AUBURN — When troubled students on the verge of dropping out come to Franklin alternative high school, they believe they're not smart. They're not good.
That's because — one way or another — they've been told that, said retiring Franklin School Principal David Eretzian.
For 33 years, Eretzian and his staff have worked to turn that around. When students believe they're intelligent and worthy, motivation and success follow, he said.
There's a reason why Eretzian, 61, connects with his students.
He was one of them.
Growing up in Auburn, he considered himself “a slow, bad kid,” he said Tuesday during an interview. “All of us slow, bad kids hung out together. We ruled the playground.”
In school he sat slouched in the back of the class. He got into trouble. He didn't ask questions. He waited for the clock to signal the end of another school day.
He tried to do homework, “but after enough failure 'I said, 'What's the sense?'”
There was one teacher, Mrs. Emmons, who liked him. She saw something in him, turned his life around, and became Eretzian's alternative school role model.
He recalled the sixth-grade moment it started.
One day Mrs. Emmons came over to his desk and asked him to follow her. His friends elbowed each other and laughed: “'Retzy's in trouble!' I'm laughing,” he said, assuming he was going to the principal's office.
“She walks me past the door, not out the door. She starts walking me towards the smarties.”
As he got closer to a group of students, he saw an empty desk and realized he was to sit with them.
“I go flush,” he said. “My stomach starts to turn. Because worse than going to the principal's office, worse than getting detention, was having to sit with the smarties and look more stupid every day,” Eretzian said. “My buddies are laughing at me. They knew I was screwed.”
But he wasn't.
Mrs. Emmons worked with him. She didn't let anyone laugh at him. “She showed me I could answer questions,” he said. “Once in a while I'd get an answer other people couldn't.”
Because of her and his newfound confidence, Eretzian started excelling. After graduating from Edward Little, he got into West Point military academy. He later graduated from the University of Maine where he met his wife, Barbara Eretzian, former Auburn schools superintendent.
His experience as a student, then later as a teacher, confirmed for him that too often, people in a school can hurt kids' confidence and performance.
“There are way too many educators and adults who believe there are smart, medium and slow kids; and good, medium and bad kids,” Eretzian said. “Their words and behavior send that message. The kids take the hint, and become exactly what we tell them they are.”
At Franklin, “I said, no more. All we do is play Mrs. Emmons.”
In the last three years his graduates have been accepted to college or have plans to go. “This year every kid has plans beyond high school,” he said. Those plans include college or the military. “These were kids who came in here saying they were slow or bad. I didn't give them any brains. They always had them.”
Since 1978 when Eretzian co-founded Franklin, he's had some 4,000 students. The school wasn't able to help every one fast enough to get their lives turned around and graduate, he said. But even those who didn't graduate were changed, he said. They embraced the school's values of respect, responsibility, accountability, tolerance for others and community service. “They want it,” he said.
He's retiring with mixed feelings. He doesn't want to leave, but the toll of budget cuts in the tough economy has made him constantly worry about Franklin's future. Things that used to roll off his back when he was younger have become more stressful and wearing, he said.
He appreciates he's had the opportunity to influence young lives for 39 years. What he'll miss the most, Eretzian said, is the look in Franklin students' eyes when they discover they're worthy, they have a future. “It's a pretty magical look.”