Mount Tom alternative learning program graduates 10 area high schoolers

  • Teacher Barbara Cheney, right, gives graduate Julia Levesque a hug at Mount Tom Academy’s graduation, Friday, at Holyoke Community College. Top, Elianna Darosa at the graduation ceremony. Above, Levesque’s decorated mortarboard. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS PHOTOS

  • Elianna Darosa at her graduation from Mount Tom Academy. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barbara Cheney takes a picture with left Adam Abely, his mother, Myra Abely and father, Marc Abely, all of Belchertown, during the Mount Tom Academy graduation ceremony Friday. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Elianna Darosa gets a hug from her teary mother, Fayelene Cressotti at Darosa's graduation from Mount Tom Academy. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nathan Abbott and his father Chris Abbott look over material in a time capsule made at the end of 8th grade at his school of origin, Hampshire Regional. Chris Abbott was attending his sons graduation ceremony from Mount Tom Academy. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jack Shea talks about why he switched schools and chose to graduate from Mount Tom Academy at the graduation ceremony Friday. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lauren Leclair, a co-teacher at Mount Tom Academy, helps Olivia Pych get ready for the graduation ceremony Friday . GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bill Dwight speaks at the graduation ceremony. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barbara Cheney, a co-teacher at Mt. Tom Academy, writes the order of events for the graduation ceremony for Mt. Tom Academy Friday while Adam Abely stands by. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Adam Abely, during the Mt. Tom Academy graduation ceremony Friday. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

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    Olivia Pych, of Huntington, wears a hat she made that says, "Only took four looong years," during her graduation cermony from Mt. Tom Academy. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • left, Jake Shea, middle Elianna Darosa and Nathan Abbott during the Mount Tom Academy graduation Friday. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Julia Levesque holds her diploma and decorated mortarboard at the Mount Tom Academy graduation Friday. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

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    Julia Levesque's hat which she decorated to say, "Be somebody nobody thought you could be," during her graduation from Mount Tom Academy. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 5/26/2017 10:46:44 PM

HOLYOKE — A few years ago, Julia Levesque didn’t think she would graduate high school. But on Friday, she was dressed in a black cap and gown along with nine other students who completed their high school studies through an alternative learning program.

“Be somebody nobody thought you could be,” her cap read in gold letters that shimmered in the light. The cap was bordered with craft pearls and the corners had faux roses in yellow and white.

At East Longmeadow High School, Levesque was failing her classes and there was no hope of graduating. The social factors were demanding and made it hard to concentrate on schoolwork.

“It was hard to be yourself,” Levesque said.

But then Levesque enrolled at Mount Tom Academy, an alternative learning program run by the Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton, and her outlook changed.

Now Levesque plans on attending Holyoke Community College for two years and transferring to Westfield State University to pursue a degree in early education. Since she was 5 or 6, Levesque said she’s had the dream to become a kindergarten teacher.

Someone else’s narrative

Since 1999, the academy has served high school students who have been unsuccessful in a traditional school setting and are at risk of failing or dropping out.

The collaborative partners with HCC, and students learn at their own pace in a small, one-classroom environment at the college.

On Friday, Northampton City Council President Bill Dwight was the keynote speaker at the ceremony.

“I’ve been expelled from no less than three different schools,” he said. “I’ve had teachers tell me they wish there was a grade lower than an ‘F’ so they could give it to me.”

Dwight is the counter person at Florence Pie Bar and was the video clerk at Pleasant Street Video before it closed in 2011. And he hosted his own radio show “The Bill Dwight Show” which started at WHMP and now has podcasts posted online.

He didn’t finish high school and received his GED in September 2012. But he said he has lived with the shame of being a bad student for a long time.

“Don’t buy into someone else’s demeaning narrative view of you and your life,” Dwight told the students. “You are valuable and you should expect to be valued.”

He told the students that their diploma carries a special significance. On one hand, it certifies completion of high school by state standards, and on the other hand it represents the struggles and the emotions each student’s journey holds.

District schools such as Hampshire Regional High School, Belchertown High School and South Hadley High School recommend Mount Tom to students who may be more successful in an alternative learning environment.

Some students return to their district schools and some finish their work at Mount Tom and earn their diploma from their district school.

Lead teacher of the program Barbara Cheney said that some of the students struggle due to social anxiety at a traditional high school.

Missing school can also be a factor. If a student misses a week of school, it can be hard to catch up.

But at Mount Tom, each student has a curriculum self-paced and based on personal needs. Coursework is administered through an online program. So when a student misses a day, Cheney said, her work is right where she left off.

Capstone projects

At the ceremony, four of the graduates presented capstone projects.

Adam Abely of Belchertown High School presented his project on animation, going through a history that included Steamboat Willie in 1928 and Toy Story, the first computer-animated movie, in 1995. He described the four types of animation — traditional animation, 2D animation, computer animation and stop motion.

While he has interest in animation, Abely says he plans to get a job and then look into getting a degree in criminal justice so as to one day become a police officer.

And Abely said going to school at Mount Tom Academy is a “million times better.”

There are no due dates on homework and there’s a better learning environment, he said.

“You work at your own pace,” Abely said. “My grades have been up and I’m passing all my classes.”

Elianna DaRosa of Hampshire Regional High School had a presentation on the stigma associated with mental illness.

Her mother, Fayelene Cressotti, was teary eyed at Friday’s ceremony. If it weren’t for Mount Tom Academy, Elianna would be struggling, Cressotti said.

“It helped her tons,” she said.

Parents personally thanked Cheney for her work with their children and Levesque wrote a letter she read to Cheney at the ceremony.

She said Cheney was there for each one of the students, making the “one-room schoolhouse” feel like a family. If someone wanted to give up, Cheney would have great determination and believe in everyone, Levesque said.

“Sometimes you even believed in students that didn’t believe in themselves,” she said.

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at

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