Pittsfield schools seeing students choose other districts
PITTSFIELD -- With a disproportionate number of Pittsfield students choosing to attend schools elsewhere, School Committee members want to identify why students opt out and to more effectively promote city schools.
Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless this week reported on the most recent school choice figures, which show 531 Pittsfield residents attending school in other towns this year, compared to the 82 nonresidents who attended city schools.
Since 2002-03, the number choosing to come here has shown a steady but slow trend upward in the elementary schools, McCandless said, from seven to 25, but middle school and high school figures have remained relatively flat. There were four choice students at Herberg Middle School this year and none at Reid Middle School, he said.
There were 12 attending Taconic or Pittsfield High, McCandless said. The high figure for the high schools since 2002-03 was 18.
That compares with 375 students choosing this year to attend schools in other towns and another 156 choosing the Berkshire Arts & Technology charter school in Adams.
McCandless said 149 went to Lenox schools, 84 to Central Berkshire district schools, 43 to Richmond, 39 to Lee schools, 27 to Berkshire Hills schools, 15 to Mount Greylock Regional High School; nine to Lanesboro, and five to Southern Berkshire district schools. Two went to North Adams and one to Hancock.
But the "number that everyone wants to know," McCandless said, is the amount of choice tuition money that went along with those exiting students. For this year, the total was $3.3 million, he said.
McCandless said the amount would represent six percent of the budget for city schools, and the number of students would equal eight percent of the total number of residents who could attend city schools.
The city received $430,338 in choice tuition for the 82 students who came here.
Under the state school choice format, an amount is added in the form of state aid to the budget of the receiving school and an amount is deducted from the potential state aid to the sending school.
Committee member Daniel Elias said he was aware of the choice figures over the years, but he added, "The numbers make you sick when you see it." He said that "when you walk the halls of these schools," it is difficult to believe students and parents feel they should go elsewhere.
"We should know exactly why they are leaving," committee member Cynthia Taylor said. She advocated a standard interview format for parents planning to send their children to other schools.
Taylor said the city also should consider a marketing effort to promote the advantages of Pittsfield schools.Adams-Cheshire Regional School District hired a public relations firm, she said, and that district's choice figures improved significantly.
McCandless said the process for withdrawing a student through the choice program is "geared toward the receiving schools," and the sending school administration often doesn't hear of the transfer "until months later."
The situation "is a source of frustration for our principals," he said, in that they rarely have a chance to show parents why they might want to keep their children in Pittsfield.
Chairwoman Katherine Yon said she would like to see parents removing students from city schools fill out an application form and talk to the staff before making a final decision.
"I think some of their perceptions are outdated," said Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, an ex officio member of the committee.
McCandless said city schools, because of the system's size, offers an extensive vocational-technical curriculum, extracurricular activities and sports not found in most other schools in the county. A growing Advanced Placement course program in both high schools is new and another advantage many residents might not be aware of, he said.
Committee member Pamela Farron said she was impressed by "an amazing strategy" employed in both city middle schools -- which apparently are considered too large for some students to function in. The schools essentially were divided into two separate education programs at each middle school in order to foster a small-school atmosphere.
Elias said he believes another factor is that "a number of influential people in the city choice their children out." Convincing them to bring their children back could prompt others to follow suit, he said.
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