A few years ago, Greenfield High School senior Eric Duong could never have imagined himself graduating alongside his peers.
Duong was a sophomore, struggling to keep up with schoolwork at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when guidance counselors reached out to him about participating in the BEACON Learning Program, a new partnership between the district and Greenfield Community College. The program aims to forge alternative pathways to graduation for students at risk of dropping out.
“When I was really struggling in school, I wouldn’t have expected to be this close to graduating,” said Duong, who is now on track to graduate early in January. “I just had to stop what I was doing and really think about it. If I drop out, what am I going to do with my life?”
In a few months, Duong will join a growing list of Greenfield students who may not have otherwise graduated, had it not been for their introduction to the program. BEACON Director Max Fripp, who also serves as the director of innovation and entrepreneurship at GCC, said that of the 12 seniors the program has had participate in two years, 10 have graduated.
The program’s name is a play on a popular Greenfield landmark and the idea of a beacon lighting the future, and was piloted in the 2021-2022 school year. It was initially funded by Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, according to Greenfield’s Assistant Superintendent of Teaching & Learning Karin Patenaude, who is credited with the program’s development.
The name also serves as an acronym: “Believing Every Adolescent Can Open New Doors.”
Patenaude previously recalled that in early 2020, she met with Kristin Cole, director of workforce training programs at GCC, and Judy Raper, GCC’s associate dean of community engagement, to talk about further ways the college could partner with Greenfield High School to offer alternative pathways for its students.
“I think every school has a bunch of kids that for several reasons, they’re showing up but the path to graduation is really hard,” said Fripp. “I think for Karin, the challenge was how do schools have the right resources to help those students?”
For Duong, 19, the opportunity to leave the high school for about two hours each day and work in a smaller group setting allowed him to get back on track. He was one of 15 students during that first year to take part in daily trips to GCC’s campus, where they could work on school assignments or study for upcoming exams with Fripp there for one-on-one support.
“COVID had a big impact on me,” Duong said, recalling his sophomore year. “When everything went virtual— I’m a student who has a learning disability, so I don’t learn how other students learn. … I d i d n’t do school that whole year.”
Duong enrolled in Edmentum, an online learning program that helped him catch up on lessons he’d missed before taking part in BEACON. Now, he’s preparing to graduate high school in January, with aspirations to attend GCC before transferring credits to Fitchburg State University. Ultimately, his goal is to become a police officer.
“Eric has grown tremendously as a young man,” Fripp said. “He’s gotten much more clear about his goals. … Last year, Eric came in like a man on a mission.”
In addition to boosting graduating rates, five youthled businesses have launched as a result of the program’s entrepreneurial focus.
“I’m just incredibly proud of the results we’re showing,” Fripp said. “ As we look at some of the challenges facing all young people, especially our most vulnerable people in Franklin County, I think we need to continue looking for programs that work and show results and figure out how to grow those things that work, instead of doing pilot, pilot, pilot.”
And that is the plan for the BEACON Learning Program — moving forward. Initially a partnership between Greenfield High School and GCC, the program was acquired over the summer by the Northampton- based Collaborative for Educational Services, according to Fripp.
“That means I’m a staff [member] of the collaborative, but I really still focus entirely on BEACON,” he said. “I run it every day. The program model h a s n’t changed.”
While the current cohort consists only of Greenfield High School students, the goal is to expand in the coming years to include students from other Franklin County school districts.
“That’s one of the real strengths the collaborative brings,” Fripp said. “In addition to financial security, they have existing partnerships with all our regional school districts.”
Duong, who said he hopes to see the program continue for years to come, added that any student who has the opportunity to enroll in BEACON should know it’s not an opportunity to waste. Fripp, too, said he wasn’t there “to run a teen center.”
“It took me a long time, but I did it and now I’m a senior, graduating early in January,” said Duong. “If it wasn’t for this program, or Max, I don’t think I’d be where I’m at today. ”