Between the train tracks and the Sawmill Parkway, on a road with modest industrial businesses in Westchester County, squats a small 19th century Antioch Baptist Church. For 35 years, it's been home to ACES — the Academic Community for Educational Success operated by the Bedford Central School District. Students who struggled in mainstream high school now have a sacred space for alternative learning, and ultimate success.
"For the past three years, we have had 100 percent of our seniors graduating on time and leaving with a plan to attend college,” said David Whalen, English teacher and ACES coordinator.
The achievement reflects the state's ever-increasing graduation rate, which has improved, on average, by 2 percentage points annually since 2002. Only one other state — Tennessee — can boast the same. Most other states show modest or stagnant grad rates.
ACES students, at least half of whom are eligible for free or reduced lunch, take the same courses as in the traditional high school, but they unpack them differently.
Students establish goals in September and, in turn, teachers identify ways they can demonstrate their achievements. Trips to out-of-state historic sites, community projects and participation in daily school meetings are windows to new views of education.
Inside the white, wood-framed building, donated, second-hand couches make reading comfortable for teens who get uptight about English. They can decide which book to read for class, choosing from rows of stocked bookshelves. Global history is more student-driven, allowing students to select topics and types of projects. Classes are smaller and there are no buzzers to signal when classes change.
Outside, the high schoolers tend the compost bin, greenhouse and raised bed garden. Inside, students use math skills while cooking in the small kitchen. They carry an air of earnestness, and an ease in approaching teachers.
"We re-ignite the passion for learning in students who desperately need it. The students who come to ACES feel beaten down by the world ... They begin to feel more confident and more engaged in school and in the world around them,” said Whalen, one of 450 members of the Bedford Teachers Association.
School staff includes part-time teachers for science, social studies, music, art and guidance, and full-time math and English teachers.
"Alternative educational programs allow students to thrive, find academic success and work on problems that may have been barriers to their education,” said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "Students' needs are met in a non-threatening environment. The high graduation rate and college attendance are examples of how students can overcome adversity, and of the time and commitment our members give so their students can succeed"
Out of this year's 11 seniors, (two graduated early) all have plans — college, the Marines, a cosmetology certificate program. One was awarded a $1,000 scholarship for overcoming struggles; another won a parents' scholarship.
"Not all feel they can afford to be (in college) full time, and some are not emotionally or socially ready for that,” said Whalen. Recent graduates range from students taking one course at a time to full-time enrollment in a four-year business program. "Of the seniors who graduated in 2010, all five are still enrolled in the colleges they chose,” Whalen said.
The school is a haven for many, he said. "This is a safe place. Some kids were bullied. Some felt lost"
Educators chart each student on individual tasks, group tasks, how-to sheets, peer tutoring and benchmark lessons.
"ACES was a pioneer in alternative education when it opened up. It was experimental,” said teacher Adam Yuro, president of the Bedford TA. "It was one of the first of its kind. I had friends who went here. It did turn their lives around"
The district is also home to another alternative school, Hillside School, which is located in Mount Kisco. It is an academic/therapeutic program using a psychologist, social worker and school counselor.
Tenth-grader Caroline Ledone struggled with the structure of the traditional high school, and with large groups. At ACES, when her teacher assigned a project on ancient civilizations, she was relieved to be able to choose her own topic — and approach.
She used charts, rather than an essay, to compare geography, religion, achievement, politics, economics and society of Ancient Greece and Ancient India.
"If I were trying to write an essay, I couldn't have visualized it so well,” said Ledone. For another project, she designed brochures.
Some students need to double up on courses to graduate. One senior needed earth science, and although it isn't offered at ACES, dedicated faculty member Chris O'Gorman created an educational program just for him.
Another teen never mixed well in high school where, Whalen said, "everything that could go wrong did" At ACES, he floundered a lot his first year but did begin passing classes and making connections with people.
"Finally, the potential so many people spoke about came to the fore,” Whalen said. An early graduate, "he is now completing his first semester of college and is headed for the dean's list"
With the state's precarious economy, the program often gets threatened during budget talks, but students, parents, family members and alumni advocate and demonstrate results, said Yuro.
ACES social worker Margie Ramos said with such a small group, it's easier to see where the teens are emotionally.
"It's very individualized. It's natural. They seek you out,” she said.
Education and teamwork thrive in the garden, where students grow concord grapes, cherry tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, garlic and eggplant.
"The best part is when kids take starter plants home,” said Whalen, widening his smile like a hoe across dirt. "It spreads the philosophy"
Math teacher Mike Mullen uses food for figuring. One day, his class cooked chicken parmesan, converting metric units to cups and tablespoons. They learned proportions to increase the original recipe.
Then, they used more math skills for fundraising: Their food was sold at a community event, raising money for a Lion's Club nursing scholarship, as well as for their own scholarship program. Each year students and staff also make most of the desserts for a bake sale — another way to raise funds for their educational field trips.
"You see kids who weren't getting along, get along when the flour's flying through the air,” said Mullen.