Pittsfield School District, recently advancing, has hit obstacles sending it backward

  • Pittsfield Middle High School seniors Coulton Gaudette (left) and Colby Wolfe are both graduating this spring but both feel for their classmates that are facing the budget cuts at the school. Gaudette is going to Plymouth State and Wolfe is going to the University of New Haven. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Pittsfield Middle High School seniors Coulton Gaudette (left) and Colby Wolfe are both graduating this spring but both feel for their classmates that are facing the budget cuts at the school. Gaudette and Wolfe talk in the hallway of the school on Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Gaudette is going to Plymouth State and Wolfe is going to the University of New Haven. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Pittsfield Superintendent John Freeman in the Middle High School gymnasium where graduation will be held later this month. Freeman has faced stiff budget challenges. GEOFF FORESTERMonitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 6/1/2019 10:46:20 PM

Maybe it’s time to listen – really listen – to the pair of students from Pittsfield Middle High School.

Maybe it’s time to appreciate the potential these two seniors – Colton Gaudette and Colby Wolfe – have shown the past four years, despite budget cuts, disappearing grants, torn textbooks and a reputation that says the high school in this gritty town is sometimes labeled a “drop-out factory,” a term superintendent John Freeman works hard to dispel.

The two boys, both off to college this fall, know what’s going on. They know inequity exists in how schools are funded in this state, with property-rich towns featuring low tax bills and an array of school programs and stability, while property-poor towns have high taxes and often substandard educational quality.

They know why so many of their favorite teachers have left the district, gone to greener pastures where the pay is higher. They know and in fact experienced in recent years the strides their high school had made, once money and breakthrough teaching methods were introduced.

But that money is drying up, and these two know and hear the negative comments made by those who live elsewhere.

“No, I’m not embarrassed,” Wolfe said. “I’m not embarrassed to go to Pittsfield, but I’m embarrassed that Pittsfield has been put in this position, and it’s been that way for years.”

Gaudette and Wolfe make it impossible to label students at Pittsfield with broad brush strokes. These boys are serious students, entitled, they know, to a quality public school education, same as everyone else.

Wolfe is the student representative on the school board. He recently testified before lawmakers, reminding them about the educational disaster they obviously can’t fix, 20 years following the landmark Claremont Decision. He’ll attend the University of New Haven. He’ll study finance.

Gaudette is going to Plymouth State University to study English. He joined a dozen Pittsfield students and those from all over New England two years ago at an invitation-only gathering of the Youth Leadership Institute in Massachusetts, learning the importance of volunteering, and gaining the confidence needed to lead and move from his comfort zone.

He spoke at that State House meeting as well. If he and Wolfe had their way, Pittsfield would still be on the cutting edge of education, a school district with money problems and archaic teaching methods that, not too long ago, benefited from its woes through grants, a fresh approach and innovative ideas.

Suddenly, students were part of something positive, a school used as a model for the rest of the country to learn from.

“We were very negatively looked at by most,” said Derek Hamilton, the district’s dean of operations. “When opportunities like the School Improvement Grant and Nellie Mae came along, that generated a lot of buzz. It provided a lot of hope, due to not just funding but technical assistance and support along the way. Competency-based was exciting, but there were other nuances that came with it.”

Education leaders from across the country knew nothing about the tiny town here. Odds are, they probably never even heard of it.

But their research told the story. The one about the state’s ruling following Claremont, which gave an absurd figure it claimed would provide an “adequate education,” considered these days to be vague, subjective term.

At least 50 percent of students were included in the school’s free or reduced-cost lunch plan. Resources common and expected at other schools – iPads, computers, books, spirit – were missing in Pittsfield. Test scores were low. Salaries were low. Teachers were bolting, getting laid off, wondering about their future.

So, as Hamilton mentioned, the School Improvement Grant, known as SIG, and money from the Nellie Mae Foundation gave a boost to a morale- and cash-starved district.

A new mindset evolved, incorporated into the Pittsfield curriculum, an innovation that gave students voting power to alter the student handbook, increased out-of-class time with teachers and administrators, more programs, more staff, more excitement, more learning.

Participation by parents and students at individual conferences skyrocketed, from 10 to 90 percent. The students had become the main ingredient in a formerly antiquated recipe, leading to programs like Student Centered Learning and Extended Learning Opportunities, which gave kids real-world experience. Even President Barack Obama mentioned the progress here.

“A student-led group co-chaired by a student gives them the empowerment to make modifications or changes to school procedure, and kids jumped on board,” Hamilton said. “They revised it to bring it in alignment with what they thought was fair.”

That was then. This is now, a time of slashed budgets and grants that have run their course. To officials like Hamilton and Superintendent Freeman, none of this made sense.

Shouldn’t education be taken more seriously in this state? Shouldn’t it be a priority? Shouldn’t it exhibit equal quality between districts?

“Seems like a no-brainer,” Freeman told me recently during a meeting in his office. “I have worked in other states and I’ve seen a difference. I didn’t see quite the pressure on local property-tax owners, and I see the valuing of education is different in different communities.”

Adequate financing per student, educators were told, stood at $3,500. Pittsfield needed four times that to meet its needs, and nothing has changed since. Last November, Freeman documented what money he gets and what he needs, writing that the budget for Pittsfield schools was $10.3 million, or $17,700 per student.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education’s spreadsheet totaled $2.7 million for education in Pittsfield, causing Freeman to write in a report last November: “We decided to determine how Pittsfield’s existing budget could be reduced by 74% to reach the state’s level. It really wasn’t possible.”

Freeman noted that adding the state’s stabilization grant, special education aid and Medicaid reimbursement bumped the amount to $5.3 million, but cuts were still needed – lots of them – and the future darkened with news that the stabilization grant, about $87,000 per year, had been done away with.

In short, school morale started to move in reverse. Pittsfield has lost an online learning coordinator. The ELO was cut. The world language teacher is gone.

Gaudette, the Plymouth State-bound senior, is frustrated by the recent turn of events, saying, “I wanted to point fingers, but I realized the school was doing the best they could.”

Teachers come and go often. In fact, Gaudette and Wolfe said they’ve had four different English teachers in their four years of high school.

“When I first noticed,” Wolfe said, “I began to ask, ‘Who is coming back? Who isn’t?’ ”

Alissa Heppler, a social studies teacher, keeps coming back. She stopped ordering new books a few years ago, realizing it was futile. She’s seen old textbooks fall apart. Yet she’s been teaching in Pittsfield for 14 years.

Why not go elsewhere, for a higher salary, like so many others have? Living close by, in Northfield, while raising a family is one reason. Having a husband who’s an accountant is another.

But, Heppler says, there’s much more involved. She loves the leadership roles students have adopted since many of the positive changes were implemented over the past decade.

“I haven’t left because I genuinely enjoy the kids, and I’ve taught all grades seven through 12,” Heppler said, shortly after the boys had left the conference room. “I got to teach every subject in social studies that I wanted to teach.”

Jennifer Massey has been at the school for 12 years. She started the business education program. Sure, she stuck around while her three children moved through the Pittsfield school system.

But they’re gone, graduated, and yet she’s not, instead beaming with pride when she speaks about students like Gaudette and Wolfe.

“A great community and I love the kids, and I love the school here,” Massey told me. “I want to keep working with them and the program I built.”

She continued: “You make do with what you have. You feel the pain of the townspeople, but this teaches resiliency.”

Does this sound like an environment immersed in indifference, a subculture that cares nothing about learning?

Hardly.

Wolfe and Gaudette have met school challenges with leadership roles, acting as ambassadors for their school, agreeing to reveal their thoughts to me, speaking about their futures and hopes and dreams.

And, with graduation coming this Saturday, their voices are meant to inspire underclassmen to learn.

And lawmakers to act.

“I’m more worried about the future,” Gaudette said. “There’s a problem for students here.”

Added Wolfe, “It just seems to me like we’ve been ignored.”




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