Star Academy is shining

Star Academy students during an open house shortly after program first began in fall 2008. Teacher facilitator Peter Huszagh (left), guidance counselor Christine Morris (far right), teacher facilitator Michele Gode (second from right) and school board member Angela DeVito (center) pose with the students outside the building.

To say Michele Gode, who heads Riverhead High School’s alternative program, is proud of her students is an understatement.

Pending passing all their regents exams, 19 of the 20 seniors in the program, called Star Academy, are expected not only to graduate this weekend, but to enroll in college or trade school or enlist in the military this fall. And not one senior dropped out of school this past year.

Ms. Gode, who serves as the program’s teacher/facilitator, along with high school math teacher Peter Huszagh, said those numbers add up to a huge victory for Star Academy. Only about 40 percent of students regularly attended class in the former program, held at the St. John’s campus in Riverhead, said Ms. Gode, who has worked with Riverhead High School’s alternative program in both its previous and current forms, for the past decade.

Riverhead High School principal David Zimbler cited his staff as the primary reason the program, which began in fall 2008, has been successful.

“The number one thing is, you can’t teach [educators] how to motivate and support,” Mr. Zimbler said, explaining that those were innate abilities in teachers.

He added that having Star Academy at the school’s Harrison Avenue campus helped foster a better sense of community.

“[The old] alternative school was off campus,” he said. “[Star Academy] is here, it’s part of the high school.”

Ms. Gode describes the dynamic at Star as like that of a family.

“They form friendships with kids they never would have crossed paths with [at the main high school],” she said.

The mission of Star Academy, which has about 90 students in grades nine through 12, is to offer students an atmosphere that will promote academic success, while addressing individual needs and learning styles.

Some of the students are court-ordered, some have truancy issues and others are looking to recover credits.

The program holds morning and late afternoon classes, offers smaller class sizes and has a school-to-work program through which students can get credit for working part-time paid jobs in the community.

The students meet with the faculty every week to talk about school work or any other issues. Star’s guidance counselor, Christine Morris, noted that some kids go back to the main building when they feel they are ready, though many opt to stay with the program.

The smaller classes help create stronger ties between the faculty and students and help prevent at-risk kids from slipping through the cracks. Ms, Gode said students cannot do too many things, good or bad, without being noticed.

“I have the best job in the Riverhead Central School District,” she said, becoming visibly emotional as she spoke of her students. “I have the privilege of watching these kids come in and grow tremendously.”

One student who entered the program as a tenth-grader at the start of this school year, she said, is set to graduate in August.

Ms. Gode said she hopes the Star Academy program continues to expand. The staff, she said, is looking for ways to make it better meet student needs.

“It’s still a work in progress,” she said

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