Berkshire County weeks from having only special education public day school

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NORTH ADAMS — Berkshire County is just weeks from having a special education public day school.

The North Berkshire Academy will launch its special education collaborative program in January, inside the North Adams Armory building.

It will be the only special education public day school in Berkshire County, serving students from seventh to 10th grades who have documented emotional disabilities and are on individual education plans.

"The stuff that we're doing is going to be a great opportunity for families and kids and schools. It's going to be a special place," said Jodi Drury, director of the academy. "I really want to erase this understanding of this population as 'bad.'"

The school, Drury promises, will not just be "a warehouse" for special education students to be forgotten about, but rather a place that provides them with the skills and ability to integrate back into the traditional classroom setting.

"These kids are going to be going back to their sending schools," she said.

The program's development was made possible with a $148,000 grant from Gov. Charlie Baker's administration, which was awarded nearly a year ago.

The program is expected to launch in early January and take about 12 students, with the possibility of expanding in the following fall.

"We want to do it well the first time and keep it small," Drury said.

The North Berkshire Academy will take referrals from any school in the county, but its services are targeted toward the districts of Northern Berkshire School Union, Mount Greylock Regional School District, Adams-Cheshire Regional School District, Northern Berkshire Regional Vocational Technical School and North Adams Public Schools.

Drury said she already has been collaborating with local districts, sharing the goal of bringing students who use the program back into traditional public schools.

"Kids go far away, and kids are not transitioning back to their schools with support," she said of the previous model, adding that the North Berkshire Academy will be "actively involved in the schools" and work to ensure a smoother transition back into the classroom.

"The public schools have total voice in how we do this," Drury said.

North Adams Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Malkas said the proximity of the North Berkshire Academy to sending schools will allow students to have a more gradual transition.

"'Right now what happens is, when we do an out-of-district placement, we never really have that opportunity to really consider a viable transition back into their school," she said. "There isn't really a gradual transition. They come back and they're back in an environment that they were not successful in before."

That rapid transition can bring on anxiety for the students, but a new approach will allow them to dip their toe in the water.

"It's better for kids, and that's why we're doing it, and that's why my colleagues have all been willing to come to the table and have these discussions," Malkas said of the program.

The program is expected to lessen the burden on students, families and educators.

"The closest programs are close to an hour away, which brings challenges," Drury said.

The commute can bring transportation costs to the school district and take a toll on the student.

"Some kids are fine, but for some kids, an hour bus ride is a lot to ask," Drury said.

Though the program will begin under the control of the Northampton-based Collaboration for Educational Services, which is state certified, the goal is to eventually have it run independently and encompass not only special education, but also transportation, purchasing and professional development services that every district in the Berkshires uses.

The new classroom space and offices are thanks to a yearslong renovation of the North Adams Armory, spearheaded by city officials with Community Development Block Grant Funding.

"We're delighted to have a program like that in there," said North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright.

The Armory also is now home to the E3 Academy, the North Adams Public Schools' alternative learning program aimed at helping students at risk of dropping out.

The building's large gymnasium, commonly used for youth basketball, will be important for the therapeutic physical activities Drury values.

The entire staff, which includes Drury, a full-time lead teacher, a full-time assistant teacher, a full-time clinician and other support staff, has already been hired.

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-496-6376.


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