On June 25, a group of teenagers did something they once thought was unlikely, if not outright impossible: they graduated from high school.
Seventeen students received their diplomas from the OCM BOCES Career Academy, an alternative high school program housed at the BOCES campus on Crown Road in Liverpool, in its first-ever commencement exercises. The program accepts kids from the Liverpool, North Syracuse, Baldwinsville and Fayetteville-Manlius districts who struggled in a more traditional high school setting.
“This program was started because the people in these very large schools were seeing a significant number of really wonderful students falling through the cracks,” said Career Academy Principal Colleen Zawadski. “They struggled academically and socially and they just weren’t succeeding there.”
Disturbed by what they were seeing, North Syracuse Superintendent Jerome Melvin, Liverpool Assistant Superintendent Maureen Patterson and OCM BOCES Assistant Superintendent Colleen Viggiano met to discuss a solution. They came up with the Career Academy, which puts students in smaller classes with more hands-on learning opportunities and more one-on-one contact with their teachers. It is built on the framework of the National Career Academy, integrating hands-on learning with real-life job experiences.
At the Career Academy’s Liverpool campus as well as the BOCES facility on Thompson Road, ninth- through 12th-graders get a different kind of learning experience. The curriculum incorporates traditional classes like math, English and social studies, preparing kids for Regents exams, and hands-on learning experiences like internships and job shadowing.
The initial group of kids was made up of ninth- and 10th-graders from Liverpool and North Syracuse.
“We had a lot of repeat ninth-graders,” Zawadski said. “We actually only had about three or four legitimate 10th-graders. But they did a lot of what we call credit recovery — summer school, doubling up, everything they had to do to graduate with their class.”
Zawadski said that kind of work ethic is typical of the kids she saw come through the academy.
“I’m pretty confident that this is the right place for them to be,” she said.
In order to participate in the program, students must be selected by staff at their home school. They then complete an application, compiling information like report cards, transcripts and history. They are then interviewed by the academy and asked to visit the program. The student and his or her parents and school counselors are notified if he or she is accepted.
Not just academics
A variety of kids come through the doors at the academy.
“We have kids with behavioral problems, medical problems, disabilities,” Zawadski said. “But most of the kids at the Career Academy just had a hard time fitting in to a regular classroom.”
The Career Academy addressed those students by providing smaller class sizes and more one-on-one contact with their teachers.
“We gave them a lot of support and help them develop a lot of skills they’ll need for the work force,” Zawadski said. “It ended up being what they needed to be successful.”
Of the 17 students who graduated on June 25, 13 received Regents diplomas, one with honors and one with Advanced Distinction. Eight completed college credit and nine received technical endorsements. Several will go on to college, while others will take the skills they learned and enter the job market.
And the Career Academy also taught the kids empathy for others. Zawadski said she has watched the students grow into compassionate, caring human beings.
“Our students have painted the homes of two breast cancer survivors, raised over $3,000 for research, gone to New Orleans twice to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, worked in food pantries, spoken against genocide, supported the Lost Boys and so much more,” she said. “They have not only become better students and better prepared for entering the world, they’ve become better people.”
And in doing so, they made their teachers better people.
“We grew as they grew,” Zawadski said. “We became better teachers and better people because we worked with these kids.”
All in all, the Career Academy provided teachers and students alike with a better learning experience, Zawadski said.
“The bottom line is that this program really made a difference for these kids.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.