Hidden within the walls of the East Hampton High School, there is another school that few know of, run by Daniel Hartnett, one of the school’s bilingual social workers. The “alternative school,” as it is known, offers students who, for reasons as varied as a daytime job or a family illness, can’t attend school during regular hours, a chance to graduate on time, or even early if they like. Class is in session from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. four days a week.
“It’s not special ed,” Mr. Hartnett said late last month. Although the alternative school does serve a “volatile, vulnerable population,” it also caters to students who are forced to work days to help their families, who need to catch up on one class or another because of illness or other reasons, or “who simply aren’t morning learners,” he said.
The program, which has been in operation for about five years, was the brainchild of Cheryl Edholm, the former East Hampton School principal, “but is fully supported by the current administration,” said Mr. Hartnett.
“Last year, 12 students graduated in four years, on time, because of this program,” he said. Although it is clear that Mr. Hartnett’s passion lies with “seeing the kids succeed, to let them see their options and possibilities,” there is also the added advantage to the taxpayer of a student taking four years to graduate instead of five.
Many of the students are doing fine in their classes, except for perhaps one, explained Mr. Hartnett, where they may have failed by inches. “Rather than taking a whole year over in that class, learning a lot of the things they already know, they can come to the alternative school and do a project, demonstrating their knowledge of the subject,” he said. The classes in the alternative school are graded pass-fail, and, said Mr. Hartnett, get the students up to speed in time for the Regents exams.
Word of the success of the alternative school is getting out, at least among students, and this year Mr. Hartnett and his team saw between 30 and 40 high schoolers. “Applications are definitely on the rise,” he said, with students being referred to his department by teachers, or coming to him of their own volition.
The admission process into the alternative school is taken very seriously. In a meeting between Mr. Hartnett, the student, and a parent or other custodial adult, a contract is formed based not just on academic values, but also on attendance and attitude. “And the behavior part is not just for the kids,” said Mr. Hartnett. “It’s really important for the students to feel the support at home. We need to see that the whole family is committed to this.”
That day, a member of the Marines was visiting alternative school students. “It’s important that the students see all of their options” in all sectors of the work force, Mr. Hartnett said, describing visits from the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
There has even been talk at a recent school board meeting of accepting students from districts that don’t normally send kids to East Hampton in order to create a possible revenue stream, but that discussion is “not close to reality yet,” Mr. Hartnett said.
Adam Fine, the East Hampton High School principal, taught in an alternative school before coming to the East End, and is very happy to have Mr. Hartnett and the afternoon team on Long Lane. “It’s taking a long time for schools in general to realize that the traditional nine-period day simply does not work for all kids,” he said. “We have to develop new and innovative ways to teach, not just to some of the kids, but to all of the kids.”
He called the alternative school “absolutely essential” to the district, offering students the flexibility they might need if they experience “a hiccup — an illness, a trip back to a home country, or a family tragedy,” he said. “It gives all students a chance to catch up.”
Mr. Fine looks forward to a day when the district will also be able to offer an alternative school strictly catering to special education students. “In times when you need to be economically responsible, it makes sense to be able to bring these students back into the district, instead of sending them to BOCES” at costs of $100,000 to $300,000 per student.
But for the moment, the alternative school in East Hampton continues to help students of all educational abilities to succeed.
“That’s really what it’s about,” Mr. Hartnett said. “If it helps a student see their options, believe in themselves, to re-engage with the learning. . . . That’s what’s really important here.”