A program offering promise to students in Pittsfield ends, underscoring scant education funding in small towns

  • Abigail Cote, a freshman at the University of New Hampshire, gets ready for her online Macro Economics class from her Pittsfield home on Wednesday. Cote alternates between online and on-campus classes this semester. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Messenger

  • Molly Messenger (third from left), the director of Pittsfield Listens, has moved on after the program ran out of funding. She is pictured with some of the student participants.

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/2/2020 4:42:55 PM

Stefne Ricci took a piece of Pittsfield Listens with her to the State House last year, reminding senators that funding for education in New Hampshire, especially in her hometown, remained a horrible failure.

She pocketed the knowledge and courage she had learned from the Pittsfield Listens program and spoke to as many as 500 people at a time, traveling around New England, to New York City, to Wisconsin, transferring the empowerment she felt to students, encouraging them to interpret social issues, create a louder voice for change in their schools.

“Of anything I have ever done, that has had the biggest impact on my life,” Ricci, a sophomore at Keene State College, said by phone. “I wanted to learn about social justice issues and I had the opportunity to do that. Without it, that wouldn’t have happened.”

The program that was started to improve the educational outcomes for Pittsfield students and their families is gone, axed this summer, part of an old theme: Once the grant money dries up, organizations like Pittsfield Listens crumble and blow away like next month’s leaves.

“Heartbreaking,” Ricci said. “It’s being taken away from people that I cared about, and that’s hard to see.”

A full-blown effort to retool education in this town of about 4,000 people began a decade ago. In came the School Improvement Grant, known as SIG, and money from the Nellie Mae Foundation, boosts to a morale- and cash-starved district whose low property values had unfairly lessened educational quality.

Pittsfield Listens emerged as a multifaceted, federally funded entity that gave a voice to students and parents in search of a better education.

The last straw for the program was the withdrawal of the stabilization grant, which has been shrinking for four years.

That means stories like the one Ricci tells, about a girl from humble beginnings who hopes to become the first member of her family to earn a four-year degree, are done.

“It helped me with leadership and my confidence, and it helped me become a better organizer,” Ricci said. “I loved it. I wanted to throw myself into it. There were times I was in the office every day of the week to do what I could do with it.”

Abigail Cote, a freshman at the University of New Hampshire, knew the feeling. She was painfully shy in her teens years, always sitting in the back of the classroom, hesitant to raise her hand or speak to a classmate.

“It helped me with facilitating group activities and learning how to speak to different people in different groups, different classes, different races,” Cote said. “It got me out of my bubble and I was able to create hard conversations that you are not normally talking about in school.”

She mentioned the effort – created by a more independent Pittsfield Middle High School study body – to include a student on the school board. The issue isn’t dead, Cote said.

“We’ve gotten a lot further,” Cote said. “The students were excited about it and thought it was a great idea.”

The faculty, of course, did, too.

Molly Messenger said the vibe around Pittsfield Middle High School over the past decade was a good one.

She directed Pittsfield Listens for seven years, trying to inject new life into a tired teaching environment.

“It worked well,” Messenger said. “You cultivate leadership from adults from marginalized families and take a real lead in impacting the change in schools. The school was moving through the redesign, and this made sure the voices of families who were never part of decision-making process were heard.”

It looked good for a while, right down to the surname of a woman who always had information, important information, to deliver.

Over the past 10 years, Messenger and other officials say, a new mindset evolved, featuring an innovation that gave students voting power to alter the student handbook, increased out-of-class time with teachers and administrators, and offered more programs, more staff, more learning.

Participation by parents and students at individual conferences skyrocketed, school officials said, from 10% to 90%. 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.

Still, administrators like Danielle Harvey, the principal at Pittsfield Elementary School, said she had to explain the value of added resources to the budget committee, when it wondered if the district could in some way tighten its belt during tough times.

“We heard concern about the amount for technology and was that the direction we were going in,” Harvey said. “We felt it was really important to get them access to technology and increase infrastructure at the middle-high school.”

The changes in education in recent years put Pittsfield in the news and showcased another positive aspect for the town to highlight, along with the excitement offered by the Pittsfield Balloon Festival and the Suncook River.

In previous years, though, Pittsfield also had made the news as one of the state’s poster-children for the Granite State’s flawed method of funding education: the inequity established through the use of property taxes to pay for school needs.

Now, officials fear, the old days, back when teachers bought supplies with their own money and lagged behind the resources at other schools, will return.

“It’s definitely disappointing,” said former superintendent John Freeman, who retired this summer after 50 years in education. “It played a critical role, especially several years ago at the start of the high school redesign. We had listening sessions and about 5% of the population participated, so we were able to bring in voices that are not usually heard in a school forum.”

There were critics, of course. Those who subscribed to the pull-up-your-bootstraps mentality of working hard, staying focused no matter what your circumstances at home, sticking to the concept of rugged individualism.

“People don’t realize,” Freeman said, “that some students have different size bootstraps to pull up. Not everyone is the same.”

Messenger’s message? “The narrative is pretty old. Working harder and pulling up your bootstraps, sure, in the working class, that narrative is strong.

“But the shift we saw was people embracing the idea that when you come together and work together, that’s what a community is, and that’s hard to do in this environment.”

Messenger said she knew her program was coming to an end, telling me, “At the time of a pandemic and a recession, it was clear we weren’t going to get that sponsorship we had hoped for and that there would be financial implications.”

Meanwhile, the Granite State’s educational system will continue its search for an answer on how to level the playing field when it comes to funding education.

Fear not, however. Harvey said she and other administrators in the Pittsfield School District watched an evolutionary process, and they watched it closely.

“We learned from Pittsfield Listens,” Harvey said. “We’ll find what works, provide more surveys, offer more roundtable discussions. We’ll try to break barriers.”

That’s what Ricci tried to do last year at the State House. This week, she criticized the governor for not stepping up when districts like Pittsfield are hurting so badly.

And last summer, during her final days in school and with Pittsfield Listens, she stood in the Senate Chamber, with its high ceilings and ornate chandeliers and historical paintings, and used stark words to make her point.

“Every year, we’re set up to lose more and more,” Ricci told the senators, “and at some point, there’s just going to be nothing left.” 


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