A lack of minority personnel, disparities between school buildings and achievement gaps between student demographics were among the chief issues the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People raised at a presentation to the School Committee on Wednesday, along with harsh criticism of the former jail that has become the district's "alternative" educational site, the Juvenile Resource Center.
"We're hoping that you will make a commitment to address these concerns in an effective way," said chapter President Will Singleton.
Singleton said that while 20 percent of the district's students were children of color, it employs only five African-American teachers, challenging the notion that this is due to a lack of diverse applicants.
"The myth, as far as we're concerned, is that no minority candidates apply for teaching positions," said Singleton, adding that according to information submitted to the city's recently launched Affirmative Action Committee
, 33 minority candidates applied for teaching positions in the school system in the past year.
The lack of minority representation in the district does nothing to help disparities in academic performance and disciplinary action that the NAACP says are rife throughout the schools, presenting to the committee data showing troubling statistical deviations that exceed statewide averages in many areas.
"Believe it or not, Pittsfield does have a school-to-prison pipeline," said Dennis Powell.
Powell said the rate of graduation between white students is 81.1 percent compared to 74.1 percent for those of color, mirroring a dropout rate of 8.1 compared to 11.1 percent. Additionally, only 7.6 percent of white students are subjected to major disciplinary actions, as opposed to 18.2 percent of minority students. The NAACP says even high-performing students of color are not encouraged to take Advanced Placement courses and pursue college preparation.
"Students of color are sent to the Juvenile Resource Center disproportionately, where they are often introduced to the juvenile justice system," said Powell, who was scathing in his critique of every aspect of the center, from the physical environment to the caliber of instruction provided.
"I find it hard to understand how we can take a facility that wasn't fit for criminals, so we build a nice facility for criminals," Powell said, "then we take our youth and stick them in the facility that wasn't good enough for criminals, and we end up making criminals out of them."
"Something's got to change," Powell told the committee.
Issues were raised over the current conditions of three elementary schools — Conte, Crosby, and Morningside — an issue that has tangibly plagued the district for several years.
"In the past 30 or 40 years, many of the schools have gone through renovations, but the schools more primarily serving students of color have not been upgraded," said Ralph Howe. "On the face of it, this is a very serious problem."
Mayor Daniel Bianchi echoed dismay with the conditions of the three schools, saying it had been an early priority of his administration to see that these schools got "in the queue" for consideration by Massachusetts School Building Authority.
"I share that embarrassment, that for so many years school renovations occurred, and not at those three schools," said the mayor. "When I sat on the City Council, I spoke about it then, and I spoke about it when I ran for the mayor's office."
The NAACP representatives invited committee members to attend a community meeting they are holding on April 28 at Morningside Community School to hear more input from members of the public about their experiences with these issues in the local educational system. They also asked that the district consider adopting a five-point strategy with the goal to "eliminate barriers to equality" in: hiring and promotion; appropriate access to facilities and resources; and access to all levels of achievement.
Elected members of the School Committee expressed optimism about the dialogue begun with the NAACP.
"I can assure you we're more than willing to collaborate with you," said committee Chair Katherine Yon. "I'm shocked by some of the statistics I heard here tonight."
"This is an important first step," agreed member Anthony Riello. "I know we will move in the right direction."
"I think if all of us put aside our egos, and just come together to work on this issue, I know we can overcome whatever obstacles there are," added Cynthia Taylor.
"We're at a crossroads now," concluded Yon with regard to expanding the district's effort at recruitment of minority applicants, which despite some increased effort has sometimes proven daunting, as in the case of this year's principal searches
. "I think we need the community's support, too, especially when it comes to the budget."