BAR HARBOR — Several former students in Compass Rose, an alternative learning program at Mount Desert Island High School since 1998, attended a reception May 25 to reminisce about their time there as the program prepares to close at the end of this school year.
Starting next fall, students for whom Compass Rose might have been a good option can go into the expanded Island Pathways program for those who need more individual direction and support.
“A lot of people wanted to write me off as a bad kid,” said Richard Howland, a member of the second graduating class of Compass Rose students in 2001. “I had a lot of discipline problems and actually got expelled my freshman year.”
He said the problem was that, as with some other students, the traditional classroom structure wasn’t right for him.
“We didn’t learn in 90-minute periods like others do,” he said. “You can’t expect every single person to learn the same way.”
At Compass Rose, housed in a small building at the end of the high school’s rear parking lot, students work largely independently and at their own pace.
“The teachers respected us, and I know some of the kids had never been respected like that before,” said Howland, who was in Compass Rose the last three years of high school. “I wouldn’t have a high school diploma without it; I can guarantee you that.”
Howland is now a lobster fisherman on Islesford and the Cranberry Isles’ constable and fire warden.
Like Howland, Carrie Joyce struggled through her first year of high school.
“I had really bad attendance because the whole format for high school just didn’t work for me,” she said. “A lot of it had to do with being easily exhausted by large groups of people.
“I checked out Compass Rose, and it looked so much more relaxed and less overwhelming. They’re willing to work with kids as they are and not try to make them be something else.
“There’s a high chance I would have dropped out if I hadn’t come here,” Joyce said.
She graduated in 2000 and is now an ed tech at Swans Island Elementary School.
Rob Liebow, the high school’s assistant principal in 1998, led the effort to create Compass Rose. He said it was patterned after alternative education programs in a few other towns around the state. The building that houses Compass Rose had been the Southwest Harbor Library annex, which was no longer needed when an addition was built.
Liebow solicited donations to cover the cost of moving the building, adding a room, pouring the foundation and buying furnishings.
He said the name “Compass Rose” refers to “the dial on a compass that gives you direction, that helps you find your way when you’re lost.”
“It gave kids confidence and made them believe in themselves,” Liebow said. “It gave them flexibility, which was really important to kids who, for all kinds of reasons, couldn’t function well in the regular school structure.
“It was a rescue organization for those kids’ souls and for their passions and their motivation and their futures. It was a beautiful thing.”
Samantha Schneider, who graduated from MDI High in 2000, said she had a very poor attendance record before starting with Compass Rose in her sophomore year.
“I was kind of a red-flag kid, and Rob Liebow scooped me up and brought me in and plopped me down and said, ‘I think this is going to work for you if you just give it a try,’” she said. “They were very welcoming and nonjudgmental.”
Howland said of Liebow, “He made Compass Rose happen. He changed my life and a lot of other people’s lives.”
High school Principal Matt Haney said that because of changes that have been made in traditional classroom teaching, fewer students now need the kind of independent learning approach that Compass Rose has offered.
Two years ago, the school created Island Pathways, which is another alternative learning program but very different from the Compass Rose model.
“It’s built around the kids’ needs, but it’s also teacher directed and teacher led,” Haney said. “It’s very hands-on and experiential and often out in the community. That’s the kind of intervention kids seem to need more and more these days.”
Island Pathways is being expanded from a program just for freshmen and sophomores to a three-year program.
Beth Dilley and Jen Crandall have been the teachers at Compass Rose for nearly as long as the program has existed. Crandall will become the lead teacher for the new junior year of Island Pathways. Dilley is retiring.
She said she has most enjoyed the relationships she has developed with students over the years.
“You really get to know them in a way that’s impossible (in the main building),” she said. “It’s really been a privilege to work here, where you get to have a nice human-to-human relationship with a student.”
Crandall said many of those relationships are enduring.
“We have been invited to baby showers, weddings and college graduations,” she said. “It was really wonderful to go to the college graduation of a student who nobody thought would make it through ninth grade, let alone graduate. Now we just found out she just got her master’s.”