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FEH BOCES celebrates 75 years

Assemblyman Billy Jones and FEH BOCES Superintendent Dale Breault hold a proclamation acknowledging the BOCES district’s 75th anniversary — which Jones introduced in his legislative house — at a ceremony on Thursday. (Provided photo — Jess Collier)

SARANAC LAKE — The Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES celebrated its 75th anniversary on Thursday — looking back on years of teaching high school students trades and offering them alternative education, while looking to the future of the regional collaborative district.

Current and former BOCES leaders said they are proud of their accomplishments and growth and fascinated by their history. On Thursday, they shared memories and explored historic documents and photos from throughout the years.

The concept of Boards of Cooperative Educational Services was first created in New York in March 1948 with the passage of legislation encouraging collaboration among school districts. The goal was to provide programming and services the districts did not have the resources to provide on their own.

“One of our better state laws, I might add,” local Assemblyman Billy Jones said.

FEH BOCES was one of the first three BOCES districts created in the state after its passage. Now, there are 37 BOCES in New York.

A young Matt Pafundi cuts wood for a class at FEH BOCES. (Provided photo — FEH BOCES)

FEH BOCES has seen a lot of growth recently, District Superintendent Dale Breault said. Next year, its enrollment is projected to be the highest it’s ever been. He said 50% of juniors and seniors in the region are set to attend some sort of BOCES program next year.

Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake, and state Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, both had proclamations from their respective state houses recognizing the occasion and offering their support.

Jones said FEH BOCES is “a beacon of educational excellence” and has made a mark on the North Country by training its next generation of tradespeople.

Stec said BOCES breaks education out of a “cookie cutter” mold, offering a diverse mix of instruction, which is needed. He said the region sorely needs people in the trades BOCES teaches.

FEH BOCES students are seen on a trip to Marcy Dam in 1999. (Provided photo — FEH BOCES)

Current state of FEH BOCES

Breault said the coronavirus pandemic proved they could be “nimble.” They started a virtual learning academy for students learning outside of the school buildings, which is still going. He said a lot of mental health issues came up because of the pandemic, and they are adapting to that.

“The money situation in New York state is tough, and I don’t think it’s going to get any better,” Breault said, adding that districts will need to adapt.

BOCES is a good way to do that, he said, consolidating services for multiple districts, to spend less money and keep a good education.

A young Anthony Brownell is seen cutting wood for a class at FEH BOCES. (Provided photo — FEH BOCES)

When they heard districts were having a harder time finding teachers, they started the New Vision Education program to train high schoolers interested in the field right here. Hearing about a coming shortage in law enforcement, Breault said FEH BOCES will offer a security and law enforcement program next year.

He referenced recent articles in major publications like Forbes and the Wall Street Journal about how Gen Z is being referred to as the “toolbelt generation” — with young adults heading into skilled trades instead of seeking college degrees.

Breault said he does not want to downplay the benefits of college, but he said it can come with massive debt and is not for everyone. BOCES offers education for people looking to start working soon after graduating.

The district also operates a handful of satellite classrooms; offers technical education programs, training opportunities for local teachers and GED preparation for adults; and acts as a regional liaison between the state, county and local school districts.

A young Heath Smith cuts wood for a class at FEH BOCES. (Provided photo — FEH BOCES)

Finding memories

As they were planning for the 75th anniversary, BOCES staff dove into the records of their district, finding photos of students and teachers throughout the decades and unearthing documents revealing its history.

Public Information Specialist Jess Collier was excited by the trove of photos from ceremonies in the 1970s and 1990s.

“It’s just so cool to think about the many decades of students that this place has had an impact on,” she wrote in an email. “I LOVE the pics. You can totally get such a strong feel for the time from them!”

In this photo from 2002, a young Ricky Sullivan receives an award from “Mr. McGinnis” at an FEH BOCES awards day. This year, as the BOCES district celebrates its 75th anniversary, Sullivan is also the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival King. (Provided photo — FEH BOCES)

Dennis Egan, who was recently reelected to be the president of the FEH BOCES Board of Education representing Brushton-Moira, described former BOCES heavy equipment teacher Ken Parnapy coming to him with a historic document — one detailing FEH BOCES’ 25th anniversary in 1974.

Breault thanked them for bringing forward this document, which included BOCES history even he didn’t know.

Nancy Montevago, the FEH BOCES Deputy superintendent from 2003 to 2013, said this event was more personal than professional for her — because she mostly remembers the people she worked with.

When she started in 1977, she said students with disabilities were separated into two groups: higher functioning and lower functioning, with no other evaluation of their abilities or progress over time.

With a grant, she started developing curriculum for them and got a testing program to measure their progress for the first time.

Breault said this was a “progressive” move, even before the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Steve Shafer, Breault’s predecessor as FEH BOCES superintendent and CEO from 2007 to 2019, said he was honored to be part of “this incredible journey.”

History

Once FEH BOCES became one of the first BOCES in New York, the organizers moved fast, holding their first meeting in August of that same year and hiring staff in October.

In the first years, FEH BOCES offered services in guidance, music, reading, elementary supervision, art, driver education, homemaking, agriculture and dental hygiene.

The vocational training programs BOCES is now most known for started in 1964, but were only offered to students in northern Franklin County at first. Tri-Lakes area students began to participate in FEH BOCES vocational training programs in 1972, starting with a location in Ray Brook.

When it started, the district was just “Franklin County BOCES.”

The Malone school district joined in 1962. The Lake Placid district and three Wilmington districts joined in 1966, expanding into Essex County. The Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake districts joined in 1968.

The Long Lake district and Raquette Lake Union Free School joined in 1971, expanding into Hamilton County and creating the district’s current name and boundaries FEH BOCES.

FEH BOCES now serves 10 school districts — all of Franklin County, plus some districts in Essex and Hamilton counties.

The original wing of North Franklin Educational Center in Malone opened in 1967. Within two months in 1975, a 40,000 square foot addition was made at the NFEC and the Adirondack Educational Center in Saranac Lake opened, serving Lake Placid, Long Lake, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake school districts.

Breault said in their research they found that a second BOCES started to form in northwest Franklin County in the 1950s. It never made it past planning and was eventually incorporated into FEH BOCES.

FEH BOCES students at Adirondack Educational Center will celebrate at their completion ceremonies on June 17 before they graduate from their respective home districts.

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