Deer Isle-Stonington High School has recently been identified by the Maine Department of Education as a “persistently low-achieving” school as part of the state education department’s application for federal Race to the Top funds.

The Maine Department of Education (MDOE) identified its list of ten persistently low-achieving schools using data from the last three years of the SAT test administered each May to all 11th grade students in Maine.

To some extent, the designation as a low-achieving school describes the recent past of the school. While not proud of our shortcomings, we identify and acknowledge them publicly. These shortcomings are most easily summarized by a graduation rate (roughly 75 percent of each 9th grade class earns a diploma) that is lower than it should be. 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 are frequent discipline issues. Further, some of our students struggle to attain basic literacy and math skills.

I would like to point out that a review of the SAT scores of our 11th grade students would not allow one to accurately identify the achievement issues I just outlined; the SAT is too simplistic a measure.

Not only do we acknowledge our weaknesses, we work hard to improve learning for each of our students. Since September of 2007, Deer Isle-Stonington High School (DISHS) has been engaged in a comprehensive school improvement process. The staff has worked to identify school-wide expectations that describe skills essential for our students to master in order to experience post-secondary success in the workplace and in college.

We have also designed a “Standards-based Diploma,” including senior exhibition, that will measure our students’ achievement of our school-wide expectations. Our work has been guided by a “School Improvement Action Plan” that identifies two goals: that at least 95 percent of each 9th grade class earns a diploma or GED within four years of entering high school; and that each graduate demonstrated proficiency in our school-wide expectations.

Deer Isle-Stonington High School has already taken significant steps to improve its graduation rate. We have created a “Student Assistance Team” that meets every two weeks to identify 9th and 10th grade students who are at-risk of failure and provide support long before the student fails. We have funded and staffed a “Learning Center” where all students can receive help on their school work before, during, or after school.

While still early in the process, these actions are paying dividends for this year’s 9th grade class-just one student failed one course in the first semester. This fall, the use of formative assessment data and focused literacy instruction allowed four of our ten 9th and 10th grade students who were reading two or more years below grade level to improve to within one year of their grade level (in just four months) and test out of our reading support class.

Our school has also taken steps to improve our school climate and reduce student discipline issues. In 2007-08, there were 205 suspensions including nine suspensions of five or more days. This year, there were only 36 suspensions in the first semester and only two suspensions for more than five days; this would project to 72 suspensions and four five or more day suspensions for the entire year, a 65 percent drop in total number of suspensions compared to 2007-08.

Perhaps the most comprehensive and accurate measure of Deer Isle-Stonington High School’s true level of student achievement is the recent accreditation visit and report conducted by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The report of the visiting committee concluded “there has been a very noticeable sense of direction and purpose at DISHS that very clearly focuses on student learning… this wonderful high school is quickly on its way to becoming one of the premier high schools in the State of Maine.”

It is too bad that such a flawed measurement as the SAT is used to label a school as “persistently low-achieving.” The staff of Deer Isle-Stonington High School and our community work very hard to provide educational opportunities for our students.

As principal, I fully acknowledge that we have work to do as a school and have already taken the steps described above to ensure that it gets done. However, I can stand behind the education that our school provides to the vast majority of our students. Our school is committed to improving the learning of each of our students so that we can continue to provide the quality education the students of this community deserve.

Todd West is the principal of the Deer Isle-Stonington High School