Sean Flynn, Monument Mountain Regional High School's new career and vocational technical education and internship coordinator, with soccer students. Photo: David Scribner

BHRSD adopts career, vocational technical education initiatives

There was not the population for a dedicated vocational school and, over time, the number of programs offered dwindled. Now individual fields will not be stressed so much as the habits of mind and preparation to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

Great Barrington — The Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee, at its July meeting, voted to hire a career and vocational technical education (CVTE) and internship coordinator for the 2018–19 school year, a position that will be held, as announced earlier this week, by long time Monument Mountain Regional High School guidance counselor and coach Sean Flynn in a one-year position. He will be charged with analyzing the school’s and community’s existing strengths, leveraging resources, assessing workforce needs, studying exemplary CVTE programs in the region, and recommending areas for growth. He will also build on the school’s internship program; enhance its makerspace program; and strengthen connections among school, community, local higher-education providers and the workforce.

Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon

Superintendent Peter Dillon commented, “I think Sean is an excellent choice to bring together our community resources and advise us on means to improve what we already do and what we can do to bring our program forward.” Flynn will help transition his replacement in the guidance office and begin work on the new project in September.

Together with BHRSD’s director of learning and teaching Kristi Farina, Flynn is already working on a related state Innovative Pathways grant, due in late October. Innovative Pathways are defined, according to criteria the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, as “structures within our high schools that are designed to connect student learning to a broadly-defined industry sector that is in demand in the regional and state economy.” Its aims: “Schools will leverage strong partnerships with employers to provide students career awareness and work based learning activities. Students will participate in a series of courses and experiences relevant to achieving industry recognized credentials.”

Monument Mountain Regional High School Principal Douglas Wine. Photo courtesy Berkshire Hills Regional School District

Doug Wine, the new principal at Monument, stressed the idea of tying internships with local businesses and organizations more intentionally to academic content, and cited the example of the Flying Cloud Institute’s Girls in Science program. Monument interns are placed in that organization’s afterschool program as teachers and mentors for young girls.

Flynn says he will “look at this with a 21st century lens,” and offered a little history of CVTE, which used to be called vocational education, in Berkshire Hills.

The mechanism for CVTE offerings was through the former South Berkshire Educational Collaborative, which included four South County schools: Lee, Lenox, BHRSD and South Berkshire. There was not the population for a dedicated vocational school and, over time, the number of programs offered dwindled. “We had culinary and allied health. Then Lee had a housebuilding program. We had greenhouse and auto, Mount Everett had Computer Tech. There could have been a number of reasons why things shifted.”

Now individual fields will not be stressed so much as the habits of mind and preparation to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. Flynn continued, “We want to make sure no matter what field they are going into, they need to be ready to take on the next innovation that could dramatically change how they do their work.” An auto mechanic, for instance, would need a much better understanding of computer systems diagnostics. The ones who will thrive are the ones who can work to learn how to do things the right way and are capable of dealing with the struggle of having to learn new things as well as the anxiety of not knowing how to do it right away.

This could mean getting student interns out into the community earlier. Early exposure to what’s going on in the work world may be “motivation to go back and do well in their classes, because they know it’s the skill set they will need to succeed in that field.”

Sean Flynn, Monument Mountain Regional High School’s new career and vocational technical education and internship coordinator, in the school’s office.

The idea would be to begin with freshmen, bring professional speakers into the classrooms from different professions, then get them out on job site experience. As juniors, they could be out in the field for multiple days for a short period of time, then, as seniors, they could do that for more sustained periods of time.

Each year Monument’s Flynn places between 50 and 70 kids in community internships. “We have such a supportive community: Fairview Hospital, American Institute for Economic Research, the Schumacher Society, Windy Hill Farm, Race Mountain Tree Company, Greenagers, Railroad Street Youth Project, the Red Lion Inn and Main Street Hospitality, Autobahn, Seward’s Tires — I could keep going.”

Railroad Street Youth Project, at which Flynn has served as a longtime board member, has a well-established apprenticeship program through which students can work in professional kitchens and salons.

Part of the impetus for the newfound focus on and investment in CVTE work is thanks to recommendations included in a final report submitted to the school board by outgoing Monument principal Amy Rex. She now says, from her new position as superintendent of schools in Milton, Vermont, that she’s sad she will not be around to see this plan implemented. “This is going to be a game changer.” She laid out the CVTE plans in a three-to four-year format, and incorporated findings from the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

Former monument Mountain Regional High School Principal Amy Rex answers a question from students. Photo: Terry Cowgill

One recommendation from that assessment looked at the region’s needs. The commission identified three fields — health, hospitality and advanced manufacturing — which Rex thought would work beautifully with Monument’s resources. Said Rex: “We’d done informal talks with students, and with Sean and certainly with the CVTE teachers. We went to a school redesign conference together. One of their themes was around equity, and ensuring you had success for all students regardless of their goals. That resonated with Mike [Powell, head of guidance] and Sean. Monument has done a good job one at a time to help students find their path, but we need to systematize it and reach all kids. I am so happy to hear that that has come to fruition.”

What if Flynn, in the course of his community assessment, learns there is a big need for skilled tradesmen? Then, said Wine, we will have to ask, “Is there something more we can be doing?” One school, however, can’t do it all and, he said, it may be a question of facilities and making decisions with the resources available. Also, as Flynn asked, “Where we can’t build programs, can we start to find an out-of-school experience where they can get what they need with an internship?”

Flying Cloud Institute director Maria Rundle. Photo: David Scribner

One of the things Maria Rundle of Flying Cloud is most excited about is the role of makerspaces to bridge the gap between those on a college track and those vocationally focused. In Bourne, Mass., she visited the school’s Innovation Studio, whereby STEM standards are taught through maker experiences like robotics, 3-D printing, technology and woodworking design. Students work together to do creative, open-ended work.

“The kids were making little vehicles and one girl wanted to make it carry a house. She had to figure out the physics and how hinges work. She had to study doors and teach herself. This is gratifying to know how the world works.” Rundle said: “Our organization has been inspired by that, and we were asked to take over the makerspace in South Berkshire School District. What’s important is the perspective on learning, moving from measuring what the students know to what they can do and create.” She is excited about Wine’s ideas for Monument and eager to support the success of the new program.

Said Flynn of the shifting work landscape: “Forty years ago, people could get out of school and find work in manufacturing. Growth is exponential now and we want our students to be ready to take on that challenge, to try something new again.”