By A.M. Sheehan
NORWAY — AS.
AS could stand for Advanced Study.
Or for Amazing Success.
Or for Alternative School.
At Streaked Mountain School, SAD 17’s alternative school, it stands for all three.
Students privileged and lucky enough to attend Streaked Mountain are scholars in their own right. In fact, their path is, in many ways, far more difficult than the average high school student’s.
High school students attend school for about six periods a day. During that time they have study halls, lunch, field trips, lectures, etc.
Streaked Mountain students have one goal. To graduate. In order to do so, they must use every minute of their time to teach themselves the required curriculum. On their own.
They spend three to five hours a day at school intensely working. And then more time at home. It is April and the roomful of students at Streaked Mountain is so quiet, only turning pages and pencil scratching can be heard.
The 15 or so students in the room are either reading, writing, drawing or at work on a school computer. Jason Trask, teacher, and Vanessa Greeley, Ed Tech III, quietly confer with individual students as needed.
Many of these students have to earn more than six credits by the end of the school year in order to graduate with their class and “walk.”
Most high school students earn a credit per year in each of the classes they take. Not these kids. They will earn each credit in a few weeks or months – if they are motivated to do so.
These kids are.
“If it weren’t for Streaked Mountain I wouldn’t be in school,” says 17-year-old Shantel Annance of Otisfield.
“My freshman and sophomore years I didn’t take [school] seriously … I was constantly in trouble. I was skipping classes because I was constantly behind.
“In my junior year I would have dropped out.”
Instead she came to SMS and she is determined to graduate in June with her class.
“It’s a lot more one-on-one, smaller class and atmosphere,” she explains, “and you get to connect with Trask and Greeley.”
Most students don’t get to call their teachers by their last names. Nor do they have their teachers’ phone number in their cell in case they need to talk.
Annance recognizes that most high school teachers can’t teach the same way because of the sheer number of students under their tutelage.
“It’s not the teachers’ fault, it is more informal here.”
She says her school issues began in middle school.
“I would be late, or something, and it [falling behind] would escalate. I didn’t have a good support system … my home life was always kinda complicated … chaotic.”
At SMS, Trask and Greeley know what home is like for their students and can filter students’ behaviour and attitudes through that knowledge, adjusting their approach.
Annance says she has ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) but that in high school only the special needs kids get extra help as a matter of course. She feels kids like her fall through the cracks.
Adrianna Martin, 18, of South Paris sits bouncing her year-old daughter Ava-Lynn on her knee. Ava-Lynn grins and grabs a book on the table.
“I am a procrastinator,” she smiles, “I know how to do but put it off.”
She says she has really bad anxiety including panic attacks and depression. In high school she had days when her depression and anxiety got really bad with so many people but at SMS she only has to deal with a handful of other students.
“I was having trouble going to school most … well all of the time.”
She has been at SMS for her sophomore, junior and senior year.
Although she says, “Mr. Moccia [Ted Moccia, OHCHS principal] sent me here,” she says she actually wanted to come.
“I find it easier to do work by myself.”
Martin says she can bring her baby if she can’t find a sitter and with two teachers to help instead of just one in a large class, she is succeeding.
“My mom thinks it’s helping.”
She says this year she has been really trying because she wants “to graduate with my class this year.”
She says, “Trask thinks I could graduate if I go to summer school but, [he says,] ‘I always surprise him.'”
Even if she doesn’t graduate in June with her class “it won’t slow me down, I am ready to graduate as quick as I can.”
Martin says the first two years at SMS she didn’t come a lot but after she had her baby, she decided to get serious.
“I needed to graduate because she [her baby] won’t have the life she deserves unless I graduate and I don’t want her to be able to use that [her mother’s lack of diploma] against me!”
She says she will have a different attitude toward going to school and graduating. She tells of the kids in her apartment complex who talk about hating school and about a 10-year-old who only goes to school because the truancy officer comes.
Martin says she wouldn’t have graduated high school without coming to SMS.
“Here I do the stuff I can do, first and then get help with the other stuff.”
Eighteen-year-old Danny Sanborn of West Paris says he had a great “first couple of years at high school.”
Then, in his sophomore year, he “began having troubles. I was trying to find a job and work and home was chaotic at the time. I lived with my mom and we didn’t get along.”
Mom has since moved and he says they get on great now. He is currently living with his dad and brother.
He works doing odd jobs at Bessy Motors and at Seeds of Peace international camp in the summer.
“I chose to come here [SMS] because I got into some trouble at the high school and they didn’t want me there. Coming here helped me get more done … it’s not just listening to a teacher talk … you read the packet and ask for help if you need it. It makes me want to come to school.”
Sanborn says at the high school he would miss two or three days a week. Here he wants to come.
As a senior the year is winding down toward graduation but he is sure he will graduate.
“I think so .. I don’t know if I can march but I’m gonna try … I only have six more credits [needed] … I think I can do it.”
Things aren’t as “dragged out” at SMS, he says.
“At high school I learned but didn’t understand, … I think this is more my way of learning,” Sanborn says. “This environment helps … we’re not in a building with lots of kids and a lot of estrogen and testosterone. Things are better in a small group setting.”
His family, he says, like his coming to SMS.
“They have noticed my attitude has changed toward school and they like how they can come in and talk to Trask.
He feels that Trask really cares about his students.
“I missed a week [of school] and Trask came to my house and talked to my dad … they really care about us here.”
Without the chance SMS gave him, Sanborn says he would not have graduated but probably be at home doing odd jobs trying to get by.
“I got expelled from high school for six months for marijuana in my sophomore year,” says Ben Rainey, 18, of West Paris.
“I did a ‘drop-in’ here because Mr. Moccia recommended I come here so once I was re-enrolled I came here.
“I don’t like being around a lot of people and at high school there are a lot and a lot I don’t like.”
Rainey has been coming to SMS for three years and has almost all his credits, he says.
“I am getting really good grades … if I had stayed in high school I would have dropped out by now and been working.”
He says his family thinks the program is good and that it has really helped him.
Kalli Pulkkimen, 17, of South Paris skipped sixth grade, got held back in eighth grade and found developing mental health issues made it impossible for him to go to school.
He is very open about his issues, saying he is manic-depressive.
“It made sense to be in an alternative program,” he says.
He spent his freshman year in Kevin Daley’s CAPS program at the high school. But in his sophomore year, he says he got mononucleosis and began having trouble again.
“Last year I barely went to school,” Pulkkimen says.
He says he contacted Trask and asked to come to SMS.
“He sat down with me and we talked and I have been coming to school ever since.”
In his senior year now, he says, “This is the first year I have completed since seventh grade … without this I would have dropped out. I am busting my ass to graduate this year … I only need five more credits so I think I can.”
He says his family has a history of dropping out of high school and getting a GED. His mother and sisters all did so and all, eventually, went back to school and into nursing.
“It is difficult having parents who didn’t graduate. There was never any battle about not going to school … if I didn’t want to they said, ‘OK,'” Pulkkimen says.
They are, however, fully supportive, he says.
“I think they are proud of me.”
“Dillon” (not his real name), 18, says he “certainly wouldn’t be in high school now. I honestly think without Mr. Daley and this [SMS] I certainly wouldn’t graduate and wouldn’t be in a very good place.”
He says his home life is far from great but that he can’t use his real name for safety reasons (having nothing to do with home but with physical bullying).
“I used to be an A/B student.” Then he had a health issue with his heart and had to stop playing sports.
“Everything went downhill,” he says.
Jason Trask and Vanessa Greeley are the life blood behind the successes at Streaked Mountain. Well, to hear Trask talk, Greeley is.
“It wouldn’t happen without her,” he says.
Greeley, 45, of West Paris has a BA in arts and humanities from University of Southern Maine Lewiston-Auburn. She is currently working on her certification.
She tells the secret of SMS’s success.
“Here they [students] need a brand new day, every day,” Greeley says. “These kids have seen and experienced too much ‘stuff.'”
She says every child who comes to SMS has the potential to graduate.
“If they decide they want to it means more to them. They work harder.”
She says the difference in teaching is “here no one stands in front of the class and says, ‘Turn to page 42.’ We teach every class [subject] to every student, every day.”
She says the kids should be proud of themselves.
“For may, this is the first time they have completed an assignment by themselves. This is their last chance and they have to do it until they get it right,” Greeley says. “They actually have an incredibly hard job … they don’t get the benefit of classroom lectures or discussions … they just have to ingest and draw conclusions on their own.”
She says she and Trask will often pull a student’s personal experiences into their teaching using things as examples to explain the work.
“For example,” she grins, “most every one has experience with stuffing the toilet with toilet paper until it overflows. Well that teaches kids all sorts of chemistry principals like buoyancy, suspension physical and chemical change.”
She notes they have had more than one kid graduate high school with every single credit earned at SMS.
Greeley says at the high school kids take six classes a day and get two or three worksheets plus about 50 pages of reading for homework. She says at SMS they do all that in three to five hours.
“I am not saying it is easy but if you really want to work, you can make it happen.”
She says the school’s focus is on getting the kids to graduate not like some alternative schools, which are less stringent.
“They were done [at high school]. They had given up. They came here and figured it out. More often than not our kids turn their lives around … they prove they can do it.”
She says they get the same textbooks and credit system as the high school and the same, if not more, expectations.
“Every credit they get they earned themselves because they did the work themselves.”
So what’s the secret?
“Wouldn’t you love a job where you felt valued every day. Where you had someone to talk to. Where they understood when life gets in the way.”
That, she says, is the secret to their success. It’s what they do.
“High school can’t do what we do,” she says, “the ratio doesn’t work.”
Greeley says about 50 percent of the students come from a tumultuous home life. They pay attention to that.
Trask began his career attending an alternative college at Columbia University then taught at a high school for juveniles incarcerated on Rikers Island in New York.
When offered Streaked Mountain at its inception, he jumped at the chance. His degrees are in Philosophy and English.
He takes little credit for SMS’s success with its students instead giving credit to Greeley.
A product of the ’60s, Trask has an appeal that disenfranchised kids can connect with. And he is more than a teacher. He is a mentor, a teacher, a friend. It is his telephone number on the board. It is he who gets the call from a kid in trouble. And, if he can, it is he who helps.
Moccia says that while not all of the SMS students would have otherwise dropped out, “SMS has saved many students. Jason and Vanessa have worked extremely hard to help students finish [high school] and find their way.”
“The school provides great opportunities for kids who find traditional high school a struggle,” said Superitendent of Schools Rick Colpitts. “He [Trask] gets it, he understands where the kids are coming from and he finds a way to latch on and build relationships.”
It only takes one person to make a difference in a child’s life. These kids have two.
The students at SMS, however, share a collective feeling that they are looked down on.
They say those at the high school – both teachers and students – think they have it easy. However, a quick glance at the authors they are reading – Thoreau, Wells, Hesse – quickly disabuses the notion that it’s easy here.
“People can say it’s easier all they want,” says Annance, “but they’re [high school students] are taught how to do stuff … we learn it on our own. We have the same books.
“The administration and teachers treat us differently because we are looked at as if we’re delinquents … it’s pretty discouraging. Other kids think we’re taking the easy way … a lot think we’re drug users … but we just need to learn at our own pace.”
“A lot have a very untrue opinion about this school,” says Dillon,”a lot of high school teachers think it’s a joke … where all the problem kids go. They should come talk to us here … I think the world of this school.”
“I want to graduate,” says Annance, “I want to be a good role model for my little brother.” After graduation, her dream is to go to college for a business as well as a culinary degree. “I want to start a restaurant.”
Martin plans to take CNA courses in the fall. “I plan to be extremely rich,” she laughs. “I really just want to care for people.”
Sanborn wants to get a tech degree in welding and earn his diving certification so he can earn a living as an underwater welder. He also want to explore other areas of the country.
“I used to dream of college,” he says, “but then I went through a rough time. Now my dreams are back.”
Rainey plans to graduate, get a job, save up his earnings and move to Colorado where he has his heart set on going to Colorado Mountain College to study outdoor biology and wildlife.
Pulkkimen says, “In the past I wanted to be an English teacher. Earlier this year I thought I would go to college … now I am not so sure it is right for me … I want to live a very full life.” He says he wants to go to South America – Columbia – and live among the indigenous people.
“Dillon,” too, wants to focus on the culinary arts. “I plan to go to community college for a year then transfer to a four-year college.” He says he can do it. “I never thought I would graduate high school and here I am, so…”