PITTSFIELD — African Americans made up about 11 percent of the student body in the Pittsfield Public Schools last year, but just over 2 percent of its teachers.
That disparity is even wider when it comes to Latino students and teachers.
Members of the city school district Tuesday outlined their efforts to change that dynamic during a meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at Taconic High School.
"It is important for students to see grownups facilitating classes and running schools that look like the students themselves, said schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless. "Our student population is over a quarter black, Hispanic or Latino. It's only going to increase."
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is responsible for public education at the elementary and secondary levels in Massachusetts. It oversees local school districts across the commonwealth.
The board's meeting in Pittsfield also included a presentation by the Berkshire County Education Task Force on its efforts to establish a single, unified county school district. State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, discussed challenges that rural school districts are facing throughout the state.
Three representatives of the Pittsfield Public Schools, led by McCandless, presented information on the district's participation in the state's Teacher Diversification Pilot Program, which began during the previous academic year.
Pittsfield's pilot program, known as Teach Pittsfield, was funded with a $42,000 state grant, half of which the school district spent during the previous academic year, with the rest carrying over into fiscal 2020.
Utilizing HBCU Lifestyle, a program set up by historically black colleges and universities in the United States, the district hosted a weeklong session in July for 12 students from those schools to learn about teaching, sharing and living in the Berkshires. The Pittsfield schools received more than 50 applications from students who attend one of those colleges for the program's 12 slots.
"This seemed like an incredible opportunity for us to partner with the HBCUs," said Shirley Edgerton, a community activist and cultural proficiency coach who contacted that program for assistance. Edgerton attended a historically black college in Atlanta and has three children who are graduates of those schools.
Participants in the summer program took part in 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program internships at Morningside Community School, evaluated the district's curriculum framework and visited several cultural venues and historical sites during their week in the Berkshires.
The group found that salary flexibility, relocation expenses and student loan forgiveness were major issues that students from HBCUs would be looking for if they came to Pittsfield, and that the school department should better utilize its network of local alumni who attended those schools to assist in recruiting possible teachers to the Berkshires.
Diversifying the staff in the city's schools is a long-term project with short-term objectives, McCandless said.
"The short view is that we're working on this constantly in our recruiting," he said."The long view is that this is a 10- to 15- to 20-year process. It's about changing our culture, being a more welcoming school district, and a more welcoming community. ... We hope that the department will continue to support this work forward into this decade and into the next decade."
Board members were impressed with the presentation.
"It's been an amazing program," board Chairwoman Katherine Craven said, referring to the state's teacher diversification initiative in general.
Representatives of the Berkshire County Education Task Force outlined their continuing efforts to establish a single countywide school district, an idea the group first proposed two years ago.
Following the presentations, task force Chairman William Cameron said declining enrollments have made the high school population in county school districts smaller and smaller, and corresponding financial programs have meant a loss of programming and services for students.
"We have a big concern, which I don't think some districts share, that this has unfair consequences for some places in Berkshire County," Cameron said. "Some districts can continue to provide services and program because of the taxing capacities, but some poorer cities and towns can't, and the students are suffering. Spotty, high-quality programming is not going to do it.
"This is the only equitable solution throughout the county."
After board members commended the task force for its work, Cameron said, "I want them to understand what we're proposing and why and I want them to support our efforts. I don't want them to order school districts to do anything but I want their support."
Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at email@example.com and 413-496-4924.