They look for things to celebrate, things as small as a smile or as big as an "A" in a college course. And the teachers at Niagara Academy pause to celebrate their students' successes several times each school day.
Niagara Academy is a unique school operated by the Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services to teach 208 seventh- through 12th-graders from 17 districts in Orleans and Niagara counties, as well as seven Erie County districts. Starting with the mission of educating youngsters with different learning styles, traditionally referred to as the learning-disabled, the academy's focus now is both simple and enormous.
"We will do whatever it takes," said Principal Sushma Sztorc, evoking nods of agreement from four teachers gathered to talk about the challenges and rewards of a job they clearly love.
It can take returning to basics. "Some of them don't have the social skills they need to get along in the world," said Kristin Sterling, a 16-year BOCES staffer who now teaches 11th- and 12th-grade English and health.
Besides the formal curriculum, the teachers take every opportunity to help students learn how to act appropriately in work and social settings. "Some of them don't make eye contact," Ms. Sterling said. "Some don't know how to interact with people positively. So today, I say, 'I'm going to interview you for a job, and I want you to smile, shake my hand and look me in the eye.' "
"These kids are bright youngsters who have had these gaps," Mrs. Sztorc said.
Every student needs a slightly different program. This "integrated setting," where children with different learning abilities mix freely with others who might have truancy problems, for example, makes Niagara Academy unique. "There isn't another school like this," Mrs. Sztorc said.
As different as they are, the youngsters are united by their goals. The teachers have learned that the youngsters they teach have surprisingly similar life plans: They want to have friends, to marry, perhaps to have children, to be better parents than some of their parents were, to earn a living, to own a house.
And those things can be achieved, said Diane Attea, another 16-year teacher, because of the staff's attention to the students' social and emotional development. Youngsters who may come to Niagara Academy knowing only how to relate through insults are shown how to compliment and support each other's successes.
"It is the most important piece," said Ms. Sterling of the attention to social and emotional development. "Without it, it's a regular high school -- and this is not a regular high school."
Wendy Wheeler, who is starting her second year as a teacher at Niagara Academy, recently led her health class through an exercise designed to improve their social and emotional interaction. Each student spoke of a personal goal. Then, the student seated next to the one who spoke gave immediate, positive feedback on the goal, in the form of a small, specific note. That second part of the exercise, the immediate compliment from another student, was added this summer by teachers working to improve the curriculum. "It worked very well," Ms. Wheeler noted.
Besides encouraging the students to support each other, the teachers and staff keep a close eye on their behavior in and out of the classroom. "We don't allow negative peer interaction," Ms. Attea said.
Specific times to focus on the students' social and emotional states, which can change so quickly and dramatically during the teen years, are written into each day's schedule. Homeroom groups are small, and students are encouraged to pick up their lunches and gather in their homerooms again for a mealtime session that can include etiquette tips and discussion of the day so far. "Just like a family lunch," Ms. Sztorc said. "They can discuss something as simple as what happened over the weekend. There is a lot of bonding that goes on at this time." Another period is set aside for discussion at the end of the day.
"The fabric of all this is creating a caring, unconditionally accepting environment," Ms. Sztorc said. And that environment extends to the teachers, who meet daily in four teams to discuss specific students, their concerns and how to deal with issues that arise, said Ms. Attea.
Besides the usual classrooms, some with no more than four or five students, Niagara Academy features science labs, counseling offices, art and music rooms, and a high-tech Long Distance Learning lab. On a recent morning, students practiced calligraphy with a teacher who, with the help of cameras, microphones and a scanner for students' work, was also instructing a class at Royalton-Hartland.
Because their students enter Niagara Academy with a wide range of challenges and experiences, the teachers define success broadly. "It can be seeing a kid mature from having to have someone follow him around all day who now can be trusted to go from place to place alone, or it can be a kid who was failing being able to pass a course," said Ms. Attea. "Either is a true success."
"Some of these kids have seen more in their 15 years of life than many other people have in 30 years, or more," Ms. Sterling said. "And they can be more caring and they can be nicer than the average kid in their districts."
After their varied careers at Niagara Academy, the graduates, 30 last year, take different paths. Some collected academic degrees and two-year vocational certificates, while others had earned up to six college credits at Niagara County Community College. Some entered the military, others went into the work force, still others went on to higher education locally or at colleges across the region.
The teachers wish the graduates a bittersweet goodbye at a June ceremony complete with thanks for students' extended families, congratulations of officials from their home districts, and personalized statements about each graduate written by the teachers. "It can be a huge event in the whole family's life," Ms. Sterling said. "They may be the first in their family to graduate from high school."
Then the teachers spend the summer planning innovation and improvements for the next year. One change is the requirement that each senior do 20 hours of community service work, and the students can be found working with Special Olympics athletes, ringing bells for the Salvation Army, or working with senior citizens. One student leads a group of young cheerleaders in competitions. And behind them, always encouraging and challenging them to do better, is a group of dedicated teachers, administrators and support staff.
"Everyone here understands this is a really hard job," said Ms. Sterling. "But you have an effect on human beings, on human souls, that you might not even realize you have had. It's incredibly draining. Every year, we tell the new teachers, 'Look, we go to bed at 7 o'clock, too,' and they are always really relieved."