Secretary of Education Matthew Malone, left, Gov. Deval Patrick, state Sen. Benjamin Downing and Mayor Daniel Bianchi listed to Dimitri Pixley's concerns about the college application process.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Gov. Deval Patrick has placed an emphasis on improving the state's education system in recent years.
On Monday, he heard from students about what more needs to be done.
Patrick and Secretary of Education Matthew Malone spent more than an hour talking with a dozen or so Pittsfield High School students.
Whether it be to visit colleges or play sports or to volunteer with community organizations, a lack of time seemed to be an underlying message from the students.
"Our schedules are so packed," said Samantha Bailey, who told officials she opted to sacrifice study-hall time to take a course she wanted. "If there were more periods in a day, it would be easier to spread out."
Bailey has a similar schedule as Jacob McNally, who told the governor that it is routine for him to wake up for school at 6 a.m., go to work or football practice and then begin homework after 7 p.m., ending around 1 a.m.
"I don't have enough time," McNally said.
Patrick has been a longtime advocate of longer school days but said he understands that some students are involved in so many things already. But not all students are like the ones he met Monday. Some need extra inspiration to do more.
The state recently passed legislation that will help schools and districts to craft programs — whether it be more school hours or additional extracurricular activities — to meet the needs of everyone, he said.
"Their days are pretty long as it is. All or most of the students who joined us today are involved in student athletics and that extends their day and many of them work as well," Patrick said. "I think, you know, my own views are that the school day should be longer and the school year should be longer as well because both of those schedules are modeled on farming and don't really deal with the many, many more demands schools are under now ... . It is understandable because we are asking schools to do what whole communities used to do."
Patrick wants the students' days to be full because when they become successful adults, the days aren't going to get shorter. They need to learn time management both inside and outside of the classroom, he said.
"If you pursue the things you love and keep the drive you have now, your days are going to be cramped," Patrick told them.
Malone said schools need to find the balance to a "healthy" amount of stress. As long as students are learning how to cope with stress, he said, activities are a good thing.
"Kids are feeling a tremendous amount of pressure. They are feeling that pressure and it is the new normal, it is the 21st century," he said. "Some stress we know is healthy but too much stress is unhealthy. Sometimes we as adults forget what it is like to be 16 or 17 years old."
School districts are empowered to deal with students who need more and those who have their plates full, he said. But there are still gaps in the system.
The governor sat with the students in the high school library to hear their concerns.
Christine Altoussi came to PHS from Africa without knowing any English. While she credits the school's efforts in helping her, she didn't have enough exposure before having to take the SATs.
There are SAT exams for students for whom English is a second language, but they are more expensive and require her to drive to Albany, N.Y., or Springfield. She also said there should be more teachers in ESL programs to allow for more one-on-one teaching.
"I think they should offer an ESL SAT prep class for new students," she said.
The costs of Advanced Placement courses was also a concern for the students. Amanda Miller told the governor that she had to limit the number of courses she could take because each exam is $89. Dimitri Pixley added that even with a program that helps reduce the cost, the exams are still too expensive.
And even when a student enrolls, there isn't always enough support to help them when they encounter difficult topics. Dvorah Gitlitz said it is difficult to find tutors for individual classes.
Malone said he has seen successful academic support programs so it is more a matter of bringing the right program to Pittsfield High.
"The themes we hear from high school students are around pressure, time, rigor with AP and preparation. I am constantly looking at new and better ways high schools can innovate to make sure they are supporting kids to take rigorous coursework," Malone said. "And there are a couple things I will talk to the principal about ideas I've seen elsewhere."
Additional concerns were raised about portions and options with school lunches, required physical education classes and the lack of quality sporting facilities — all concerns Malone says are valid.
While there may be some shortfalls, Pittsfield High is doing a lot of things right and Malone said he was happy to hear about the variety of clubs, study-abroad trips, athletics and Advanced Placement options.
"PHS has helped me figure out a lot of things," said student Merrick Gibson. "There are a lot of opportunities I've noticed. This school really helped me a lot."
Students credited the guidance department with sorting through college preparations and the school's mentoring programs for helping them. Patrick added that overall the state's schools have topped the nation in achievement in the last six years, and that isn't by accident.
"I learned that judging from the quality, energy and brain power of these young individuals, the commonwealth is in some great hands. But it is going to be up to the adults to cultivate that and encourage that and meet their needs and stretch them, encourage them to stretch themselves," Patrick said.
Principal Matt Bishop, Secretary Malone, Gov. Patrick and Mayor Daniel Bianchi at the head of the table.
He told the students that he doesn't want to "rest on our laurels" and wants to continue pushing to make the system even better.
"We're first in nation in student achievement and have been for the last six years. I'm proud of that. That didn't happen by accident and we have to keep that going and to invest in our schools, time, money, ideas, innovation. We've made some progress in closing the achievement gap which has been around for 20 years," Patrick said. "But it is the place where so many kids are poor or speak English as a second language or special needs are stuck. We need to continue to close that gap."
When it comes to inspiring the students to do more, Patrick made his contribution Monday when Gibson found out that Patrick came from a bad neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Gibson said he has moved around three different states and Patrick's background is similar to his. He wanted to know what it takes to be successful.
Patrick told his own story, which included being humiliated the first day at Milton Academy because he didn't have the same clothing to when his grandmother didn't even know where Harvard University is located. It "wasn't about the prestige but the opportunity," he said, adding that he continually went out of his comfort zone and stuck with becoming a lifelong learner.
"Every time I've tried something that is uncomfortable and figured it out, it gave me more confidence," Patrick said.