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Q&A: Pittsfield School Committee Interviews 4 Potential Superintendents

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Pittsfield School Committee interviewed four finalists on Monday and Tuesday evenings in the search for the district's new superintendent. 

Each of the applicants has a history of more than 24 years in education and evinced a desire to embrace the city's diverse range of youth and young adults.

The committee will deliberate on the appointment of the next superintendent at its regular meeting Wednesday, April 14.

Former Superintendent Jason McCandless left last August for the Mount Greylock Regional School District, and former Deputy Superintendent Joseph Curtis was selected as interim superintendent.

A 23-member Superintendent Search Committee was formed in November 2020 and had its first meeting in December with the hope to have a new superintendent by July 1, 2021.

The School Committee set the salary range for the new appointee at $165,000 to $180,000 annually, making it one of the highest paying city jobs.

Curtis, Portia Bonner, Arthur Unobskey, and Marisa Mendonsa answered 13 questions from the School Committee over the course of the interviews.

Joseph Curtis

Curtis has 27 years of experience in elementary and secondary schools. He began his career as a teacher at Conte Community School and became deputy superintendent in 2015. He also was the principal of Morningside Community School and vice principal of Conte.

Curtis said that each day of the COVID-19 pandemic has made him stronger in his appointed position.  He said being an educator and an educational leader within the district has fostered his growth as a professional, but more importantly as a human.

"I owe everything, including my three sons, to the school system and this community," he said to the panel.

Portia Bonner is currently the interim superintendent of Bozrah (Conn.) Schools District. She has 34 years of experience in elementary and secondary schools and was a finalist for the Mount Greylock position alongside McCandless and a finalist in Lee Public School's superintendent search last year.
Recently, she has was superintendent of schools East Haven, Conn., and New Bedford, and acting and assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in Hamden. She has also been a principal, assistant principal, department chair, and instructor.

Bonner was a Women Honoree in 2015 for the Perfect Blend, an organization committed to fostering leadership in young women through mentorship, and was appointed by the Connecticut governor to serve on the Educational Cost Sharing Task Force in 2011 with the charge of reviewing how the state funds local school districts.

Arthur Unobskey is currently superintendent of Wayland Public Schools, a position that he will leave in June. He has 30 years of experience in elementary and secondary schools that began with teaching in Baltimore in 1991. In 1993, Unobskey moved to Massachusetts to work at Graham and Parks Public School in Cambridge.

Unobskey has also been assistant superintendent of Gloucester Public Schools and principal of Washington Irving Middle School in Boston and Concord Middle School.

Marisa Mendonsa is a graduate of Pittsfield High School with 24 years of experience in elementary and secondary schools. She currently is principal of Mohawk Trail Regional High School in Shelburne Falls and formerly was principal of John J. Duggan Middle School in Springfield and Amherst Regional Middle School.

Below are excerpts from the roughly hourlong interviews of each candidate.

Q: How can educators in general, a superintendent in particular, have an impact on the emotional well-being of students?

Curtis: I believe that although academic achievement is of the utmost importance. Our district must prioritize our student's mental well-being. Now more than ever, we must support our teachers and support staff our administrators, by providing them the skills and time needed to foster strong relationships with our students.

I feel that teachers also must receive clear messaging that taking time to form relationships with students is time that is well spent. That the school and district leadership certainly endorses, and I would dare say particularly now more than ever.

Portia Bonner

Bonner: I will say for the middle school in high school, that there should be layers of support to address some of the trauma that kids are being exposed to right now and helping them navigate giving them strategies to be able to navigate some of the challenges that they're up against.

I don't know if your district has access to school health clinics but in East Haven, we actually had one in our middle school is probably one of our impoverished sites, which was very helpful and at the high school not only was it physical health, but it was also behavioral health. So it helped us partner with our social workers and school psychologists to really work with some of our students who were having stressors, I mean we were dealing with all kinds of issues and I'm sure you all are doing the same. There's a need because kids are lacking strategies and coping skills for challenges in trauma.

Unobskey: We play a huge role in their lives, a lot of whether it's anxiety, or depression, or a lot of it is brought to school, but it's can be caused by school. And different students react to stressors in different ways. And one of the things that's really important is that individually, students feel like they can have someone to talk to about how they're feeling.

And therefore, you have to have a trained staff who have their doors open for kids and kids feel like they have a relationship with, you need to give teachers the latitude to have conversations with students in class about how they're doing, to have time for students to drop by, and to spend that time and make that a priority.  Your relationships that you're developing with students is crucial for their well-being.

Mendonsa: The social-emotional learning and the mental health of our students is really important.  As superintendent, I need to make sure that I prioritize this and that it lives in our schools. And we have to consider the ways that we're prioritizing our staffing, do we have enough counselors and support? And if not, how do we involve the greater community? So clinical support services, how do we bring mental health providers into our school buildings?

We hear time and time again, for our students that anxiety and stress are really high levels for them right now, no matter what kind of grade level they're at, I think social media drives out a lot.

Q: Initiatives such as diversity, equity, and inclusion are receiving a lot of attention on the state and local levels currently, especially tied to current events. How do you intend to address and support these areas beyond required state measures, announcements, or statements of support?  How will you ensure that the school and district, truly support and embody these measures for our students and staff?

Curtis: We must ensure — and I've said this in many ways in many different venues — that our staff continues to become more diverse, not to improve a statistic, but to improve our experience, a more diverse workforce sends a strong message of acceptance, and well ultimately producing more relevant instructional experience to our students.

This year's district improvement plan states that the district will go through the process of a full equity audit. The audit beginning in May will focus on four areas curriculum planning, students' opportunity to learn educators' opportunities to learn, and then finally leaders. Once the findings are obtained next steps will be planned and certainly committed to.

Bonner: I'll start with the school department itself, the schools need to have what I would call an equity plan, equity and diversity plan. And that starts with first defining what do we mean by equity, and I say that as a school district but this is a conversation that also then we'll open up to the community, and parents.

What do we say is equity?  Many people think of equity in different ways, equity, meaning that I give you exactly what you have over here at this school and over there. That's not necessarily the case. For me, equity is about ensuring that there is a level of fairness that students are able to reach their fullest potential and that they have the opportunity to be successful. And sometimes that means that you might have to provide more supports to ensure that that happens. And so that's a conversation first to establish as a district, and a community: What do we view equity as being? and then what does equity look like in our school system?

Unobskey: In Wayland, we developed an anti-racist statement that sort of really got it that we're gonna address curriculum issues, we're going to address hiring issues, we're going to address events that come up. So I think that's the first statement that you need to look through as part of that, how are we making students feel welcomed? And part of that is looking at our curriculum. Is it rigorous and engaging for our kids? Meaning does it touch on different aspects of their backgrounds? Is it multicultural in terms of the authors it represents?

Arthur Unobskey

Mendonsa: The superintendent must take the work on diverting must take the lead on the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and it should be the foundation of the district strategic plan. And from here, building, principals should develop a through-line for this work within their buildings, and so it should then live in their school improvement plans. as superintendent, I would ensure that diversity equity inclusion is a prominent feature of our strategic plan and the daily work of our schools.

I'm in a doctoral program for education, policy, and leadership. But it has an anti-racism focus to it, which is why I chose to do that program three years ago. And when you're anti-racist, your acts are deliberate against bias hate and impression of marginalized groups. So to be anti-racist is to have actionable information ideas to go after. It's not just putting out a statement.

Q: What obstacles stand between the high academic achievement of many students in Pittsfield and communities that share demographic and economic characteristics and how can these obstacles be overcome to ensure that all students succeed in the Pittsfield public schools?

Curtis: All of our students no matter what their current situation can achieve academic growth if strong relationships are fostered with that child at the school level, high standard support with empathy, rather than sympathy, which is important, must be held with each one of our students at all times.

Our districtwide instructional model must embrace the importance of administering daily formative assessments that are tied to standards-based local benchmarks that are aligned to state assessments, instructional planning must utilize a backward design approach that ensures that each grade level and their standards are being taught, and most importantly measured each day.

Bonner: I think that sometimes teachers when they see the background of a child, they immediately assume that this is the level in which they can achieve, this is how far they can go and I say I say this quickly because, for one, students of color or coming from a poor and impoverished background, the assumption may be that the student may not have the necessary knowledge or background to be able to meet high expectations, and sometimes teachers will have those low expectations and don't even realize that they've done that.  That comes with that unconscious bias, you know, they may not realize that they're doing it.

The other piece is that the curriculum itself, you may be doing traditional curriculum that you see but yet it is the teacher who brings rigor to that curriculum, you know, brings it to another level, challenging the child to not just memorize, but now apply the learning, apply it to a new situation, to be able to problem-solve and to be able to use the terminology of the content appropriately to speak it.

The other part is that there needs to be a partnership, not only with teacher and child or teacher and student but also where you include the parent.

Unobskey: It's really important that you have a coherent approach when you're working with a good part of your population. Because of it being in an urban district that has needs economically where some people have needs, they often aren't getting the same levels of sort of support from outside the school, because of their financial needs, frankly.

It's really important to nurture that whole child, one thing that we focused on in Wayland was developing a long term plan for the social-emotional well being of our children, training teachers, and how to use a variety of strategies to work with kids with anxiety, which was a particular issue in our community, and providing them the sports they need and the training, they need to do that.

Marisa Mendonsa

Mendonsa: This is a challenge in a lot of places, and it's a challenge even in the rural school district that I am in. Through our redesign work, student data was telling us that students were not feeling connected to school and didn't feel a part of it. So for me, first and foremost, students must feel safe and connected to their schools and the district needs to assess whether the programs the initiatives, and the curricular choices connect to students in their buildings.

As a community, we have to come together and, and identify ways that we can close the gaps and there's a lot of community organizations in Pittsfield that can become a part of this so that all students have access to resources and opportunities.

Q: If you had the capacity to blow up a public school system and start from scratch, what would it look like?

Curtis: First, I think, and most importantly, and I would dare say specifically in elementary school. I would not have grades grade labels.

I think, ultimately, to take a student from where they are now to where they need to be, they should not be constricted into what someone has perceived as grade-level standards.

Bonner: I believe Pittsfield, your enrollment is declining, somewhat. And so, with East Haven we closed down, but it was a master plan that we did and we worked with an architect who would come in and do a feasibility study to look at what buildings should we maintain that can be renovated, what buildings should we closeout, and he really kind of gave us a long term goal in terms of how to consolidate and we were even to the point where the high school that we had in East Haven, it was built for 1400 students, and it was only 800 students in that building so we were looking at bringing seventh and eighth grade, up to the high school.

So there are different avenues in which you can do to consolidate your buildings and so yes I've had experience in that area but again it is tough, and you really have to be very transparent with your community in terms of what's going on, and let them voice their opinions and be heard.

Unobskey: I think that the most important thing is whatever grade configurations you have, that you establish certain priorities and certain understandings. I would want to spend a fair amount of time with all the teachers together making sure they understand how students learn how to work with numbers, how do students learn how to read, how to students learn how to write, and have a shared understanding of that before they get off into their subject areas. If I were starting from scratch, I would love to do that. So that we have a shared understanding of how kids develop and develop the skills and how they truly engage in rigorous study.

It's less about how I would configure the district but more about our shared understanding of how kids learn and develop and succeed and the love for school that I'd want to focus on.  I think you can do that whether you blow up the district or not, I think you can do that as a community, and that's something that I want to do.

Mendonsa:  I would love to think about ways that we can break away from that traditional feel of everything, every subject lives in a silo, it's the reading block time, it's the math block time, we'll go out to arts, and now we're going to PE. And it's 40 minutes here, and it's 40 minutes there.  I would love to see us blending things together where it's really much more project-based and where students are developing portfolios.

In terms of the high school world, I would absolutely love for students to potentially design their own programming in the junior and senior year so they really kind of get some priority courses out of the way similar to more college setting and that they're not in a repetition of five or six classes a day but maybe there's a team of students, 20 students tagged to teachers, and they're really developing a pathway for themselves of what they're interested in.

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Freeman Center's 'Rise For Safety and Justice' Walks Aim to Represent All

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Elizabeth Freeman Center's annual fundraiser to support survivors of domestic and sexual violence has undergone a couple of changes to be more inclusive and fit the needs of the pandemic.

The former "Walk a Mile in Her Shoes" event is now "Rise Together For Safety and Justice," a series of smaller fundraising walks throughout Berkshire County to stand against gender-based violence.

The event's original symbol was a red shoe and featured men walking a mile in perceivably feminine footwear down North Street at the year's last Third Thursday event  In 2019, the event drew hundreds of supporters and raised at least $75,000 in its ninth year.

Some in the LGBTQ-plus community saw this theme as being harmful and collaborated with the center to create an event that is representative of all gender identities and sexual orientations.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic preventing large gatherings, the event was transformed into a series of six smaller walks across the county between Sept. 19 and Sept. 29.

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