‘Pushed out’: Pittsfield high school graduate returns to confront school board

Last modified: 7/25/2015 12:31:32 AM
One of the last projects Taylor Edwards handed in as a senior at Pittsfield Middle High School was a poster board for an English class about her idol, Marilyn Monroe. On it, she pasted photos from throughout Monroe’s life, as well as a dozen pages of a biography.

But Edwards, 19, didn’t write the biography: She admits she copied and pasted the text from Wikipedia and highlighted the parts she enjoyed most.

She said she never received a grade and doesn’t know what happened with the project. But she did graduate a short time later.

Now, after unsuccessfully applying for jobs at Dunkin’ Donuts, Rite Aid, Family Dollar and a local restaurant, and feeling intimidated and overwhelmed, she has decided to take the school district to task for what she characterizes as being “ pushed out” without the skills she needs. Last week, she used the school board’s public comment period to say what was on her mind:

“I felt like I could barely read things or understand when people are talking with me, or that I’m supposed to, like, sound smart in front of people, and I hardly can say half the words that I can say, so it’s hard for me.

“I’m basically here to say that when I was going to high school here, I was basically kind of pushed out in a way. I wasn’t really helped out with my reading in a nutshell, really.”

Frustrated by the lack of post-graduate options, Taylor, her mother Krystal Edwards, and Eric Nilsson, a father figure to Taylor who lives with the family and chairs the town’s board of selectmen, decided Taylor should come forward to publicly address what they perceive as a long-term lack of support from the school district.

Pittsfield School District Superintendent John Freeman and school board members have declined to comment on Taylor’s remarks or whether her concerns have merit.

Ups and downs

For Taylor, the fleeting moment of relief after graduation reminded her of the start of her eighth-grade year, after she spent the summer reading her mother’s books. That extra effort brought her reading skills from a fourth-grade level in line with her grade level – for the first time.

But her mother said Taylor’s reading level was always bouncing around, up and down. She said, as a child, Taylor delighted in reading time before bed. Then she became bored. In documentation discussing Taylor’s special education plan at the end of her first senior year, the school estimated her reading level was equal to that of average fifth- to seventh-grader. She can’t read cursive writing, she said.

A rocky divorce had turned the family’s lives upside down, causing them to become briefly homeless and chronically struggling. At school, Taylor said she’d been made fun of for years, especially when she was called upon to real aloud and her stuttering and difficulty in pronunciation was put on display.

Edwards said she pleaded for years with the school district to hold her daughter back, wondering how a senior with an elementary or middle school reading level was ever supposed to catch up. But administrators never did, she said, until Taylor’s senior year. Taylor returned last fall for a fifth year, when she said her schedule consisted of an advisory period, lunch, and a combined biology and English class to make up for courses she’d flunked.

Late this spring, she put on her cap and gown and graduated with her class. But by summertime, she felt she needed to tell the school: “I’m scared to like try to go to apply to a college or for a job, because I feel like when I sit there I would say something wrong or . . . misspell something, and I would feel quite stupid, really.”

Origins

Krystal Edwards dropped out of her high school in Georgia at 16 years old after she became pregnant with Taylor. At 17, she met the man who became her husband – Taylor’s biological father hasn’t been in the picture – and moved with him to New Hampshire.

Edwards, a stay-at-home mom at the time, became pregnant with her son at 19. Until Taylor reached second grade, she said she happily read to her children each night.

“It was second grade that (Taylor) started having learning disabilities, things got a little harder for her, she wasn’t reading very well,” Edwards said. “I’d ask her or David (her son) to read to me. Taylor didn’t want to read, and I found that odd. She didn’t want to listen to the stories anymore, nothing like that.”

In elementary schools in Nashua and Hollis, Edwards said she asked for her daughter to be held back, but she wasn’t. It wasn’t until she moved to Pittsfield in fifth grade that Taylor herself said she knew she needed to be retained, but she said she never advocated for herself because she “felt like they would never listen.” As a senior, when she was held back, she said she didn’t ask for more classes because she felt it would be a “waste,” and “I thought I was already ticking them off.”

Edwards said she felt she wasn’t being heard by Taylor’s teachers, either. When she went in for meetings about Taylor’s special education plan, “They wanted to talk about college, getting Taylor into college. Taylor’s not ready for college. She’s at a second-grade reading level,” she said.

Behavior

Edwards has a manila folder packed thick with carbon copies of notices from the school about her daughter’s misbehavior. It’s labeled: “Hall of Shame, starring Taylor Edwards.”

Taylor is quick to recall times at school when she acted out in frustration, slamming things on a desk, cursing and storming out of the room. Behind her behavior, she said, is a pattern of experiences that made her feel worthless and unloved.

For instance, her father, she said, had problems with his temper and “sometimes he would be a little too hands-on.”

“When I experienced a little bit, it kind of just pushed me into a dark place where I felt like I really was stupid, and if my dad didn’t like me, like everyone else at school didn’t like me, I didn’t see the point in even trying at all,” she said.

She said about the time she was in fifth grade, she began to pour out her feelings in writing. She said she didn’t have any friends, she hardly ate and she spent most of her time in her room.

“Writing and not having anyone to talk to still didn’t help, so I hurt myself a lot. I didn’t use anything at all, because I was scared to like use that stuff, so I would grow my nails out, and put it upon me because I thought I deserved it. I thought I deserved to do that because I thought I should have been punished for being born, for being the way I am, for not being able to talk right, to not make friends right,” she said.

She said her mother put her and her brother into therapy, but even there she didn’t talk about her problems.

“The only time I ever felt 
capable of opening up was when I was writing, and I write about a lot of dark things. 
. . . Sometimes I used to write suicide notes. . . . There was times that I would think about it, but I didn’t want to do it. It was continuously piling up, and it wasn’t helping. The learning was getting more difficult for me, and people weren’t trying to help me,” she said.

The divorce

During the divorce, the family briefly moved back and forth to South Carolina. When they came back to Pittsfield, Edwards said she picked up a job as assistant manager of a Family Dollar, working from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“She was working for such a long period of time, I would basically watch David, clean the house, cook – oh I also drew her a bath,” Taylor said.

Edwards found new work as a visiting nurse, but she came down with a series of illnesses: spells of bronchitis and kidney stones, pneumonia, abdominal surgery and a leg injury that took a year to heal completely and for a time prevented her from walking.

She later met Nilsson, with whom she now lives, and he helped her stay afloat. Starting when he met her about four years ago, Nilsson noticed how far behind Taylor was in school and began to help her when he could, having her spell out difficult words and correcting her when they came out wrong. This week, he offered her two words he said she should know well: detention and disciplinary. Taylor wrote: “detantion” and “desaplenary.”

The school board

Nilsson, being familiar with the workings of local government, was the one that explained to Taylor that there was a forum for her: the school board’s public comment period.

Taylor went to the high school’s library last week and sat down, staying quiet through the first of two comment periods. During the second, which came at the end of the meeting, Taylor stood up and made her appeal, about being “pushed out” of the school and her fright in entering the adult world without confidence in her ability to speak and read.

Nilsson stood up after Taylor: “I believe she did get pushed through. Her senior class, she had to repeat her senior year and she only had one class all day. If they would have helped her a little more and gave her a few more classes to learn to read and write a little better, I think it would have been a bonus,” he said.

After they spoke, the board asked if there were any other public comments. There were none. The chairman, Michael Wolfe, asked if they needed to go into a nonpublic session. They didn’t. Wolfe said he’d entertain a motion to adjourn. It was made and carried, and school board members moved to leave.

In an interview afterward, school board members said it would have been illegal for them to discuss the issue. Although the board made no motion to investigate Edwards’s claims, school board member Bea Douglas said: “Please don’t assume we’re not going to follow through on it. I really think that’s an unfair judgment.”

Asked what she planned to do, Douglas left and Superintendent John Freeman stepped in.

“They’re not talking about it now. We wouldn’t talk about an individual community member, employee or student or former student. They’re restrained from talking about it,” he said. “It is a person, and in a small town, that person could be identified easily.”

The following day, Freeman declined to discuss the situation any further.

The future

Taylor said she’s thinking about going on to study at NHTI, but she’s unsure how she’ll perform on the placement test. This week, a letter came in the mail from the community college, and her mother passed it over to her to read. She opened it, took it out and put it down. A few minutes later, her mother asked what it said and read it herself.

“I didn’t understand what it said at first,” Taylor said of the letter requesting more information about her financial aid application.

Taylor said she wants to pursue a career as a singer in a band. Her family said she’s always excelled in various forms of art: drawing, decorating, singing, sewing. Her mother suggested she go to art school, but she said Taylor doesn’t like having her work judged.

As for Nilsson, he said he plans to follow up at the school board’s meeting next month to see what progress has been made.

“I think the school system up here is broken, and they’re not into the basics of learning. They’re trying to go above and beyond the basics, and you can’t go anywhere until you have the basics. You need your arithmetic, your reading, your writing,” he said.



(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)




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