'A moment of reality': Brunswick program helps stem school dropouts
BRUNSWICK — Before Maggie Rolfe went to high school, she struggled with her grades, especially in science and math, and hadn't really considered college as a viable option for her future.
"At the beginning of my freshman year, I thought, 'yeah, I'll make it through high school and then just get a job," she said.
But then something changed.
When Rolfe began at Brunswick High School five years ago, she was enrolled in what was a new program at the time: the ninth-grade academy, which provides a different format of core curricula for struggling students. She then went onto the 10th-grade academy, which was implemented the next year.
From there, she excelled and, even when she didn't, Rolfe said the academy's teachers gave her the strength to ask for help.
"It's been a great experience for me," Rolfe said. "It definitely turned my life around."
Now 18, Rolfe is one of the first 28 academy students to have graduated. She is studying radiology at the Central Maine Medical Center College of Nursing and Health Professions.
The program's success is more than anecdotal.
Brunswick High School's dropout rate for 2012-2013 is 1.06 percent, a significant decrease from the 3.41 percent rate from 2008-2009, a year before the academy was established. The four-year average dropout rate from 2009-2013 is 2.05 percent, nearly half the four-year average from the previous four years.
While teachers and school administrators said the academy isn't solely responsible for the decreasing dropout rate – other factors include the junior high school's response-to-intervention program – they know the academy is having a clear impact.
"We felt a need to develop a program to meet the need of kids who were disenfranchised with school," said the academy's creator, interim Principal Donna Borowick, who will retire at the end of the week. "... We wanted to have a place of transition, a safety net so they could begin to realize they could be successful."
Shauna Jeppson, an English teacher who has been teaching the 10th-grade academy for the four years it has existed, said "Our job is try to get them to like school, to enjoy being in school, and to know that learning isn't something tortuous but something you want to do your whole life."
Academy classes are different from mainstream classes. They are offered every day in 45-minute blocks, rather than 85-minute blocks every other day.
While they share the same materials as mainstream classes, teachers said the academy classes are broken down into more clear objectives. They said this approach can help wipe away negative attitudes about learning.
"By breaking the pieces down and showing them they can do it, and when they start to taste that first success, you see that attitude just fall away," said Jon Riggleman, an English teacher who has been with the academy since its beginning. "Now they have something in the game."
On a recent Tuesday morning, biology teacher Andrew McCullough guided some students through a review of DNA structure and replication, the process of how DNA creates an exact copy of itself.
With a marker in hand, McCullough sketched a rudimentary drawing on his smart board of a car factory and asked his students what it would need to operate.
After taking suggestions for human workers and different kind of car parts while drawing them down, he asked them for the one key element that was missing.
"Blueprints," one student said.
"Blueprints, schematics." McCullough responded with enthusiasm. "How do these workers know how to build these beautiful cars?"
The teacher began drawing an office with a desk that had some blueprints on top.
"They're building Fords and they need the instructions for building Fords," McCullough said, comparing the blueprints to DNA.
None of the nine teachers who make up the ninth- and 10th-grade academy programs are paid extra for the work they do. They said they do it for the love of teaching and to help students connect with learning.
"I think having the ability to work with the teachers to get programs like the academy put in place, and to help people accomplish programs that are exciting for kids, that's the type of thing I will miss," Borowick said.
The interim principal said the academy was something she had always wanted to do as an educator and it was a "dream come true" when the School Board approved both the ninth- and 10th-grade programs.
"I can't say how much (Borowick has) been a integral part of this program," said Mark Roma, who works in special education for the academy. "... She's an unbelievable advocate. And for the town of Brunswick, to allow something like this to come in so quick, it speaks volumes. We're all a little worried that with her retiring we are losing such a tireless ally."
Rolfe, the former academy student who graduated earlier this year, said some of the academy students may not initially recognize the program's positive impact.
But it will happen in due time.
"There are some kids who don't quite grasp it until after they leave the academy," she said, "and then they realize, 'wow, those teachers were really good and they really helped me.' It's kind of a moment of reality."