Superintendent's Notebook: Make it your mantra: Never give up

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Courtney was a dropout. Recently, she received notification of her college acceptance – and she will graduate from Portland High School in June. Quite a turnaround for a young woman who did not look like she was going to make it through high school, much less be accepted to college.

Never give up! Courtney was not successful in her freshman year. She skipped a lot of school and, as a result, she was struggling. One of Portland’s social workers, Sophie Payson-Rand, made several home visits and began building a relationship with Courtney.

Beth Arsenault, Portland High School’s alternative education teacher, reached out to Courtney to try to convince her how important high school would be to her. But Courtney was struggling with the circumstances of her life. Both adults worked hard to reach Courtney and kept the connection alive. They eventually succeeded in persuading her to participate in a cognitive-behavioral group.

Never give up! Courtney’s sophomore year started no better than her freshman year. Often, young teens direct their frustration and anger outward. Courtney was angry because she was held back due to lack of credits. In the first half of her sophomore year, she continued to struggle.

The two professionals kept reaching out and magic happened. Courtney realized that she was in charge of her life and she could make better decisions. She did take charge and she did make better decisions. In the second half of 10th grade, Courtney decided to go to school everyday, work incredibly hard and even do the work she had missed in her freshman year. The Alternative Ed program at Portland High School became her sanctuary. She attended summer school and continued to work on missed freshman year studies.

Never give up! Courtney’s junior year was far different than her lost freshman year and the mixed performance of her sophomore year. She spent far less time in alternative ed and far more time taking courses with the rest of her classmates. Arsenault invited her to be in Portland’s Reconnecting Youth class, designed to assist students who are failing out or at risk of dropping out. Courtney became a fellow student advocate, a leader and a respected resource on students’ issues for Arsenault and Payson-Rand.

Courtney was instrumental in organizing the youth voice portion of the statewide Dropout Prevention Summit held last summer in Orono. She has learned to share herself with others in greater need, in her high school and outside of Maine. She went to the Dominican Republic and worked on construction projects to help poor kids gain access to health clinics.

Never give up! Courtney has co-authored a book and helped to create a video addressing the negative issues associated with the term “dropout.” The video is posted on Portland High School’s Web site at

Courtney will not be happy with me as she reads this article because I’ve used the word “dropout” throughout. She strongly opposes the term as a misrepresentation with negative connotations.

Sorry, Courtney. I hope you understand that I needed to use the word because most people use it. Over time we may change the terminology to something that better describes students who struggle in school, leave and re-enter.

Dropout, struggling student, advocate, leader, author, videographer, workshop presenter and future college student all describe Courtney. What a turnaround.

Arsenault and Payson-Rand never gave up. More importantly, Courtney never gave up. Their example shows us that we must never give up on any of our young people in Portland.


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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on He can be reached at, and you can follow him @jamesmorsesr on Twitter.