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Adding Up Impact: Ensuring Student Success

by Molly O'Connell
This case study is part of MANP’s Stories of Impact series, highlighting the many ways Maine’s nonprofits are essential to a strong and healthy Maine.

The Impact

Wayfinder Recent graduateA high school diploma may be the ticket to a more secure future, but for more than 2,000 Maine students each year, it’s an elusive goal. Since the merger in 2011 of century-old Opportunity Farm with the Community School, Wayfinder Schools™ is putting diplomas in the hands of students throughout Maine. Its success stories include:

  • College acceptance rates of more than 80% and employment rates of over 90% among the school’s Residential Program graduates.
  • Reducing the minimum lifetime cost to taxpayers of $292,000 for each student who drops out of high school.
  • Supplying senior citizens with free, locally-grown produce from gardens that the students manage.
  • Utilizing an average of 3,500 volunteer hours annually valued at more than $70,000.
  • Improvements in students’ academic, job-readiness, parenting, and societal skills as evidenced during four research projects.
  • Providing at least 25 local businesses with new employees each year.

The Story Behind the Impact

Wayfinder studentAs Maine’s longest-operating, state-approved alternative high school, Wayfinder Schools™ is reaching teens who may have lost hope, struggled in, or been asked to leave their schools, experienced homelessness or other trauma, or who simply have not found success in traditional schools. Wayfinder offers a model that meets the needs of these students and reduces the burden on taxpayers while providing a well-educated and prepared workforce for the future.

CEO Dorothy (Dot) Foote describes this progressive educational approach as “an intervention” to catch these students before they are 20 and their options diminish. Applicants for Wayfinder’s Residential Program come from across the state and almost four times as many apply as can be served. The school’s Passages Program is designed for pregnant and parenting teens; classes take place with certified teachers online, in homes, libraries, and even at local fast food restaurants. While covering academic subjects, Passages also integrates practical parenting skills into the curriculum.

The curriculum in both programs emphasizes practical, hands-on learning. Students in the Residential Program must secure part-time employment or apprenticeships during the school year while also performing daily chores and planning and preparing meals. Residential students also participate in urban and rural learning expeditions and all students participate in volunteer service projects. Academics are rigorous and individualized, allowing teachers to focus on individual strengths and needs.

There is heavy emphasis upon preparing post graduation plans and several studies confirm the positive outcomes in Wayfinder’s approach. A USM project is tracking improvements in academic perseverance and societal skill-building among residential students, while Spurwink’s Research and Evaluation Assistance for Change (REACH) initiative is examining these benchmarks – as well as parenting skills – with “Passages” parents.  The Barbara Bush Foundation has provided 10 scholarships to “Passages” parents who not only have demonstrated increased individual academic skills, but whose children are showing positive early developmental gains.

The approach is labor-intensive, so the staff of about 30 is supplemented by hundreds of volunteers who include gardeners, musicians, fellow educators, business people, and artists. Wayfinder Schools™ also partners with a host of school districts, local health care and social service providers, and many local businesses to ensure their students have a complete education and graduate on time with knowledge and skills for success in post-secondary education and the workforce. Its early reputation for results has raised name recognition across the state and drawn interest from others who would like to see the model replicated.

Your Impact

We know that nonprofits across Maine are strengthening their communities. Help us to make sure everyone knows it. Post your own stories of impact via Facebook and Twitter, and use the hashtag #NonprofitsGoodForME.

Interview with Wayfinder Schools CEO Dorothy Foote, Ph.D., Board Chair Fred Williams and Communications & Grants Manager Andrea Vassallo August 12, 2014;
University of Southern Maine USM, Spurwink’s Research and Evaluation Assistance for Change (REACH), Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy (BBFFL),
Maine Women’s Foundation;
PBS Frontline’s “Dropout Nation”


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