Malone met with dozens of the county's civic, business and educational leaders at Berkshire Community College on Thursday.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The new state secretary of the Executive Office of Education knows the difficulties facing urban schools but not much about rural ones.
So, just five weeks into the job, he met with educators from across Berkshire County to learn the concerns of the west end of state and explain how Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed budget could help.
"What's different is the poverty that exists is in your face, because there are a lack of jobs, because the economy has been down, and [because of ] a skill set that doesn't match the jobs that we do have," said newly appointed Secretary Matthew Malone.
"It's much more urgent. I've seen real urgency in the needs out here in the rural areas that I don't see in the other areas across the state.
"But, at the end of the day, all of the needs are the same and I'm an urgent person in general so I'm going to be urgent whether I'm in the inner-city or in the rural areas about getting results."
Superintendents from schools across the Berkshires spoke with Malone for more than two hours at Berkshire Community College on Thursday on topics ranging from transportation funding to unfunded mandates to access to Census data. The secretary later traveled to North Adams to speak with Massachusetts Liberal of Arts students and visit MCLA's Gallery 51.
To truly strengthen both the education system and the economy, Malone said he is "inspired" by the governor's revenue proposal. That proposal calls for an increase in education funding up to $6.8 billion from $6.2 billion but comes with increased taxes.
"This investment is multi-faceted. It's not just about providing programs. It's also about dealing with literacy, intervention, accountability, how we actually train our early education providers, how we hold them accountable, how we account for their programs actually in the fields with their alignment with best practices," Malone said. "We also know that education doesn't start at age 6, it starts much earlier than that."
Early education leads to better performance at the higher levels, Malone said, and takes an aggressive approach to improving literacy, which he calls the "No. 1 gap in the nation." In the middle and high school levels, the additional funding would allow for such things as increases learning time in middle schools and mentoring, retrain teachers and align the curriculum with available jobs. All of which will increase college acceptance, he said.
Malone said he was 'inspired' by the governor's proposal to increase spending on education.
"We have a chance to be the second greatest generation if we are bold enough to make that investments," Malone said as he harkened back to post-World War II when education funding was increased nationwide.
The governor's proposal includes two pieces that aimed to make college more affordable and implement a standard program among junior and community colleges that are tied in with employer needs.
"Community college is the future of education in the country because an Associate's Degree is what a high school diploma used to be. That's the bottom line," Malone said.
Helping to align curriculum is what Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michael Supranowicz has been asking for years. Supranowicz says he continually asks the state for Census data regarding economics and but what he gets back is more than 2 years old.
"I can tell you what employers needed two years ago," Supranowicz said, adding that he wants "real time" data that will let the county know that jobs in a certain field will be opening ahead of time so the students can learn them.
Meanwhile, James Montepare, superintendent of North Adams Public Schools, voiced frustration with mandated training that the school system doesn't need and the state doesn't pay for. He used English Language Learners training for teachers when there are few students here who need that education as an example.
But, the budget proposal is "all things we've been aspiring for," Montepare said.
When it comes to implementing the "bold" changes to the system, Malone said he is confident that there are leaders in Berkshire County who can advance the initiatives. Particularly, the businesses and various schools need to work together so the entire system is moving in the same direction.
"This idea of collaboration is something that is a real practice out here and not something that is just talked about," Malone said, impressed with the gathering of organizations Thursday.
But for Berkshire County officials, "that's how we survive," Montepare said.
Malone later repeated his strong belief that it was a pivotal moment in time for investment in education on par with the opportunities provided to the "greatest generation" of World War II.
"It's our turn now to make that happen not only for our kids but for our grandkids," he said after meeting with MCLA President Mary Grant, Mayor Richard Alcombright, state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing and state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi. at Gallery 51. "Transportation and education is the path to the future."
Grant stressed the collaborative efforts among different sectors, such as the Berkshire Compact, and the strong support from local and state officials.
Malone spoke to the collaboration and initiatives he'd seen, such as the Readiness Centers at MCLA and BCC, and how he hoped to bring some of what he's heard from educators to the policy and regulations of his office to help develop the same kind of "connectivity that they've created here in this region."
"We're really listening and talking to people ... I'll be able to advocate for all the folks I've met to day," he said. "For me, it's important to get out and meet with people and learn as much as a I can."
He and Grant both underscored the administration's efforts to create a "seamless" educational process from preschool through higher education.
"The governor has put forward a very ambitious, important proposal to fund and support education. We have to be making progress advancing that. It's critical," said Grant. "These conversations are very important. It's great to have the secretary here to hear what we're doing."
Malone promised to be back. "I want to be able to come when school is in session, K-12, and spend some time in the public schools," he said. "I'm going to be doing more visits."
He also wants to see a more of the Berkshires and laughed as he displayed a photo on his phone proving he'd been in Peru; he planned to travel back through that other faraway land, Florida.
"This has really been the best day," he said, before heading off to meet MCLA students.