At North Adams school, Neal quizzed on education funding, student debt, border wall

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, visits Stephanie Kopala's world history class Tuesday at Drury High School in North Adams. Neal addressed, among other topics, the economic challenges the area faces and lauded the efforts of the community to reposition itself to thrive in the modern economy through efforts such as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

NORTH ADAMS — The students in Stephanie Kopala's world history class at Drury High School had the opportunity to ask their congressman questions face-to-face Tuesday — and they didn't waste it.

Students pressed U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, on the federal government's role in funding education, how to rein in student debt, and his position on the much-debated border wall between the United States and Mexico that has been the center of the partial federal government shutdown.

"The idea here should be to reopen the government and negotiate," Neal told the classroom of nearly 20 students. "The wall has become the metaphor for the difference between the two parties."

Neal also addressed the economic challenges the area faces and lauded the efforts of the community to reposition itself to thrive in the modern economy through efforts such as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

"Remaking these communities through the arts and some manufacturing and reintegrating the community into the American economy is a conversation I've had with Gov. [Charlie] Baker many times," Neal said. "What's happening in Boston right now is not necessarily what's happening in the rest of the state."

Neal noted that he is the grandchild of immigrants.

"They wanted to make America great, too," Neal said. "As we discuss this, we need to construct a path for people who want to come here. That would have been Ronald Reagan's position as well as Barack Obama's."

The conversation turned to concerns about student loan debt.

Neal advised students to take advantage of community colleges and professions that offer loan forgiveness but also stressed "getting the attention of some of these colleges for what now is the cost of college."

The world history class is a dual-enrollment course with the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, meaning that the students who successfully complete it will earn three college credits.

The students spent time Friday brainstorming questions to ask Neal, according to Kopala.

The question-and-answer session was preceded by a lesson from Neal, who bridged the founding of the nation to today's Congress in a tight 20-minute lecture.

Neal, who began his career as a history teacher, touched on the themes common to U.S. politics throughout the nation's history, including the divide over the role and size of the federal government, the division of powers, and the House of Representatives' role as a reflection of popular will.

The students also received an overview of the breadth of Massachusetts' 1st Congressional District from Neal, who hails from Springfield and has spent 30 years in office.

Before his visit with the history class, Neal met with local officials, including North Adams Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Malkas and Drury High School Principal Timothy Callahan. They popped in on the Performing Arts Management program and got a behind-the-scenes look at the hands-on work done by students.

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.