DEER ISLE — Recently, a group of Deer Isle-Stonington High School students were at the Maine Maritime Academy pool, performing ocean survival maneuvers.

“Take a breath of air, calm yourself down. The water’s cold,” instructed survival trainer John McMillan, demonstrating emergency techniques to support unconscious crewmates and deploy life rafts.

The atmosphere was serious, emblematic of youngsters who obviously understood the stakes, growing up around maritime activity. The session was part of two educational initiatives, the Marine Studies Pathway and the Eastern Maine Skippers Program. Conceived by Deer Isle-Stonington High School (DISHS) and developed with six other island and coastal high schools and many community partners, the programs give students training stemming from their own experience and interest, and grounded in academic study.

“I like doing stuff hands-on,” said DISHS eleventh-grader Logan Eaton, who mentioned field trips to collect data on green crabs, plant seed clams and tie tub-trawl hooks. She’s thinking about a marine biology career.

Liam Griffith, a 9th grader from Castine, feels close to the ocean, and plans to stern this summer. “I really like the ocean and fishing,” he said.

Kicking off last September, the pathway curriculum looks at issues facing coastal communities and ecosystems. The skippers program serves as an “honors” option for students pursuing a fishing career. The skippers form a multi-school cohort learning alongside marine professionals in school and the field.

Among their projects, over 40 skippers, with Penobscot East Resource Center and Department of Marine Resources researchers, are engineering a trap-based winter flounder fishery.

“This program is a testament to schools that are recognizing the value of fishing to Maine’s communities and economy,” said DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher, who asked the group to report its findings on May 28.

“Talk about an authentic audience,” said DISHS principal Todd West. “This is, ‘I need to report back to the commissioner, and I can’t say the dog ate my homework.'”

Other participating schools include those in North Haven, Vinalhaven, Mount Desert Island, Ellsworth, Narraguagus High School and George Stevens and Washington academies.

These are communities, said West, where many students have or are working toward fishing licenses.

“There’s undoubtedly a pull for students to go fishing,” West said. “Trying to help students see how a school can benefit them has been an important strategy for us. We’re not saying, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t go fishing. You should go to college.’ We’re saying, ‘We would like school to be more relevant to you and get you to be a better fisherman, and get you college-ready, if you want to go,'” he said.

High-level skills can be brought to bear on fishing, West believes, such as “entrepreneurship and how you can use data to think about where and how to fish, and how to participate in regulatory meetings, areas we feel schools can help young fishermen become better fishermen, more flexible and adaptive for the 21st century.”

North Haven science teacher Kristen McGovern agreed.

“It provides students with an opportunity to meet science standards and learn about the marine ecosystem and ecology, while doing something they’re already passionate about.”

Said Vinalhaven marine trades teacher Mark Jackson: “Students often have difficulty seeing relevance in formal education when a very good living can be made exercising what they have learned by doing what they enjoy most, simply working in and around boats. We are trying to honor the knowledge they’ve gained by doing, and provide relevant information for long-term business success.”

It’s still early, but the initiatives appear successful. “We’re starting to see more engagement and more interest in doing academic work through the lens of marine topics,” said West.

DISHS plans to roll out arts and health care pathways in the next two years.

“It’s pretty clear that teenagers, in this day and age, need to be taught in a different way than in the past,” said West. “Seeing the relevance of what your doing, having voice and choice in how to meet outcomes, working in your community, sharing your projects in front of a real audience instead of a teacher—it’s the kind of hands-on experience that makes the learning stick.”

New concepts at DISHS also include monthly assessments, targeted interventions and tutoring, all contributing to rocketing graduation rates, from 57 percent to 94 and 90 percent over the past two years.