Groton teen is trying ‘alternative’ to dropping out


Bob Ellis/staff photographer    
Groton Alternative Education student Derrick Head stands inside the ring at Patchwork Therapeutic Center in Peruville where he works. Head is one 14 students in the program, which is in its first year. Head spends half his school day at the farm and the other half in the classroom. He earns school credit for his work on the farm.

Staff Reporter

GROTON — Derrick Head wanted to drop out of school last June. He didn’t like his classes, he didn’t like his teachers, and he wasn’t doing so hot on his Regents exams.
Despite all his setbacks, Head showed up for the first day of classes early this month with a new outlook and a new plan that he hopes will get him to graduation day.
“I’m here every day,” he said while sitting in his Alternative Education classroom. “I expect to graduate with a Regents diploma.”
Head, 16, of Salt Road in Locke, is one of 14 students enrolled in Groton High School’s new Alternative Education Program. The program is held at the elementary school where struggling students spend half their school day in a small classroom and the other half of the day working at local businesses or taking trade classes at Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga BOCES.
“Mr. Hartz stepped up because he didn’t want too many people failing or dropping out. He wants to help us,” Head said of high school Principal Eric Hartz.
Just four weeks into his new environment, Head already is enjoying the differences of a laid back classroom where he can wear a baseball cap and drink soda while listening to books on tape or playing word association games.
“Now you don’t have people bugging you, teacherswise,” he said. “I really wanted to do it. You get all your essentials done for school and do something else the other half of the day.”
Head, a ninth-grader who should be in 11th grade, said that during the last two years he has clashed with almost all his teachers and more than just struggled in his studies.
“Just crazy,” he said about past school years. “I failed everything.”
The principal who put it together
Hartz is in his second year as principal at Groton High School. Last year he saw problems with students who were not able to make it through a normal school day and felt he had to do something to stop them from dropping out.
Last summer he visited Candor High School to learn about its Alternative Education program, which he said is similar to, but not the same as, the one he has set up at Groton.
“I saw some kids struggling with the ‘regular school day,’” he said.
Hartz said he had the option of sending students to Ithaca to a similar program, but felt it was better to keep his students in their own community.
The half-day setup of Groton’s program gives the student’s 3 1/2 credits per year for the classroom work, and then another three per year for BOCES or two per year for work outside of school.
Students need 22 credits to graduate, so with this system it might take some students five years to do it, depending on how many credits they enter the program with.
Hartz said his students enjoy hands-on training, which gets them out of the confines of a classroom.
“One student’s comment was, ‘I really want to go back to the high school because I miss the social aspect, but I know I can’t because I won’t get the education,’” Hartz said. “That’s what I want to hear.”
The teacher trying to make it work
Head works with one of those teachers who he wasn’t so keen on last year, Mick Stegeland. This year things have changed.
“I get along with him now,” Head said. “It’s one-on-one now.”
Stegeland, a special education teacher at Groton for 11 years, said the program is still in its infancy, forcing him to learn and adapt to the new setting every day. Though he and his aide, Katrina Randall, are still working through the kinks, he believes the change is necessary.
“We’re losing a lot of these kids because of the pace of the classroom or the expectations of the classroom or the homework in the classroom,” Stegeland said. “Because they couldn’t do it all, they would just throw their hands up and say, ‘I’m not doing any of it.’”
Stegeland explained that his first goal for the new school year is to create bonds with his students, hoping that building friendships and mutual respect will inspire them to push themselves harder than they have in the past.
“I’m not trying to trick them,” he said. “They develop some type of relationship where they will do more for you than anybody else. I want to show them that I’m here to help them.”
Stegeland said a mainstream classroom is overwhelming for students who are just struggling to keep up and even more so for students who fall far below the accepted standards.
“A lot of times with the homework and things like that, they just didn’t want to do any of that, they are school disabled,” he said. “I’m teaching right to the Regents. I’m breaking it down. I’m trying to show them that there are certain themes. They won’t get the broad picture that the kids in the regular class might get; it’s going to be more the core.”
Most of the kids in his class also have behavioral problems. For Stegeland, the new classroom is as much about teaching social skills and challenging his students to think differently, as it is about passing tests.
“Derrick is a big boy and he has solved certain problems physically,” he said. “I’ll say, ‘Derrick couldn’t you have walked away from that? Is that really something you had to follow through on?’ Well in his mind, yes, he had to follow through on it.”
On the farm
Head’s “other half of the day” is spent at an area horse farm, where he goes every morning to do volunteer work. Other students in the program are paid for their work.
Head shows up at Patchwork Therapeutic Riding Center, 90 Old Peruville Road in Peruville, every morning at 7:30 and stays until 10:30 before the BOCES bus picks him up and takes him to school.
He said he enjoys the work so much that although he isn’t required to, he has even been going in on Saturdays.
Farm owner Lorraine Aichele said Head has been a solid addition to her staff.
“We do therapeutic riding for people with disabilities, training, sales and boarding,” Aichele said. “He comes in the morning and leads the horses out. He leads them up to the appropriate pasture, fixes stuff that needs to be fixed, waters, cleans stalls, and helps with the equipment.
“He’s a real good worker, he’s worked on a farm before so he knows what he’s doing,” she added. “He’s a good kid.”
Phil Glazer is an 86-year-old horseman who has been on the farm for 10 years. Aichele explained that Glazer has been around horses all his life and has become a mentor for Head.
According to Glazer, Head has picked up on the maintenance work quickly. He said working with the horses teaches him patience and temperament.
“One of the things I like to teach him if it’s around the horses, is that you just don’t whip and beat up on them and things like that,” Glazer said. “I tell him what he ought to do instead and I can show him anything he wants to know about the chores. I think if you don’t love it, you won’t, but I think most people that come here do and that’s just they way it is.”
Derrick’s future
With nine months of school left this year, Head has a lot of choices in front of him. If he stays in school he still has three more years to go for a Regents diploma. He also has the options of getting a local diploma or general education diploma, which might take less time.
If he passes his state exams and catches up with the rest of his class, he has the option of going back to a mainstream classroom. For now, he would rather stay where he is.
Head’s father, James, just wants his son to get an education, saying without the new program he believes his son would be a high school dropout.
“So far, I think he’s doing OK,” James Head said. “It’s basically keeping him in school. He seems to enjoy what he’s doing. I think working in the morning is a big help.”
No matter what educational choices he makes in the coming months, Head, a lighthearted teen who is always quick to crack a joke, said he has already learned at least one valuable lesson while working on the farm.
“Never chain a goat to a hill,” he said, remembering his third day at the farm. “The goat hung himself. It was a stupid goat.”
The Cortland Standard will follow up with Head periodically to see if he is still in school, still wants a Regents diploma and is still in the Alternative Education program.



Arcuri-Meier race draws  national focus

Staff Reporter

On Monday, Democratic congressional candidate Mike Arcuri campaigned with U.S. Sen. (and former first lady) Hillary Clinton on college tuition tax credits in Ithaca, and he has frequently been out and about with gubernatorial frontrunner Eliot Spitzer.
On Tuesday, Arcuri’s opponent Ray Meier was flanked by current first lady Laura Bush at a fundraiser in Utica, following appearances earlier this summer with Vice President Dick Cheney and House Majority Leader John Boehner.
With Democrats hoping to seize control of the House of Representatives in the coming midterm elections and Republicans hoping to preserve their majority, the race between Arcuri and Meier for the 24th Congressional District seat is attracting significant national attention.
“It’s become a very interesting campaign,” said Bob Spitzer, a distinguished service professor of political science at SUNY Cortland who has been following the campaign closely.
“Both these candidates are heavyweights, both parties have done a good job of putting someone very strong forward, so this race really should be a strong bellwether for what’s going to happen across the country,” Spitzer added.
Democrats need to win 15 seats to gain control of the house, and the 24th District seat — which is being left open by retiring Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican — is being looked at as a key battleground nationally, Spitzer said.
“The best opportunity for an opposing political party to win a congressional seat is when there’s no incumbent,” Spitzer said. “There are more enrolled Republicans than Democrats in the district, but it’s fairly close, and there are a lot of independents, so this is considered a very competitive district.”
The National Journal has the 24th District race ranked 15th among the most competitive races in the nation as of Sept. 22.
Beyond attracting such political heavyweights as Cheney, Clinton and Laura Bush, the campaign also has drawn the focus of both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, two powerful fundraising and advertising entities.
“We’re very focused on it because it’s an open-seat race and we see it as two very different candidates with two very different agendas,” said Ed Patrue, spokesman for the NRCC. “We’re making sure voters understand the vast differences between the two candidates.”
DCCC spokesman Jen Psaki agreed.
“This being an open seat, that certainly makes it a place where Democrats have an opportunity, especially because of the national climate right now,” Psaki said.
Patrue estimated that the NRCC had put at least $500,000 into the 24th district race, and while Psaki couldn’t say exactly how much the DCCC had contributed, she said that it was also spending a significant amount of money.
Psaki pointed to the DCCC’s Red to Blue Program, which funnels contributions from all over the country to the most competitive campaigns.
In 2004, the program provided an average of $150,000 to candidates in top races, Psaki said, although she couldn’t say how much had gone to Arcuri this year.
“That’s also the very first district we ran an ad in from DCCC, so I think that signifies our commitment to this race,” Psaki said.
Spokesmen for Arcuri and Meier downplayed the impact of outside forces, saying it was important to focus on one candidate’s record versus the other.
“This race is about upstate New York, and who has the experience to best serve upstate New York from Day One,” said Nicole Austin, communications director for Meier’s campaign. “The question is, who can look at a problem, fashion a solution and get the job done for upstate New York, and the answer is Ray Meier.”
Arcuri’s communication director, Hayley Rumback, said Arcuri was focused on promoting his record and comparing it to Meier’s, but suggested that national issues were important to the campaign.



Homer must pick new school board member

Staff Reporter

HOMER — A phone call from the New York State School Boards Association is prompting the school board to reconsider its decision to leave a retired board member’s position vacant until the next election.
The Homer Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to leave the seat of resigning board member Bob Rosato empty until after the May election.
But a couple of days later, Superintendent of Schools Douglas Larison said he received a call from the association after it received an inquiry about the matter.
Larison contacted BOCES’ lawyers on Friday to find out what the board’s legal options were. They told him the board has a duty to fill the position, he said.
Larison said he decided the board will fill the vacancy. Board members will discuss the matter at their next meeting, he said.
According to state Education Law, the district needs to fill the vacancy by means of a special election or through an appointment, said David Ernst, director of communications and research for the New York State School Boards Association.
Jessica Cohen, Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES’ superintendent, said if the board chooses to have an election, it must hold one within 90 days of Rosato’s resignation.
The law does not say how long the board has to appoint a new board member, she said.
Cohen said that under the law, the district superintendent can also appoint a new board member. That happens very rarely, she said.
“I’ve been doing this for four years,” she said. “No one that I know of can give an example of when a district superintendent has appointed a board member.”
At Tuesday’s board meeting, Larison told the board members they had three options. They could hold a special election to determine a new member, appoint a new member or leave the position empty, he said.
Forrest Earl, board president, told the board that the Ithaca school district had appointed a board member when it had an empty position.
But board members Nicole Sprouse, Paul Phelps and Kimberly Sharpe said they thought the position should be left vacant.
“We have to spend lots of energies on our facilities,” Sharpe said. “It would take away our time and focus.”
Sharpe was referring to the school’s multimillion dollar plans to renovate the district’s schools over the next three years.
Scott Ochs, a board member, pointed out that not filling the position would leave just eight members. There would be no tie-breaking vote, he said.
But Larison said the board is relatively used to having just eight board members vote. When Rosato missed a few meetings, for example, only eight people voted.
“We frequently fall into that scenario now,” he said.
The board ended up voting 8-0 in favor of leaving the vacancy open until the next election.
Phelps, the board’s vice president, said Friday afternoon he had just found out about the board’s need to fill Rosato’s position.
Phelps said the board had not intended to neglect Education Law.
“The board didn’t realize it,” he said. “We relied on information provided (by Larison).”
Rosato said last week that he resigned his position because he was too busy to devote sufficient time to the school board.



Removal of McGraw bridge to start soon

Staff Reporter

McGRAW — The removal of the East Academy Street bridge over Smith Brook, which had been damaged during flooding at the end of July, will be able to proceed without a special permit from the state, said Cortlandville Highway Superintendent Carl Bush Jr.
McGraw is part of Cortlandville, and the bridge is the town’s responsibility. County officials have said they would not take responsibility for the repairs.
“We have a permit that we renew every year to be able to do work on a bridge,” Bush said Friday morning. “I had to talk to the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Army Corp. of Engineers … They said they would allow us to do it under our yearly bridge work permit.”
The only condition, Bush said, is that no debris falls into the creek bed during the bridge’s removal.
Bush said he hopes to have the bridge removed by the end of the year.
At a meeting of the McGraw Village Board on Aug. 15, residents agreed and the board voted to have the bridge removed. The Cortlandville Town Board concurred the next night.
A study by the state Department of Transportation had concluded that while the bridge can still hold traffic, Bush had said there were nevertheless a number of structural problems that needed to be addressed.
The bridge has remained closed since the July 28 flood, when debris from upstream clogged the area underneath the bridge and damaged parts of the superstructure, especially the upstream railing.
Initially, the town had been waiting for Niagara Mohawk to remove the gas line that is connected to the bottom of the upstream side of the bridge.
“I just talked to the gas company this week,” Bush said. “They said they want to work with the contractor we get to take the bridge out … to take the gas line off the bridge.”
No contractor has been hired yet, and Bush said he would first ask for quotes from contractors for the removal.