October 2011
September 21, 2011

One last graduation, one less alternative

Author: John Strachan
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Members of the 2011 senior class are the last to graduate from the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES alternative high school, which closed in June. Photo by Andrew Watson.
Bert Weber, president of the Saratoga Adirondack BOCES Employees Association (SABEA), represents the educators who taught at the alternative school.

Bert Weber, president of the Saratoga Adirondack
BOCES Employees Association (SABEA),
represents the educators who taught at the
alternative school.

When the ax fell this spring on a BOCES alternative high school that helped a generation of at-risk students acquire the skills they needed to graduate, veteran educators faced the delicate task of informing nearly two dozen students they would have to return in September to the districts where their problems in school began.

"I think that telling the kids was the hardest day in my 26 years," said Ruth Shippee, a science teacher at the program run by Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex (WSWHE) BOCES. One of two National Board Certified Teachers on the school's small faculty, she joined the program a month after it opened in 1985 as a vehicle to save dropout-bound kids who, for a variety of reasons, couldn't find success in their district's high school.

Word that their school would close came just weeks before most of the approximately 40 students would be taking high-stakes Regents Exams. Some juniors who had been with the program for three years were only a class or two from graduation; others who had enrolled just weeks earlier would see an opportunity to change their lives snatched away.

"I had a gut feeling in January that it was coming," said Mary Borden, a longtime science teacher who became dean of students at the program in Washington County. "Enrollment has been dropping over the past five years or so." According to a February report from the WSWHE Board of Education, enrollment in the high school program dropped from 109 students in 2006 to 81 last year. It was one of six alternative high schools statewide to close down this year.

Because they are dependent on their component school districts to support programs like alternative education, the state's 37 Boards of Cooperative Education are frequent victims of the domino effect of declining state support for public education.

"Cash-strapped school districts that are being forced to cut their own programs and staff are reluctant to spend the money to send students to BOCES programs, even when they recognize the value of those programs and see what they are able to accomplish," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira, whose office oversees BOCES issues for the statewide union.

Like other successful alternative ed programs across the state, the WSWHE BOCES high school provided students a Regents-based curriculum with a winning combination of small classes, individualized instruction, academic content with personal relevance and the building of mentor relationships with educators and staff, many of whom had worked at the program for more than 20 years. Diplomas are awarded by a student's home district.

NYSUT has long been committed to the fundamental principles of alternative education, Neira noted, particularly its reliance on smaller classes, enabling teachers to work more closely on the specific needs of individual students.

Considering that all of its students were on the verge of dropping out of their home-district schools, the BOCES program could boast an admirable success rate. Of the students enrolled in the program during the 2009-10 school year, 90 percent either remained in the program, graduated or returned to a school district academic program at the end of the school year, according to the latest BOCES Report Card.

Although angered by the pending closure and uncertain of their own professional futures, the BOCES high school educators immediately rallied to prepare the students, their families and the component school districts for the return of approximately two dozen students who had originally been selected by their districts for alternative ed because of issues ranging from chronic truancy to disruptive behavior and poor interpersonal skills.

"Most of the schools sent people out to meet with the kids and talk with the parents, trying to develop a transition plan," said Shippee, the senior class adviser. "Some are trying to set up some type of in-house program to give the kids more support than they would normally get."

The BOCES teachers worked closely with school counselors from the 31 component districts to explain what had helped specific students in the past — something perhaps as simple as allowing a volatile student to step out of class for a minute or two without penalty to avoid a possible confrontation with a teacher or fellow student.

"We wanted to help the kids become their own advocates," Borden said, urging students to think about what strategies helped them cope in the alternative high school and ask whether any of those could be arranged in the home school. "We would tell them the answer could be yes, but if it's no, they might be able to work out something close."

Their return to a traditional classroom will test the coping skills of students who still have many "triggers," but their teachers say those who have been in the alternative high school the longest may have learned enough to survive the challenges.

"We constantly reinforced with them that they have changed," Borden said. "We were reminding them that they have learned how to talk to people and that sometimes it's better not to say anything."

Students took with them the BOCES email addresses of their former teachers, most of whom have been reassigned within BOCES, or have retired. "Even though we're all moving on, we'll still be available to them," said Shippee, a member of Saratoga-Adirondack BOCES Employees Association.

That's important in a school where loyalties run deep. Shippee still hears regularly from a student from 23 years ago who now runs a 9,000-acre farm in Montana. "He just wants to check in and ask about my family," she said. In June, a 1992 graduate watched proudly as her son joined 14 classmates in the school's final moving-on ceremony.

"Our communities lose if these kids become dropouts," said Bert Weber, president of the local union. "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."

John Strachan, former copy desk chief for NYSUT United, is now a NYSUT retiree consultant.