Patricia Flaveney talks Tuesday at a School Committee roundtable of her experience as the parent of a student at Cambridge’s High School Extension Program. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Change at Cambridge’s High School Extension Program has been dramatic — in every way except perception.

“I said no way in hell my child going there, because this is a bad place, this is delinquents, this is a place for bad kids,” said Patricia Flaveney, describing her reaction when her younger daughter decided to attend the Extension Program.  “And then I realized it was a totally different thing to what I was expecting.”

“No disrespect to you, Dr. Saheed,” Flaveney said, directing her comments toward Cambridge Rindge & Latin School Principal Chris Saheed, “but you need to get a grip and hold these people by the bridle to let them know this is not how you market this stuff, because it’s not coming from the children. I had the negative impact from a guidance counselor [at the high school].”

The Cambridge Main Library meeting room booked for Tuesday’s informal discussion of the program was packed with about 30 teachers, staff, parents, grandparents and teens, all testifying to it producing miracles of education, but they said many of those miracles started with students getting into the program by ignoring warnings from school district employees.

It’s easy to imagine where the perception comes from. The program is a last resort for troubled kids, and — as committee members and Richard Harding and Marc McGovern discovered from a fact-finding mission to Virginia six years ago — the schools on which it is modeled can be dangerous and riddled with criminals.

Even now, Cambridge’s program focuses on “credit recovery” for kids who need special attention and have done academic damage to themselves, said the program’s principal, Joseph R. Dolan, and it had an admittedly rocky start. School Committee members in 2004 were divided on spending $1 million to start it, finally giving 6-1 approval. At first, most teachers didn’t last longer than three months. And as recently as last year’s roundtable, led by then-mayor Denise Simmons, there was official discussion contributing to an impression of low academic standards leading to lackluster results.

Quality of classes

Criticism focused on the online courses used to supplement classes since, with only 77 students and seven full-time teachers, not every graduation requirement can be filled in-house. This year 66 percent of students are taking an online class, and 25 percent are taking more than one.

Online courses have their defenders and champions, though. “Times are changing,” committee member Nancy Tauber said. “People are getting master’s degrees online. Last summer a school in Greenfield wanted to start an online school,” which was approved. Administrators also noted that CLRS itself had an online learning center for five years; its students now come to the Extension Program’s space on Upton Street for online classes.

While those courses result in part from the lack of advanced placement or honors courses offered by the program, honors-level learning is taking place, said English teacher Christina Farese.

“It’s a mistake to think that those who need honors or AP aren’t served. Kids who come into my class who can do AP- or honors-level work get that sort of assignment. That’s an important distinction: Just because I don’t call my class Honors Writing I doesn’t mean there aren’t kids in there doing honors-level work,” Farese said.

A move from 359 Broadway to Upton Street means better facilities for students, officials at the program said Tuesday.

This year, 26 of the 31 seniors, or 84 percent, have earned competency for graduation, and results on Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System testing has surged. Teachers are not just staying longer, but actually speaking of the strengths of the program in the same glowing terms as the families helped — or rescued — by it.

Comments Tuesday included Katiti Kironde saying that without the program, “I don’t know where [my grandson] would be — he’d probably be in jail or dead,” and others testifying it is a “lifesaver” for kids who were “drowning.” “I never got any help from the high school,” one grandparent said.

It is another change that the two principals sat side by side to discuss the program and answer questions. Students at the program can “cross-register” for activities and classes at the high school and the Rindge School of Technical Arts.

When the program was launched to take troubled teens from the high school, “there was a directive that the schools should be separate schools with really no contact at all. What has happened is, as the school has evolved and as conversations have continued and we’ve talked about what’s best for kids, we have said, ‘What do you mean, we can’t talk to each other?’” said Carolyn Turk, the district’s deputy superintendent. “They are all our kids, there will need to be connections. Those connections are in progress and are evolving.”

Committee members described recent visits to the program where they found the students “respectful” and “engaged,” and Mayor David Maher wondered if it weren’t time to rename the program, to give it a distinct identity reflecting its ongoing accomplishment.

Struggles rewarded

Dolan admits that every year is a struggle to rebuild, given that it can take months to get a troubled or distracted teen on the course to academic recovery. In that environment, it won’t be test scores, graduation rates, college acceptances (although many students do go on to two- or four-year colleges) or facilities (although the program’s facilities have improved since moving from 359 Broadway) drawing students.

The draw has become the nature of the school itself.

While six teens in the past six years have done their academic recovery in the program and returned to the high school, there are far more that treasure the program and elect to stay with it — even to turn down the graduation ceremony with Cambridge Rindge & Latin that is theirs by right, according to one grandparent.

“When it came to graduation, he said to me, ‘Nana, I don’t want to graduate from the high school, they did nothing for me, I want to graduate with the extension school,’” the grandparent said, referring to her grandson. “That meant a lot to me … I heard all these horror stories about the extension school.”

For some attending the program, it was desperation that drove them to ignore the warnings. For others, though, advice to ignore the warnings came from those who knew better: students and graduates.

Cliff Anderson plays football at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School but said Tuesday that it the High School Extension Program that helped him achieve academically. (Photo: Marc Levy)

“The No. 1 recruiting tool for us is kids telling other kids,” Dolan said after the roundtable.

During it, committee members heard from five students or former students, all articulate and forceful in speaking of their affection and appreciation for the program.

“I’m actually very comfortable with all the teachers that I have because I’ve built relationships with them, whether it be love/hate, but it all ends up being love,” said Sasha Flaveney, a senior who has been accepted to two four-year colleges. “They accommodate different learners. So when you tell them how you want to learn, they try to listen to you, hear you out, see if there’s a way they can work with you. That’s made getting to the point I’m at now very easy.”

Sasha’s experience was so positive that it is her younger sister electing now to go into the program, without a troubled experience at Cambridge Rindge & Latin or another high school as a spur.

The same goes for the little brother of Cliff Anderson, who is a football player at CRLS but went into the program directly after moving from Chicago two years ago. “Some of the teachers and guidance counselors were looking at me because I play football and it was like, ‘You’re not going to get scholarships for football if you go to the extension,’ but right now I have [many] colleges who want me for football,” he said, crediting the program with improving his test and SAT scores. “I just want to say thanks to the staff.”

“I would go in the morning and the teachers would know my name, and that they would be excited to see me. They’re kind of like your friends who are also authority figures, and they want to see you succeed. They will go out of their way to help you,” said another senior, Libby.

“They’re on you, they want you to do well,” said Jessica, another student. “They motivate me to want better for myself.”

The final young speaker was Peter Haycox, a student who returned to the program after graduation to work as a tutor. Starting high school at CRLS, “I felt like a number, I was in a sea of people, so I acted out a lot,” he said. “At the extension, it’s like you know everybody — you feel like a person, as someone said, like a family.”

“They did kind of save my life a little bit,” said Haycox, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Update: The vote approving the creation of the program has been corrected, and the location of the school.