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Ken-Ton high school for at-risk students helping reduce dropouts

Unlike other high schools, there are no bells between classes in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Big Picture High School.

Students huddle in small groups with teachers, who also act as advisers and life coaches. Other students wear headphones and work independently on laptops.

In a small library, a designated quiet space, a student sits by himself and is allowed to stare out a window.

On the other end of the spectrum, a series of collaborative puzzle challenges and encourages kids to work as a team. Running in the halls, yelling and laughing are encouraged.

"We try to make it fun and uplifting," said program coordinator Anne Blenk.

The high school for 60 selected at-risk students, from ninth to 12th grade, is located in two wings of the third floor at Kenmore Middle School. Big Picture Principal Christine Koch said all members of the staff of 11 are involved with the students and they know about their home lives, their capabilities and their goals.

Michelle Phillips left, a teacher aide, talks with Sean Menk at Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Big Picture High School for at-risk students in the district's middle school in Kenmore. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

A big part of the Big Picture program happens outside the school with each student pursuing his or her interests in internships, two days a week.

Big Picture Learning is offered across the country, but Ken-Ton is one of the few districts in Western New York offering its own embedded school within the district. It began as an offshoot of a district study to raise graduation rates. All staff members have volunteered to work at the Big Picture school.

"We visited the Bronx and really were sold," said Matt Chimera, one of the founding teachers. "The number one thing is the advisory piece. In a way it's like having your kids in elementary school. You get to know them and you know their parents. You really have a handle on guiding those kids along for four years."

Ken-Ton's 5-year-old program appears to be working. All 12 students in the first class, who were in the program from ninth through 12th grade, graduated last year. Most of these students were struggling and in danger of not graduating in a traditional high school.

Rather than taking tests, students do exhibitions, developing their presentation skills, Blenk said. Families and mentors are invited to listen as students talk about what they have learned.

"It's great to see kids graduate who really were at-risk of not making it," said Blenk.

Koch said in 2014-15 the program had an 86 percent graduation rate, which was above the overall rate for Ken-Ton that year of 85 percent. Numbers prior to that are not consistent since students had only been in the program for one or two years. The graduation rate in 2016 was 100 percent. 

Overall, the Ken-Ton district's dropout rate of 3 percent is the lowest it has been in the last four years and well below the state average of 6 percent for 2016.

And graduation rates at both traditional Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda high schools have been increasing since 2013, from an overall average of 81 percent to 88 percent in 2016. Dropout rates have been decreasing. There were 30 dropouts out of 643 students in 2013. That number decreased to 18 students out of 601 in 2016. Koch said pulling out 60 students, or 15 per grade, that were at-risk of dropping out from Kenmore West or East and sending them to Big Picture is contributing to the rising graduation rate percentages recorded for the district.

The students at Big Picture must apply for the program from their traditional schools, Kenmore East and Kenmore West, and can participate in sports at their respective schools and graduate with their classmates.

Sean Monk, a senior, prepared a video for the program using his interest in digital media and shared the video with the School Board. He told the board he "fell in love" with the program, the fun atmosphere and the project work.

"I have been able to do so many things that I wouldn't have had the opportunity to do at East or West," said Monk, who earned his regents diploma and will be going to SUNY Buffalo State in the fall. "If I had gone to West I wouldn't have shown up all the time, let alone had the opportunities that were granted to me with Big Picture."

Richard Pates, a senior in Big Picture, has used internships since his freshman year to pursue his goal of becoming a locksmith. He said in sixth grade he had a problem with absenteeism and had problems focusing and being motivated.

"I wouldn't want to get up in the morning (in the sixth grade. Now I want) to be here," said Richard.

Ninth-grader Gabby Cavalleri said there is less negativity and drama at Big Picture, compared to a regular high school

"The teachers focus more on you and how you are doing in classes and if you are understanding it," said Gabby. She said the high-energy days make learning fun.

Sophomore Brianna Quiros said she was failing at Kenmore West, but now she has almost all 100s at Big Picture.

"They teach you how to learn," said Brianna. She doesn't know what she wants to do in the future, but said, "I have a lot of different interests and (the internships) are a way to test the waters."

It's not just the students having fun.

Teacher aide Michelle Phillips, who works in the library, has been at other schools since 2008, but she said Big Picture has been one of the most rewarding experiences, calling it a "hidden gem."

"I can't tell you how excited I am to get up and go to work every day," said Phillips. "You are surrounded by adults who want to be here ... to get kids who want to come to school and learn is exciting."

Online program helps students catch up to graduate



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