Volunteers welcome Morningside, Conte students to first day of school while celebrating district's diversity


Photo Gallery | "Welcome Back" project at Morningside and Conte schools

PITTSFIELD — Show up. Smile. Leave no child left behind without a hello and a high-five.

That was the mission and purpose of a new back-to-school welcoming initiative involving some two dozen volunteers on Wednesday and Thursday mornings, at Morningside and Conte community schools, respectively. They formed lines on each side of the schools' outdoor walkways, many dressed in suits. Their enthusiasm and professionalism proved infectious.

"Here comes a straight-A student," some shouted, evoking a smile on a kid's face.

"Way to go, parent," said other volunteers, catching a dad or mom by surprise, and prompting them to return a handshake or high-five.

They chanted, "Go teacher! Go teacher!" as educators walked into school with planners and school supplies in hand.

Some people shyly smiled as they headed into school, while others ran through the lines, both hands extended for high fives, or even hugs. Some passersby took photos of the action. Others silently stood watching just a little choked up or tearful from the random display of compassion.

"This is amazing. I was not expecting this," said Ramon Vega, who brought two kindergarteners and a third-grader into Conte. "We need more stuff like this in all our schools."

"I think it's amazing," said Morningside mother Kathy Methe. After walking her first-, third- and fifth-graders into the school, she stuck around to watch others walk in. "Every kid has a smile, going in on a positive note. It gets the kids motivated," she said. "Whoever did this is amazing."

Role models needed

Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire chapter of the NAACP, attended both morning's events, and said, "I think I got more out of it than the kids did. To see that first moment of confusion and then the joy in everyone's faces. A lot of them didn't know what to make of it, but they knew [the cheering] was for them."

Most of the volunteer greeters were black men from various community organizations, as well as the Pittsfield Police Department, Berkshire Community College, Pittsfield Community Connection and area churches. They were joined each day by other women, teachers and school district administrators of all races and backgrounds, as well as Pittsfield-based state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier.

The effort was organized by Pittsfield Public Schools' Cultural Proficiency Coach Shirley Edgerton, to ramp up more community support for the two city schools with the most diversity. The events were also affiliated with the national Black Star Project, of which the city of Pittsfield is a member, and Black Star's Million Father March — "an opportunity for Black men to show their commitment to the educational lives of their children."

In a call to action for volunteers, Edgerton wrote: "Children, particularly those of color need to see men in our schools. Only 2 percent of educators are black males in our country and locally the statistics are less. As the Cultural Proficiency Coach of Pittsfield Public Schools, I'm inviting men of color to change that scenario. Please come and welcome our students the first day as well as participate in other activities during the year."

A shifting minority

The Pittsfield school district employed 914 full-time equivalent staff members last year, according to state data. Of that total staff population, 741 staff members, or about 81 percent, were female, and about 97 percent were white, which is contrasting to the demographic of students and families found at Morningside and Conte.

Based on state data from the 2015-16 school year, nearly 44 percent of Morningside students identified as a non-white race. At Conte, white students have been in the minority since the 2008-09 school year. Last year, 38.1 percent of students identified as white, with 22 percent of students identifying as African-American, another 22 percent Hispanic, and the rest as having a multi-racial or other racial background.

Addressing this is "part of our district improvement plan because it's true, across our entire district, that the population of teachers is not representative of our body of students," said Conte Principal Kerry Light.

She said it's important to show students the representation in the Pittsfield community, and the different people and fields they work in.

"We're a diverse place, and that's part of our richness," said Jason "Jake" McCandless, superintendent of Pittsfield schools.

Both Light and Morningside Principal Jennifer Stokes noted that diversity in their schools is not limited to skin color. Both schools have growing populations of Spanish-speaking families, and see an increase this year in students from Chinese-speaking families.

Stokes said, "We really celebrate their diversity and want to introduce our kids to that."

Morningside welcomed a new dean of students this year, Lawrence Carrier, who happens to be the school-desired demographic of a man of color. "We do live in a diverse world and we want [kids] to become productive members of the community. Odds are if they're introduced to other active community members they'll grow to be better people," Carrier said.

Dennis Powell said it's important to have the community be a part of the community schools on a regular basis. This week's volunteers are also committing to take part in at least five school activities this year. "We want to show our kids that there are adults that really support them here," he said.

Shirley Edgerton said that as more community members pledge to help, the more activities and interactions like this can be provided across the district. High school mentoring programs started last year and are expanding this year.

"In terms of role models, we need the presence of men for our young men, as well as our girls," she said.

Sarah Williams, a mother whose children go to Allendale Elementary School, brought her kids to Morningside on Wednesday morning, just for the experience. As a single mother, she introduced her son, 9-year-old Nicolas Jerry, and accompanying children Wilyschea Williams, 5, and Nisaiah Knaggs, 7, to a suit-wearing Berkshire Community College Professor Colin Adams, who talked briefly with the children about their thoughts on the new school year.

She later posted on Facebook, with photos from the morning: "This event was awesome. The look on my oldest son's face was priceless. Nicolas Jerry was instantly influenced. I can tell because his attention was present. I am so happy my children and I attended the event. I highly recommend other single mothers to attend in the following years."

Reporter Jenn Smith can be reached at 413-496-6239.


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