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Despite name change, missions remain same for former Alternative Education school

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MASSENA - The name may be changed, but the mission of the former Alternative Education School in Massena remains the same - ensuring that students who don’t fit into the regular classroom setting are still able to graduate and move on with either college or their careers.

Massena Central School officials have announced the name of the program has been changed to Delta School of Choice.

“We rolled out a new name to get rid of some of the stigma that follows Alternative Education,” Principal Jeremy Siddon told board of education members at their January meeting.

However, the mission remains the same, he said - aligning itself with the district’s mission of all students will be college or career ready, and productive members of their community, upon graduation from Massena Central School District.

“Unfortunately not every student comes to school with the tools to be successful in a traditional school setting,” Mr. Siddon said.

Social studies teacher Joseph Mittiga said they were able to isolate why some students were having problems in the traditional classroom setting.

“When I first became a teacher, it didn’t take me long to identify sources of why kids act out,” he said.

In some cases, Mr. Mittiga said, a student might be embarrassed by poor grades, leading to bad behavior. Some might begin skipping school, while others might quit.

The “old solution,” he said, was to isolated those students in remote classrooms or in BOCES programs, discipline them, fail them, pass undeserving studentsor allow or encourage students to drop out.

However, that means higher dropout rates, and classroom disruptions with decreased instruction for all students. Mr. Mittiga said they’re also getting students whose parents had previously dropped out of school and “don’t give them the greatest tools to succeed. The old solution does not work,” he said.

Mr. Siddon said they couldn’t simply ignore the problem, in part because state aid was tied to student performance and graduation rates, as well as the cost of social services should a student drop out and receive public assistance.

“The state wants an 80 percent graduation rate,” he said. “It’s important that we limit the number of students who drop out and have social services as a way of life after school.”

That’s where Delta School of Choice, an alternative to the traditional educating setting, comes in. Delta is the mathematical symbol for change, and School of Choice means admission is a choice by the students and their parents. Together, they symbolize the students’ changing outlook on school and life and their desire for success.

“We decided to roll out a new logo. We had students take great pride and honor when given the opportunity to design the logo,” Mr. Siddon said. “Admission is by choice. Parents and students have to be on board to enter the school.”

The program’s mission is “to educate students in the best alternative school setting, and to promote volunteer service, civic involvement and character learning,” he said.

Although it’s an alternative school, Mr. Mittiga said they were already ahead of the curve in their programming.

““Quite frankly, this is pretty cutting edge. We were common core before there was common core,” with an integrated curriculum and project-based learning, he said, noting they also have the same academic standards as the traditional setting.

“Project-based learning is one of the things we focus on a lot,” Mr. Mittiga said.

They’re able to do that because of the smaller class sizes of approximately eight to 13 students that allow more hands-on activities, something that he said would be “almost impossible to do with 30 kids.

“Because classes are small I can do a lot more with them,” he said.

Delta School of Choice also offers students an opportunity to earn a Regents diploma and transition into college with 20 credit hours thanks to the Bill & Melinda Gates Smart Scholars program, Mr. Siddon said.

They also have an opportunity for “real-life experience,” he said, including internships with the St. Lawrence County Youth Bureau and work with the Youth Conservation Corps.

“It’s important that students be given opportunities they might never have been able to get anywhere else,” Mr. Siddon said.

In return, students have “heightened” responsibilities, he said, including assuming responsibility for their actions, setting goals and working to achieve them, working as a team with education as a common goal and connecting with their teachers to achieve greater success.

Although they may not be part of the traditional classroom environment, students at Delta School of Choice remain part of the junior or senior high school, according to Mr. Mittiga. He said they attend dances and after-school activities, and participate in sports and clubs.

“We encourage them to get involved in extracurricular activities,” he said.

In the past those students may have gone to the top row of bleachers in the gymnasium and sat quietly during pep rallies. Now, Mr. Mittiga said, they’re an active part of the event.

“That’s changed. They look forward to being part of the pep rally,” he said.

The school currently has 10 seventh graders, 10 eighth graders, 12 ninth graders, 12 10th graders, 10 11th graders and six 12th graders.

All of the students have demonstrated a desire to attend and their parents have agreed to support them, Mr. Mittiga said. They’ve also been recommended by faculty and guidance counselors for inclusion and have the ability, but for a variety of reasons have been unsuccessful in a traditional setting, he said.

The end result, he said, is improved attendance, engaged parents and fewer behavior or discipline issues. Mr. Mittiga said 80 percent of students also remain in school, compared to 100 percent who would have dropped out.

“The learning environment is unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of,” he said.

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