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Pandemic is taking an emotional toll on some Lenox students, especially 11th graders, says assistant principal

Assistant Principal Brent Bette outlined issues students face, including anxiety, need to reteach basic norms of school life

Students exit Lenox Memorial Middle and High School

Some students at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School are experiencing social-emotional struggles as the coronavirus pandemic stretches into a third school year.

LENOX — After the return of full-time, in-person education, some students at the middle and high school are struggling with social-emotional difficulties, especially in seventh and 11th grades. And, in some respects, the faculty is feeling overwhelmed as well.

Those findings were pinpointed by new Assistant Principal Brent Bette at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School during an especially candid discussion at last week’s School Committee meeting.

Behavioral issues and cases of violence have broken out elsewhere in the state and nation during the first two months of the school year.

“This is across the board,” said Ronn Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Our members everywhere are talking about the challenges.”

In Pittsfield, school officials have been grappling with fights, including a late September brawl at Taconic High School in which a teacher was injured while intervening.

Bette told the Lenox School Committee that “the last time the 11th graders had a normal school year was eighth grade, and think about how seminal ninth and 10th grade is for emotional growth. … These [11th grade] students aren’t at the level we would normally expect.”

He described adjustment and guidance counselors as “flat-out overwhelmed — and to a certain degree our faculty as well — with students coming in and having a really difficult time right now. … We really need a second adjustment counselor.”

According to Bette, who succeeded longtime Assistant Principal Brian Cogswell, who retired June 30, elementary school students are more resilient “because they are younger.”

Schools Superintendent Marc J. Gosselin Jr. introduced the “high-level overview” as a “Where Do We Go From Here?” effort to explore data and ideas from building leaders “on the path forward as we re-engage our learners” in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic’s multiple surges.

Bette identified specific challenges, including:

• Respecting peers, teachers and the school environment.

• Needing to reteach basic norms, rules and expectations on a more regular basis, along with “constant reinforcement in order to have any kind of meaningful impact on test scores.”

• Understanding where gaps may exist with current students, especially with many students new to the district.

Citing the differences between freshmen and upperclassmen, Bette stressed personal interaction in addition to academics.

“You’re navigating the relationships with adults and with peers,” he pointed out in his presentation.

“We’re dealing with an anxiety among our 11th graders” about whether they have the necessary skills to be successful in college, Bette suggested.

All Lenox students from sixth through 12th grade have been surveyed for their social-emotional well-being, he noted, confirming that “our biggest area of concern is among 11th graders, specifically around that anxiety.

“Students are having a very difficult time,” Bette said.

An action plan is in the works, he assured the School Committee, “and our faculty is struggling with it as well.” The focus will be on “skill competency, strong readers and writers going into college,” and while there might be some content areas that can’t be covered, the gaps can be filled in later.

Families need reassurance that supports are in place so that when their students arrive in college, “they’re going to be OK,” the assistant principal emphasized, but they’ll need some extra support as freshmen.

Seventh graders, he noted, have lacked a regular school setting since fourth grade, so, now in middle school, “the behaviors we’re seeing are still much more elementary school.”

Goals include reconnecting with students to enhance positive school culture, with an emphasis on social-emotional care, small-group help for students at risk, and support for more nonacademic activities at school to build a strong community.

Bette, a former Pittsfield High School social studies teacher, also outlined strengths at the middle and high school:

• All seniors have met the state’s competency requirements to graduate next June.

• Students want to be physically present; students and faculty “are happy to be back in the building for very obvious reasons.” No one wants to go back to remote learning, Bette said, based on feedback at a recent middle school meeting.

• There is more involvement “from students who didn’t want to engage in the past” stemming from lack of person-to-person interaction with teachers during remote and hybrid learning at the height of the pandemic in 2020 and this year.

• Students are taking “some positive risks associated with trying new things” as elective courses such as music and art “are back, thriving and enriching students.”

The path ahead will focus on “basics to increase resiliency and reestablish a positive school climate,” Bette said.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.

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