Conte Facing New Challenges

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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Amid controversy about the value of the middle school model, officials at Silvio O. Conte Middle School are planning for big changes this year.

"We're doing things as if we would do them if Conte were going to be here for 10 years or just one year," said Principal Diane Ryczek at a "First Days" celebration at the school Tuesday. "We want to make a difference in the life of each child and that will always remain the same."

Earlier this year, Mayor John Barrett III announced the School Committee was studying how to consolidate the schools into a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade model, which would eradicate the middle school concept in the city and close Conte.

"It's definitely a bittersweet feeling for me," said seventh-grade English/language arts teacher Sara Luczynski. "I love teaching in middle school but I also think that in a lot of cases, a K-8 building is good for a lot of kids."

Incoming sixth-graders Jessica Sunn, 11, and Hannah Collier, 11, said they would prefer to stay at their former school, Sullivan Elementary, rather than transition to a middle school. "It's just easier to stay with old teachers," said Collier.

On Tuesday night, though, as hundreds of students, teachers, staff and parents flooded the school for tours, school supplies sales, live music from the band and a barbecue, no one seemed to care that this might be the last year.

"We're taking it one step at a time," said Ryczek. "This year, we're looking forward to more new and innovative programs and we really just want these kids to like going to school."

The nearly 400 students attending Conte this year will be the beneficiaries of several major curriculum changes, including the ongoing Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative, which provides laptop computers for all students at the middle school. Students will have the opportunity to excel in several different academic areas this year, as many of the subjects have been revamped to get more of them excited about school.

"We're taking every possible step we can to get students engaged," said Ryczek.

Along with a new math and science curriculum, teachers and students will now utilize "My Access," an online instructional writing and tutoring tool. Students will not only write Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test practice essays using the program, but they will also receive valuable feedback from the system as it provides instant scoring and targeted revision instructions.

"[Conte] is looking forward to everything. We're off to a really good start and we're very energetic and ready to go," said Superintendent James E. Montepare. Also, the middle school will introduce "looping," a process they hope will transform learning. Looping allows teachers to move with their students, effectively starting where they left off the year before. Luczynski, who taught sixth grade last year, will now teach those same students in the seventh grade.

"This is the very first year," she said. "The idea is continuity. So instead of having to get to know the students again for the first two months, you can just jump right in."

She added, "It's much easier to have the same child in front of you."

"Research shows that if [teachers] follow the students, they gain more content knowledge," said Ryczek.

For sixth-grade science teacher Marie Kelly-Whitney, the new school year isn't about new programs or exploring new initiatives - it's about the children.

"I just love science and I love the kids. I want to be here and I'm excited to be back in the classroom and using hands-on experiments with the students," said Kelly-Whitney, who mentioned that her science class would use "test tubes, goggles and real flame."

Though most of the staff is eager to get into the classroom, best friends Sunn and Collier are a little more apprehensive. "It's a little exciting, a little scary," said Sunn. "But I'm excited about learning new stuff."

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