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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