June 20, 2011

Bittersweet final graduation for BOCES school

Author: Bernie Mulligan
Source: NYSUT Communications

Anyone who says there's no pain in this year's education budget is hiding from the reality students and educators are facing. The final graduation - ever - was held at the Alternative High School in Hudson Falls in mid-June.

In existence for 26 years, this BOCES program has been a key link for southern Adirondack students who weren't finding success in their home district high schools.

Now it's being eliminated despite a solid track record, as the 31 school districts and boards in the BOCES region have decided to keep more students in-house to save money.

The 15 members of the last graduating class were honored at the Southern Adirondack Education Center, with more than 125 parents and educators attending. As each of the graduates handed a rose to their family members to start the event, the evening's tears were just beginning to flow.

"We give the students a sense of community," said Ruth Shippee, a Social Studies teacher who arrived at the school a month after it opened. "Some of them are outsiders in their home districts. We do a lot to make them know they belong."

Shippee reflected the pride and sadness many participants felt. "I have unbelievable colleagues. Even the educators who have subbed here say it's unique," she said. Shippee and English teacher Karen Monastero, both board certified teachers, together with other colleagues, are facing uncertain futures after years of dedication to building a quality program.

Those loyalty of former students is another testament to their work.

"I have a student from 23 years ago who had a hard time back then finding his way," said Shippee. "Now, every few months, I get a phone from him in Montana, where he runs a 9,000-acre farm. He just wants to check in and ask about my family."

Jessica Parker knows about those bonds. A 1992 graduate, she brought her son Joe Podmore to the program three years ago when he was experiencing difficulty in his home school district.

"This wonderful program helped me get through high school. Now Joe has matured so much in it," Parker said about her son. "Without this program, he wouldn't be here, graduating."

Cliff Brosnan, a veteran BOCES educator and chair of the union's statewide BOCES Advisory Committee, shook his head in sadness at the school's demise. "Its great strength is that this school served the needs of students from three counties for decades. Now those students will have no place to go, as districts cut back in all areas."

Bert Weber is the president of the Saratoga- Warren - Counties BOCES Association (SABEA), which represents the alternative school's educators.

"Our communities lose if these kids become dropouts," said Weber. "This closing has everything to do with choices and priorities. Whatever we save now, we'll pay a lot more in the long run without programs like this."