A school with a heart

Down the hill, through downtown, and across two industrial canals from Holyoke High School sits the Holyoke Street School. Originally a meat-packing plant, then a cable company, the unadorned red-brick structure stands inconspicuously in a line of dingy red-brick industrial buildings.

But there the school's similarities with its surroundings cease.

Inside, the Holyoke Street School works with children who were not making it in traditional schools, like the one up the hill. These are the kids who might have joined thousands of other dropouts across the nation, were it not for this 13-year-old school that gives its all to give them one more chance.

Cheryl Biathrow is one student who found public school too hard, so she ''stopped going and just hung out.'' But a friend told her about the (Holyoke) Street School, and her mother encouraged her to try it. Now, after three years at the school, the soft-spoken 18-year-old is looking forward to receiving her diploma in June and a volunteer job at a local geriatric home to help train her for a career in nursing.

''It was the teachers here who really kept me going,'' Cheryl says. ''At the high school I had a counselor, but he was assigned to me along with a bunch of others. Here we choose who we want. I guess I just needed more time than they could give me'' at the high school.

On three unfinished levels of offices, classrooms, reading balconies, and miscellaneous workspaces, a staff of 12 - ranging from the director to a newly arrived Spanish teacher - works with small groups of the Street School's 42 students. Class topics range from the three R's to computer literacy, video, and parenting (or family-life education). For these adolescents who had come to see school as an adversary to be avoided, the message here is that learning is a key to a better life.

It's an ancient message that is getting through to fewer teen-agers. Nationwide, just under 73 percent of students entering ninth grade graduate from high school, down from 77 percent 10 years ago. Among the six New England states , all but Vermont have worse dropout records than a decade ago.

High school dropouts are by no means limited to minorities, but the percentage of black and non-English-speaking students leaving school before graduation is much higher than for white students. In Holyoke, a struggling industrial city where more than 15 percent of the 45,000 population is Hispanic, the numbers are ''dismal,'' say school officials. For the Class of '83, the general attrition rate over four years was 25 percent. Among Hispanics, it was 53 percent.

Despite the growing number of dropouts, the concept of the alternative school has fallen out of favor. The heightened interest in the individual that typified the '60s and early '70s, when the alternative school flourished, has given way in the 1980s to a growing concern for rigor and high test scores.

But the Holyoke Street School continues to reap praise from local and state education officials, who worry about where a new emphasis on excellence in education leaves the struggling student. ''That's the danger with the tougher-standard mentality,'' Holyoke school Superintendent George Counter says. ''I'm afraid it says to a lot of kids, 'If you don't want to learn, out with you.' So for the kid who can't cope with public school, the Street School is a viable alternative.''

Why has Holyoke Street School worked? Sitting in the unglamorous, cramped cubicle that serves as her office, school director Mary-Elizabeth Beach says it's a combination of things: a dedicated staff, community support, and a philosophy that involves the student in every aspect of the school's governance. Students, she says, participate in curricular and budgetary decisions. They have a say in who becomes part of the school, either as a student or as staff. They critique other students' classwork, and take part in all disciplinary, or ''judicial,'' conferences. Whether students are referred from a local school or apply to the school on their own initiative, a strong desire to attend the school is required.

The school's teachers, all of whom are certified and include graduates of Mt. Holyoke College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, serve also as guidance counselors, family liaisons, and ultimately, friends.

It's a demanding job description, but one that was attractive to Ruth Giannasi, who came to teach here eight years ago from the Springfield public schools.

''I got tired of the large classes in the public schools and the feeling I wasn't reaching a lot of the students,'' says the Street School's science and ''parenting'' teacher. ''Here I don't feel the frustration of watching kids slowly fall through the cracks.''

One goal of the school's staff is to maintain a sense of community. ''Here our philosophy is that our purpose is not just academic - that in many ways our role is that of a family,'' says Ms. Beach, known around the school by her nickname, Mitzi. ''We've decided that a kid can't be successful if the rest of his life is falling apart.'' Class size is limited to no more than eight, and teachers often work individually with a student.

The school operates on a budget of just over $200,000, much of it coming from state special education funds. Local schools pay the ''tuition'' of students they refer to the Street School. Other money comes from federal grants for computer instruction and community organizations such as the United Way and the Rotary Club.

For the first-time visitor, the school can be confusing. The atmosphere feels more like a drop-in center than a school where students can earn a legitimate high school diploma. But as small groups of kids take their seats behind partitions designated for graffiti and art work, books are opened on brightly colored tables and discussions begin, producing a certain calm and order.

In a class on family, seven students ranging from age 15 to 17 discuss the merits and limits of parental control. One 15-year-old girl, noting her parents don't care how late she stays out, adds, ''I guess it seems good for me right now; I can do what I want. But I really don't think it's good for a kid, and when I'm a mother I'm going to set stricter limits.''

A Hispanic boy, stretched out cockily on a sofa, says no one tells him what to do, and he won't tell his children what to do either. ''They have to learn from their experience,'' he says.

When other students challenge his statement, he taunts their goals of earning a high school diploma. But when asked why he attends the Street School, the boy sits up and sheepishly looks at his feet: ''Yeah, I guess I want to get a degree , too.''

Later, Ms. Beach reveals that he has been at the school for only a few weeks. She expresses a cool confidence that his attitude will change: ''Once he sees he doesn't have to act up to get attention, and that here he doesn't need all the fronts he learned out in the street to get along, he'll change.''

It's a confidence that is reflected by the teachers, who seldom react to restless or sarcastic students. And it's a confidence that is borne out by many students here.

Eddie Alicea is one of the Hispanic students who never made it to graduation at Holyoke High School. When he was eight, Eddie and his family moved from the Bronx to Holyoke. Two years ago, the building where he lived was condemned, so he moved with his family to neighboring Chicopee. The 18-year-old remembers junior high school as a string of ''vacations,'' where his acting up inevitably led to three-day suspensions. Attending school less frequently all the time, he became a ''B 'n' E (breaking and entering) freak.''

But then his brother graduated from the Street School, and Eddie decided to ''check it out.'' Two years later, he is preparing for a GED (high school equivalency) exam at the end of the month. He has his eyes set on college, something he never thought he'd do. He credits the school with helping him see ''how I could make things better for myself,'' adding proudly that pictures of him in the school and with the staff figure prominently in his mother's photo album.

''Let's put it this way,'' he says. ''I came from a dirty place to a clean place in my life. I've brought all that dirt with me, but I want all the people around me to see I'm trying to wash it off.''

The success stories of Cheryl Biathrow and Eddie do not mean everything works out for the best at the Street School. Director Beach estimates that about 34 percent of the students who enter the school ''don't make it here either.'' They drop out, either to scrape for a job or live on the street. She also acknowledges that some students may become too dependent on the support they find at the school, and have trouble adjusting to life without it.

The school's existence is sometimes a point of contention in local schools; students in trouble often respond to disciplinary action with threats to leave for the Street School. But with a waiting list half again as long as the school's limited enrollment of 42, the school is far from becoming major competition for the public schools.

''Our goal is to help the small number of kids we reach learn to take responsibility for themselves and lead full lives,'' says Mitzi Beach. ''After four years here, I'd have to say I feel both frustration and satisfaction.''

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