Sunday February 17, 2013

SHEFFIED -- David Hastings, the Southern Berkshire Regional School District's new superintendent, won't need a tour of the district's five rural south district towns or its schools. He also won't need to take a crash course on the district's contentious conversations about closing the small outlying towns' elementary schools or a presentation on the weaknesses of the district school curriculum.

By promoting Hastings, currently the district director of curriculum and professional development, the school committee on Thursday choose a future superintendent with strong community ties and a firm knowledge of the district and its personnel.

Given his experience, Hastings, on Friday wasted no time in providing an assessment of the district, suggesting priorities and recommending areas that need improvement.

"[The district is] not perfect by any means but we are going in the right direction for a lot of different areas," Hastings said.

Hastings, 64, joined the district in 2007 with experience as a teacher, school principal and as an administrator for several specialized education programs. He also had a long stint in the military. From 1988 through 2005, he served in the Army specializing in interrogation techniques, which he said helped him learn about people.


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Hastings background also includes participation on the district's elementary school task force, which late last year provided a comprehensive report on bolstering early education programs and other school site recommendations.

Hastings echoed sentiments from the plan on Friday when he talked about the district offering a "true Berkshire education" that would include better utilization of surrounding resources. He said he'd personally be willing to reach out to organizations about expanding the scope of education beyond the reach of the district and participating in fundraising that could boost the district's resources.

"We should be giving a true Berkshire education," Hastings said. "The concept is we utilize all the cultural things we have at our disposal."

In discussing the district's many small elementary schools, criticized by some as an inefficient use of school funds, Hastings said the district needs to embrace the schools and avoided any discussion of closing them, although that decision will ultimately be decided by the School Committee.

"We need to work with the difference [felt] in [the] schools and make them feel more a part of the entire district," Hastings said.

Hastings identified long-term priorities as strengthening the curriculum at all the elementary schools, improving the district's alignment with the state's Common Core of Learning curriculum, creating "non-negotiable goals" that set standards for students, and improving school culture by articulating a definition.

Hastings will be the district's next superintendent, though he was voted in by a narrow margin following extensive discussion by the School Committee.

In an initial straw poll, committee members favored Hastings while four expressed strong support for hiring someone from outside the district -- similar to recent selections. They said an experienced official with a fresh perspective was needed. After discussion, however, Hastings was selected unanimously. He still has to negotiate a contract with the committee and is expected to assume his duties on July 1.

Hastings expressed confidence that he can provide the collaborative leadership the district needs.

"We get people outside to be our bosses and this was our chance to go with someone who already loved the schools and wants to be an inspirational leader," he said.

Hastings' selection earned support from others associated with the district, including retired school administrator Louise Yohalem, who headed the now-disbanded elementary school task force.

"He's firm, he's kind and very smart," Yohalem said. "I think if he says he is going to do something he will figure out a way to get it done. Just that so many colleagues spoke out for him [speaks volumes]. Two hundred students signed a petition for him."

Yohalem said she's confident the elementary school plan will have an advocate with Hastings selection.

"Absolutely, I know it," Yohalem said. "As I said, he was part of it. That [plan] reflects part of his thinking as well as people from the task force and the people in the community."

Former School Committee Chair Herb Abelow said an important issue is to align curriculum across all the elementary schools, and he spoke hopefully about Hastings' ability to bring the schools together to produce a cohesive program.

"I think he has a good chance of pulling this together," said Abelow.

"He doesn't present any negatives parts," Abelow said. "He's not overly aggressive and gives credit when it's due. I think his work ethic inspires people around him because he doesn't have an aggressive, bullying manner."

To reach John Sakata:
jsakata@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6240