This story has been modified to correct Douglas McNally's status; he is employed by MCLA.

PHOTOS | Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago visits Berkshires

NORTH ADAMS — Early childhood learning in the Berkshires seems to have found a path to a sustained period of improved outcomes.

The path forward is a system of collaborations and classroom coaching in more hands-on, integrated learning for youngsters from pre-kindergarten through second grade. It was piloted through education learning at MCLA and funded by a grant that has risen over three years to a total of more than $1 million in federal funding.

The results have been so promising that Carlos E. Santiago, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education, paid a visit to the Berkshires on Tuesday to hear more about it during visits to Berkshire Museum and MCLA.

MCLA, the lead partner for the Berkshire Early Learning Lab Improving Teacher Quality (ITQ) program, recently announced it was awarded nearly $324,000 to continue the project through September 2018, as it has been extended to a fourth year by the state Department of Higher Education. So far, 800 young Berkshire students have experienced learning through the ITQ STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) method.

The grant started in October 2013 as a three-year, $50,000-per-year project. Since then the ITQ program has served Berkshire County preschool through second grade teachers by providing them with sessions to learn about and implement the STEAM education model.

Part of the strategy is to incorporate the arts into integrated learning branches that include several disciplines.

MCLA grant coordinator Douglas McNally, who oversees the program, said the UMass Donahue Institute saw significant evidence that the teachers who participated in the Berkshire Early Learning Lab implemented and benefited from integrated STEAM learning.

More funding through the years supported the addition of a STEAM coach who visits classrooms to model effective integrated STEAM-based lessons, and supports early educators as they develop lessons of their own.

"It has also funded excellent programming by our partners at The Berkshire Museum, MASS MoCA and the Clark (Art Institute), each of which has provided a professional development experience annually," McNally said, 

As a result, McNally noted, "you're able to do more with more of our teachers."

He said early childhood teachers participating receive a stipend to seek the professional development - workshops that show the integrated curriculum - and about 80 teachers are participating this year.

There is also classroom work, in which the teachers practice the method and occasionally host a STEAM coach in the classroom to co-teach and advise during the lessons.

The idea, McNally noted, is that children learn through play, so the lessons are "very interactive and very useful."

And once the grant funding comes to an end, the collaborative system has been established, the skills passed along and the newly minted practitioners can pass their knowledge along to the other teachers and continue with the ITQ teaching methods going forward, McNally said.

"When this grant money runs out, the commitment in Berkshire County does not go away," he said. "We have built capacity that does not go away beyond the timeline of the grant."

Schools involved include North Adams Public Schools, Adams-Cheshire Regional School District, Northern Berkshire School Union, Pittsfield Public Schools, Head Start and Child Care of the Berkshires.

According to Kelly Ryan, a teacher at C.T. Plunkett Elementary School in Adams and a participant in the ITQ program, her students were excited about and engaged in each STEAM lesson.

"I got to see some students shine that don't normally," Ryan said. "It was wonderful."

Bethany Ricci, also of C.T. Plunkett Elementary School, said her students love the interactive nature of the STEAM lessons.

"They beg to do more of them, and love sharing their discoveries and engineering designs with their friends and families," Ricci said.

"I now have a deeper understanding of the integration of all disciplines in the successful education of children," said Karen Blazejewski of North Adams Public Schools.