Nine local seniors who've been attending The Big Picture, an alternative BOCES education program, enjoyed a "pre-graduation" festivity recently.
The event marked a high point, not only for the students and their proud parents, but also for the educators whose patience and persistence helped these young people achieve what they'd long considered "an impossible dream."
Honoring the occasion, Big Picture staff and administrators hosted an appropriately celebratory steak dinner at the Elkdale Country Club. The meal was topped off with a graduation cake and cupcakes created by one of the students' fathers.
2012 graduates of the Ellicottville-based Big Picture program are pictured above. Front row, from left, are Chelsey Currie, West Valley; Alissa Lindsey, Cattaraugus-Little Valley; Brittney Giguere, Cattaraugus-Little Valley; Chelsey Green, Cattaraugus-Little Valley; Trevor Grebauer, Ellicottville; Kemper Brode, Cattaraugus-Little Valley. Back row, from left, are Jacob Perry, Cattaraugus-Little Valley; Jake Stuve, Ellicottville; Steven Derk, Cattaraugus-Little Valley.
Christopher McNell, Big Picture principal and director, spoke briefly, praising students, parents and teachers for their hard work and success. He proudly reported that many of the graduates were planning to continue their educations at the following community colleges: Jamestown, Cazenovia, Erie County, and Genesee, and also at Ohio Diesel Tech.
This year's seniors hailed from West Valley, Cattaraugus-Little Valley and Ellicottville central schools. Most started the program with histories ranging from apathy to downright hostility toward anything even remotely school-related. They had few aspirations beyond dropping out at the first possible moment. Yet, with the help of the Big Picture staff, the students were instead preparing to don caps and gowns and graduate with their home-school classmates.
As a prerequisite for graduation, each of the young people was required to give a brief "graduation speech." Although it seemed this might prove a painful ordeal, every graduate rose to the occasion, and in doing so, discovered yet another unsuspected capability.
While the speeches were diverse, some common threads ran through them. Repeatedly expressed was the deep sense of gratitude these young people felt for the Big Picture program and its instructors. Each student, in his own unique way, credited the plan for turning around "bad attitudes," and offering guidelines for organizing work habits and, in some cases, lives. The graduates confirmed that they'd changed in the best way possible - from unwilling bystanders in the educational process, into actual learners, and now, graduates.
Graduate Brittany Giguere said prior to joining the Big Picture, her only ambition was to drop out of school in 10th grade. She said the program helped her see things about herself that she'd always managed to hide from.
"I found out that who I was, was someone I really wasn't,'' she said.
Most of the speeches reflected much the same turnaround in attitude. Children who had spent most of their lives hating school and putting off assignments found they were ready to accept responsibility, after all. They began speaking of the future with hope instead of resignation.
Many, like Chelsey Green, singled out their families for special appreciation.
"My sisters and mom helped me a lot," she said, "...my friends, too." She said she's changed many things in her life, "and I don't want to go backward," she continued, "only forward."
Jake Perry cheerfully admitted, "Three years in BP was a pain. But it was also the best decision my parents and I ever made."
Steven Derk, who hopes to attend Erie Community College this fall, agreed that BP had been a good decision for him, too.
"I've changed the way I do a lot of things," he said," adding with a grin, "in a good way!"
Trevor Grebauer faked amazement as he loudly announced, "Hey! I actually learned somethingthanks to BP."
Kemper Brode confided, "I didn't think I belonged here - but I did. More one-on-one has given me a chance to grow and learn."
Allissa Lindsey said that "just trying to figure life out" keeps her pretty busy. She especially valued the chance BP gave her to intern at the Ellicottville Veterinary Hospital, where she said, "I loved the workand made friends, too."
Another happy graduate, Chelsea Currie, said she never thought five years ago that she'd ever be graduating, "and college wasn't even in my mind," she said. "I don't know how I got from where I was to where I am, but I do know it's thanks to you guys." She waved her arm, encompassing the roomful of fellow graduates, parents, and Big Picture staff.
And so the speeches went, both long and short. Every student, even the most reluctant, seemed anxious to acknowledge the unbelievable change that Big Picture made in their lives.
Of the more than 60 Big Picture programs operating nationwide, six are located in New York state, with three in Western New York, operating under the auspices of Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES. The program's principal and director, Chris McNell, has worked hard to establish this unconventional learning opportunity for at-risk students, and he had an important role in growing the program from the original Cuba-based branch, to a second, in Olean, and this newest unit, housed in Ellicottville.