Vocational course lineup for new Taconic in doubt


PITTSFIELD -- A year ago, the vocational-technical course lineup for a new Taconic High School seemed at last a done deal. Not anymore.

After struggling for months -- amid several vigorous public discussions -- the School Committee voted in March 2013 to approve 15 vocational-technical courses for the new school. That fulfilled a final curriculum detail required by the state, which is funding up to 80 percent of the cost to replace or renovate Taconic High.

However, Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless informed the committee Wednesday that he now doubts -- based on input from a design firm hired to explore options for the new high school -- that the state will approve a 15-course vocational lineup for Taconic. That's based, he said, on the projected number of students who might sign up for the courses and the total building space to be constructed.

The firm, Drummey, Rosane, Anderson Inc. of Waltham, is "very concerned," McCandless said, that based on total Pittsfield student enrollment there won't be enough vocational enrollment over time to justify the cost in construction and the equipment required. Representatives from the firm stressed last month that the first detail the city must deal with before design work can begin is the curriculum. They said that should be finalized in cooperation with the MSBA by the end of April in order to meet a timetable for the project.

McCandless and Frank Cote, assistant superintendent for vocational programs, presented enrollment figures for Pittsfield high schools and for other schools in the state with vocational programs. While McCandless said he believes a new Taconic High will attract an increase from the current 427 vocational students to about 530 students, that would require that they make up about 30 percent of total enrollment.

In general, he said, a percentage of 20 to 25 percent of total enrollment would be more realistic over a number of years.

Determinations of the Massachusetts State Building Authority, which approves construction funding and reviews school project plans, will be a factor, McCandless said, adding, "I don't want to see us hit a point where we're at loggerheads with the MSBA over the number."

Another comparison figure among the 12 school districts surveyed, he said, is that Pittsfield -- even factoring in dozens more vocational students at the new school -- would still be drawing from a averaged-out pool of 120 high school students for each of the 15 vocational courses.

That statistical pool figure ranged from 134 to 280 students for all of the other districts except one, Somerville, at 101 students.

Asked by committee member Pamela Farron what the right number of courses should be, McCandless said he didn't know but added, "We really need to revisit this; I'm not seeing 15 [courses] as likely to go forward."

The superintendent said he is willing to meet individually with the four new committee members to explain some of the history of the course choices made last year and some of the study research on the subject.

Several committee meetings in 2012 and early 2013 produced comments from business owners, instructors and residents who advocated that one or more of the vocational courses initially earmarked for elimination be saved. In making its curriculum decision, the board ultimately added courses to the list to reach 15.

At one point in February 2013, a subcommittee gathered more input from local business owners, vocational course alumni, students and others, before issuing a recommendation. The panel proposed expansion of the vocational offerings to 15 from 13 and restored auto body and metal fabrication to the lineup after they initially were listed for elimination. The 15-course plan was then approved by the full School Committee.

To reach Jim Therrien:
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