Missed chance for $20 million grant
In August, 2012 the U.S. De partment of Education re leased the Executive Sum mary of a competitive grant, Race to the Top -- Dis trict. As the city of Pittsfield was eligible to compete for a potential $20 million, a Statement of Interest was submitted to the federal department in a timely fashion. With our intent registered, the new administration proceeded with the task of opening schools for the academic year. Simul tan eously, under the direction of Deputy Superintendent Tracy Crowe, the coordinators studied the merit of the grant as it might benefit our school system.
This was an opportunity for school districts to build upon local innovation and demonstrate how they can personalize education for students in their schools and implement other important innovations de signed to raise achievement and close achievement gaps. With MCAS scores and achievement gaps challenging our Level 3 District, this was decidedly an opportunity worth exploring. This competition would reward us for having the leadership and vision to implement strategies, structures, and systems needed to implement personalized, student-focused approaches to learning and teaching to produce excellence and ensure equity for all students.
Our needs are diverse and we could substantiate the tasks we encounter in this sphere. Ultimately the goal was to lay a blueprint for raising student achievement, decreasing the achievement gap across student groups and increasing the rates at which students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers. Teach ers would be provided with the information, tools and supports that enable them to meet the needs of each student and substantially accelerate and deepen each student’s learning.
To administer, manage and deliver services utilizing $20 million would clearly require the addition of numerous professional and paraprofessional staff much as hiring a consultant firm for a particular task. Over four years the goals would be reached, the consultant cohort would depart and, having benefited from the stream of professional development, the additional equipment and technology and having mastered the blueprint for success, Pittsfield’s improved system would move forward much to the benefit of all learners.
In September the decision was made to go for the grant. Win or lose the administration wanted the people of Pittsfield to know that they gave it their all to bring this infusion of funds into the school department at a time when help is clearly needed. One requirement of the Executive Summary [p.16] was that the application "be signed by the superintendent or CEO, local school board president, and local teacher union or association president." Furthermore, the department must receive the application by 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 30. We had one month to write what would end up being a 195-page document. Al though some important work would temporarily be put on the back burner, the stakes were worth the sustained effort.
The signature of the president of the United Educators of Pittsfield was required to endorse the application. To offer communication immediately, Dr. Crowe wrote to U.E.P. President Gail Yates on Saturday, September 29 highlighting the short turnaround time and forwarding the Ex ecutive Summary of the grant. Ms. Yates asked on October 2 if there was time to call a meeting of the union members. Dr. Crowe replied, "Currently I have the full support of both the School Committee Chair Alf Bar balunga and Super intendent Gordon Noseworthy who wholeheartedly endorse the potential $20 million, multi-year funding for programs in Pittsfield Public Schools. Particularly in a time when our scores show a significant need for growth, this grant could provide an excellent opportunity for addressing our challenges.
"You stated that you have not had time to enlist the support of the membership. The short notification is entirely out of our control but it is mandated that we receive the U.E.P. president’s signature as we wish to move forward immediately with the formal application. Š Again, the school system has no control over the narrow window provided for applicants by the U.S. Department of Education." She closed with "I do realize this is a small window, but I think you will agree it is an opportunity for our District that we do not want to miss."
On Oct. 5 Ms. Yates an swered. "As events have evolved we have been pressured into an arbitrary timeframe, not in tended by the state [Yates’ invention] where we have no option to secure the backing of our membership. While we feel compelled to state our approval of this measure, [Yates’ italics] we do so without the guarantee of member support that we believe is mandated by the state." The "state" did not mandate anything nor did it determine the timeline. We took "to state our approval of this measure" as indicative of pursuing the grant which would be signed by the president of the U.EP.
For the ensuing three weeks a team at Mercer familiar with grant writing worked day and night to enter this competition with gusto and ultimately wrote a compelling 195-page document on behalf of the children in Pittsfield schools. Meanwhile, there was no sign of union membership assembling to be briefed on the Ex ecutive Summary, which contains the full essence of the grant.
On Oct. 21 Ms. Yates re quested that a copy of the 195-page document be sent to every member of her Unit A bargaining group. This was unprecedented and created logistical problems. She also made herself available for a meeting on Oct. 22. At that meeting the administration was represented by Superin tendent Noseworthy and six individuals involved in writing the grant. Ms. Yates brought five members of the U.E.P. executive board. Ms. Yates had read an earlier draft with which she had been provided; she was given the final version at the meeting. The meeting did not go well. Administrative concerns for achievement gaps, the need for supports both in professional development and modern technology and the incredible impact the influx of $20 million could have on a city such as ours fell on deaf ears.
One teacher emphasized that she did not want to be told what to teach or how to teach it. Another twice denounced individualized instruction as more work for teachers and a third stated that using technology meant more work for him. From the day we first informed the union of our intent to move forward, there was absolutely no effort for collaboration what soever. Instead of offers of how we could work together there were excuses framed around the fixed timeline.
The meeting was deadlocked when one U.E.P. member re quested a caucus, the result of which was to consult with the legal department of the MTA. From that a Memo randum of Agreement ensued, the wording of which dealt a death knell to the grant. At this point the administration was willing to comply with any request, no matter how outrageous, in order to meet the deadline and submit the grant. Too much hard work on the part of too many had been generated to give up. School Committee Chairman Alf Barbalunga and their lawyer, Russell Dupere, were integrally involved in every effort to bring the union on board and requested on numerous times to meet face to face to resolve the issue in a collaborative manner.
Due to Hurricane Sandy the deadline was extended. Com mu nication between the School Committee chair and counsel continued with Ms. Yates, who designated herself the only person that could be contacted for the duration. Nov. 5, the day before the new deadline a meeting was finally held for the U.E.P. membership, 36 days after the president’s original invitation to sign off on the grant. Two specific people from Mercer were designated by Ms. Yates and invited to field questions. It was voted down 135 to 41. Less than one-third of the membership attended the meeting. Ms. Yates would not be signing the application.
There are many outstanding professional classroom teachers in Pittsfield. Teachers are interested in the Core Cur riculum -- what to teach -- and many express the growth they experience through professional development -- how to teach. We are not a stagnant profession nor are we stale clock watchers. We are a vibrant community of educators who, with the students of Pittsfield, have now lost the opportunity to apply for a possible $20 million.
Gordon L. Noseworthy, Ed.D. is superintendent of schools, Pittsfield Public Schools.
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