Rebecca Amos Institute celebrates last graduation in old home

The graduates-to-be, from left, included Felipe Oliveira, Matt Bradley, Drew Moreis, and Wes Groover. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The Rebecca Amos Institute (RAI) buzzed with the sound of kazoos at its final graduation celebration on June 5. Next fall, the alternative education program at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) will undergo significant changes, including a move from its small building next door into high school classrooms.

The celebration was a prelude to MVRHS commencement exercises on June 10 for Matt Bradley, Wes Groover, Drew Moreis, and Felipe Oliveira. About 50 people, including teachers, school administrators, RAI alumni, friends, and family, gave them a rousing send-off in a ceremony held in the school, followed by a potluck dinner. The four graduates-to-be received special RAI diplomas, hand-colored by their classmates.

For Katharine Kavanagh, RAI’s director for 12 years, the occasion was bittersweet. “I’m losing my job, to the best of my knowledge,” she told The Times in a phone interview prior to the celebration. “The director’s job for the new program hasn’t been posted, and my contract ends on June 30.”

RAI offers an alternative education program for 11th- and 12th-graders in a separate facility. The RAI staff includes Ms. Kavanagh and two other teachers, Margaret D’Angelo and Cynthia Cromwell, who teach all subjects in-house.

The STAR (Students and Teachers Achieving Results) program, introduced in the high school in 2007, provides extra academic help for a group of 9th- and 10th-graders within the high school. Next year it will be combined with the RAI program into a new alternative program for grades 9 to 12, housed in the high school.

As MVRHS principal Stephen Nixon explained in a phone conversation with The Times last week, the RAI program and STAR program were two different models, and there was no continuity for students to move from one into the other.

“We took components from both programs, looked at research, and came up with a new nine to twelve alternative education model” he said. “We’re in the process of putting together the new program, and have hired a subject specific teacher for the four core curriculum courses, one for English, one for math, one for history, and one for science.”

Mr. Nixon said the new model is structured differently and does not include a director’s position. Ms. D’Angelo will move from the RAI program into the new program as the math teacher.

The fiscal year 2012 (FY12) budget for RAI was $235,550 and $220,293 for the STAR program, for a total of $455,844 for the two programs, according to MVRHS finance manager Mark Friedman.

For FY13, the combined RAI and STAR program is budgeted at $278,974 with four teachers. An emotional/behavioral coordinator will be added at a salary of $78,212, an alternative education social worker, $83,152, and two education support professionals, $49,423, for a total of $489,761.

Mr. Friedman said funds for the social worker’s salary in FY13 come from an eliminated guidance counselor position.

RAI, the how and why

Ms. Kavanagh was hired by former MVRHS principal Margaret “Peg” Regan to design, implement, and manage the RAI program. Ms. Regan came up with the idea for an alternative education program for at-risk youth after she first arrived on the job in 1999.

“During her first year as principal at the high school, Peg found that kids were just disappearing, and she wouldn’t know what happened to them,” Ms. Kavanagh said. “And then there were a bunch of kids sitting in the Edgartown jail that were not getting what they needed educationally. Peg felt that we could offer a true alternative program that would serve whatever need a child had that was not being adequately provided in the building.”

Ms. Kavanagh said Ms. Regan lobbied the high school committee for almost a year and convinced its members to let her open the program with two teachers. There was no line item in the budget for supplies and furniture.

Ms. Regan and Ms. Kavanagh launched the Rebecca Amos Institute in July 2000 inside a former garden shed, next to the faculty parking lot. To date, it still has no plumbing and no restrooms.

As Ms. Kavanagh described, students enter the program for a variety of reasons, not just because of bad behavior. “Every kid comes in with their own story; they’re not the same,” she said. “Some kids come in and resolve what’s going on in their life, and then go back into the regular school.”

Some RAI students were having trouble adjusting to high school and struggling socially or academically, or both. Others were coping with bigger issues, such as pregnancy, health problems, and substance abuse.

“Every year we have one or two kids get sober and then dramatically change their lives: it’s incredible,” Ms. Kavanagh said. “Their courage and resiliency is huge.”

Some students are seeking goals that don’t fit the usual academic path. For example, Ms. Kavanagh said one student did a mentorship at the FARM Institute so he could turn some of his family’s land into a farm; another achieved her dream of going to clown school. Two RAI graduates have written books.

What’s the alternative?

RAI’s first group of 10 juniors and seniors joined the program by choice, with the agreement of their parents, which is still the case. The school was named in honor of Rebecca Amos, a former slave who lived on Martha’s Vineyard and used money she inherited to help educate others, Ms. Kavanagh said.

“The students decided they wanted to name it either the Rebecca Amos Institute or the School of Hard Knocks,” Ms. Kavanagh said. “I said I wasn’t going with [the latter],” she added with a laugh.

Although there is no set number for enrollment, Ms. Kavanagh said she found that a maximum of 26 students worked best. In the past she has had as many as 45 students on a waiting list. This year’s enrollment, 12 students, was one of the smallest.

Although there are specific class times, students can arrange their RAI schedules to have mornings or afternoons or certain days of the week available to work. They also get support in their employment situations from their teachers, who help them to learn skills such as counting a cash register drawer, for example.

Students can also choose how to fulfill their course requirements. For example, for an English course, they may write a book or express themselves through poetry. Life skills classes are also offered, including practical lessons that utilize math and English skills, Ms. Kavanagh said. “It’s a celebration of the individual spirit,” she said.

However, RAI students do have to meet the same academic requirements as any other MVRHS student and take part in the high school’s graduation. Nothing on their transcripts indicates they were in an alternative program, Ms. Kavanagh said.

“Some people think that alternative education is about bad behavior, and it’s not, necessarily,” she said. “We’ve had kids go to schools all over the country, and it’s based on their own scores on the SAT’s, their own grades, and all the rest of it, without having to deal with anybody else’s preconceptions.”

Although RAI is an alternative program, Ms. Kavanagh said that every student has passed the MCAS exams, and 100 percent of the graduates who applied to college or vocational school have been accepted.

“Not all of the students graduate on time, so this is no walk in the park,” she added. “The kids will tell you that they get driven harder than they ever did, and sometimes it makes them mad at me. And I’m okay with that.”

Looking ahead

Ms. Kavanagh said that although she does not know about the specifics of next year’s program, she is in favor of the change to one program that include grades 9 through 12. She also views the new program’s move into the high school building as a plus, because students will have better access to art and science classes. “It’s amazing to me how many students we get that are driven by both of those,” she said.

Over the years RAI students have gone into the regular high school building to take classes such as physics, do mentorships, create portfolios with the art department, play on sports teams, participate in school plays, and attend vocational education classes.

Ms. Kavanagh said two of the most significant changes she’s seen over 12 years are MCAS exams as a requirement for graduation and teacher certification requirements.

“Most of our teachers teach two subjects, but they’re only certified in one as professionals,” she said. “And so that, I think, is largely what is driving some of the changes that are going on now. Because it’s very difficult to obtain and then continue to maintain professional development in two separate subjects.”

Ms. Kavanagh said she does not know what she will do next. She said she is “waiting for the next window to open up somewhere.

“How lucky am I to have gotten to work a job for 12 years that every day I’m excited to go to? I can’t imagine having had a life without this. It has been the single greatest thing I’ve done in my life, other than being a mom. I’m so grateful that it’s going to continue on, in some shape or form.”