Staying connected: Students attest to value of Holyoke’s Opportunity Academy 

  • David Martinez, a 16-year-old student attending Opportunity Academy in Holyoke, works on a computer before class starts on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nicole McNeil, teaches math at Opportunity Academy in Holyoke on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Back right, Librado Perez, 18, front left, Robert Edwards, 69, both students at Opportunity Academy in Holyoke, and Bryan Barsalou, a special education teacher, during a math class on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • 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 PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Librado Perez, 18, a student at Opportunity Academy in Holyoke, and Bryan Barsalou, a special education teacher, talk about an assignment during a math class Feb. 27. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ninth-grader Isabel Santiago-Castro, front left, and Robert Edwards, 69, both students, listen as Bryan Barsalou, a special education teacher, at Opportunity Academy in Holyoke, talks to students during a math class Feb. 27. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • 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 PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Librado Perez, 18, a student at Opportunity Academy, talks about his experience at the school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David Martinez, a student at Opportunity Academy, talks about his experience at the school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Stephanie Gonzalez, 32, a graduate of Opportunity Academy, as well as staff member, talks about her experience at the school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sydney Gomez, a student at Opportunity Academy, talks about her experience at the school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Stephanie Gonzalez, 32, a graduate of Opportunity Academy, as well as staff member, talks about her experience at the school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David Martinez, a student at Opportunity Academy, talks about his experience at the school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/30/2020 2:27:13 PM

HOLYOKE — During his freshman year at Holyoke High School, David Martinez said he wasn’t exactly serious about going to class and learning.

“I’m not going to lie, I was having fun,” the 16-year-old said with a shy smile. “A little too much fun.”

In years past, Martinez might have been one of the many students to drop out of school in Holyoke — and there were a lot of students who did just that. The district’s dropout rate was 7.6% in 2015, one of the highest in the state. But that was the year the state took over Holyoke’s schools, and under receivership that number has been cut to 3.7%.

One big reason for that improvement, school district officials say, is the creation of Opportunity Academy — a set of alternative high school pathways for students not succeeding at Holyoke High School’s North and Dean campuses.

At Opportunity Academy, students can continue or restart their work toward a diploma in three programs: Gateway to College, a partnership with Holyoke Community College for students to earn high school and college credit; the Success Center located at 206 Maple St., where students learn in a classroom together with adult learners; and LightHouse Holyoke at 208 Race St., a flexible school where teens develop an individualized schedule and program of study.

Martinez was taking classes at the Success Center late last month, where he said he has a much easier time focusing in the small classroom with more support from teachers who treat him like an adult.

“If you’re going to come to school, you’re coming to do work,” he said of the ethos in the building. He said teachers don’t stop you if you want to leave, but they make it clear that you only hurt yourself when you don’t stay. And Martinez is staying. He said he doesn’t know what he wants to do in the future, but is leaning toward becoming a therapist some day.

Alternative paths

Opportunity Academy was born in the second year of state receivership, when the state began redesigning the high school experience. And a part of that work was creating a new alternative high school to stem the tide of students who were dropping out and, as Opportunity Academy Executive Director Michael Buhl puts it, “would just completely disappear.”

“We were not just losing kids,” Buhl said. “We were driving kids out.”

Buhl, who founded Phoenix Charter Academy Springfield before joining Holyoke Public Schools in 2016, said that before receivership there was no safety net for kids with “low school engagement.” Now, he said, Opportunity Academy staff knock on the doors of students missing from school, spending significant time tracking down families and sitting down in their living rooms. The idea is to retain connections with students not attending school, no matter how tenuous.

“It’s not just counselors who do that,” said Geoffrey Schmidt, Opportunity Academy’s engagement director and design lead. “Every adult in this building is doing outreach in one way or another.”

That work has continued amid the COVID-19 pandemic, too. Schmidt said staff called or texted every student to make sure they had their usernames and passwords for online learning platforms, and together with the district tech department helped students get access to computers and internet that the district worked to provide to all students who needed it.

Distance learning brings challenges for any student, though, and especially for those who struggle in good times, Schmidt said. “Showing up” during a crisis is even harder for a student who now has to care for siblings at home or share computers and Schmidt said Opportunity Academy is already thinking about how to address the trauma students are likely to have now and upon their return to school.

“Distance learning is a terrible thing for high-need teenagers,” Buhl said. “So we’re really going overboard with outreach to try to get them to stay with us and keep working through the crisis.”

Credit at Opportunity Academy is earned daily, as opposed to at the end of a semester, so students can make progress even if their attendance is weak. That system, together with the flexible alternative paths, allow the district to keep students connected with the schools and continuing their march toward a diploma at their own pace.

And there are many reasons why students might be struggling in high school or have poor attendance. Buhl listed off several such as social anxiety, involvement with gangs, transitioning gender, family instability. He said that kids who need an alternative high school rarely fit one mold and that it doesn’t take much to knock a kid off track. Mostly, those hurdles aren’t things that the schools or the students can really control: an arrest or death in the family, for example.

“They don’t leave the high school because they can’t handle the academics,” he said. “They leave because they can’t handle the school culture.”

The culture at Opportunity Academy is one that attempts to meet kids where they are at. No student is assigned to the school, but rather has to choose to be there. But if they’re at school, they’re expected to learn.

Taking ownership

On an afternoon late in February, math teacher Nicole McNeil was busy teaching a lesson at the Success Center about payday loans, prompting students to think of an app that would help people improve their financial literacy and avoid such debt traps.

High school students mingled with older learners as the class got underway, with some students entering late after finishing a test in another classroom. McNeil and Bryan Barsalou, a special education teacher, worked with students in small groups as they formulated their ideas.

Beyond more traditional math classes like this one, McNeil said that staff also help students through a “guided learning zone” in the afternoons, when they work on a passion project. One student recently did a presentation on past and modern-day slavery, translated into Spanish. Another built a spreadsheet on watches, how their prices change over time and what makes them valuable.

“It’s really neat to see them take ownership,” McNeil said, “when they felt like a failure before and now they see some success.”

That was certainly the case for Stephanie Gonzalez, 32. She is currently a staffer at Opportunity Academy, but it was only two years ago that she was a student at the school. She had graduated from Holyoke High but had not scored well enough on the state standardized test, the MCAS, to meet the state’s “Competency Determination” standard for a diploma.

“I tried going to night school and tried taking the MCAS,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez wasn’t able to pass after several attempts. But she decided to attend the Success Center as an adult learner, and it wasn’t long before she passed the test. Buhl and the staff were impressed with Gonzalez and her mentorship of the young students in her classes, so they offered her a job at the school, where she now works with kids who are in the same situation she was in as a high schooler.

“I did grow up in the streets,” she said, noting that she’s seen the dangers and temptations young people can face. She has moved from house to house, worked factory jobs and had to provide for her three sons. She said many students at the school feel an obligation to help care for their families. “I’m definitely able to relate to everything they go through.”

One of the students who has felt the support from Gonzalez and others at the school is Sydney Gomez, 18. She said she had been getting into trouble at Holyoke High, and had stopped going to school altogether at one point.

“When I was there, I would struggle by myself,” she said. “I just didn’t have the mindset of being in school.”

She decided to give Opportunity Academy a shot, though, and that’s where she met Gonzalez. And as she started to attend the school, she said she realized it wasn’t like the high school, where she didn’t feel supported. She said she felt like students at Holyoke High with good grades would get their questions answered while she was treated differently. It didn’t help that she was getting in fights, she added.

At Opportunity Academy, however, Gomez quickly passed her English language arts MCAS and was close to passing her math MCAS on the first try. That meant to her that she knew the material, so the question became why she hadn’t been succeeding at the high school. The answer was simple, at least for her.

“If you’re falling behind here, they won’t leave you behind to struggle,” she said of Opportunity Academy. “They’ll struggle with you.”

That support is key for young people tempted by the streets, Gomez said. She said that some of her peers don’t want to get a legal job, partly because they see others making money illegally and see that as the better and easier way.

“Here, the support system so kids can get that out their head is much better,” said Gomez. She herself is now considering a career as a veterinarian or a nurse.

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