PITTSFIELD -- Prior to the start of the new school year, Pittsfield schools and educators took the time to focus on working with students with special needs.
Last week, Pittsfield Public Schools held a full-day training session for about 200 paraprofessionals in the school district, in partnership with Hillcrest Educational Centers.
Back in March, Hillcrest announced it received a $10,000 grant from the Berkshire Bank Foundation - Legacy Region to create a specialized learning program within Pittsfield public school system.
The goal of the program is to establish a collaborative relationship with local school districts to provide learning opportunities and professional support to district staff, students and families. Another goal of the program is to help minimize the necessity for Berkshire County school districts to place students with significant behavioral and educational needs in specialized programs or out of district placements.
"There are not as many kids in residential programs anymore," said Michele Morin, Hillcrest's director of workforce learning. "More than ever, schools are trying to meet student needs in district."
Last week's program for Pittsfield paraprofessionals was led entirely by Hillcrest staff.
"Our hope is that for new paras, this will help them build a foundation of knowledge they can draw on; for continuing paraprofessionals, this will complement and enrich what they already know," Morin said.
Several educators attending the training said that it has only been in recent years that there has been more specific training opportunities offered locally for educators who work with students with special needs.
Last week's session included a range of workshops, which paraprofessionals signed up for at their own choosing. The topics included "Autism 101," "Trauma and Its Impact on Students," and a certification program for First Aid, CPR and automated external defibrillators (AEDs), among other workshops.
According to state data for last year, the Pittsfield public school district enrolled 5,981 students, a population of which 16.6 percent, or around 993 students, were classified with special education needs. Last year, the state average for the special education cohort was 17 percent.
Stephanie Case, director of special education for Pittsfield Public Schools, said only about 30 kids from the Pittsfield district are involved in full-time or day residential programs. The district has 20 self-contained classrooms for students who need more intensive support. The rest of students are integrated into regular classroom and given additional support and resources.
Case called last week's program a good opportunity for collaboration with Hillcrest.
"Their goal as well as our goal is keeping kids in their own school in their own community," she said.
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