EASTHAMPTON, MA – On a recent rainy Monday, The Reunion Center, an alternative education program on Pine Street, was a hub of after-school activity.
Pairs of students huddled in front of computer screens and at small tables scattered around the program?s one-room facility, poring over homework assignments.
Benjamin Babcock, a fifth-grader at White Brook Middle School, was working on vocabulary words with Tiereny George, a junior at Easthampton High School.
“She helps me with spelling because sometimes I just can’t spell correctly,” said Babcock, as he dug a book out of his backpack.
George, a member of the National Honor Society at EHS, said she enjoys being a tutor at the center. “I like helping them feel better about what they’re doing,” she said.
The two students are part of Mentoring Mondays, the Reunion Center’s newest academic support program. Launched two months ago by Program Director Katie Fryzel-Paquette, the initiative recruits high-achieving high school students to tutor struggling middle-schoolers one afternoon a week. Fryzel-Paquette, a former EHS teacher who now teaches English and social studies at White Brook Middle School. said she wanted to start a program that would help address “academic deficits” before students get to high school.
“Here, the students can work at their own pace and feel like they own their education,” she said.
In addition to keeping more middle-schoolers from becoming at risk for dropping out of high school, Mentoring Mondays also helps break down barriers between students, said Debbie Downey, an assistant teacher at the Reunion Center.
“To have the kids who are successful coming in is really helpful,” said Downey, who is also an assistant teacher at the Mount Tom Academy alternative high school program at Holyoke Community College. At Easthampton High School “their paths wouldn’t cross,” she added. “It’s nice to mix all groups.”
Three years ago, the Reunion Center shifted its focus from adult education to academic support programs for teens. Since then, Fryzel-Paquette said, the number of students enrolled in its free test preparation sessions, credit-recovery classes and work internships has tripled, from about a dozen to more than three dozen. Funded by a $30,000 state education grant coordinated by the Collaborative for Educational Services, the center, which has been at its Pine Street location for more than a decade, is now seeking larger quarters to accommodate the growing demand from students in Easthampton and surrounding communities.
Matt Rigney, coordinator of youth and adult education services for the Collaborative, said students enrolled in Reunion Center programs have shown improvement in MCAS scores and graduation rates.
Amanda Babcock, Benjamin’s mother, said the mentoring program has helped her son focus on schoolwork. “He’s been able to get more things done,” said Babock, who heard about the new mentoring program via Facebook. “He’s been here three Mondays and he instantly liked it. He said he felt comfortable here.”
High school students enrolled at the Reunion Center say that comfort level is key to why the program has worked for them.
“I came this past summer because I’d failed a couple of courses,” said Keegan Cowan, an EHS sophomore. “I thought it was going to be a pain but then I realized it was better. I’ve been here almost a year now and I do my homework. I’m only four credits from being back on track.”
Tyler Dowland, who graduated from EHS last summer, said the center is the reason he earned a degree after dropping out of high school in his sophomore year. Now 21, he plans to study history at HCC next fall.
“Here, you get to have more of a bond with a teacher,” Dowland said. “And they help with homework. A lot of kids don’t have parents at home and it’s hard to study by yourself.”
Fryzel-Paquette said the Reunion Center offers students a way to reclaim some academic self-esteem.
“When they come in they say to us, “We’re the bad kids,”” she noted. “But we say, “No, you are the kids who are putting in extra time” ” to achieve a goal.
The center also helps students set up work internships and teaches resume writing and job interviewing skills, Fryzel-Paquette said. Among the area businesses providing support to the program are Easthampton Savings Bank and Florence Savings Bank. The center is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays after school and Fridays by appointment. For more information, call Fryzel-Paquette at 758-1669 or visit the center?s Facebook page.