HOLYOKE, MA – To Barbara Cheney, Lead Teacher at Mount Tom Academy and CES Licensure program instructor, everything she has done in her professional life has prepared her for her current role.
Located at Holyoke Community College (HCC), the alternative high school is designed to serve students who have been unsuccessful in traditional high school settings. The program is managed by the Collaborative for Educational Services (CES) in Northampton, MA.
At Mount Tom, Barbara works with students who have struggled in traditional educational settings. Students entering Mount Tom Academy have already spent time in high school, so Barbara often has a shorter window of time in which to engage the student and provide the tools needed to obtain a diploma. Barbara sets high expectations, but sees her students respond to her expectations with hard work and a renewed enthusiasm for learning that will carry them beyond high school.
Barbara moved to the area seventeen years ago, after teaching in the New York City public schools. Barbara’s students struggled not only with all the typical teenage issues, but with additional social and emotional issues as well. When Barbara moved to Western Massachusetts, she taught GED and English as a Second Language (ESL) to adults in Springfield and Easthampton. In Easthampton, she met Matt Rigney, who later became her manager when she taught for ten years at The Reunion Center, an alternative learning program managed by CES. Barbara then moved to the Hampshire Regional School District ESL program for five years. When Matt contacted Barbara about joining Mount Tom Academy in 2014, she signed on immediately.
The students that Barbara works with at Mount Tom Academy are a diverse group. Some excel academically, but need assistance with social and emotional learning skills to be successful in school. Others need basic academic skills to obtain their diploma. Barbara interviews students at enrollment to begin building their plan of focus and support at Mount Tom.
An important part of the supportive environment is a “triangle” of communication – between Mount Tom Academy, the students, and their parents. Barbara practices a “door always open” policy, and parents are frequently in contact. Along the way, students learn the skills needed to manage their own workload. An important goal is that students know how to be self-directed and independent learners by the time they finish their Mount Tom program of study. Some students master this early enough to return to their sending district prior to graduation.
Barbara says that one of the key assets of the Mount Tom Academy program is its location on the HCC campus. “Holyoke Community College is such a strong partner. We can provide all the resources for learning right here.”
Being on the HCC campus provides significant benefits and opportunities for her students. Mount Tom Academy students immediately become part of the bigger campus, with a larger, more diverse environment than they are used to. Students who were challenged fitting in at their high school find the HCC environment a comfortable and more accepting one. The HCC campus also presents a glimpse of future possibilities. For those who hadn’t been able to think beyond a high school diploma, the world opens up for them. Some Mount Tom students begin dual enrollment at HCC while still working on their Mount Tom program of study.
There are also the Mount Tom alumni. Many alumni, now HCC students, return to their former classrooms as part of an informal club, serving key roles as both mentors and inspirations for current students. Sharing past struggles, inspiring current students to work harder, alumni energize the program in a unique way; giving current students another view of their own future opportunities.
When Barbara reflects on the CES motto “everyone is a learner,” she says that most people think it refers to CES students, and see her as the teacher. But as she teaches, it is her own willingness to reflect and learn to try new strategies as they are needed with her students; and to adapt to each student’s needs; that keeps her continually learning as an educator. That is what makes Mount Tom Academy’s program work so well for her students.
Says Barbara, “My dream for them is to open up – you aren’t just here to get a high school diploma, we are opening up a world you haven’t entertained before. That is the powerful thing about education. It can open up opportunities and minds. Once we identify what the barrier is, we see what we need to do to achieve success.”