LENOX -- A comprehensive study on the future of the Lenox schools is underway, with the creation of eight focus groups and the launch of an online survey open to the entire community.
The focus groups will participate in 90-minute sessions next week with Public Consulting Group (PCG), a Boston-based public sector advisory firm hired by the school department to conduct the study.
During Monday night's meeting of the town's 10-member Strategic Study Subcommittee, Steve Kutno, director of PCG's strategic planning services, stressed the importance of looking at more than just test scores in assessing the success of the district.
"The happiness of your students, parents and the community can also be key indicators," he said.
With enrollment declining and the school-choice population increasing, the district is exploring potential changes that could include shared services with a neighboring district, collaboration, or even some form of regionalization. Public involvement and transparency are seen as key elements of the study, which will result in the district's first long-range strategic plan in 30 years.
By Monday's 5 p.m. deadline, 85 citizens and parents had signed up for all available spots on the focus groups. During the groups' meetings next week, participants will be asked to define what they consider excellence in education, specifically for local schools.
In addition, 44 students have filled two focus groups from the elementary school as well as the middle and high school. All 161 school district staffers are to be interviewed by PCG.
And at a communitywide forum to be held next week, the public will have a chance to air their views on the district's future.
Referring at Monday's meeting to the looming federal government shutdown, Kutno said future goals must be realistic: "Will it work within the economic uncertainty of schools?" he said. "There's federal, state and local uncertainty about how they're funded so we want to make sure that what is set out as a goal is something people can pursue without having to worry about big infusions of cash."
Kutno cited a potential scenario that would replace textbooks with iPads. He questioned whether that could be achieved in spite of the expense.
School Committee Chairman Don Fitzgerald stressed that the entire community needs to buy into any strategic plan. Kutno said it's essential that future district leaders maintain the plan since the town will have a "vested interest" in it.
"The most skeptical people about this are the educators," Kutno asserted. "The teachers believe ‘this too shall pass,' and nine times out of 10, they're right, and the reason is that it's usually something that's being told to them or being done to them. The approach that we take is that they own it," as much as the School Committee or the superintendent.
After the study group members were asked to list their best school memories and their expectations about the future of local education, a wide-ranging discussion included expressions of regret that vocational and technical education is not available in Lenox. The result is that local students must "choice out" to Pittsfield for those fields.
"It means they have to stop being a ‘Lenox Millionaire' student because they have to enroll in Pittsfield," said Schools Superintendent Edward W. Costa II. "It's a complete departure, abandonment of what they've known and been raised with, to do voc-tech. That's not right, but it is a fact. I'd love for it not to be that way."
"This is arising with greater intensity now that we have this notion as a nation that we need to get everybody ready for college," Kutno commented.
"We also need to create pathways to explore interests they want to pursue other than college," he declared. "You can imagine a situation where you do some partnering with other school systems but also the broader community to establish mentor programs where kids who want to do something like that are provided a pathway to do it."
Since there are only about 65 students in each grade, Fitzgerald sounded a note of caution -- "this is the reality of what we deal with, we've got certain numbers, finite finances, limited staff, there's limited classes, how do we come together to develop a vision for the future where we give them the best of what we can give them? This is exactly why we're here."
Lenox school study timeline
Through Oct. 31: Online survey open to the entire community, including former students as well as school-choice parents and students, at www.lenoxps.strategicplan. Written surveys available at key locations in town, including the two schools, Town Hall, the library, the Lenox Community Center and Kimball Farms.
Oct. 7-10: Eight focus groups meet with Public Consulting Group in 90-minute sessions.
Tuesday, Oct. 8: Communitywide forum, 7 p.m., Lenox Memorial Middle and High School Auditorium.
Oct. 11: All faculty and staffers are interviewed by consultants during a professional development day; no classes held.
Oct. 21; Nov. 4, 18; Dec. 9; Jan. 6, 27; Feb. 3, 24: Strategic Study Subcommittee meetings, Town Hall, 5:30 p.m., open to public.
March 2014: Final strategic study meetings (Mar. 10, 17, 24) to complete work on a plan to be presented to the public and the School Committee for discussion and decisions.
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