Throughout much of her high school career, Mary Commisso dreaded going to school.
“I always had trouble in school in a big setting, and I felt like I wasn’t able to get the help and attention I needed, because the teachers had to help other kids as well,” said the Liverpool High School sophomore. “There’s just so much drama [at the main building], too many kids. And the teachers weren’t really treating me well.”
So when Commisso and her parents heard about the experimental FOCUS program the district was offering for struggling kids, they signed her up.
The difference, she said, has been immense.
“[I’ve done] a lot better here,” she said. “[It’s] a huge change. I never even wanted to go to school last year. This year, I want to come every day. I don’t even want it to be summer. I want to come to school every day during the summer.”
Commisso said her grades have increased along with her interest.
“This has really helped me because it’s smaller,” she said. “You get to have a connection with the teachers. It’s more personal, and the teachers are able to help you get more of your work done, and sit down and write it out so you understand it, because everyone learns differently.”
Commisso’s is one of many success stories at Liverpool’s FOCUS Academy, which opened up in the former Wetzel Road Elementary building this fall. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, the alternative high school program, which houses about 40 ninth- and 10th-grade students, won’t reopen in the fall.
Budget forces closure
From its inception, the program was met with opposition from some members of the community who objected to the fact that it was set up in the old WRE building, which was closed supposedly to save money. FOCUS Executive Principal Mark Potter said some of those community members seem to believe that FOCUS was closing because it hadn’t accomplished its intended mission.
“One thing that seems to be a little bit misunderstood is that we’re closing it because it wasn’t successful,” Potter said. “It’s presented as a pilot program that had some strong successes. Unfortunately, because of the message that was presented to the community in some ways by some of the community members, people thought it didn’t meet expectations, which wasn’t true.”
In reality, Potter said, it was a purely fiscal decision; in the 2012-13 budget, there just wasn’t room for the program.
“In order to continue the program, it was going to require two or three more teachers, because we were going to increase the enrollment, so we couldn’t have continued with the same budget,” he said. “We would have had to increase it. That was one of the factors that caused it to be closed. We couldn’t afford to increase the budget, so if we couldn’t increase it, we really couldn’t have it.”
The Liverpool school board had initially hoped to keep it going, but through their negotiations, ultimately decided to take the program out of the budget. In a 7-2 vote on Monday March 19 as they put together their final budget, the FOCUS program was removed.
Board President Patricia DeBona-Rosier said the program couldn’t be sustained in this economic climate.
“We don’t have sufficient funds to make this program successful,” she said.
However, in its first year, FOCUS, which stands for Free of Obstacles Creating Unlimited Success, did see significant progress in reaching its goals.
“Our goals were to re-engage kids back into the educational setting that presented some positives in their lives,” he said. “We wanted them to pick up some credits if they were missing some credits. We wanted them to be successful in the academic classroom. We wanted to present them with the rigor of a normal high school course. We just delivered the content in a little bit of a different way, which was project-based.”
According to Potter, those goals were all met. Attendance has gone way up, as have student grades.
“All of the kids are also passing most of the courses, and they’re all taking five if not more credits,” he said. “The grade point average of all the kids combined is about a 77, and they came in [with a GPA of] below 60.”
But more than that, FOCUS has helped its students to become more confident in themselves.
“I think one thing that the FOCUS program has done for the kids — and it was really one of our goals — was to bring a level of confidence to their own education, to their own academic world,” Potter said. “A lot of these kids have literally no confidence in themselves or their abilities. Coming in here and passing courses and doing public speaking and participating in project-based learning and going out into the community and being part of internships has really led them to feel much better and more confident about their own skills. I think those are some pieces that, whether they go back to the main building or to BOCES or wherever in the next phase of their lives, I think they just feel a lot better about being able to stand up and advocate [for themselves]. That was really one of our goals was for kids to be able to advocate for themselves — ‘This is what I need, and this is what I’m struggling with.’ And they’ve done it. I feel pretty good with them going back.”
What happens now?
Though the FOCUS program won’t exist anymore, the support system it created certainly will. The students who went through the program have four options, according to Potter. With each option, they’ll still have the full support of the former FOCUS staff.
“Option one is to go back into the main high school building,” Potter said. “And that’s not really just putting them into that master schedule and saying goodbye. There are still going to be a lot of supports and some interventions that will be put into place.”
The second option is the Career Academy through OCM-BOCES at the Morgan Road campus. The Career Academy designed to give ninth- through 12th-graders the opportunity to explore different career paths while completing their academic course work to graduate from high school. Career themes are woven into the academic courses to make the classes meaningful and engaging for students. During the first two years students will explore careers while touring local businesses, visiting the Career and Technical Education programs and participating in vocational assessments to identify their interests. During the junior and senior years, students will participate in half-day Career and Technical Education programs at the Thompson Road campus.
Another option is the OCM-BOCES STARS program in Solvay. STARS is designed for students who have experienced difficulty in attaining school success within the traditional environment. It provides grade-level academics within a supportive setting. The development of solid academic skills is stressed along with developing pro-social skills. The goal of the program is to provide students with a learning environment that will lead to their high school graduation. Students who are most successful in this program have the ability academically, but have failed to demonstrate this ability. The students may have a number of risk factors operating within their lives that may include poor coping skills, low academic performance, lack of identity with their home school, and/or family difficulties. The program includes a full0time social worker who provides both individual and group counseling.
The fourth option is to put the kid back in the main building, but split their day between the main building and the BOCES Career Tech Ed occupational trades program.
“We’ve met with the parents and we’ve met with the kids, all of them, and the majority are going back to the main building with some BOCES component,” Potter said. “Some of them are going to the Career Academy and some are going to the high school full-time. We have none going to STARS.”
The staff at FOCUS will be absorbed back into the main building. Both the guidance counselor and the special education teacher from FOCUS will keep all of the students from FOCUS on their caseloads, and some of the students will even remain together.
Though the program may have been scrapped, Potter said he still considers it a win for the district.
“I think there have been major benefits to the program,” he said. “We also have staff that have learned how to teach in a different environment. One of the things that we have really pushed or promoted has been knowing what works with some of these students, and taking those skills and applying them next door. What works in one setting — using learning centers, using different media. We do a lot of videos. We do a lot of hands-on activities. We won’t go back to the ‘traditional teaching’ where you’re just delivering information. Keep the kids at the center of what you’re trying to accomplish, and part of that is student discussion, student projects.”
Mary Commisso, who’ll be splitting her time between the Career Academy and BOCES’ Tech Ed program next year, certainly saw those benefits.
“Now I know that I am capable of getting good grades,” she said. “I just need to make sure that teachers know when I don’t understand something and make it obvious that they need to show me a different way or help me more. I just feel more confident in everything I do now.”
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.