In the Berkshires, a school crisis – and opportunity

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By Wednesday, Apr 12 Learning  14 Comments

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Commonwealth magazine https://commonwealthmagazine.org/education/in-the-berkshires-a-school-crisis-and-opportunity/. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and the publisher.

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North Adams — If necessity is the mother of invention, we are busy in the Berkshires figuring out new approaches to school challenges we are facing.

Berkshire County has seen a decline of more than 20 percent in school district enrollment since 2000, with another 10 percent-plus decline anticipated over the next decade. This has gone hand in hand with a steep reduction in overall population as job opportunities disappeared with the loss of major employers and as the post-graduate youth population left the area in search of more lucrative opportunities.

LeeAt the same time, Berkshire County loves its schools, no matter their size, many with fewer than 200 students. We value our educators and administrators, share their dedication and care for our students, and are proud of the quality education they provide to all our children. Yet we are concerned about what may happen to the quality of education if enrollment and financial trends continue—which seems inevitable if significant change is not made at the local level.

 

Declining enrollment over the past few years has already impacted our schools, with some dropping electives and extra-curricular offerings, including creative writing, public speaking, home economics, languages, theater, music, arts and many sports offerings. Fewer students has led to fewer classes. It’s very difficult to offer a full college and career readiness curriculum with high schools of under 200 students. Many Berkshire County high schools are graduating fewer than 100 students each year, some less than 50.

These concerns have given rise to a grass roots effort to bring needed change to local school districts aimed at enabling them to help shape their own destiny. If successful, our efforts may point the way for many other small districts in the Commonwealth that are facing similar headwinds.

Berkshire County Education Task Force.

Berkshire County Education Task Force.

Since July 2015, a group of 30 Berkshire County school committee members, school administrators, municipal leaders, and business leaders – dubbed the Berkshire County Education Task Force – has been meeting every third Saturday to address the challenges of a decline in student enrollment, near stagnant financial resources, and reduced academic offerings.

With funding from local banks, nonprofits, and school districts, the group hired the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts to help with a Phase I effort: Compiling past, current, and trending data on area school districts and municipalities. The group also retained the District Management Group of Boston to partner with us for a Phase II effort, paid for with state funding secured with the help of the county’s legislative delegation. This phase is exploring possible ways to address these challenges without further diminishing our schools. Indeed, we want our schools to offer more, not less, to students. To do this, though, requires a willingness to make tough choices, to break with longstanding practices and traditions, and be open to new ways of doing things. Among the ideas being explored are expanded shared services across district lines, consolidations of neighboring districts where appropriate, and even the creation of much larger “super regions.”

Pittsfield High School.

Pittsfield High School.

The Adams-Cheshire Regional School District’s school committee just voted to close one of its two elementary schools — in Cheshire. Cheshire is now threatening to leave the district or use the state school choice program to send its children elsewhere. The Southern Berkshire Regional School District is projected to lose 38 percent of its student enrollment during the next 10 years. Two school districts in the Berkshires are maintaining their comprehensive academic offerings with 40 to 60 percent of their student enrollment coming through school choice students from neighboring communities. Meanwhile, the Pittsfield Public Schools may cut the equivalent of 73.5 full-time positions for fiscal year 2018 because the city has reached its tax ceiling. A Proposition 2½ override is not an option.

Berkshire County has 19 school districts, serving less than 16,000 students. That is fewer students than attend the Brockton Public Schools. What’s more, one-third of those students are in a single school district – Pittsfield. Many school districts are composed of single elementary schools, many with less than 100 children, some less than 50. One town has an elementary school with no children! (The maintenance of the school building continues to be funded by the regional school district.) While consolidation would involve joining neighborhood districts, “super regions” would consider merging the county’s districts down from the current 19 to three or less.

Over the past few months, members have made presentations to 45 school committees, selectboards and city councils. We have also presented the findings to Gov. Charlie Baker and Secretary of Education James Peyser. Both expressed strong support for our efforts.

Aerial view In Great Barrington of the schools comprising the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

Aerial view In Great Barrington of the schools comprising the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

The task force is now organizing several regional community outreach meetings and student focus groups throughout the county to hear from students, parents, educators, and other stakeholders. The idea is to hear what academic and extracurricular offerings these stakeholders want to see in their schools that they don’t currently have. The goal is to try to project how various priority aspirations could be realized through the various reform options.

As a result of declining enrollment and limited financial resources, education offerings in many of our schools have already suffered. Simply stopping the bleeding is not the goal of this task force. Maintaining what we have now threatens the continuation of a comprehensive academic offering. Maintaining what we have does not encourage young people and families to move into or stay in the Berkshires for a quality education for their children. Maintaining what we have does not provide incentive for many municipalities and school districts to implement our recommendations to make significant change.

Change is hard, especially in rural, close-knit communities where schools have been central to the social fabric for decades, and in some instances, all the way back to the 19th century. But these decades-old school buildings no longer serve anywhere near the enrollments of 50 or 100 years ago. Many school facilities are at 60 percent or less of capacity. Building maintenance costs increase while available funds become increasingly scarce. And today’s classrooms look much different than before, with science labs, special education, occupational therapy, and physical therapy program service space, and other offerings that need a different design than what was available in our 19th and 20th century school facilities.

LenoxCommunities must be convinced of the benefit to their children and to their town from the ideas we are putting on the table. It will likely require compromise and, in some cases, pain. Ideally, no community or school district should benefit at the expense of its neighbor.

Berkshire County is not alone in facing these challenges. Franklin, Hampshire, Worcester, and Barnstable counties are going through similar population, student enrollment, and financial stresses. If our efforts meet with some success, we just might have a model for other areas of the Commonwealth to borrow from.

The task force – a strictly advisory group of volunteers deeply committed to education – will hand over our recommendations to the county’s school committees and municipalities. We hope that our efforts and the collective knowledge and expertise of the task force members will motivate local decision-makers to give serious consideration to these ideas.

Doing nothing is not an option.

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John Hockridge is chairman of the Berkshire Education Task Force and a member of the North Adams School Committee.


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14 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Steve Farina says:

    John,
    I appreciate the efforts your task force is making. Will you be bringing your suggestions forward for public input prior to presenting them to the county school committees and municipalities?
    Even a well intentioned task force can use feedback and ideas from those without an interest, or ability, to commit time to bringing a more efficient educational system to the county. This might be especially useful if there are good ideas brought forth to adjust your focus before the task force becomes as entrenched in their own ideas as the local communities can become.

    1. John Hockridge says:

      Steve,
      We are doing community outreach meetings this month. In South Berkshire, a regional meeting will be held on Monday, April 24 at 6 pm at the Berkshire South Regional Community Center in Great Barrington. These are “community aspiration” meetings to reach out to parents, educators, students and the community at large to get the feedback you are suggesting. And on online survey will be provided for those who can’t attend the April 24 meeting or one of the other four regional meetings being held in the county. Student focus group meetings are also being held in most of our Berkshire County high schools this month. We welcome and encourage feedback – the intent is to model options around community aspirations.

      1. Steve Farina says:

        Thank you! I will put it on my calendar and do my best to be there

    2. John Hockridge says:

      Correction on the time of the meeting – it is 7 pm. (Monday, April 24)

  2. Susan Bachelder says:

    I have read with interest, and I must say some dismay, your Edge article. I would very much like to get a copy of it. Where would I find it?

    Right now, as you might be aware, the SBRSD and the Town of Egremont are at legal odds over the continued use of the school in Egremont. It is a one room “school” that is legally a k-1 program that functions as a “classroom” in the district. The building is owned by the town, not the district, and is being completely refurbished to continue to accommodate our program. Located as it is in the heart of the National Register Historic District of South Egremont Village, its presence is as important to us as Harvard is to Cambridge for many reasons. And, it does attract families with young children to locate here; it helps to support property values, and when we FINALLY have a working high speed internet system, will allow the 21st century work force to relocate out of urban systems and work from home in a rural environment. I know it is hard to project where the curve will break, and what will be needed, but I hope you have reviewed Gov. Patrick’s 2007 School plan and thought about the POD option he recommended for educational excellence in urban school systems. Breaking them down into smaller POD Schools where shrinking the size of the schools seemed to foster a better and more inspired educational environment. We have that now if we can simply design the mechanism to deliver the curriculum into reconfigured buildings. With the new analytic capacity we have available, we could program each one of those 16,000 students and their teachers, and move them all in what would probably be a shorter travel times and a better educational experience. Fed Ex does it every day with millions of packages. Circuit riding teachers could become the “new” old way of doing things suplimented with classes from Harvard directly into our classrooms. I agree. We need to think of options, but we really need to think of new options.
    I realize I am speaking into a stiff wind on this, but bigger has not always proved itself to be better. I look forward to reading the report.

    1. Paul Kleinwald says:

      Susan has some great ideas here. Further consolidation and shipping children on buses further and further from their communities is destructive to our very social fabric. Smaller classes and smaller schools unless poorly run always result in better results in education standards. Local control aids the bonding of students with each other and their communities.
      It is time to look at education from the combination of the best of the past with innovation. Just looking to save money thorough consolidation is to continue the furthering of the ignorance of America’s children which is derisively regarded by much of the rest of the world. Just yesterday in a brief conversation with a man from Singapore who said “I hope America becomes great again”, I commented that it will never happen until the education system changes. Local communities have almost no input because of the top down organization of public education which is often the result of Federal and State mandates where the bureaucrats work tirelessly to implement more regulations.

  3. John says:

    The school boards seem to think bigger is better. Bigger simply means the odds of the respective school surviving when enrollment is declining are better.
    Time to put kids education and the overburdened taxpayer first. The time has come for rightsizing the schools.
    Time to put the school board pet projects and teachers unions last. Period.

  4. Al Cutcheon says:

    I think it’s important to note that, especially in education, bigger isn’t always better. I’ve worked in schools for 20 years, in 3 different states. They were high schools that varied from 300 students to 2,000 students. I’d never go back to a big school. Also, there’s a fallacy that regionalization saves money. Transportation definitely rises — and don’t try to tell me the state pays for that — look at the historical track record on that. Also, if you regionalize, under law you have to take the highest contracts of the towns that regionalize as your starting point. The vast majority of school budgets is people — so how would that save us? I’m not against looking at all options, or even against some regionalization — but the idea of 3 high schools in the county is ludicrous.

  5. Pete says:

    Having three school districts does not mean you would only have three high schools, most likely there would be two in the south and at least three or four in the north. One district can have more than one high school. Likewise, the high schools do not have to have huge student bodies. If you made two high schools in south county you could have under 500 or 600 students at each high school. That is snot huge and tiny in comparison to most of the state. The article is well done and encouraging that someone is looking at a new approach. Some consolidation would most likely reduce personnel (teachers and administrators) county wide. Doing nothing will result in higher taxes to support a shrinking student population, and worsening the quality of education.

    1. Al says:

      So who loses their high school in the south if it goes to 2? There’s 4 now — Lenox, Lee, Monument, and Everett. It probably makes sense to split up Monument and have the students go to Lee and Everett (Lenox could clearly go to Lee as well, but they seem committed to going alone, and likely have the financial ability to do that if they want). (I choose Everett and Lee because they have room, and buildings in very good condition, plus geographically it makes sense.) But I would say it’s 100% certainty that the BHRSD folks would never allow that, even though they can’t seem to pass a high school renovation project.

  6. Stephen Tournas-Hardt says:

    Hello,
    Even though I am a former educator (now a psychotherapist), I’d like to highlight a few implications of regionalization that come from beyond the education domain. Although I’m a relative newcomer to the Berkshires, one implication already mentioned in the article is the importance of identity, which I think cannot be underestimated. The collective sense of who members of a community are is something akin to national pride, and goes much deeper than almost any other aspect of what makes a community thrive. Different communities can certainly work together under various circumstances, including being under siege, but I wonder if there will be the perception of enforced homogenization through a regional administration that would be hard pressed to tune into the needs and character of member towns and villages with as much participation as a local district.

    One other perspective that I think is invaluable to the Task Force which was also mentioned in the article is how businesses could offset negative population and/or demographic trends and help to showcase reasons for families to move into Berkshire County schools. This has as much to do with sustainable development projects like those implemented in developing countries as it does in the post-industrial USA. Certainly, local businesses that can generate employment opportunities have the potential to increase the attraction of the Berkshires to families with children. Much more than that, however, partnerships with larger corporations could be leveraged to establish or support, for example, departments or endowed chairs in high schools that could then produce educated young people who would then be competitive employees for expanding businesses elsewhere in the state. These are just a few thoughts, but I think the more we approach the larger issue with creativity the more possibilities we’ll be able to see.

    1. Paul Kleinwald says:

      Stephen has hit the nail on the head when he states “The collective sense of who members of a community are is something akin to national pride, and goes much deeper than almost any other aspect of what makes a community thrive. Different communities can certainly work together under various circumstances, including being under siege, but I wonder if there will be the perception of enforced homogenization through a regional administration that would be hard pressed to tune into the needs and character of member towns and villages”. I fought against the consolidation of the BHRSD lower grades into one building at a remote site outside the member town’s centers for the reasons quoted above as well as the absurd expense of new buildings over vigorous programs to encourage a thirst for knowledge. One only needs to look at the European Union to see how the consolidated governance and top down edicts to the culturally different member states obliterates local customs and independent thinking.

  7. Stephen Tournas-Hardt says:

    I think I meant to write “cannot be overestimated” rather than “underestimated”!

  8. Ted B. says:

    I just took a peak at that aerial shot of the MMRHS campus. I was reminded that Great Barrington is burdened by the fact that all those acres of land that could have had countless homes on them that would be taxed and add to our coffers ! How does Great Barrington get reimbursed by the other district towns for have these buildings sit on our land and never receive the potential tax dollars in perpetuity ? Or is it just too bad, oh well !

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