2012-07-06 / Community

Students move in the right direction

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


South Portland High School students took the SS Douglas on its maiden voyage from the East End beach in Portland at the end of May. They had worked with Portland’s Compass Project to design and build the boat throughout the school year. (Courtesy photo) South Portland High School students took the SS Douglas on its maiden voyage from the East End beach in Portland at the end of May. They had worked with Portland’s Compass Project to design and build the boat throughout the school year. (Courtesy photo) Math teachers at every level of school are used to the common complaint students have when they are asked to solve for x or find the cosine of an angle: ‘When am I ever going to need to use this?’

Tania Ferrante, teacher of the learning alternatives math class at South Portland High School, may have found an answer.

Her class worked almost the entire school year with the Compass Project in Portland, a program that teaches practical math skills to students at risk of failing by teaching them how to build a working, functional boat. The South Portland students visited Compass Project once a week from October through May; their project ended when they launched a 12-foot skiff into Casco Bay on May 24.

The class of six included juniors and seniors who were placed in the program before their freshman year because they have a need, whether academic or otherwise, for more individual attention.

“We try to meet the kids where they’re at and work with them. So we have them from 9th to 12th grade and we get to know them really well,” said Ferrante. “Three of us teach in the program, and it’s like a small community within the school.”

Ferrante also teaches English to South Portland High School freshmen, so she has seen some of the students both in a classroom environment and in the boat-building workshop. She said working with the Compass Project gave some of her students a chance to show off skills they may not have even known they had.

“I might have seen them in a science or an English class, and to see them doing hands on work, they were in their element. It was neat to see them really shine in that space, whereas maybe in an English class, they struggle,” she said.

The program was especially beneficial for one student in particular, Ferrante said. The student, whom Ferrante didn’t name, didn’t feel successful in a classroom environment, but in the boat shop it was a different story.

“She took on a leadership role. She problem-solved. She picked up the equipment really quickly, said Ferrante. “To me, that was her learning style, and it was discovered through this Compass Project. I wouldn’t have seen that the way I was teaching in the past. I wouldn’t have known that about her.”

Jodi Carpenter, a program coordinator at Compass Project and instructor who worked with the South Portland students, said she saw the group come together over the course of the project, and that may be even more important than the math skills they learned.

“The girls in that group, they didn’t get along until right before the launch ...,” Carpenter said. “For the first part of the program, the three girls split up. Two were friends and one was on her own. It put a lot of tension in the room and made it hard to meet up as a group.”

But after working on the project throughout the year, and helped by a talk they had together at school, Carpenter said the group of girls became closer at the end of the year.

“The coolest thing was, the three girls were the first three girls to go out when we launched (the boat),” Carpenter said.

The students named their boat the “SS Douglas,” named after the popular hip-hop track “Teach me How to Dougie” by the California hip-hop group Cali Swag District. On a rainy, drizzly afternoon at the end of May, the group went out into the ocean on the “Douglas,” three at a time from the East End beach in Portland.

“The whole time we were doing it, they were like ‘Really? We’re going to go out on the boat?’ ‘Is it going to be safe?’ I think just being in it and knowing you made a boat that doesn’t leak. It’s safe. It’s reliable. They were able to really see and feel that at the launch,” Ferrante said.

Shane Hall, the executive director of the of the Compass Project, said the staff work with approximately 75 students, throughout the course of a year, with one or two classes coming into the shop on Portland’s Eastern Prom each day. The program is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and works with students from schools and social service agencies from around the Portland area.

Staff Writer Jack Flagler can be reached at 282-4337 ext. 219.

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