey Conducted by the District

At the end of the 2008/2009 School year, the MSAD 15 Administration made available a survey for all parents and students throughout the district. It addressed communication, safety, nurturing environment, and several other aspects of life in school and interaction for parents. While the results are still being compiled and have not been reported to the Board of Trustees yet, I was able to glean some general information. There were 75 responses from High School students who had the option of answering, and 351 responses from middle school students who answered the survey in class. 118 parents at the high school responded and 86 from the middle school took part.

The Superintendent general assessment, "There are certainly things within the survey to celebrate, and there are things to take note of that should get attention. The results will be presented to the board at its August workshop and then be posted on the web."

In summary, the bad news is we have a problem with students not accomplishing their goal and leaving school. (It's pretty tough to use the word 'dropout' after viewing the video.) Some better news is that we're not alone, and many people are working together for a solution. Still better is the fact that there is already some improvement. Better yet, is the fact that the administration, the educators, and the community are eager to further address the problem and become part of the solution. And, the really good news is, that through that eagerness, the district was selected to participate in the RISC Pilot.