LENOX -- The financial stability of the town's school district and a push for more diverse academic programs are key community concerns, according to an extensive community-wide survey.

"This has to rise up as a very high priority and it has to be addressed," declared Steve Kutno of the Public Consulting Group (PCG), which is overseeing the schools' strategic study. "People want to talk about regionalization, or creating a centralized administration across a number of districts. The issue is the cost and the size of the district."

"To me, it's not about school choice or regionalization, it's about the financial viability of the district and how you create a future that ensures it's successful," he said.

"By and large, people want to maintain the Lenox municipal school district, but they don't want to do it any cost," Kutno explained. "With fewer students, how do we maintain the diversity of academic programs?"

A draft summary of the key findings gleaned from nearly 950 surveys conducted townwide in October and November -- along with nine community-wide focus groups and additional meetings with school staff and students -- was presented to the School Department's Strategic Planning Committee at a Town Hall meeting on Monday night.

By the end of March, the strategic study aims to set three to five top-priority goals for the next three to five years. Public participation and transparency have been the foundation of the study by the consultants hired by the town.

A detailed presentation for the community is slated for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28, in the Town Hall Auditorium.

Kutno cautioned committee members about some specific special interest groups, "and some of those don't care for some of the others."

"So, there are tensions within the community," he observed, "but it's not what we highlight. ... This report is a milestone, on a path to something much larger. I don't want you to become distracted by a lot of noise that might erupt as a result of people using the raw data to say, ‘Look, they didn't attend to my issue.' "

"Different groups have different agendas," Kutno said, "and they are very clear and sometimes very specific about who's pro and who's against."

The full report includes a 30-page narrative and 300 pages of raw data from the 950 surveys and the focus groups.

Academic diversity of programs for different levels of students emerged as a major, somewhat divisive theme of the study.

"There are people who want to ensure that students graduate and go to the best colleges possible, and there are those who want students to have an opportunity to explore interests at their ability level," Kutno said.

"Those things are at odds with one another, they are represented in the data as contradictory," he said. "People feel that one is always at the expense of the other -- offering more AP (advanced placement) classes means not offering or reducing vocational or arts or music."

Parents with high-performing students cite inadequate enrichment activities such as advanced classes, sports or extra-curricular, Kutno said. "They feel too much emphasis is placed on kids in the middle, or at the bottom who are struggling."

But parents with students in the middle cite too much emphasis on top performers, while those with students who need intervention believe everyone else is getting all the attention.

"That gets to the heart of the issue," Kutno noted. "In a small system, how do you meet the needs and interests of all students."

Acknowledging the ‘hot-button issue,' he described a complaint by some "special interest" survey-takers: "This should be a college-prep community and if people want other types of education, they should go elsewhere and the district should be willing to send them elsewhere."

But the consultants' approach, Kutno stated, is to "take hot-button issues and create a positive. ... The reality is there's a diverse group of students in Lenox, regardless of what some people think. They're not all going to Harvard. But they're also very highly successful academically. If we want to address academic diversity, how do we do it and realize it's within the confines of financial limitations and the critical mass you need to offer different programs?"

Survey results reflected a need for a shift in the school leadership culture "so that at least the community, the administrators and the teachers have a sense of shared purpose and shared respect for one another, so people don't feel as though they are working at odds with one another, or feel that everything is being done by mandate," Kutno said.

A survey theme on student behavior, including anti-bullying, positive character development, reflected on the community "not in a good way," he noted, because some students "have figured out how to work the system -- there's a set of rules and they know how to break them with impunity, and they take advantage of the system."

Some teachers don't get involved, Kutno commented, "because they know ‘helicopter parents' will get involved and will prevent any issue from touching their child. They're very much centered on what's best for their child and their family. A goal of the study is to encourage a more "universalistic" approach.

On teachers' professionalism, Kutno stressed, "at the end of the day, what really matters is how they're preparing for tomorrow and how what we do here impacts what they do, because tomorrow is what's very real to them -- children in their classroom."

To contact Clarence Fanto:
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(413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfantoµ

Survey results in brief

Among the themes in the draft summary of a survey on the future of the Lenox school district, in alphabetical order:

Academic Diversity of Programs: Tension around whether enough opportunities are offered at the highest end as well as the middle and lower level of student skills and achievement.

Academic Instruction: How to provide meaningful, "best-practice" and "research-based" instruction to meet the needs and interest of different learners.

Character Education: Establishing a more civil community in which adults are models of behaviors expected of students; identifying pathways for students to develop the self-confidence to express their individuality while embracing caring relationships built on empathy for others.

Communication: People don't experience two-way interaction; there's a desire for improved decision-making, problem-solving and effective, meaningful connections to others.

Educational Resources: Every resource is very valuable, but in a time of fiscal uncertainty, which ones are most necessary?

Financial Stability: The need to confront the economic realities caused by declining enrollment and increasing demands for broader programs. Whether it is school choice, regionalization or unification with another district, the financial issue needs to be addressed.

Leadership: There's a sense that the district has moved to a very centralized leadership both at the district office and at each building. Decisions are being pushed downward, teachers are not able to participate and as a result they remain silent when given opportunities to express opinions.

Professionalism and Professional Development: A very hot topic with teachers, partly about self-determination: How much of what they learn and how they grow professionally is determined by others, how much they want to determine their future.

Source: Public Consulting Group survey and focus group results

In their own words

Some reactions from Strategic Study Committee members to the survey results:

School Committee Chairman Don Fitzgerald: "There may be divergent opinions the compromise is what's best for the town and the school district together and it may satisfy neither, but the compromise is just that, where neither faction is completely satisfied but it's the best way to move the district forward and for the town to manage it long-term. So, everybody's irritated but they're sufficiently equally irritated."

School Superintendent Edward W. Costa II: "We're going to have to come to terms with school choice, with efficiencies because the data shows Lenox wants to remain a municipal district, but there's a cost for that, academic as well as program fiscal costs."

School Committee member Jo Anne Magee: "The trap we don't want to get caught in is to solve today's problems when what we're really doing is putting together a plan for the next 3 to 5 years."

Strategic Study Committee member Thomas Romeo: "Lenox has excellent schools and one of the reasons is willingness to look at itself to be able to talk about all this in a way that's supportive and constructive. We're strong because we're willing to look at these bruises and not have to concentrate and headline that this is the problem in Lenox, that parents are too demanding, this or that. The purpose is not to bring up faults but to bring up opportunities of how we can correct, amend, change and deliver. The purpose is not to be critical of the system."

-- Clarence Fanto

In their own words ...

Some reactions from Strategic Study Committee members to the Lenox School District survey results discussed at Monday night's meeting:

School Committee Chairman Don Fitzgerald: "There may be divergent opinions the compromise is what's best for the town and the school district together and it may satisfy neither, but the compromise is just that, where neither faction is completely satisfied but it's the best way to move the district forward and for the town to manage it long-term. So, everybody's irritated but they're sufficiently equally irritated."

School Superintendent Edward W. Costa II: "We're going to have to come to terms with school choice, with efficiencies because the data shows Lenox wants to remain a municipal district, but there's a cost for that, academic as well as program fiscal costs."

School Committee member Jo Anne Magee: "The trap we don't want to get caught in is to solve today's problems when what we're really doing is putting together a plan for the next 3 to 5 years."

Strategic Study Committee member Thomas Romeo: "Lenox has excellent schools and one of the reasons is willingness to look at itself to be able to talk about all this in a way that's supportive and constructive. We're strong because we're willing to look at these bruises and not have to concentrate and headline that this is the problem in Lenox, that parents are too demanding, this or that. The purpose is not to bring up faults but to bring up opportunities of how we can correct, amend, change and deliver. The purpose is not to be critical of the system."

-- Clarence Fanto