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COMPASS Academy in Westbrook is ‘changing the way we do school’

“The relationship part of teaching is so underestimated, especially when it comes to kids who feel disenfranchised,” says English teacher Leah Douglass, who taught alternative education at Westbrook High School before co-leading the pilot year of COMPASS Academy. “Making them feel like they’re part of a community is crazy vital.”

COMPASS—or Creating Opportunities through Multiple Pathways for Academic and Social Success—was a new option available this past year for Westbrook students who were at risk of dropping out of high school. And, by all accounts, it’s working: Going into year two, there’s a 100 percent re-enrollment rate and a waiting list to get in.

“We’re changing the way we do school,” says social studies teacher Darcie Simmons. “COMPASS is an experiential-based, hands-on program that is really good for kids who need real-world connection with the content. The kids we work with aren’t satisfied with being told to sit, take notes and learn enough to pass a test; they need to know why. Alternative education is like special ed; the kids don’t necessarily have learning disabilities, but they need one-to-one individualized strategies. We work closely with those who need that extra push.”

Leah Douglass, Sarah Anthony and Darcie Simmons are co-leaders of the COMPASS Academy, a new option available this past year for Westbrook students who were at risk of dropping out of high school. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

“The credit recovery approach just wasn’t working,” explains Douglass. “A kid failing a class and having to retake that class, just filling out packets, felt hopeless. And education shouldn’t feel punitive.”

The 30 COMPASS students—in grades 10 through 12—work to achieve the same standards as the mainstream students do, but they take a different path. The Educational Experiences are two- to four-week multi-disciplinary units that delve into a specific topic, concept or project covering big themes such as force and energy, how economies work or solving two-step equations for variables.

Simmons and math teacher Sarah Anthony co-taught a basketball unit that covered the history of basketball, the physics of sports, charting data and interpreting statistics. Red Claws basketball coach Scott Morrison showed students how he uses player stats to guide coaching decisions on the court.

An EE on “adulting” covered how to file taxes, how to manage a bank account and—with a trip to Bill Dodge—how to finance a car. An EE on activism covered history, art and music as well as a campaign development project. An EE on U.S. wars went beyond the “why” and “when,” with students exploring the science of weaponry and the geography of battles as they created exhibits to share with their peers.

“Now I’m challenged to think of another cool way to teach them another facet of U.S. history next year,” Simmons says. “I think they’ll be a little confused at first to be rapping about the American revolution, but think they’ll get excited about it.”

“COMPASS is an amalgamation of a bunch of different alternative education programs that we meshed together to work for Westbrook,” Douglass says, explaining that the founding teachers visited Noble High School in North Berwick and the Springfield Renaissance School in western Massachusetts for inspiration.

Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Of the 26 students who were enrolled in COMPASS over the past school year, many qualify for free or reduced lunch based on family income. The majority live with just one parent. Several have learning differences. Many face anxiety, illness or life circumstances outside their control, including, in a few cases, homelessness. Students accepted into the program—which requires a referral from a teacher or guidance counselor—tend to have been socially isolated or defiant. Or, they just weren’t succeeding in other educational settings. One rarely showed up at for school at all all before enrolling in COMPASS.

“COMPASS is community-based, so the students have a lot of say,” Douglass says. “We all came up with the rules together, so they’ve got more buy-in and are more engaged. They feel—and they are—part of the pilot. They are co-creating what’s going on here.”

One of the rules the students co-created was a strong attendance policy with a maximum of 10 absences tolerated per semester.

“I’m really hopeful about this program,” Douglass says. “I loved my students before, and a lot of them are the same students we have now. But I just didn’t feel like the program was meeting their needs. And attendance was always an issue. The attendance rate with this new program is off the charts. And, of course, you can’t really learn if you’re not here.”

“COMPASS is community-based, so the students have a lot of say. We all came up with the rules together, so they’ve got more buy-in and are more engaged…They are co-creating what’s going on here.”

Students have to apply for the program and re-apply each year.

“It’s a really important piece that they have decided to do this, not that the school told them that’s where they’re going,” Anthony says. “A lot of times people think alternative education is the easy way out, but this curriculum is just as rigorous. The difference is that they’re in a smaller environment, and they know we’re going to be calling on them and checking on their work.”

The key to the program’s first-year success, the three teachers say, is connection and community.

“The kids have to learn to work together,” Simmons says. “And they fight with each other like brothers and sisters because they love each other. They know they’re cared for.”

Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

All three subject area teachers—if they can even be called that in such an interdisciplinary approach—have a background in special or alternative education. All three live in the community where they teach. All three say that one of their favorite parts of teaching in COMPASS Academy is the opportunity to be creative in developing original lesson plans that teach to the same standards as in mainstream classrooms but in innovative ways adapted to their students’ needs. That—let’s be honest—has to be a lot more work than following a textbook.

“We’re always wanting to quantify teaching with standardized tests and merit-based salaries, but that’s ignoring what a lot of students really need, and that’s a human connection with their teachers,” Douglass says. “Once they make that connection with you, they don’t want to disappoint you. It’s almost parental. But, also, building that trust builds credibility. If they trust you, they trust you’re teaching them something valuable.”

WHAT STUDENTS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT COMPASS:

“It showed me that I am not a failure. It showed me that I am smart. COMPASS made school work possible for me.
—Harmony Welsch, junior

“This year I grew more personally because I realized that I’m bigger than what I made myself feel. Academically, I’ve passed in more work in COMPASS than I have ever passed in all throughout high school.”
—Heba Zackaria, senior

“I succeeded more than I ever have while being in high school. Now that I am in COMPASS, I would rather be in school than do anything else. The teachers are extremely welcoming and have a place for each one of us. They pay attention to how we all individually learn.”
—Karisa Fitzsimmons, senior

Amy Paradysz is a writer, editor and photographer who lives in Scarborough.

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