They ‘get back up’: Mount Tom Academy graduates 7 students

  • Meghan Daysh and Barbara Cheney help Sean Delson at the 2018 graduation of Mount Tom Academy. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • From left, Amanda Myers, Tattianna Bilodeau, Anthony Hall, Sean Delson and Meghan Daysh at the 2018 graduation of Mount Tom Academy Wednesday at Holyoke Community College. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barbara Cheney and Meghan Daysh help Amanda Myers at the 2018 graduation of Mount Tom Academy. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Commencement hats wait to be put on at the 2018 graduation of Mount Tom Academy. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 5/30/2018 9:30:31 PM

HOLYOKE — At Holyoke Community College on Wednesday, a group of seven high school students gathered to mark a milestone that usually happens before stepping foot on a college campus: graduation.

The students from Mount Tom Academy walked with cap and gown to receive their diplomas in the Kittredge Center at HCC and watched with happy surprise as their graduation speaker, Phil O’Donoghue, threw out his prepared speech, saying they had already learned lessons it took him a lifetime to grasp.

“If you’ve fallen down, flat on your back, what are you going to do?” O’Donoghue said. “Get back up or give up? You’ve all shown already that you get back up.”

The Mount Tom Academy program, administered by the Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton, has partnered with Holyoke Community College since 1999 to serve students who have been unsuccessful in a traditional school setting. Students learn at their own pace in a small, one-classroom environment at the college and some take college-level courses. This year the academy joined up with Summit Learning and the Center for Adolescent Studies to provide personalized and mindfulness-based programming.

Referencing experiences from his own life and the lessons he said he has learned from failure, O’Donoghue urged the graduates to “find your place,” “do what you love,” and “the hardest thing to do, ask for help.” A professor in Theater and English at Springfield Technical Community College, O’Donoghue is known for an annual showcase of award-winning, 10-minute plays. 

Amanda Myers, who joined the program last year from Hampshire Regional High School, said that the program’s individual learning style has allowed her to learn at her own pace and made her year at the academy “the best year” of her education so far.

“It’s so exciting. I never thought I’d get here,” Myers said of her graduation. “There’s been a lot of bumps, and this, this is a high point.”

Prior to the commencement ceremony, the students presented their capstone projects.

Myers presented research on ferrets, inspired, she said, by volunteering with small animals at Dakin Humane Society. She plans to attend HCC next year and hopes to study veterinary technology or something else to do with her love of animals.

Anthony Hall, from Hampshire Regional High School, and Sean Delson, from Longmeadow High School, laid out a full business concept for what they said is the “future of recycled clothing.” Complete with a financial plan, competition analysis and weighing of risks and rewards, Hall and Delson outlined a business plan to buy inexpensive T-shirts and clothing from thrift stores, clean them and remarket them at a higher price online.

“We’re ready for both national and international marketing,” Hall said.

The two showed their online marketplace and also rolled in a rack of unlisted shirts waiting, they said, for their entrepreneurial spirit.

Tattianna Bilodeau from Hampshire Regional presented portraits she drew under the tutelage of Katy Schneider, a drawing and painting professor at Smith College who exhibits nationally and has earned a variety of awards and fellowships. Bilodeau said that working with Schneider was a great opportunity to learn new techniques.

“I honestly don’t know how I’m feeling right now,” Bilodeau said.

Newly 17, she graduated a year early through the program and now plans on working during a gap year before college. She said she was hesitant about showing her artwork at the ceremony.

“I wasn’t sure about trying this out,” she said. “But that’s what Ms. Cheney makes you do, she makes you try.”

Wednesday’s was the first graduation Bilodeau has ever attended, and she said she’s the first of her nine siblings to graduate from high school so far. She and other graduates thanked lead teacher Barbara Cheney for her support in helping them reaching their milestones.

“I want to recognize and appreciate the partnership we’ve built to support these young people,” Cheney in turn told family, guidance counselors and school administrators who attended the ceremony. “It’s joyful but it’s also a little sad that we’re going to break up this great team we’ve created here. But we’ll all stay in touch.”

Meghan Daysh, from Hampshire Regi onal High  School, and Jacob K ane, from Minnechaug High School, were the other two 2018 Mount Tom Academy graduates.

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at


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