Saturday February 16, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- This school year, Pittsfield High School is exploring what change their differences can bring about.

On Friday, the school spent the scheduled half-day hosting the Living African American History Project.

Nineteen black males -- including businessmen, educators, athletes and other civic leaders -- volunteered to share their stories and discuss varying topics, giving PHS students and staff a modernized perspective on February's national theme of black history.

Presentation topics included hip-hop, literature and correctional systems. Personal stories of presenters ranged from growing up in the Jim Crow South to being a teen parent to being successful with personal goal-setting.

Former St. Louis Rams football player David Thompson Jr. shares lessons from growing up in ‘the school of hard knocks.’
Former St. Louis Rams football player David Thompson Jr. shares lessons from growing up in ‘the school of hard knocks.’ (Jenn Smith / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

Antoine Alston, of Great Barrington, shared his story of being a bullied kid who became a student council president who then became a drug dealer and who is now a positive-thinking and acting personal trainer and business owner.

"Change is hard. It's going to be hard to face the truth," he told students, encouraging them to keep their minds and futures open.

"Forget the color, forget the skin. We're all just people trying to do the same thing -- to be successful in life," Alston said.

Presenter, motivational speaker and Pittsfield native Mulazimuddin S. Rasool said "the Pittsfield High School administration has been very proactive" in educating its students and staff about multicultural experiences.

Earlier in the year, the school partnered with the Great Barrington-based organization Multicultural BRIDGE, which educates people about and celebrates cultural differences within communities. BRIDGE also helped coordinate Friday's living history program.

"Having events like this gives us a chance to talk about things in a mass forum that we don't often get to talk about in class," said Principal Tracey Benson.

Gwendolyn Hampton-VanSant, co-founder and executive director of BRIDGE, said choosing male speakers for the forum was intentional. She said PHS faculty and staff, as well as some students felt there needed to be more male role models, particularly men of color, in the school and community.

"Students feel like they need to connect with someone like them," Hampton-VanSant said.

Since the 2002-03 school year, the African American population at the school has tripled.

Based on Oct. 1, 2012, enrollment data reported by Pittsfield High School to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, PHS has 969 students, 488 females and 481 males this school year. Seventy-seven percent of students identify as caucasian, 12 percent of students identify as African American, and almost 7 percent identify as Hispanic.

A decade earlier, out of 884 students, 90 percent of the student body was white, and about 4 percent of students identified as African American.

With this knowledge, PHS and BRIDGE is listening more and taking action.

Over the course of the school year, they've been discussing how race, ability and other demographics shape school culture and how to create a positive, safe school climate as demographics continue to diversify.

PHS formed a Multicultural Action Team of faculty and staff members which meets during every school faculty meeting. A new after-school youth group called "Real Talk" was also formed this school year as a way to provide an outlet for teens.

‘Forget the color, forget the skin. We’re all just people trying to do the same thing -- to be successful in life,’ Antoine Alston told
‘Forget the color, forget the skin. We’re all just people trying to do the same thing -- to be successful in life,’ Antoine Alston told the Pittsfield High School students. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

PHS Dean of Students Jenny Stokes said Friday's living history program was a follow up to a staff training program held in January and a "Strength in Community Forum" held Feb. 1 for students at the school, also held during a scheduled half-day.

"I think at first people were thinking this is kind of lame, but once you get into it, it's kind of cool. You normally don't get much accomplished in a half-day, and it's good to talk about these things," said PHS senior Zach Rahilly.

Both he and freshman Jamie McMahon both agreed that using half days for forum on a variety of subjects is an efficient and interesting use of time.

"It gets you thinking in a different way," McMahon said.