Former Belfast alternative high school student returns to teach a class

Posted June 14, 2012, at 1:17 a.m.

BELFAST, Maine — When Eleni Murphy of Belfast was a teenager, she struggled at times with the larger classes and less personal approach at Belfast Area High School.

That’s why she spent a year and a half attending Belfast Community Outreach Program in Education, or BCOPE, the school district’s alternative high school, where she found a much better fit.

Murphy’s experience as a student there has given her an unusual perspective for her recent teaching gig at the alternative school, where she led a course in environmental photojournalism called “Photo Justice.”

“The learning style was different there, and that’s what was beneficial to me,” said Murphy, 29. “The connection between the students and the teachers is so strong and so sincere it creates a really good learning environment.”

After high school graduation, Murphy attended Maine College of Art in Portland and then San Francisco State University, where she studied public health. She has been working in the Bay Area for the last six years, but was glad when the chance to start the Photo Justice project in Maine arose.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to do this pilot project and work with the students at BCOPE,” she said. “I felt connected to BCOPE because of this shared experience, and the students were incredible.”

Over the last few months, Murphy and her eight students focused on the controversial liquid propane gas terminal project at Mack Point in Searsport. They invited people to come in and speak who were both in favor of and against building the very large propane storage tank. They then spent time taking cameras outside and documenting the greater community that would be affected by the proposed energy project.

“A lot of them didn’t know about it before,” she said of the students’ awareness of the tank project. “Now, at least, they know about it, and can form an opinion of what they’ve learned.”

The artwork that resulted from the class project is on display at Waterfall Arts on High Street in Belfast, and will remain up through at least June 22.

Gary Skigen, the director of BCOPE, said Monday that having Murphy come back to teach a class was “tremendous.”

“Because she was a former BCOPE student, she remembers,” he said. “[The students] listen more, because they think, ‘this person has been there.’”

The teens who attend the alternative high school have diverse reasons for going, according to Skigen, and plenty of them do. This year’s graduating class numbered 28 out of a 43-person student body.

“Some students are lost in large classrooms. Some students are different in the way they dress and the way they act. Some students are bullied. Some students have no support at home,” he said. “Some students made mistakes and need a place to change their direction. Some have children when they’re very young.”

The fact that the Photo Justice students’ work is on display at a respected local gallery means a lot to teens who often have been slapped with negative labels by other students and members of the community, he said.

“Anything they do that makes their abilities known and gives a different perception — it’s great,” Skigen said. “We want them to shine in the community.”

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