NEW MARLBOROUGH -- Leave it to a kindergarten student from one of Massachusetts' smallest schools to ask the state's education secretary the big questions.
When Matthew Malone visited Southern Berkshire Regional's New Marlborough Central School this week, one young girl from Erna Lampman's early kindergarten/kindergarten class did just that.
She asked to know "exactly what you're doing here to help schools ... and make sure they have what they need?"
Malone said his visit -- one of many to schools across Massachusetts -- was to "ask teachers what they need" and help "establish policies that don't affect the good stuff" happening in terms of classroom projects and instruction.
This was the second visit Malone's made to the district in five months; he was at Mount Everett Regional and Undermountain Elementary schools in December.
On Wednesday, Malone visited the district's three smallest elementary schools: Monterey, New Marlborough Central and South Egremont.
Malone also said he's well aware that these three schools -- which are also among the smallest in Berkshire County -- have been discussed as candidates to be closed or consolidated to reduce costs to member towns.
New Marlborough has 81 students from pre-kindergarten through Grade 4. Monterey and South Egremont are one-room early elementary school houses, with seven kindergarten and 10 kindergarten and first-grade students, respectively.
During his tour, Malone heard from parents, school and town officials, and community members about the good things happening -- small classes, one-on-one learning, interdisciplinary classes, and projects. He also saw the challenges, such as the need for building renovations and repairs and more support for transportation costs.
Malone shared his ideas for the schools, which include putting more technology in schools, offering technical assistance, and getting the district's teachers involved with more professional development and collaboration opportunities with their colleagues across the state.
"The environment of learning is so important," said parent Mari Enoch. "It's about how kids are able to take ownership of the school and their learning, that it's a place they want to come to school to each day.
Enoch said her family has happily sent multiple generations to the Monterey School.
"These guys have made very hard decisions to preserve things here," said Malone, referencing efforts to keep the schools from closing.
"I've heard loud and clear that teachers here like to have flexibility around curriculum," he said.
"People want to find a school system that makes sense to them and their needs."
South Egremont teacher Elaine Hunter told Malone she and co-teacher Gussie Greer meet and talk with parents on a daily basis and have an open-door policy for parents who want to observe classes and how their students interact.
"Education isn't just about what you're teaching. It's about making sure students get the services that they need," Hunter said.
Staff say they offer what Hunter summed up as "a home-school environment under a public school setting."
Students and teachers take regular walks to their respective town libraries, post offices and other town buildings. They visit nearby woods and farms, and each school has its own gardening program.
At New Marlborough, Francine Groener not only serves as the lead teacher for the school but also teaches a program for at-risk pre-kindergarteners. The three schools share specialists for occupational and speech therapy, physical education, music and art. The only student the school can't serve is the one who has limited mobility: The New Marlborough school building is not wheelchair-accessible, a capital improvement issue the district would like to address.
New Marlborough Select Board Chairwoman Tara White said that while she's pleased with existing programs, she'd like to see more support for school day and after-school transportation so more students can get involved in extracurricular programs.
"We're rural but not condensed in this region," she said.
Earlier this month, the Senate Committee on Ways and Means released a proposed budget of $70.3 million for regional school transportation, which means regional school transportation costs would be funded at 90 percent, compared to the 60 percent districts currently get reimbursed. Malone said he can't make any promises, but he's urging legislators to pass that line item.
Monterey Selectman Kenn Basler said the towns are reaching out to each other and to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop ways to renovate and sustain the operations of the three small schools.
"I think this year is finally going to be the year we'll see something happen," said Basler. "We have to work together and have the vision to make this work and stand by it."
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