BELFAST — Around Belfast it’s simply known as BCOPE. Formally, it goes by the title of Belfast Community Outreach Program for Education. That’s why everyone calls it BCOPE.

BCOPE is the alternative education program for Belfast Area High School. Even the BCOPE staff and administration admit there’s a certain stigma attached to the term alternative education. Some conjure visions of unruly kids warehoused in trailers behind the “real” school.

BCOPE is clearly not that.

The program that began in a leased space now has its own building, complete with gardens, greenhouse, a composting operation, and food pantry. Much of the upkeep is provided through student sweat, but most of those projects are student-led. BCOPE has embraced its founding philosophy of reaching and teaching every kid.  The way in which they do it might just be a lesson for us all.

“We work with the at-risk kids, the kids that school doesn’t work for,” said BCOPE Teaching Principal Helen Scipione. “Kids are here for a variety of reasons. At-risk doesn’t necessarily connect in a straight line to socio-economic background. Everyone can learn and some learn in different ways. We help students discover how they learn best.”

Senior Ace Curtis started with BCOPE this year. Curtis says attending public school was “intimidating.” He admits to falling behind and dodging school, circumstances that led to his connection with BCOPE. Once connected, Curtis bought in.

“It’s a comfortable place,” Curtis said. “There are fewer people and it’s easier to make friends and connections. The teachers really work hard with you. I love this place.”

BCOPE, and Scipione, trace their roots back 32 years. Funded by the state in 1990, BCOPE initially leased a space in the Belfast Shoe Factory (now the Belfast Center). Scipione was there, beginning her career in alternative education. The leased space was modest; the BCOPE program successful. In those early days, BCOPE educators worked with limited resources, in a limiting space. This prompted the program to use the resources available and seek community partnerships as a way of increasing opportunities for students — a practice that continues to this day.

“This wouldn’t work without those partnerships,” Scipione said. “The community has really supported us.”

In the late 1990s, a change in the state funding formula forced BCOPE to look for a more permanent home. With a groundswell of community support, the program purchased the lot at 19 Merriam Road and the school was built over the summer of 2002. At the time, the building was one of just three such facilities designed and built in the United States for the sole purpose of alternative education. Students helped with the design and layout and chose the furniture.

Over the past two decades, the school has added a greenhouse, garden, food pantry and this year, a composting operation and food trailer — all of which are student-run. The BCOPE building houses classrooms, a music room and a kitchen. Daily meals and snacks are prepared for students by students taking a cooking class. BCOPE has also added dozens of community partnerships that offer students a wider variety of educational, and life, experiences.

To say that BCOPE is student-centered is classic understatement.

“We realized very early that a relationship for learning with the kids is what matters,” Scipione said. “That’s where you start. We’ve been able to build an incredibly strong community. Our graduates speak for themselves.”

BCOPE educates up to 40 students from grades 10-12 each year. Students who attend BCOPE have chosen to be there. Classroom instruction sets the framework for real-world experiences with community partners. BCOPE is very much a project-based learning environment. Students design, organize, participate, and supervise projects at the school and within the community.

BCOPE science classes start in the classroom and end up with students applying the lessons learned in the community. Photo courtesy of BCOPE

Students circle up to begin and end each day. BCOPE students are encouraged to “check in” with staff during the day, allowing them to focus on learning.

“If students have something on their mind, they are not ready to learn,” Scipione said. “We can’t fix most of their problems, but we can listen. Once they have a place to kind of dump that, then they are ready to learn.”

Lindsey Schortz, who teaches math and science at BCOPE, said, “The kids come here, and they learn. It’s because we take the time to get to know them. Our belief is that every student can learn.”

Graduation requirements for BCOPE are the same as for students attending Belfast Area High School. BCOPE students can participate in BAHS extra-curricular activities if academically eligible. They receive a BAHS diploma upon graduation.

BCOPE students come to the school with an alternative education plan. BCOPE staff work with each student, developing a relationship to learning, and getting to know how each student best learns.

BCOPE instruction is a combination of classroom, experiential and interdisciplinary learning. A geometry lesson may be followed by a construction project to allow students to use math skills as life skills.

A recent project undertaken by Shortz’s biology class offers a window into the type of interdisciplinary instruction BCOPE students receive.

In September Shortz partnered with Waterfall Arts and had her class visit with artist-in-residence Pippin Frisbie-Calder. The students embarked on a month-long printmaking class and worked with the environmental artist/activist to learn linocut printmaking and explore the issue of climate change. As part of the class, they selected a locally threatened or extinct species and created their own unique work of print art.

The students spent several weeks in Waterfall’s Kennedy Press studio learning to print their work on both paper and fabric, creating a limited-edition series of prints and T-shirts. After a walk in a Coastal Mountains Land Trust nature preserve with ecologist Kathleen Dunckel, the students were asked to research a Waldo County animal or plant species that is considered endangered and then create a linoleum block for printing. These works of art, and the accompanying reports on their findings, were then shared in a public exhibition in the Waterfall Arts gallery.

As a third component of the class, the students learned about all the aspects of running their own small business from creation to merchandising to marketing and sales. Using their new skills, the students created a “shop” to print their own one-of-a-kind designs on T-shirts and tote bags, which were sold at the Dec. 9-10 pop-up market at Waterfall Arts.

From this one community partnership, students received instruction in biology, science, art and economics.

“It’s another way to show how classroom instruction connects to career applications,” Shortz said.

This fall, BCOPE became one of only eight high schools in the country to offer glassblowing as an elective. Students received weeks of instruction in the Waterfall Glass Works studio from accomplished glass artists and Glass Works founders David Jacobson and Carmi Katsir. Local glass artist Brian Frus also pitched in.

The BCOPE biology class is partnering with Belfast Marine Institute to study scallop larvae, called spat, in Belfast harbor. They will learn the science of analysis and also participate in laying collection lines, from a boat, in the harbor.

In partnership with Belfast Marine Institute, BCOPE students drop lines in the harbor to collect and analyze scallop larvae, called spat. Photo courtesy of BCOPE

The school, with 30-plus years of experience in partnerships, is skilled at commingling the classroom with the community.

Funding and resources for BCOPE are provided through Regional School Unit 71 and augmented by grants, donations and volunteers. BCOPE students assist the staff in the grant writing process and perform a wide variety of tasks connected the with the school’s day-to-day operations and projects.

Graduates of BCOPE go on to post-secondary education, vocational and trade schools, enlist in the military and work in the community. Their affinity for the school has prompted Scipione to invent a new noun.

BCOPE students Mike Murdoch and Makayla Matlarus practice chord progressions outside the BCOPE music room. Photo by Jim Leonard

“BCOPE-ians are loyal,” Scipione said with a smile. “They’re everywhere, and they are always giving back to the school.”

Recently BCOPE held a celebration of 20 years at the current location. Scipione noted several students from the 1990s returned to participate in the celebration. She added that the instruction received by BCOPE students may find its way outside alternative education.

BCOPE, the alternative education outreach program of Belfast Area High School, has been around for 32 years. Photo by Jim Leonard

“I think the future of education is alternative,” Scipione said. “I think were on the forefront of what good public education should be.”

Junior Emma Witham found the teaching style in public schools confusing and fell behind in her studies. Since arriving at BCOPE, she has discovered instructional methods that work for her — plus something just as powerful for someone admittedly shy.

“BCOPE has helped me become a more expressive and communicative person,” Emma said. “I’ve found a voice and I have more confidence. They really work hard with us to help us become the best version of ourselves.”