PORTLAND — When Kirkley Lowe was 17, he realized something: he wasn’t going to graduate from Casco Bay High School.
“The work they gave us was too difficult,” Lowe, now 18, said. “I felt it was college level starting my freshman year.”
Lowe said he made the decision to stop going to school after he repeated his junior year. And at a time when having a college degree is almost the requisite for most jobs, Lowe was left without a high school diploma.
But Lowe has seemingly landed on his feet, thanks to a local program targeting high school dropouts. He has completed his high school equivalency, and wants to eventually go to college to get a degree in psychology.
Lowe’s story is not unusual. Portland high schools have been doing more to keep their students in school, but also to help shepherd them to services if they do dropout.
The dropout rates at the city’s high schools have remained fairly steady over the past decade, usually hovering somewhere under a cumulative 5 percent.
That translates to typically fewer than 100 students per year dropping out of the three schools in the past decade. From 2005 until 2008, the Portland Public Schools saw more than 100 students drop out annually, but that number has declined to between 60 and 90 students annually.
According to the Maine Department of Education, the dropout rate in Portland fluctuated slightly over the past 10 years, peaking at 4.92 percent during the 2005-2006 school year, and reached its lowest during the 2008-2009 school year, when the rate was 2.74 percent.
The cumulative dropout rate for the 2013-2014 school year was 3.17 percent, or 68 of the district’s more than 2,100 students.
There is much more variance within the schools themselves.
Casco Bay High School has had the fewest number of dropouts, but the school also has the smallest student population. Portland and Deering high schools have the highest dropout percentages, but they are still was below the national average of 7 percent.
Beth Arsenault, an alternative education teacher at Portland High School, said the term dropout carries the suggestion that the responsibility is completely on the student, which she said isn’t true.
She said students are considered dropouts if they are in high school and leave, but the roots of what caused them to drop out frequently take hold much earlier, even as early as kindergarten. A majority of students who do or are likely to drop out are living in poverty, she said, or have unstable home and living conditions.
Arsenault said the students have often bounced around from school to school, have a history of poor attendance, and usually fall too far behind in credits to realistically catch up.
“As long as there’s one kid who isn’t finishing, that’s one kid too many,” Arsenault said. “All we can really do is figure out if we’ve exhausted every single opportunity for these students.”
Sheila Jepson, an assistant principal at Deering High School, said guidance counselors, social workers, teachers and nurses do a “remarkable job” to keep kids in school. They “go out of their way to make a creative plan that will work for an individual student,” she said.
Jepson said there are various ways students considering dropping out “rise to the surface,” either through attendance lists, calls from concerned family members , or notification from medical professionals.
Arsenault said these students often self identify as potential dropouts because of their academic problems.
Jepson said there are different “tiers of intervention” to keep kids in school, and they are always individualized. She also said because the schools have flexible entry schedules, it allows for more opportunity for kids to regroup and come back.
“We offer online programs, then we try things like after school hours,” Jepson said. “We really try to tailor it depending on the circumstances.”
But kids still slip through. Ryan Ross, 17, said he dropped out of Deering High School “two years ago” because of ongoing problems with people in the schools.
“There were people instigating and provoking me,” Ross said. He said everyone there was “very judgmental” of him.
Arsenault said her reason for being at PHS is to “keep kids in school and get them across the finish line” or to help shepherd them to programs like Portland Adult Education if they won’t finish at the school.
“We have a pretty comprehensive alternative education program at Portland High School,” Arsenault said, which is strictly for kids who are “at risk” for either not finishing high school on time or at all.
This program offers English, social studies, math and science to students in all high school grade levels who may otherwise not have graduated. Arsenault said this year 33 students went through the program.
Another form of intervention allows students to finish elective courses, such as art and physical education, in an alternative setting. She said these courses are often in large classroom settings, which can serve as a deterrent.
Arsenault said something that sets Portland apart from other school districts is the work social workers do. She said they work with at-risk and homeless youth, who are frequently the most likely candidates to drop out.
Arsenault even offers an adult education course for educators to help them understand the impacts of poverty.
Despite the district’s efforts to keep them, students like Ross and Kirkley Lowe are still dropping out.
But there are options for dropouts to keep their options open. One is Learning Works, an organization that serves at-risk youth, immigrants and low-income families.
Soni Waterman, the director of the Youth Building Alternatives program offered by Learning Works, said Portland and Deering high schools typically have the most students referred to the program, just because of proximity. However, she said the program will accept students from all over the state; the only limiting factor is transportation.
The program, which Waterman said is “one of the few programs available for kids in this area” under the age of 18, is open only to dropouts who are referred by their school counselors or occasionally by the Maine Department of Corrections.
“Counselors are familiar with us and know the kids who will fit with us,” she said.
The program is a hands-on way for dropouts to prepare for the High School Equivalency Test and to get vocational training. Waterman said a lot of the kids have difficulty sitting in a traditional classroom environment, so at YBA class time is every other day.
Bradley Marsh, 18, dropped out of Portland High School. He was referred to the program by a school guidance counselor after he fell behind.
“The work (at PHS) was too hard. I didn’t go at all and I didn’t have the credits,” Marsh said.
Marsh said the problem at the local schools is there isn’t enough one-to-one teacher-student attention
Waterman said most of the kids who come through the program have had life events that create barriers to successful participation in a traditional school, such as living in poverty, medical problems or histories of abuse, that lead to them falling behind substantially in school.
“These are kids that most other people have said ‘you can’t make it,'” Waterman said. “They’re dropping out because they didn’t have much of a chance.”
Learning Works is voluntary, but she said the kids who come usually find “our system of education works for them.”
Ross said this program was recommended by others he knew around Portland, and was ultimately referred there by his probation officer. The results, he said, have been great.
“They don’t push you here thinking you know more than you do,” Ross said. “They try to help and try to understand what you know.”
And while students often stay at Learning Works for a while, the goal isn’t to keep them forever. They wants students to pass their equivalency tests and graduate their program, like Lowe did on June 26.
“It feels great (to have passed the equivalency test),” Lowe said. “… I want to start working and eventually get to college.”
Learning Works students Ryan Ross, left, Kirkley Lowe, center, and Ariel Bentley at work at the Youth Building Alternatives program at 181 Brackett St. in Portland.
Chris McMann, left, and Bradley Marsh, right, are both high school dropouts from schools in Portland. They came to Learning Works for high school equivalency and vocational training.
Ryan Ross, left, and Kirkley Lowe, right, both dropped out of high schools in Portland before ending up at the Youth Building Alternatives program run by Learning Works. The program aims to prepare students to get their high school equivalency as well as train them for college and the working world.
Learning Works at 181 Brackett St. in Portland is an organization that provides education services to at=risk youth, immigrants and low-income families.