By JESSICA NICOSIA
For The Recorder
Most people would probably not expect to walk in to an Alternative Education program and see students eagerly playing chess with a teacher. But Amsterdam's 8-12 Alternative School, which moved in to the former Clara S. Bacon Elementary building this year, is full of teachers who will try anything to connect with the students.
"I thought it was a very, very cool concept about the way you have to think ahead of time," said Eric Lewis, the teacher who started the chess trend. "A lot of these kids are very, very impulsive, so once we start talking about chess they realize that if they make a move too quickly ... I beat them."
Lewis said chess is just one way he teaches students important skills in an engaging way. The kids often need a one-on-one connection with their teachers to view school as a positive place.
"I know most of these kids have horrendous home lives," said Lewis. "I like to think of it as a little safe haven here where I don't yell. So if they're getting yelled at all the time, this is a place where they know that they're not going to get yelled at."
Amsterdam High School students who needed alternative instruction used to go to the HFM BOCES program. Looking to start their own five years ago, the district hired Richard Potter as the new program's principal.
The program started with a teacher at the middle school and one at the high school. The next year, two more teachers were hired and shared between the schools. This is the first year the program has four teachers in one place teaching all the students.
Potter, who has felt a personal connection to kids who struggle since he first began teaching in alternative education, leads the program's 100 students.
"I would have been one of these kids ... when I was in school," he said. "I wasn't a good student. My parents were both high school dropouts. They didn't know how to direct me in the right way ... I did the bare minimum."
This understanding is something the students respect, said Potter.
"We have a volunteer who comes in here who's fantastic," he said, talking about John Sumpter, a local personal trainer. "He tries to give advice and they seem to respect him. He's somebody who had some difficulties in life...and has turned it around...and hopefully they see that it's never too late to turn it around."
The Alternative School moved in to the abandoned elementary building after a last minute decision this August, and the teachers and students have pitched in to bring the building back to a useable state. The city has worked on the gymnasium, which the students use for Physical Education classes and Friday afternoon basketball games with their teachers. The Whispering Pines pre-school shares the building.
Project-based learning and recreation activities teach required subjects and important skills. On Thursday, 10 students were able to volunteer at the Whispering Pines pre-school making Christmas ornaments. Teachers are planning a series of science projects in the nearby Sassafrass Park.
"One of the things we just started, they're really excited about, is trying to come up with a business of some sort," said Potter. "They need to come up with a business plan for it, all the math related things."
But state testing, low funds and low staffing limit project-based instruction. English, math, science, and social studies classes specific to each grade are taught alongside physical education, art, and music by just four teachers. Guidance counselors from the high school visit once a week.
"I'm the principal, the guidance counselor, the custodian, the maintenance worker, the teacher sometimes, the hall monitor," said Potter. "I do all of it, and basically we all do all of it. We have to."
Different students respond to different instruction, and many need social and emotional support.
"It's a pretty good split of kids who come here and work hard and do well, and kids who still just are not getting it," said Potter. "So we keep trying different things. Throw stuff at them and see what sticks."
One thing that does stick is feeling understood. The small classes and sense of community between students and teachers help that.
"For me it's actually completely better because up at the high school there are big classes ... and down here there are less people so there's less problems, and it's just good for me," said Ashley Moynihan, 15, who has been in the program since 8th grade. She hopes to become a nurse after she graduates.
"You get more help," said Jordan Haller, 15, who came to the alternative school this year because it is smaller. "I just can't handle a lot of people around me because it gets to be too much."
Moynihan and Haller have flourished at the alternative school, according to Potter.
Creating opportunities to change comes up a lot with him. He has even worked with the kids to come up with a new name for the building: Phoenix Academy.
Potter talked about one student who was constantly truant at the high school, but has almost perfect attendance this year at the alternative school.
"That's why I hope the program stays," he said. "Because of kids like that."