North Adams School Committee Takes Slow Roll on Greylock Closure
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The School Committee delayed discussion Tuesday on closing Greylock School until more information could be provided by the administration.
School officials say a number of factors are being considered in accelerating the closing — declining enrollment, the building's physical condition and, not least of all, a looming $2.4 million budget deficit. Closing Greylock is estimated to save around $1.2 million.
"We are presented with basically three scenarios. One was status quo, two was closing Greylock and moving everyone to Brayton and then the committee, after some discussion, said that we needed to explore a third scenario, which was do we implement grade-span schools in fiscal year 25," said Mayor Jennifer Macksey, chair of the committee. "We had many lengthy discussions over the two meetings for the common theme of making sure that we enhance the student experience despite our deficiencies."
Cody Chamberlain motioned to table the discussion, and committee agreed as the time was getting late.
Richard Alcombright, also a member of the finance subcommittee, said he wanted to be sure everyone understood the complexities of the decisions to be made.
The focus of the conversations had been about the kids and "how we can do this while providing the same or equal to or better than services when we come out of this decision," he said.
"Is it about money? Of course, but it's not only about money and it really is a detriment for the kids. And we talked that through at length and a lot of great things were brought up."
The pros for closing Greylock now and setting up early education at Brayton and Grades 3-6 at Colegrove Park Elementary would allow for consolidating special education and programming at the grade appropriate schools, creating a familiar cohort for students as they transition through the school system and opening up opportunities for enhanced programming within each school. It would also remove children from an expected construction site.
Superintendent Barbara Malkas said the details on a closure and consolidation were just being worked out as the administration had only been given direction on Monday night. She anticipated having more concrete information by the next meeting.
"We're going to keep marching forward, start having those discussions, start planning out and then when we come to March we'll be able to give you a more defined plan," said Macksey. "It won't be set in stone, nothing will probably will be set in stone. But we just felt that we needed to kind of share where how we got to this point."
The decision to table came at then tail end of a 2 1/2 hour meeting at Brayton that was also livestreamed on Zoom. The committee first got a rundown on the district's literacy program and Student Opportunity Act planning.
Kimberlee Chappell, district literacy and title grant coordinator, reminded the committee how reading was taught 30 or 40 years ago. Round robin — with students taking turns reading paragraphs out loud — was often used.
"I dreaded it because I knew that inevitably there were a few students in my class that were still learning to read, and this practice was going to put them on blast," she said. "To me it kind of felt like public shaming."
Since then, the move has been to the "Science of Reading" that has been showing up in legislation around the country in response to a growing reports that schools have been using outdated practices.
"I am actually grateful for this re-energized support for literacy, because it's really become a call to action," she said.
Chappell explained that SOR is a "vast interdisciplinary body of scientifically based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing."
Baby's brains are wired for speech and communication, not written language that was invented only 6,000 years ago, so learning to read involves connecting different areas of the brain, she said. "In order to read we must create new neural pathways to connect other parts of our brains to be a strong reader."
The good news was many of the structure for supporting literacy have existed within the school system for "a very long time." Data derived from benchmark tests is being used to design reading instruction.
"It's about being diagnostic about what our kids need," said Chappell, adding that despite obstacles, the team believes 95 percent of the student body can become proficient readers, a factor that will affect all of their studies. "It's imperative that we set expectations that reflects that belief system."
The district's plan includes family engagement, assessment, professional development, tiered instruction and leadership.
"So they are all off the ground and taking shape," she said. "So I'll be excited to report to you how those evolve over time."
Timothy Callahan, assistant superintendent curriculum, instruction and assessment, said the administration was looking for feedback on how to spend this coming year's Student Opportunity Act funds of about $30,000 to $40,000.
The district is required to develop a three-year plan to demonstrate how the funds will be used to improving outcomes for students with challenges including economics, language and disabilities; the first was written in 2019 after the SOA was passed.
"It's not like the Student Opportunity Act funding will radically change the course of the district," said Callahan. "It's a small amount of funding, but a big amount of commitment as far as developing the plan."
The committee pointed to a number of areas they would like to focus on including prekindergarten, social emotional services, mental health services, diversity in staffing and professional development.
Callahan said the feedback would also inform the District Improvement Plan that will be presented in the fall.
In other business:
• The School Committee accepted a $2,000 donation to the music program from the Billy Evans Memorial Scholarship. Evans, a Capitol Police officer killed in the line of duty in 2021, was a member of the Drury High marching and jazz bands. It also accepted a Gateway Fund grants totaling $7,700 for arts and performance programs and, from the Pauline Young Music Fund, $12,000 for instruments for the elementary band and $3,000 for the keyboard lab.
• The virtual school enrollment was capped at 2 percent in a vote of 5-2 after a half-hour of debate with members Jacobs and Chamberlain voting naye.
Malkas said this will not affect any of the current 23 students but will limit further enrollment. It is similar to school choice but at a higher rate, she said, and is not suitable for all students as they tend to end up back in school and be academically deficient.
"It should be chosen as a best option, as opposed to being chosen as a default option," she said. "By putting this restriction we are protecting the right of the individuals who are already there. It does provide some wiggle room for some of our students who really will learn best in this environment, but it's taking away that idea of this is a default option."
Alcombright said he would vote for it but doesn't like the idea of placing limits on where a student can go. Jacobs thought 2 percent was too restrictive and that she would be more comfortable with 3 or 4 percent for more opportunities.
"Some students do need an alternative path," said Callahan. "And I agree with that. Most of the students that we're seeing choosing that path, it's not in their best interest and they're not successful."
• Approved the change in graduation credits to 26, which was already approved in the student handbook, and the use of Yondr pouches to lock up student cell phones during the school day, with Jacobs voting no. Grant funds will be used to order the first year of the pouches and then they will be replaced as needed. Both policies had been vetted by the policy subcommittee.
The pouches have been adopted by numerous school districts, including Hoosac Valley, Central Berkshire, Pittsfield and McCann Technical. The committee spent about a half hour on the subject, including hearing from Andrew Richards, a Yondr representative.
Richards said schools that have used the pouches reported more engagement, postive changes in student behavior and positive academic performance. The prior policy had focused on empowering students to control their cell phone use by keeping them in the locker but Drury Principal Stephanie Kopala and Callahan, former principal, said it wasn't working.
"What we saw is a decrease in the use of cell phones in classes," she said. "We saw kids taking the bathroom pass more, going out into the hall and sitting outside in the hall for 10 minutes texting on their phones. So students were abusing the bathroom pass or cutting class or coming super late to class. ... This is a way for us to address it by eliminating roles totally during school time."
There was some concern about parents being able to contact students in an emergency but Kopala noted that every classroom still has a landline. Callahan pointed out that the school resource officer said the kids "are constantly committing low level crimes" by videoing and harassing people.
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