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Taconic High Principal Matthew Bishop speaks to the School Committee and student representatives at Tuesday's meeting. Bishop described the vote to turn Taconic all-vocational as an opportunity for both schools.
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PHS Principal Maggie Esko says the high school will be able to hone on its curriuculum.

Pittsfield School Committee Votes Taconic All-Vocational

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
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School Committee members applaud the vote on Tuesday.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — In a historic move fueled by the growing demand for skilled tradespeople and the evolution of career technical education, the School Committee has decided that Taconic is a solely vocational school.

On Tuesday, the committee unanimously voted to start the school's transition to all vocational, only accepting Career Technical Education (CTE) students beginning in the fall. The motion was followed by a round of applause.

All new non-CTE students will attend Pittsfield High School and Taconic's remaining non-CTE students in Grades 10-12 will graduate as usual. The class of 2027 will be the first all-technical class to graduate.

This has been on the horizon since the new, $120 million facility debuted in 2018.  With high interest in Taconic's vocational programs and CTE admissions outnumbering the latter, administrators see this as a way to best serve students.  

Taconic Principal Matthew Bishop believes that both high schools present opportunities in Pittsfield. As a former principal of PHS, he said both hold a special place in his life, career, and heart.

"I do want to say that this doesn't take anything away from anybody," he added.

"In fact, what it does is it gives the residents of Pittsfield a powerful choice. So it doesn't take anything away, we're not preventing anything, instead, we're leaving people powerful choice to choose between two schools that offer their students amazing opportunities and pathways."

Mayor Linda Tyer reflected on her time on the City Council over a decade ago when she supported a statement of interest for Taconic and said it is "remarkable" to have this proposal sooner than expected.

In 2007, the school had around eight vocational programs and will now have 14 and an updated, state-of-the-art facility for students to learn in.

"The $120 million investment that we made has allowed us to come to this point because of the flexibility of that building," she said.

"And we're able to respond to student needs and student interests and also expand the programs that we're offering to meet the modern workforce."

With all of the excitement about the change, there was an undivided urgency to have a solid plan in place for the renovation of PHS, which was built during the Great Depression.

This has been a regular point made by Vice Chair Daniel Elias and is former student representative and THS alumni William Garrity's first concern.

"PHS needs to be renovated in some way," he said. "We are now going to be shifting more students over to PHS and to ensure they receive the same quality of education as Taconic students, PHS needs a facelift. I encourage you all to expedite the process of getting PHS the renovation it needs."

Assistant Superintendent for College and Career Readiness Tammy Gage explained that the request came from a substantial increase in enrollment, significant changes mandated by the Board of Education, and an examination of the local policy that addresses equity and access issues.

CTE enrollment has increased by about 300 over the last few years despite the pandemic. Last year the intra-district policy was eliminated for high school students.

Currently, there is regional and national understaffing in critical industries including education and health services; trade, transportation, and utilities; manufacturing; and leisure and hospitality.

Forty-four percent of jobs in the state require skills training and 34 percent of state workers are trained at this level.

"The 13 CTE clusters at Taconic offer students choice and they also provide the much-needed talent to our local primary industry areas that are currently experiencing a skills gap," Gage explained.

"The portfolio pathways at Taconic align with Priority industries and occupations that are critical to the Berkshire's economic growth and development. According to the Massachusetts Business Roundtable by 2030, the commonwealth will need to reskill or upskill 30-to-40,000 workers per year, approximately double the current rate of job training, and a dramatic increase in the state's workforce training system. It is therefore imperative to connect job seekers today to meaningful career paths that will yield economic mobility among the unemployed and underemployed."

She pointed out that high school is the last opportunity for students to have free education and will have to incur the cost of future professional development after graduating, which can be expensive.

"The world is changing because of technology and it's important our students have the skills and knowledge they need to successfully transition into careers," Gage said.

In the fall, the school will be open admission to all Pittsfield residents with no intra-district policy and an online application process. It will have 14 CTE pathways, including a new video performing arts program.

Benefits of an all-CTE education include efficient scheduling, singular purpose, the ability to serve any city resident who wants to take CTE, and funding to maintain equipment and technology.

In fiscal 2024, a nearly $8.4 million Chapter 70 CTE reimbursement is expected with an enrollment of 535 students. In fiscal year 2019, the reimbursement was about $4.5 million with an enrollment of 324.

Making the school all vocational has been a conversation for around two years and an official recommendation was made in March.

PHS Principal Maggie Esko said that if the district wants to help all of its students find their potential they need to provide options and make it about the student voice. Because of this, she is excited about the transition.

This will allow Pittsfield High to hone in on its curriculum and improve it even more.

"We have a really rich program of studies, you can come into our classrooms and you can see one of the greatest numbers of AP classes in all of Western Massachusetts," Esko said.

"We have electives that students have asked for, that students have helped create, we have electives that serve to meet the needs of many different content areas to further learning, we have a very extensive special education program and arts program. We've kind of coined ourselves the home of academics in the arts, but we have so much to offer above and beyond that as well."

The school is working hard to build community with a focus on equity and inclusion and would like to expand on the life experiences it can provide to students.

"What we've started to do is really take a look at our program of studies and what we already offer and really kind of assess what we have to offer and how we can use that to build innovative pathways for students so they can really move forward and have an organized manner and understanding of what they can leave Pittsfield high school with," Esko explained.

"We are currently visiting other schools and looking at different programs that we can bring back to Pittsfield High School."

One of the programs is Project Lead The Way, which offers opportunities for students looking to enter into engineering at an entry-level position as well as going on to a college level.

The school is also looking into offering multiple pathways and plans to return to the committee in the fall of 2024 with a robust program of studies that offers multiple opportunities.

Chair William Cameron, a former superintendent of the Central Berkshire Regional School District, said there was a palpable perception that Taconic was not highly regarded a decade ago.

"I think that that kind of attitude towards Taconic has pretty much dissipated. We have, through the leadership of the district, certainly through the quality of the instruction and the breadth of programming that we now have at a high level, Taconic is really kind of a remarkable educational facility at this point,"

"By facility, I don't just mean physical plant, I mean what goes on in the physical plant."

He added that the school's reputation has transformed into a "first choice" and a great place of opportunity due to high a high caliber of programming and instruction.

Cameron defended the structure of PHS, explaining that we "don't build buildings like that anymore," but agreed that there needs to be a phased plan for addressing its most urgent physical needs.

Education-wise, he sees a great deal of opportunity for PHS to distinguish itself from other schools in the region.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I think for Pittsfield High School to introduce innovative, thoughtful, outstanding programs that will make it an attractive place not just for students in Pittsfield to go but for students of surrounding districts to go," Cameron said.

"We have the opportunity to offer things that no other high school in Berkshire County offers students and so I'm glad that you're looking at model programs or programs that are actually in place for consideration at PHS. I think that the thoughtfulness you're giving this is going to pay you off. You're getting us some programs that will make this feel high school stand out."  

Committee member Vicky Smith said the choice gives students so many opportunities that she never had.

"It feels like you're really giving kids more opportunities to really identify their passion and follow their passion," she said.

Tags: Taconic High,   vocational program,   

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