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Mt. Tom Academy offers students an alternative

By Paula Canning

Staff Writer

HOLYOKE When Cindy Patterson's daughter decided she wanted to go back to high school after dropping out for a year, Patterson, a secretary in the Academic Affairs office at Holyoke Community College (HCC), was ecstatic.

Patterson said the idea reached a "dead end," however, when she took the 18-year-old back to the school she had attended and was told that, due to her age, her daughter's chances of making it to graduation were minimal.

"They told me that, because she was older and would have to take classes with younger kids, along with a 100 other reasons, she probably wouldn't make it," she explained.

Shortly after discussions at the high school, Patterson received a suggestion to consider sending her daughter to Mt. Tom Academy Alternative High School, located on HCC's campus.

Now, Patterson said her daughter is not only enrolled in the high school and on the road to getting her diploma, she is "absolutely thrilled and loving Mt. Tom Academy."

She said that she believes that her daughter, who recently passed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), found success at the school for many reasons including the small class size and the individual attention she receives.

"She's flying so high," she said. "I don't think anything could stop her right now."

Currently, Patterson's daughter is one of 15 students who attends Mt. Tom Academy, which was founded by The Hampshire Educational Collaborative, HCC, the Gateway Regional, and Hampshire Regional Schools.

Mt. Tom Academy provides an alternative educational setting for students whose needs could not be met in a traditional high school setting, according to Theresa Howard, Dean of Cooperative Education and Career Services at HCC.

The school, which has expanded since its founding in 2000, was the focus of State Representative John Siback's (D South Hadley) visit to the college last Friday, during which he toured the high school.

Through a Massachusetts Department of Education grant developed by the Hampshire Educational Collaborative, HCC, and the Hampshire Regional Schools, the school has been able to expand enrollment as well as staff.

Three new school systems, South Hadley, Amherst, and Northampton, have recently joined the program.

Mt. Tom will be applying for a round of competitive grants on June 29 that administrators hope to secure to help fund further expansion, according to Howard.

She said that Mt. Tom Academy is a great benefit to local participating high schools, as the students still receive their diploma through the original high school they attended.

"The students still belong to their home high school," she said. "We are just providing a different type of environment for students who were in schools that did not meet their specific needs, whatever those needs happen to be. I don't see why any school would be reluctant in that sense," Howard said.

She explained that the environment includes a relaxed setting in which students are given greater flexibility in achieving their educational goals and a greater sense of independence.

Attending high school at the college offers the students a clear sense of identity and purpose, Howard said, which is reinforced by the HCC photo I.D. gives to each Mt. Tom student.

"You have no idea what that photo I.D. means to them," she said. "It says to them, 'Hey, look at me, I'm accepted, I'm somebody.' "

While students are required to fulfill all of the necessary requirements from their high school, the curriculum is tailored to fit students' individual needs, and students are afforded the opportunity to move at their own pace.

According to Howard, many of the students who attend Mt. Tom were in a "crisis-type environment" at home or at school, and were not functioning well in the typical high school setting.

"This is the beauty of this program," Howard said. "We can seek out these kids that are in emergency situations and take them right in."

Howard added that many of the students in the program are "extremely bright" and to have these students drop out of high school would be "such a loss to the community."

Alex Velis, coordinator of the Mt. Tom Academy program, said that most students who attend Mt. Tom are recruited by their guidance councilors, who then refer them to Mt. Tom.

He said that Mt. Tom works especially well for students who are older, have decided to return to school to complete their high school education, but are not comfortable in a high school environment.

Velis said that Mt.Tom students are not inclined to feel "singled out" from HCC students, because walking around campus, "nobody knows who's who."

Mt. Tom operates on campus with two classrooms, and four teachers, offering a range of course study to help students fulfill their individual requirements, according to Velis.

He said that, while space issues may prevent a dramatic expansion of the program, he is hoping that the other community colleges will embrace the idea and offer a similar program on their campuses.

"The hope is that this could be replicated, and that other community colleges would do this for the schools in their district," Veils said. "That would be a dream come true."

Brett Koivisto, a student at Mt. Tom, said that he likes that "he gets treated like an adult," at the school.

"It's nice because you're not on a leash and you have a lot more freedom," Koivisto said.

Terrence Benoit, also a student at Mt. Tom, agreed that freedom is one of the main attractions of the school.

"There's a lot more freedom and a lot more flexibility," Benoit said.

Mt. Tom teacher Barbara Gionfriddo said that attending high school on a college campus has many advantages for the students, including exposure to cultural and ethnic diversity as well as being able to learn about the different types of college courses available.

She added that due to the size of the school, the atmosphere tends to be friendly among students.

"There are no clicks here no one there to pick on you," Gionfriddo said. "The kids are all here helping each other out."

She explained that students can choose from a variety of coursework in any of the required high school subjects, and also have the opportunity to take certain electives.

She said that Mt. Tom students can also take college courses at HCC during the day, and are granted the required flexibility to do so.

"Everything is geared towards the student and meeting their needs," Gionfriddo said.

She explained that Mt. Tom students also have access to HCC facilities, such as the college's fitness facilities, library, and computer lab, and can also attend school functions and programs.

She added that the graduation rate for the students is "very high."

"It's an incredibly wonderful program for any kids who for one reason or another just couldn't get adjusted at their high school," she said.

HCC President William Messner, explained that Mt. Tom has many advantages for the college, including the opportunity to exhibit the college's interest in serving the community.

In addition, Messner said that the Academy helps attract future students, as some Mt. Tom students have moved on to attend undergraduate programs at HCC.

He said that the positive reaction among students is evidence that the program is so effective.

"We're hoping that other schools will open up their eyes and see this as a model,"Messner said.

Sciback, who vowed on Friday to support funding for Mt. Tom, said that the academy "clearly meets a need" in the community.

He said that Mt. Tom offers a "great opportunity" for students who have needs that do not fit into the traditional high school setting.

"You have got to give these kids an alternative, so that they don't make a decision that could affect them negatively for the rest of their lives," Sciback said, adding that not having a high school diploma can put a person at a serious disadvantage in the job market.

He said that there is a significant difference in income between those students who graduated high school and those who haven't.

One of the messages that he said he will take with him after the visit is the college's obvious commitment to the program, which he said might not have thrived if HCC had not so readily embraced it.

For more information about the program, contact Velis at (413) 527-8002.