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The Berkshire County Education Task Force meets Saturday in Dalton.

Education Task Force Keeps Focus on Creating Opportunities for Students

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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DALTON, Mass. — The Berkshire County Education Task Force on Saturday pressed forward less than 48 hours after one school district voted to step back from its participation in the effort.
The committee had a full agenda for its regularly scheduled meeting at Nessacus Middle School, but Thursday's decision from the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee to withdraw from the task force colored the conversation.
Chairman John Hockridge opened the meeting by addressing the vote head on.
"I just wished they'd put off the discussion for one more meeting to give us the opportunity to tell them where we're coming from," Hockridge said of the Berkshire Hills committee, which is responsible for schools in Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. "There were a lot of misunderstandings about where we're coming from at that meeting.
"No one is asking anyone to commit to a countywide district. We've said that all along. There will be interest from some to be early adopters to cooperate with neighboring district. Some will choose not to participate. We understand that.
"We're just asking people to keep an open mind. School districts are driving the bus, and where that bus goes will always be up to them."
That theme was repeated frequently in comments as the committee discussed its immediate future and its long-term transformation from a study group to a resource for "pioneer districts" that want to look at ways to cooperate across district lines in order to enhance educational opportunities.
Some committee members on Saturday said the focus on improved education for all students in Berkshire County was missed in the reaction to the the task force's recommendation that the county aspire to forming a single unified school district over the next 10 years.
"I've had three meetings this week in which key leaders told me the message is getting away from us," task force member Douglas McNally said. "It's becoming a message about money only, and the quality of education is getting lost."
Messaging was a major topic on Saturday as the task force fine-tuned the text for a webinar that will be presented to school superintendents, administrators and union representatives on Sept. 26 and a statement that will guide presentations to municipal bodies and the general public throughout the fall.
The superintendent of the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District suggested that the task force's messaging include an emphasis on the problem it seeks to address: broadening and strengthening educational opportunities for all in a time of declining enrollment and rising costs.
"I'm wondering if we are so immersed in the educational impact that we're assuming other people know how far educational opportunities have fallen in the Berkshires," Robert Putnam said. "When I went to Monument Mountain in the 1960s, there were four or five different languages offered.
"[At Hoosac Valley], I have one art teacher. We only do Spanish. There's no French, no Latin. I don't know that people are fully aware of what's happening."
McNally noted that the curricular and extracurricular offerings are declining at all the county's public schools, a point that the executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission agreed with.
"We can point to one of the districts that's perceived as being high quality," Nat Karns said. "We can say, this is one of our strongest districts, and this is what's happening to them. It's even worse for the districts that are struggling more."
The core message discussed by the task force on Saturday specifies several examples of what a single countywide district could offer that the current structure does not:
"Every junior and senior in Berkshire County has access to a distance learning economics course -- for which they receive both high school and college credit -- that meets during second period across all high schools and is taught by an MCLA or BCC professor."
"Every student on the autism spectrum in the county and their teacher has access to an autism specialist who visits the school at least once each week …"
"Every middle and high school student has access to extracurricular offerings co-led by an industry specialist in rocketry, robotics and video game programming through which the students partner in person and virtually across districts and compete across the county."
McNally said the task force should be careful not to paint too bleak a picture of the state of education in the county and pointed out that the schools are doing a good job in providing the core education.
"What's being lost is choice -- the choice to take electives," McNally said. "What's happening is the floor is becoming the ceiling. If all they're getting is the core, they're not college ready."
And the loss of options for students has real implications for the communities the schools serve, North Adams Superintendent Barbara Malkas said.
"The personalized learning movement that is happening [nationally] now is all about having the students ready for the economy of the future, and the economy of the future is undefined," Malkas said. "So these options, this personal choice, the development of interest and critical thinking and seeking out information, the intrinsically motivated learner -- this happens when you engage students through options and choice.
"By not having that, there's an economic disadvantage we're handicapping communities with."
As for any short-term economic advantages of consolidation -- i.e. cost savings to local taxpayers -- some task force members advised against citing specific figures in their presentations this fall. Partly that caution was because of the uncertainty of projections, and partly because of a belief that some of the potential savings on the administrative side of the ledger would be reallocated to the classroom rather than realized in direct cuts in property tax levies.
"Once we get into the pit of financial savings, we're probably going to called liars in the long run," McNally said.
At its next meeting in October, the task force plans to return to a discussion of what form the body will take going forward -- after this fall's presentations to stakeholders throughout the county. Meanwhile, the work of those presentations continues, starting with the Sept. 26 webinar for educational leaders throughout the county; events to which Berkshire Hills administrators and staff will be invited, Hockridge said.
In the meantime, the members of the task force will be out in force explaining the group's rationale for recommending the aspiration of a single district for the county's schools.
"You are spokespeople [for the task force]," consultant Nathan Levenson of District Management Group told the panel. "People in the community are going to come up to you and corner you in the grocery store and ask you questions. It really is helpful to stick to the script.
"All of us have a different style. All of us might have a slightly different take. To the extent possible, it really is helpful to echo this [BCETF statement] with as little embellishment or modification as possible."

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