On the wall of an office used by the Operation Graduation team at Schenectady High School, a large and busy grid of student schedules covers most of an entire white board. A dozen student names run across the top, with a column of nine class periods below each one.
The students are scheduled for lunch and orchestra, reading, gym and studio art. But the most common listing filling the grid is two letters: “In.” For much of each day, the students are “in” the suite of space used by Operation Graduation -- formerly a woodshop and technology classroom. Room C9. There, in five or 10-week runs, they get the focused teacher attention and social supports to catch up on schoolwork and learn the skills to stay on track through the rest of high school.
On Thursday morning, half a dozen students sat around a circular table, working on geometry and algebra. Each student was working on a different problem or concept, and math teacher Jeff Pelletier circulated from one student to the next. In front of each student, a different learning objective for the day was inscribed on a card: “What’s my goal for this class?” they each said above a detailed, subject-specific goal.
Sophomore Jalsea Giglio was working on classifying and adding angle measurements. Pelletier leaned over and eyed Giglio’s assignment, suggesting she label the diagrams as she works through the problem. “You did it right, you're good,” he said. “But most people are visual learners, so give yourself a nice concrete visual.”
Giglio, who along with other sophomores in the room, finished and intensive five-week program with the Operation Graduation team Friday and will transition back to their regular classes next week.
“They helped me accomplish way more than I thought I would,” Giglio said. “I learned about asking for help and being more social with more teachers.”
A team effort
The Operation Graduation program consists of coordinator Lauren Incitti – a special education teacher – social worker Stephanie Franzese and five content-area teachers, who cycle in and out of the program’s class throughout the day. Engagement Dean Philip Weinman oversees the program.
On the board in the office that Franzese and Incitti work out of and use to meet individually or in small groups with students, below the master schedule, reads an unambiguous statement of the program’s end game: to learn the skills I need to take with me to be a more successful member of the Schenectady High School community.
“They are going from students who don’t want to be here to the leader of our community,” Weinman said.
The program team works with groups of no more than a dozen students at a time in cohort stretches that last five to 10 weeks. The students are identified by class principals and teachers based on academic and behavioral problems. But the team is also looking for students who will buy in and accept the help the program offers. They conduct interviews with students, identifying the best fit.
“We are looking for kids who will come in here and be accountable,” Franzese said. “We look for signs that they are owning their part. We want to help kids that need help but we’re not here to chase kids.”
Working with the students’ regular classroom teachers, the Operation Graduation team plots out the master schedule, leaving students in classes that they are performing well in. For the rest of their courses, the students work through the regular classroom curriculum in the program room with the team of cycling teachers.
The assignments mirror what they would be doing in their regular classrooms, but they also have more time and attention to go back and fill in content holes that might be holding them back. But they also learn better study habits, communication skills, and social coping mechanisms. At the end of each day, Franzese leads the group through a goal-setting seminar and meditative moment.
“The whole point of being in Operation Graduation is to build good habits, not just to get work done but if you get stuck to know how to keep moving,” Incitti said.
Even once the students have returned to their regular class schedules, they remain a part of the ever-growing Operation Graduation family.
“We don’t kick you out, we hope they return and get support,” Incitti said. The students are encouraged to visit the program room for help with work or to chat about problems in or out of school. As each group of students transitions out of the program and back into their regular classes, they remain on Franzese’s caseload, which is now up to 75 students. She said about 75 percent of those students come back to talk or spend time studying in the class.
Junior Natalie Black, who finished the program last year, on Thursday worked at a different table than the sophomores – also on math. She said she had fallen behind her freshman year and struggled with attendance problems, often sleeping in or blowing school off all together. But she welcomed the opportunity to participate in Operation Graduation “with open arms” and has since caught back up on her schoolwork. Does she plan on graduating next year? “Umm … yes I am.”
“It helps me with everything,” Black said of the study and coping skills she learned at Operation Graduation. “Before I came into this class, I didn’t know how to explain to a teacher what I was confused about or was struggling with. It’s one of the best things that has happened in my three years of high school.”
The demand for Operation Graduation may well outstrip their capacity to serve students, administrators have suggested.
“Whenever I need to talk or I need help or I feel like giving up this day or that day, someone here can give me the push I need,” Black said, agreeing other students would benefit from the program. “I think everyone could benefit from this program, even the best kids need a push sometimes.”
At the same time, junior Richard Robillard, who has also finished the program, was meeting with Franzense in the office space and working on a Global Studies assignment.
“You have a space you can feel comfortable in,” he said. “They make you feel school is a place you should, a place you need to be, you should finish school if you want better opportunities.”