HOLYOKE — A lot has changed for the better since the era of one-room schoolhouses, but a dozen high school students excel each year in the area’s modern-day version.
The most common issues impacting incoming students at Mount Tom Academy — an alternative high school run by the Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton and hosted by Holyoke Community College — are anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorders.
And in this year’s surveys, parents overwhelmingly reported seeing major improvements in their children and referred to decreased tension and improved relationships. Despite the positive results, enrollment for this coming fall is so low that administrators are concerned about its financial future.
Students’ tuition is paid by their home school districts. The students come to the program with a host of social and emotional challenges that are the root cause of symptoms including lack of focus and attendance.
“Sometimes they run into things that happen in their lives that attending a (public) school becomes untenable,” says Mount Tom Academy administrator, Matt Rigney, adding that bullying, injuries, illnesses can all constitute such setbacks. “Adolescence can be a bit of a difficult time.”
“At some point in our lives someone has told us we can’t do it, don’t try it, don’t even bother — these students, like us, have heard that,” says Holyoke Community College Vice President Jeff Hayden, adding that he was instantly impressed with the program. “The model of it was working because students were getting by the obstacles that had slowed them down in terms of high school graduation.”
Barbara Cheney, the lead teacher, says a big part of her job is to teach the whole person with careful consideration to whatever they may be going through.
“What we do here is try to address the underlying conditions to help them be more self-aware and give them more agency in planning their future,” she says. “They’re part of a community here.”In the classroom
It’s around 8:30 on an April morning and Cam Folta, who was absent the day, before strolls in late.
“Hi, remember me?” Cheney asks him, in a chipper voice. “I’m your teacher at Mount Tom Academy. You look like you need some coffee.”
As is their ritual, Cheney and Folta stroll around the corner, where they order caramel coffee at a campus coffee stop. Folta forgets his sleepiness to give an enthusiastic yes to the question of whipped cream.
Cheney says students often come to Mount Tom having experienced some type of trauma.
“This is the perfect place for them to heal,” she says.
Cheney, who has a background in alternative learning, including experience at a “turn-around” high school in the South Bronx, New York, says that her time at Mount Tom started on a sad note.
She took over as Mount Tom’s lead teacher last year when her predecessor, Jay Fortier, who had stage-four throat cancer, fell too ill to teach. Cheney says he fought until the end to continue his work.
“I started on a Monday and he died that afternoon,” says Cheney. “That says how important this was to him.”
“He was beloved,” says Cheney. “That was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do as a professional.”
For her students — who come to the school with a history of academic failure, she says, “they can’t imagine going to college.”
With the individualized learning track that Cheney develops and the Holyoke Community College backdrop, she says students begin to think differently about higher education.
“Being here helps them imagine,” says Cheney. “They start to entertain those ideas where they would never have considered them before.”
During one “feedback Friday” session, it was the students’ idea to launch math “boot camp,” as they decided they needed more group math practice.
“We teach each other,” says Cheney. “They’re really taking ownership of their learning.”
During the mornings, students work on their independent coursework, which they access online. Cheney mills around, offering one-on-one help. She develops these programs for the students through initial assessments, which enable her to get to know their personalities and learning styles.
“From the beginning they’re metacognitively engaged, learning about themselves,” she says. “Many aren’t self-directed when they come here, but have to learn.”Jars of glitter
During group learning activities in the afternoon, students often run the show while Cheney sits off to the side. During one such activity — an online course through Zen University — each student sits with a jar full of glitter and and liquid in front of them. Cheney says it’s Meghan Daysh’s turn to lead the activity.
Daysh goes around the room asking her peers about how their days are going. They all respond with “pretty good,” or variations thereof.
“No one can say ‘pretty good’ anymore,” Daysh barks back.
“Positive vibes,” says Folta with a shrug.
“I got my history packet done,” says Jake Shea.
Daysh turns to her teacher to ask her how her week is going.
“Every week I spend with you is joyous,” says Cheney, smiling.
Daysh turns again to her peers to ask them what their biggest problem is.
“My girlfriend,” says Folta, smiling, to laughter from his fellow students.
The still jars with their glitter settled to the bottom represent the calm brain, says a voice from the projector. Students shake the jars to see the glitter swirling, which the voice says represents “how moments can turn hectic quickly.”
“I’m kind of stressed because it’s the end of the year,” says Zach Laprade, watching the multi-hued glitter spiral around in his jar.
Cheney encourages students to keep the jars and shake them when they feel stressed.
“It could be a signal for me to come check in on you,” she says.
From there, the class moves on to a session of algebra boot camp. A problem shows up on the projector screen and students silently work to solve it. Moments later, Cheney asks Tyler LaFleur to walk everyone through the problem.
“My answer is so far off!” says Folta.
Daysh, sitting in the far corner, shifts her eyes from the math problem, shakes her jar and stares silently at the pink glitter swirling around inside.
“This is my brain right now,” says Adam Abely, shaking his jar.
Tyler explains to his classmates that in order to get his answer, he had to do the proper multiplication.
“Does this ring a bell for anybody?” asks Cheney. “The spoil method?”
Daysh, her glitter slightly more settled, looks confused.
“Maybe for an easier problem,” she responds.Tuition about $7,500
Sending districts in Hampshire and Hampden Counties paid around $7,500 per student for the school year just ended.
Cheney says she has considered applying for a grant to fund a mental health professional for the school, but in the meantime, she focuses on talking the students through issues and pointing out how disruptions in sleep and nutrition can impact their mood.
“In a one-room schoolhouse,” says Cheney, “one of the strengths is eavesdropping.”
Students at Mount Tom tend to talk freely about their issues.
“We’re a very open, sharing community,” says Cheney. “In a way it does kind of feel like a family, here — like the good type of family.”
The morning of Mount Tom’s graduation ceremony on May 27, underclassmen sit in a separate room preparing a slide show for the event and signing cards to their graduating classmates.
“I’m shaking it’s so hard to write,” says Julia Levesque, signing one of the cards, explaining she’s sad to see the seniors leave and is worried about who her classmates will be next year. “I had a really hard morning. I was crying and I was just wicked stressed out.”
Cheney turns toward her.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” she says to Levesque with a calm that’s both comforting and cheerful.
Parents say this type of one-on-one attention is what got their children through the program to today’s graduation ceremony, where they received certificates of completion. Their diplomas are awarded by the high school in their home school district.
“Tucker (Shepard) got lost in the school system, where he came home with work to do,” says his mom, Theresa Shepard. Here, she says, the individualized instruction helped him over a three-month span to get his GED and land his dream job working on cars.
“It’s a necessary program,” she says. “Some kids struggle in a school environment, but here they don’t.”
LaFleur’s mom, Jennifer Haskins, says while “it’s been a long four years,” she’s proud of what her son accomplished.
“It’s amazing,” she says. “It brought a tear to my eye.”
Amanda Drane can be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.