Holyoke’s Opportunity Academy lands $250K grant 

  • Nicole McNeil, a math teacher at Opportunity Academy in Holyoke, works with Enrique Cruz, 18, a student, on an assignment to create a math-related app. STAFF FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/1/2020 2:44:55 PM

HOLYOKE — Holyoke's Opportunity Academy has been awarded a $250,000 grant to continue work planning an "innovative school model" for students who are off track to graduate.

The grant is part of the Barr Foundation's "Doing High School Differently" initiative. The funds will allow Opportunity Academy — a set of alternative high school pathways for students not succeeding at Holyoke High School’s North and Dean campuses — to implement a plan of action it designed during the past school year with a $150,000 grant from the same initiative.

“This is step two of what will hopefully be a three-step grant,” said Opportunity Academy Executive Director Michael Buhl. “This is probably the most exciting work we’ve gotten to do in our careers.”

Geoffrey Schmidt, the school’s design lead, explained that a big part of the work is a shift toward "competency-based learning" instead of traditional grading. The project also will include an overhaul of curriculum to make project-based units of study the center of learning at Opportunity Academy, connecting students with experts in the community as part of the process.

“We want our kids to graduate prepared for a choice-filled post-secondary life,” Schmidt said. “Whatever their goals are in life.”

The grant also will help the school develop a public-private partnership with The Alianza Project, a clinical practice that will establish a private behavioral health group practice whose clients will be Opportunity Academy students and their families. 

“What is very clear is that our kids very rarely access mental health services, and if they do it’s very inconsistent for a couple of real problematic structural realities in the mental health field as it applies to low-income families,” Buhl said.

The practice also will train a youth leadership team to help their peers who are dealing with trauma.

“The real experts on youth trauma are youth who have experienced trauma,” Buhl said. “Then they teach us what is necessary to help youth who struggle.”

The three-step grant process could see Opportunity Academy receive an additional $500,000 in years three and four of the project.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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