Thursday August 30, 2012

LENOX -- Buses roll and bells ring today for the town's 800-student school district, but on Wednesday morning, the 163-member staff gathered for the annual Convocation that's part pep rally and part preview of priorities for the year ahead.

Addressing the group at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School's Duffin Auditorium, Superintendent Edward W. Costa III, beginning his third year in the post, told the group: "We are living in an unprecedented time of change."

"Let's stay focused on the prize -- our students," he urged. "There are a lot of winds coming at us from all directions. Stay true to our students, that's what will keep us number-one."

"The plethora of international comparisons, federal mandates, the state's regulatory requirements and daily press on what's wrong with schools have really converged upon us in a perfect storm for public education," he said.

Costa detailed this year's new, unfunded mandates and initiatives from state and federal agencies, as well as state lawmakers -- U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations affecting the national school lunch program, state requirements for pre-class and post-class food and beverage service, an additional nutritional project and an "early warning indicator system" for students who may need additional academic support.

In addition, there are also new wellness policies, an emergency medical response procedure, a statewide educator-training model, as well as tests for English Language Learners, and college and career-preparation guidelines.

On-line testing is also coming to the district, Costa said, along with new measurement tools for measuring the effectiveness of teaching in each district. A "common core curriculum" framework is replacing the existing academic guidelines.

"I've never seen a year like this in my 33 years in education," Costa stressed. "We will continue to do what we do best -- first and foremost, we're teachers."

He emphasized the rapidly-expanding role of in-class technology, citing a five-year plan by one of the nation's largest textbook companies, Pearson Publishing, to convert all their books from print to digital for the web and for tablets such as the iPad.

"They're moving fast, so we need to be ready," Costa declared, noting that the use of tablets will be investigated during the school year with a potential goal of enhancing curriculum and classroom instruction.

Three small pilot projects will be conducted at all levels of the school system to explore the possible use of iPads during class hours, he added.

School Committee Chairman Don Fitzgerald also described the new school year as "loaded with change, and we believe as the school committee that this was the right change, probably long overdue, to bring the Lenox School District back to where we felt it always was and where it should be."

He was referring to a new, rotating daily schedule that gives middle-school students greater flexibility and represents a forward-looking approach "rather than resting on our laurels." He praised the staff's acceptance of the new schedule, "which will be a great thing for the students and for the school."

Members of the School Committee were on hand, as was Dan Cook, a Lenox High math teacher and president of the Lenox Education Association, which handles collective bargaining for the employees. A new teachers' contract is up for negotiation during the school year, he noted.

He also cited new state requirements for teacher evaluations, "but huge parts of that are negotiable, in terms of the language and how we handle it in the district," said Cook. Association members will have a chance to vote on the issue, he added.