PITTSFIELD - Those hoping to save auto body and metal fabrication vocational programs in an updated curriculum for Pittsfield schools have won more time to make their case during School Committee information- gathering sessions next month.
However, they could face an uphill climb, based on information in a consultant's study the School Building Needs Commission received last year and in large part endorsed in November before passing it along to the School Committee. Each time the committee has since indicated it would vote on the plan - which recommends 14 programs but not those two, while adding others deemed more suitable for the emerging workforce - the vote has been postponed.
The principal reason has been a strong show of support and a parade of speakers during each committee meeting, arguing that the embattled programs are needed and should remain in the curriculum in city schools. On Wednesday, the committee referred the proposed vocational recommendation to its curriculum subcommittee, which will hold meetings to hear in detail from the public, officials, experts in the field and business people who might hire program graduates.
A final vote on the curriculum now is expected in late February.
The first subcommittee meeting is tentatively set for Feb. 5, Chairwoman Katherine Yon said Friday. She said it's difficult to say now how many will be scheduled, as that will be based on how long it takes to hear from all interested parties and how long it takes for committee members to digest the information, which she said has been unexpectedly overwhelming so far.
She added that a silver lining has been the way the business community has become involved in a discussion on the future of vocational-technical programming in Pittsfield.
School Committee Chairman Alfred E. "Alf" Barbalunga said Friday that he intends to ask school administrators and others "for some tangible answers" about Pittsfield's options, adding, "and we need them now."
He and Yon said a vital point is whether the state has a firm time frame for a decision from the committee and how any changes in the curriculum plan now might be perceived by state agencies.
The curriculum decision bears directly on plans for replacing or renovating Taconic High School, because state officials require a course plan in place before preliminary feasibility and design and cost estimates can be generated. The state is expected to provide 78 percent of the construction cost.
In a summary of comments and statistical information provided to the School Committee Wednesday, interim Superintendent Gordon Noseworthy illustrated some of the obstacles those hoping to save auto body and metal fabrication programs could face.
In an 11-page submission to the committee, Noseworthy cites a number of points in the study, which led to the recommendation to drop some courses and add others believed to be more in demand in the workplace.
In a $24,786 study, "NESDEC (New England School Development Council, the consultants) contracted to complete a comprehensive needs assessment of the ... programs," Noseworthy stated, and to "advise and define recommended [voc-tech] programs supported with multiple data sources."
The programs recommended were to be those needed by students and which contributed to the economic vitality of the area, Noseworthy said, and "final choices should be based on the merit of each program."
The study tasks also included reaching out to "include broad solicitation of information from the community," the superintendent said, before listing some of those outreach efforts, which have been criticized as inadequate by speakers during recent committee meetings.
He listed hosting a forum in March 2012 to review data with vocational-technical program committee members, business and agency representatives and colleges, and a dozen meetings and interviews to obtain "local information, wisdom and opinions of key stakeholders and groups for the students of all Chapter 74 programs ... ."
Noseworthy said those included faculty and guidance directors, central office and secondary school administrators, the Chamber of Commerce, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, Berkshire Works and Career Center, the county Regional Employment Board, Berkshire Youth Council, Manpower Inc., 1Berkshire, local labor union representatives, the county Superintendents Roundtable group, local colleges, and a City Hall meeting with human service managers from 20 of Pittsfield's largest employers.
The superintendent also notes that the NESDEC considered five years of graduation data, interviews with program faculty members, and post-secondary relationships with vocational- technical programs.
He further states that labor market data, student demographics and other factors mean the Pittsfield schools are "forced to choose a limited number of appropriate programs for the new school," and that 14 programs, as proposed in the recommendation, matches the projected student enrollment and class space, meaning "choices will have to be made."
The NESDEC study points out that the state might require information on employment prospects for students in the auto body program, and that McCann Technical High School in North Adams offers metal fabrication course, Noseworthy said in his comments.
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