Ray Duckler: Problems in Pittsfield? Step right up and see the changes
Seated in front of a historic mural of downtown Pittsfield, from left, Kathy Mahanes, a teacher of 31 years currently teaching second grade and named elementary teacher of the year, Cheryl Brown, a 40-year resident of Pittsfield given an outstanding neighbor award, Jasmine Hurd, and her grandmother Tracey Baillargeon, of Pittsfield, share a table at Jitters following the second annual Pittsfield Community Impact Awards Night. Baillargeon's granddaughter, Jillian Hurd, was also recognized with the outstanding student award grades K-5 during the event on Thursday evening, December 19, 2013 at the Scenic Theater in downtown Pittsfield. Members of the community gathered for food at Jitters Cafe on Main street following the awards ceremony which recognizes people and organizations throughout the Pittsfield who have positively impacted the community. There were over 80 nominees this year. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
Anyone seeking to bad-mouth Pittsfield needs to get past me first.
I was in town last Thursday night, at the Scenic Theater, with its colorful cylindrical lights on the walls, and its 20-foot Christmas tree on stage, and its self-esteem and pride in the audience, bursting at the seams.
And I was at Jitters Cafe afterward, with its giant cookies and giant heart.
I saw Pittsfield, as it appears today.
“I’m struck by the spirit and resilience of this town,” said the host at the Scenic, near the end of the 2nd Annual Community Impact Awards Night.
Her name is Molly Messenger, and how perfect is that?
Messenger’s message is part of the town’s message, its face-lift, involving a newfound passion and electricity, a focus on education and the arts, an acknowledgement that past potential wasn’t always tapped, and the time to start tapping is now.
Or perhaps it’s been happening for a few years, and it’s simply time to give this town a pat on the back in the local paper.
There is more here, after all, than merely a balloon festival.
As Messenger told me, “It’s not that we’re trying to change. It’s that Pittsfield has changed, so this is a celebration of the incredible things and the recognition of people and groups that are helping to make this happen.”
The recognition included Ruth Strickhart, named Outstanding Individual, who came to town eight years ago from New Jersey and has since made sure the local food pantry has gotten food to those who need it most.
It’s Cheryl Brown, the Outstanding Neighbor, who knocks on doors checking if you need a hand, rather than waiting to be asked.
It’s Kathy Mahanes, the Outstanding Pittsfield Elementary School Teacher, who’s seen her students move down the wrong path in 31 years of teaching, but who beams when telling you that the rough edges are smoothing out.
It’s Jillian Hurd and Emily Thompson and Colby Clark, the Outstanding Students in kindergarten through fifth grade, sixth through eighth and ninth through 12th, and it’s Ted Mitchell, the Volunteer of the Year, and the final announcement of the night, among 16 total.
“It’s a community that has always come together, and there was focus on the negative and not on the positive,” said Zach Powers, co-coordinator of the awards night, along with Messenger. “What we’ve tried to do the past couple of years is focus on what’s going well in the community, while seeing if we can make better some of the issues we’re not too happy with, and I think the school district has really stepped up to better communicate with the community about what’s going on.”
Ask Pittsfield residents about the town’s image and you’ll hear a recurring answer: The media has harped on the negative, painting an unfair picture of a town with plenty to offer.
But there’s no doubt that Pittsfield has had its share of troubles worth documenting, from unemployment, to a subpar educational system, to drug deals on street corners.
And those issues have fueled this recent turnaround, with Messenger and Powers serving as two of the vital components.
Powers is the director of the Pittsfield Youth Workshop, Messenger the community coordinator for an outgrowth of that project, called Pittsfield Listens.
They mention other groups, such as Students Against Destructive Decisions, the District Level System Change initiative and the Youth Organizing and Action Committee.
All funnel toward common goals, of raising standards and updating and expanding resources in the educational system, of increasing student involvement in local arts and after-school activities, and of a beautification process that relies on volunteer work.
The building block is a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation that the school district landed two years ago.
“On so many levels, some staff wasn’t happy, the community members were not happy, students were not happy,” Messenger said. “With a number of students, their retention rate was low, and there was not a high percentage rate of students going onto college or feeling career ready.
“But the Pittsfield School District is in the midst of an ongoing redesign process to be more student-centered in their approach, and it’s incredibly exciting,” Messenger continued. “Pittsfield is at the heart of some of the most exciting education reform work in the nation.”
And with that, as happened last year for the first time, comes nominations for community awards, and a gathering at holiday time to hear who won.
Strickhart, a senior who’s been slowed recently by physical limitations, was honored for her work with the food pantry, the library and the historical society.
She moved on stage to accept her certificate, looking sharp in blue blazer and red pants.
“A beautiful town,” Strickhart said after the ceremony. “Yes, we have a lot of poor people, but everyone gets together, and it’s really amazing how if something comes up, boy, everybody is right there behind you.”
Mahanes, who teaches second grade, has worked in Pittsfield for 31 years. She appreciates being part of the recent educational resurgence in town.
“When you make the kids responsible for their own learning and you involve them in it, that’s when it comes out naturally,” she said. “The teacher’s job is not to lecture, but to help them grow and develop their own love of lifelong learning.”
“Change is hard,” Messenger said. “But I know it’s happening here.”
Got a problem with that?
Update: The original version of this story misstated the source of the grant that has served as a catalyst for other changes.