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Cynthia Taylor, William Cameron, Daniel Elias, Katherine Yon, and Joshua Cutler are all expected to be on the School Committee after the election.

Pittsfield School Committee Candidates Discuss Future

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The School Committee is going to have to consider closing a school.
 
At least five of the six candidates for the committee believe that has to be on the table. Six candidates are on the ballot for six seats. On Monday, five of those candidates gathered for a conversation at Berkshire Community College.
 
"There has been over a 50 percent decline in school-aged population in the city of Pittsfield of a period of time close to 40 years," William Cameron said. "The issue of declining enrollment is something Pittsfield is going to have to deal with."
 
Cameron is one of two, barring an unforeseen write-in campaign by somebody else, new people set to join the board. He and Dennis Powell will join incumbents Katherine Yon, Daniel Elias, Cynthia Taylor, and Joshua Cutler on the School Committee. They'll be entering the first term with a difficult budget scenario and a report likely to examine the best use of the school buildings.
 
"We do have to look at ways to restructure, maybe there is a closing of a building in our future. But we need a vision," Yon said.
 
However, Taylor said just because the enrollment is dropping, that doesn't mean it is less costly to operate a school system. She said the educational model has changed from students sitting in rows listening to a lecture to a greater focusing on meeting the educational needs of individual students. Further, health insurance continues to rise.
 
"It is a false correlation to assume fewer students translates to lower costs," she said.
 
The students are also coming into the schools with greater needs than ever before -- caused by poverty and broken homes.
 
"That child has to feel their emotional needs are somehow being met and that is a whole different curriculum," Taylor said. "It is not just teaching reading, writing, arithmetic. You have to teach the social and emotion before you can get to those lessons."
 
The children coming from impoverished homes cost more to educate, she said, and that is shown in the district's state rankings. The four schools with the lowest scores on standardized tests are those that serve neighborhoods with the most poverty -- up to 97 percent of the school population. She said the city has put effort into anti-poverty programs in the school such as providing free breakfast and lunch at some schools.
 
"I think the teachers need community support. They come and hear all of these stories of children in need and want to meet those needs. It is traumatizing for the teachers to bear the emotional weight of what is going on," Taylor said.
 
For reasons like that, Cameron said the state's ranking system is crafted in a way that gives the wrong impression. Cameron said the entire district has ranked a Level 3, but that is based on the lowest ranking school. But, while he disagrees with the way the ranking system is done, he said the scores can reveal areas where additional focus is needed.
 
"The issue is one of finding a fit between what the students need in order to succeed and the way the schools are organized and how the curriculum is delivered," Cameron said.
 
Current Chairwoman Katherine Yon cited the district's recent push for improved instruction. Despite budget constraints, the district created a couple vice principal of teaching and learning positions in the schools and has been updating its curriculum. Conte Community School just received a "turnaround grant" to help improve the test scores. That grant creates time for teachers to collaboratively plan lessons and ways to reach specific students.
 
"We really need to give more of a focus on instruction," Yon said. 
 
Cutler said it is the collaborative planning time that "educator crave." He said getting teachers time to work together to coordinate their lessons will help improve test scores. The programming and curriculum are what Cutler believes the focus needs to be with the vocational programming at the new Taconic High School. The new school will be opened in 2018.
 
"We need to focus on the fact that a new building isn't going to make all of the difference in making Pittsfield a magnet for school choice," Cutler said. "We need to develop our programming."
 
Cutler wants a strong vocational advisory board and continued honing of the educational product at the school. Cameron said the building of the new high school wasn't just a benefit, but an essential.
 
"I think having the new facility, with new vocational technical programming, as well as space for more academically oriented instruction, I do think is a benefit to Pittsfield," Cameron said. "This is a benefit to the city but it was also a necessity."
 
Meanwhile, Elias believes that once the new school opens the school choice numbers will turn around. The city sees about $2 million less in revenue each year because of students choosing to be educated in other districts. Elias said with the new Taconic, more and more students will be wanting to come to the comprehensive school.
 
"It is on schedule and more important it is on budget," Elias said.
 
Taylor called the building "the most exciting thing to happen in Pittsfield in 34 years." She praised the new courses crafted with the educational plan for the school, a decreased revenue loss from school choice, and an alignment of the education with the needs of the business community. That is coupled with a focus on advanced placement courses, with the district offering 23 different courses.
 
"We have the college prep and also the vocational part," Taylor said.
 
Showing those offerings office is what Cutler thinks will help retain families that are considering choicing out. He said the public perception of the schools would drastically change if the families are able to see firsthand those offerings. The largest amount of choicing out tends to be among the middle and high schools, Cutler said. 
 
"The key is to get them in the building to see all of the things we have to offer," Cutler said.
 
Preserving the offerings of districts throughout the county has been a focus of the Berkshire Educational Task Force. Cameron has been sitting on that for the last two years as it looks at ways communities can handle declining enrollment and rising costs everywhere.
 
"Berkshire County is losing students at a much greater than the rest of the state. There are 19 school districts, dozens of public high schools, and fewer and fewer students," Cameron said. 
 
The task force is recommending that the county moves in the direction of a single school district to help preserve the educational offerings. But, there are questions regarding funding, debt, governance, and physical size of the district.
 
"They can all be worked out if people are willing to approach the issue seriously and with an open mind," Cameron said.
 
Elias added that "local control is going to be a very big issue." He said the recommendation has already caused a "splintering" in the community. Elias also added concern about the lack of candidates for the School Committee. He said the schools need to do a better job at teaching civic engagement.
 
"We train them this way and wonder why it is the lowerest voting block?" Elias said.

Tags: election 2017,   Pittsfield School Committee,   

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