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On the education front, the good and bad will surface at a meeting Saturday morning in Pittsfield

  • The Pittsfield Middle High School is shown in March of 2018. Lola Duffort

Monitor columnist
Published: 11/19/2021 5:06:58 PM

James Cobern, a math and health teacher at Pittsfield Middle High School, has a message for students and their parents in the district.

Cobern and other school officials hope residents will attend a meeting Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Joy Church on Barnstead Road. There, information and explanations will update the once-a-decade, three-year process underway in which Pittsfield renews its accreditation and holds a mirror up to itself, searching for any cracks that need repairing.

“We want community members and kids to know they are invited to give voice to what they want the future of Pittsfield to look like,” Cobern said. “We want to say to the community that we re-evaluate ourselves on a regular basis, and that we don’t settle for what we did before. We’ll follow the best practices each year.”

The event is called “Vision of the Graduate Community Forum.” It’s open to anyone in Pittsfield who wants to see their town get the best bang for their buck when it comes to education. After all, a committee has already started crunching numbers to determine if the small high school should close, and instead tuition students out to another public school.

Once Pittsfield evaluates itself, the New England Association of Secondary schools and Colleges sends in its staff to observe various teachers and offer recommendations on what needs to be upgraded.

Those two phases are finished, leaving the Pittsfield School District the 2021-22 school year to shore up its game plan and build trust with the community. That’s the idea behind Saturday’s meeting: explain what’s getting a needed facelift in the curriculum, and listen to public input to round out the edges.

Cobern is one of the individuals out front of a movement to chip away at the school’s sometimes unfair reputation – not enough funds, students, courses or space – and stand firm with a public relations campaign, telling parents that the school is proud of its recent accomplishments and is forever trying to improve. Also, despite the annual omnipresent budget crunch and the desperate financial needs that many public schools face, all the students in Pittsfield have pencils.

Cobern has been at Pittsfield for eight years. Previously, he taught special education at Somersworth High School, which has about three times as many students as Pittsfield.

With declining enrollment in the Pittsfield district, Cobern’s worried that the school board will vote to close Pittsfield Middle High School, as has been discussed over the past two years.

“It’s been weighing heavily on everyone’s mind in school and in town,” Cobern said.

A Tuition Committee presented its findings to the town at a School Board meeting last May. Numbers were crunched, cost-effectiveness and feasibility considered.

The jury is still out, but Cobern isn’t convinced that dissolving the school is a good idea, or in the best interest of students.

Some Pittsfield student-athletes won’t make sports teams at a bigger school. Costs emerging from busing in special needs students and remodeling the receiving school to incorporate more students were not considered.

“For me, the results were overwhelmingly saying that we should not do this based on cost,” Cobern said. “It’s vague because some of the information was based on per pupil, which does not include money in other areas.”

Cobern’s ace in the hole is the progress the Pittsfield School District made after money from the School Improvement Grant and Nellie Mae boosted morale in a 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 school’s Project-Based and Student-Centered programs gave students hands-on working experience, helping them grow and mature and learn what can’t be absorbed in a classroom. For example, the Blueberry Express Daycare Center in town serves as a dependable training ground.

“We have been recognized by people all over the country who come to see what project-based and student-centered learning looks like,” Cobern said proudly.

But that funding is long gone, and now, after leaning harder on private donations than ever before, the New England Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges wants to know the level of quality in Pittsfield.

NEASC said the school needed to improve in three areas: a stronger, clearer vision of the skills graduates should be equipped with; completing a written record of the curriculum being used; and “explore other avenues of funding,” Cobern said.

The accreditation process ends after the changes are reviewed. Saturday’s meeting will cover the next steps.

“There’s a disconnect between what the school does and what the community perceives as the value of what the school does,” Cobern said. “We want to get them engaged and tell us what they want and that we want to work for you and be a positive influence in your children’s future, so help us out.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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