The Monument Mountain Regional High School campus. Image courtesy MMRHS

­­­Berkshire Hills School Committee unanimously approves plans for Equity, Access and High Expectations for All

MMRHS Principal Kristi Farina promised the school will continue to hold forums every two weeks, starting after the April break, for parents to air concerns and have questions answered.

At the end of a nearly three-hour meeting, which included extensive and sometimes emotionally-charged input from many of the more than 80 participants, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee’s 10 members unanimously approved the district administration’s proposal to implement their Equity, Access and High Expectations for All plans at Monument Mountain Regional High School in the fall. (You can watch the meeting here; discussion of the plan begins about 32 minutes into the video.) School administrators did not require this approval to move forward, but felt it would be best to have the blessing of the school committee in order to get off on the right footing.

BHRSD Superintendent Peter Dillon. Photo: David Scribner

Superintendent Peter Dillon, high school Principal Kristi Farina, and Jonathan Bruno, director of teaching and learning for the district, started out the presentation reiterating points from prior meetings, and adding additional context and information. Farina pointed out that one tweak has already been made to an aspect of the plan, presumably in response to parent concerns. The Honors distinction that freshmen can earn in an open enrollment class will bear an added weight, or credit, of 1.1, rather than the 1.0 credit offered by the class without it.

Bruno explained that groundwork for the plan was laid in 2017, when teacher teams began to visit schools in California, Vermont, New Hampshire, and other states that have made the systemic leaps to proficiency-based, open enrollment systems, and which now serve as exemplars for how it can better serve all students — those whose talents were rewarded in a traditional fixed-time system, and those whose talents were not. These schools include High Tech High, Casco Bay, Del Lago Academy, Mission Hill School, and Housatonic Valley Regional School District. (A full list, more details of the work already done, and plans for the future can be found in Google documents shared by the district.)

Jonathan Bruno

Bruno stressed that teachers would not be “forced” to follow any one particular path toward reaching the district’s three areas of focus in proficiency-based learning (PBL); Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI); and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) work, but would be invited to find their own.

Proficiency-based learning “refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education.” Under a PBL system, students are invited to work at their own pace, and are supported to demonstrate mastery of material before moving on to more advanced material, rather than permitted to “skate by” with an unmeaningful grade, in the words of Dillon.

DEI work refers to a broad range of initiatives to center historically underserved populations of students, such as students of color, Special Education students, and low-income students. Some of this internal work will be accomplished with the participation of The STOKE Collective. The small advisory teams the school has is an example of SEL work, and for future work the district has engaged with the Yale Childhood Study Team on the RULER initiative, which, in Bruno’s words, is “one of the top-rated SEL programs in the country,” and will help to embed SEL work throughout the school over the course of the next several years.

During the community comment portion of the meeting, teachers and parents of past, current, and future students expressed strong support for the district’s pivot toward prioritizing equity, with several speakers expressing gratitude and pride in the move.

Other parents voiced ongoing concern about teacher preparedness, and mistrust of what will be  coming down the pike in terms of changes to class composition and expectations, with high-achievers being forced to sit through classes geared to the “lowest common denominator.”

Sabrina Allard. Photo courtesy RSYP

Parent of BHRSD students and Deputy Director of Railroad Street Youth Project Sabrina Allard took issue with that characterization and said, as a black woman: “As someone who would be deemed as the lower denomination, and who has kids in classrooms with your kids, who know they are being seen as a lower denomination, that is so dehumanizing.”

Farina also called out the damaging force that had led us to talk about students in comparative terms, stressing the harm in “the underlying message to students when we have labels for them. When we label a student CP [college prep], it has impacts.”

Parent and MMRHS alumna Susan Smith wanted to know if all of the teaching staff had bought into the plan, to which Dillon responded, “no way” is everyone 100 percent on board yet, but added, “We’re confident that the 10–12 teachers who will be working directly on this are supportive,” and he expects that as things play out, more support will gather. Farina said she is confident that most of her staff are behind it, and if there’s a lack of enthusiasm among some, it’s because, as English and drama teacher Jolyn Unruh has pointed out, this has been a uniquely challenging year for teachers, and “everyone is exhausted.”

Among current and former students who spoke was Class of 2016 alumnus Nico Roskowski, who was Zooming in from Baltimore. He had just scrambled to gather 40 signatures among his peers for a letter in support of the school’s plans, spoke of his own experience at Monument, saying, “The system in place now only did work for a few. It worked for me; I was an Honors and AP student, many of my friends were. My question is, ‘How can we have a class size of 150 students and have students like myself have little to no contact with many people in our grades? What does that do for the general community that this school is trying to build?’”

Current 9th grader Noelia Salinetti of Tyringham echoed this point, and added, “We’re never going to be in social situations with other people who are just like us, or who think the same way, and honestly, that would be a very dangerous proposition … we can’t learn from each other that way … What does it mean to have a society based on choices instead of limitations?”

Teacher Catherine Elliott. Photo via LinkedIn

Several people, including W.E.B. DuBois French teacher Catherine Elliott and Matt McMahon, parent of a current student and alumnus of the school, spoke in personal terms of having been tracked into lower-level classes in school. “It was very othering,” said McMahon. “It was very difficult to go through, knowing that my entire education hinged on my limitations. Nobody said that, the teachers at MM were always wonderful, but the framework that everybody had to work within dictated that sentiment.” It wasn’t until he left the school that he realized he was smart, and could teach himself chemistry and reach his goals by being self-driven. He chalked up his ability to do this to privilege, which most people do not have.

“Giving up privilege isn’t really giving up, it’s sharing.”

Elliott made the point that the Equity, Access and High Expectations for All initiative is meant to open doors that previously had been closed off for students whose families didn’t know how to navigate the system. “I applaud this program because it allows student to enter into a possibility. Maybe it’s not a possibility they can follow through with … but maybe it is.”

MMRHS Principal Kristi Farina. Photo: Paul Kakley

Of the results of last night’s meeting, Dillon said in a statement, “I really appreciate the two-plus hours of public comment and remarks from 25 or so people, especially the youth voices. It’s great to work in a community that values setting up all young people for success. We have a lot of work to do planning, preparing, implementing, and evaluating our approach. I’m confident our teachers and staff, partnering with students, families, and the community, will be highly successful. I look forward to sharing regular updates and getting feedback on how we can improve.”

Farina was pleased with the high turnout to the meeting, especially considering that the subject was not really on anyone’s radar until very recently. She promised the school will continue to hold forums every two weeks, starting after the April break, for parents to air concerns and have questions answered. For the moment, she is feeling grateful, and hopeful.

“In our mission statement, we talk about courageous learners. I think about that word ‘courageous’ a lot. If we want to see that in our students, we have to live it ourselves.”