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North Adams School Officials Raise Concerns Over Teacher Retention

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Each month the School Committee gets a personnel report detailing who's coming, who's going and who's being re-assigned.
 
There can be several pages involved, particularly at the beginning and end of the school year as grant funded positions are listed, new hires and retirements are posted and non-permanent jobs like coaches and after-school staff are added.
 
But even on a regular month, there can be a significant amount of moving around in the city's most populous department. That has the School Committee concerned — like others school officials around the Berkshires — about  how to retain teaching staff within the small competitive education community.
 
"We've been talking about personnel so it's fair to say there's an interest in understanding what this means for the schools when we have so much motion," School Committee member Ian Bergeron said at Tuesday's December meeting. "Last month we talked about taking permanent subs and putting them in permanent positions or full-time teacher slots. This month, there are departures of teaching assistants and teaching assistants into what was formerly a long-term sub position. ...
 
"What's our long-term strategy for keeping people in the district, happy and refilling these positions. And how is this impacting students core services?"
 
Superintendent Barbara Malkas said in some cases it was a matter of educators going out on long-term leaves so teacher's assistants who are qualified can get a waiver to temporarily fill those spots. But they do have to move into another bargaining unit.
 
However, she acknowledged that the district is "encountering some staffing issues" as the three-month grace period for new hires was ending.
 
"We successfully hired for many vacant positions this summer, and we're coming up on the first 90 days of employment, where those employees are considered 'at will,'" Malkas said. "So it's not all staffing exiting the district. Some of it has been at the request of the district and some of it has been ... that staff are vacating for a long-term leave."
 
Bergeron asked what was the impact on the students of this shifting of staff, in particular some special education spots. The superintendent said some positions would be left open because the person would be expected to return to their slot. 
 
In the case of special education jobs, Malkas said, "these are individuals who have either an associate's or bachelor's degree, and have taken and passed a specific certification course." 
 
She said they are also being supervised by one of the two behavior analysts in the district and that two other staff members are pursuing certification as analysts. 
 
'We do have staffing concerns. I think this year particular this seems to be a lot of transition," said Vice Chairwoman Heather Boulger. "However, the North Adams Public Schools is not isolated, and I know that it's happening throughout the county throughout Massachusetts and actually throughout the country."
 
She added that the negotiation committee had worked hard to develop competitive salaries and solid contracts to attract more teachers here. "And I think that we've made a concerted effort to enhance our marketing to really attract attract additional qualified staff," she added.
 
Other school districts have been discussing the same issue, with Pittsfield losing teachers to other districts before they even entered a city classroom.
 
Malkas said the district has been monitoring what it sees as a beginning wave of retirements of highly qualified teachers. 
 
"Without having the pipeline for teachers coming into the profession, on a national, state and local level, we're really going to see more and more seasons that are more like this one, where it becomes increasingly difficult to fill positions and that, particularly in Berkshire County, we're actually doing a lot of swapping of staff," said the superintendent.
 
Committee member Tara Jacobs said the looming teacher shortage had also come up at school committee workshops she's attended, especially how could will affect Berkshire County with its declining population and difficult geography.
 
"It's a challenge that we are all facing ... and ideas were floated that were beyond the regionalization topic that is of course been brought up," she said. "There were some creative ideas brought up about ways that we can work together from some of those shared shared teaching ideas. ...
 
"It's going to become more of a challenge ... we have to keep it at the forefront."
 
Bergeron said it seems to have transience has increased even since he came on board two years and that the committee should understand what it means and how it may be affecting education. 
 
Malkas thought it would be helpful to give a presentation at a future meeting on the hiring process and the data the district is using to determine where the faculty is at in its professional career. 
 
"We got to see from NESDEC what our population will look like but we don't know what our professional population will look like over the next five years," said Bergeron. "We're going to have fewer students coming in and more difficulty finding teachers and does it balance out? Clearly no."
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Guest Column: Statement on Sentencing in Steele-Knudslien Murder

Guest Column
As the region's longest-serving LGBTQ organization, Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition has closely followed the case of the murder of Christa Steele-Knudslien, the North Adams resident and founder of the Miss Trans New England Pageant. 
 
Today [Thursday], her murderer has been sentenced to life in prison with eligibility for parole after serving 25 years. In the two years since we lost Christa, the community has rallied around her memory and inspiration. In North Adams, a grassroots task force was founded in reaction to her death and those of other residents killed by their partners. This led to the Berkshire County Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force, a coalition of community agencies such as Elizabeth Freeman Center, law enforcement, and the court system, currently working to end domestic violence in Berkshire County for good. 
 
On the brighter side, over the past two years the Berkshire Pride Festival has grown to be a major event, celebrating and uplifting the trans community that Christa cared about so much. An annual award for local LGBTQ leaders has been established in her name and with her spirit. Clothing swaps have happened where Berkshire residents shared the joy and beauty of being trans, the same goal Christa had in mind when founding her pageant. Rainbow Seniors and the Berkshire Trans Group expanded their meetings, providing support and connection from Williamstown to Great Barrington.
 
Politically, a local contingent spent hours organizing and fighting to pass the state ballot measure last year that made Massachusetts the first state to successfully defend an attack on a trans rights bill, setting a strong precedent for human rights across the nation. And we mourned, as a community, at each Trans Day of Remembrance, a national event that struck home when we read Christa's name amongst those murdered.
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