HOLYOKE – During his freshman year at Holyoke High School, David Martinez said he wasn’t really 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 the years gone by, Martinez may have been one of the many students to drop out of school at 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 schools, and in receivership, that number was reduced to 3.7%.
One of the main reasons for this improvement, according to school district officials, is the creation of Opportunity Academy, a set of alternative pathways for high school students who are not doing well on the North and Dean campuses of Holyoke High School.
At Opportunity Academy, students can continue or resume their work toward a degree in three programs: Gateway to College, a partnership with Holyoke Community College where students earn high school and college credits; the Success Center located at 206 Maple Street, where students learn in a classroom with adult learners; and LightHouse Holyoke at 208 Race St., a flexible school where teens develop an individualized schedule and curriculum.
Martinez was attending classes at the Success Center at the end of last month, where he said he found it much easier to concentrate in the small classroom with more support from the teachers who treat him like an adult. .
“If you come to school, you come to work,” he said of building ethics. He said the teachers don’t stop you if you want to leave, but they make it clear that you only get hurt when you aren’t staying. And Martinez stays. He said he didn’t know what he wanted to do in the future, but was inclined to become a therapist someday.
Opportunity Academy originated in the second year of state receivership, when the state began to rethink the high school experience. And part of that job was to create a new alternative high school to stem the tide of students dropping out and, as Opportunity Academy executive director Michael Buhl says, “would disappear altogether.”
“We weren’t just losing children,” Buhl said. “We were chasing the children.”
Buhl, who founded Phoenix Charter Academy Springfield before joining Holyoke Public Schools in 2016, said that prior to receivership there was no safety net for children with “low academic engagement. “. Now, he said, Opportunity Academy staff are knocking on the doors of students who are absent from school, spending a lot of time searching for families and sitting in their living rooms. The idea is to maintain ties with students who do not attend school, even if they are weak.
“It’s not just advisors who do this,” said Geoffrey Schmidt, director of engagement and design manager of Opportunity Academy. “Every adult in this building is raising awareness in one way or another. ”
This work also continued amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Schmidt said staff called or texted each student to make sure they had their usernames and passwords for e-learning platforms, and with the district technical department, they helped students access the computers and the Internet that the district worked hard to provide to all students who needed them.
However, distance learning presents challenges for any student, and especially for those struggling in good times, Schmidt said. “Showing up” during a crisis is even more difficult for a student who now has to look after siblings at home or share computers and Schmidt said the Opportunity Academy is already thinking about how to deal with the trauma. that students are likely to have now and when they return to school.
“Distance learning is a terrible thing for teens with high needs,” Buhl said. “So we are going really too far with awareness to try to get them to stay with us and continue to work during the crisis.”
Credit to Opportunity Academy is earned daily, as opposed to the end of a semester, so students can progress even if their attendance is low. This system, along with the flexible alternative pathways, allows the district to keep students connected with schools and to continue their graduation march at their own pace.
And there are many reasons why students may struggle in high school or have low attendance. Buhl listed several, such as social anxiety, involvement in gangs, gender transition, family instability. He said kids who need an alternative high school rarely fit a mold and it doesn’t take much to derail a child. Most of the time, these obstacles are not things that schools or students can really control: an arrest or death in the family, for example.
“They don’t drop out of high school because they can’t handle academics,” he said. “They are leaving because they cannot handle the culture of the school.”
The culture of Opportunity Academy is one of trying to meet children where they are. No student is assigned to the school, but must instead choose to be there. But if they are in school, they are expected to learn.
One late February afternoon, math teacher Nicole McNeil was busy giving a lesson at the Payday Loan Success Center, 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 students as class began, with some students entering late after completing 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 lessons like this, McNeil said staff also help students through a “guided learning zone” in the afternoons when they are working on an exciting project. A student recently gave a presentation on Slavery Past and Modern, translated into Spanish. Another created a spreadsheet on watches, how their prices have changed over time, and what makes them valuable.
“It’s really cool to see them take ownership,” said McNeil, “when they felt like a failure before and now they see some success.”
This was certainly the case for Stéphanie Gonzalez, 32 years old. She is currently a staff member of the Opportunity Academy, but only two years ago was a student at the school. She graduated from Holyoke High but did not perform well on the state’s standardized test, the MCAS, to meet the state’s “skill determination” standard for a degree.
“I tried going to night school and tried taking MCAS,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez couldn’t 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 mentoring the young students in her classes, so they offered her a job at school, where she now works with children who are in the same situation as she was in high school. .
“I grew up on the streets,” she said, noting that she saw the dangers and temptations young people can face. She moved from house to house, worked in factories and had to support her three sons. She said many students at the school feel obligated to help take care of their families. “I am definitely able to understand everything they are going through.”
One of the students who felt the support of Gonzalez and others at the school is Sydney Gomez, 18. She said she got into trouble at Holyoke High and quit going to school altogether at some point.
“When I was there I was struggling on my own,” she said. “I just didn’t have the state of mind to be in school.”
She decided to give Opportunity Academy a try, though, and that’s where she met Gonzalez. And when she started going to school, she said she realized it wasn’t like high school, where she didn’t feel supported. She said she felt like Holyoke High students with good grades would get their questions answered when she was treated differently. It didn’t help that she was fighting, she added.
At Opportunity Academy, however, Gomez quickly passed his MCAS in English and was close to passing his MCAS in math on the first try. It meant to her that she knew the material, so the question became why she had failed in high school. The answer was simple, at least for her.
“If you fall behind here, they won’t let you beat yourself up,” she said of Opportunity Academy. “They are going to fight with you.”
This support is essential for young people tempted by the streets, said Gomez. She said some of her peers don’t want legal jobs, in part because they see others making money illegally and see it as the best and easiest way.
“The support system here for the kids to cope is much better,” Gomez said. She herself is now considering a career as a veterinarian or nurse.
Dusty Christensen can be contacted at [email protected]