LENOX -- A crucial year is underway for the town's school district as classes began on Thursday.
At the annual staff convocation on Wednesday, Superintendent Edward W. Costa III emphasized four goals -- notably, the strategic study on the district's future involving the School Committee, teachers, residents and the Boston-based Public Consulting Group, along with additional state and federal mandates, and the new staff evaluation procedure.
Enhanced security includes new dead-bolt inside locks for classrooms and a video surveillance system planned for school parking lots.
"I'm not worried about what the world wants to say about education and all the politics they want to throw into it," Costa said. "The state and the feds don't always know best, but I think you as educators know what's best for your students."
"We all here know the assault on education and educators that has been taking place over the last several years," said Dan Cook, president of the Lenox Education Association, which handles collective bargaining. He listed "increasing demands and higher levels of scrutiny. We're still doing a great job teaching kids, and we need to think about that when we work with each other -- kindness, compassion, communication."
"Let's keep those things really strong so we can do our best job in spite of all the outside demands that seem to be threatening us," Cook added.
Costa, stressing "an unprecedented time of educational change" from a plethora of about 50 state and national mandates, cautioned that "it can consume us if we don't have a plan to keep our focus on our most important job." He described development of the "first, formal, heavy duty strategic plan" for the school district, and underlined involvement of school staff, parents, other residents including "empty nesters" and local government.
The "shared vision and action plan" will target the next three to give years, Costa said, and includes extensive public meetings "to let people weigh in."
He stressed declining enrollment locally, countywide and regionally.
"We'd better be planning ahead," he said, referring to a student count of 786 as of Wednesday, reflecting a steady decrease that could impact honors, advance placement and college prep tracks while shrinking graduating classes.
The superintendent said his focus is on the "rigor and caliber of instruction for our schools rather than anything else. First place is the act of teaching, everything else is important but second place."
As for the new, state-required staff evaluation system, he said "we're in it for real this year" following extensive training last year.
"I want everyone to relax," Costa said. "This is something we do with each other, not to each other. Respect each other's roles and time factors. We need to support each other -- nobody should be losing sleep on this."
Citing a line from the state mandate -- "we must consider team goals" -- Costa said the school administration is wedded to that approach.
Statewide "Common Core" curriculum and assessment standards also are high priorities, he noted, along with a new online test, PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), due officially in two years though Lenox has been selected to "field-test" the exam in several classrooms.
"I'm going to use it as a bully pulpit to get more technology for our schools," Costa said.
The 100-plus staff assembled at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School also heard Select Board Chairman David Roche praise the system's "excellence, professionalism and dedication" as well as its role fueling the community's economic development.
"Keep a good eye on our children of Lenox and particularly keep an eye out for my grandchildren," he urged.
To reach Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.