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Will Taconic High School be entirely vocational next year? District leaders have a big decision looming

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Pittsfield Public Schools leaders have a closing window of time to decide whether Taconic High School will make the long predicted switch to a fully vocational high school or host a ballooning class of freshmen next year. 

PITTSFIELD — When applications for Taconic High School’s next freshman class of career and technical education students closed on March 1, Principal Matt Bishop knew he had a problem on his hands.

Bishop and district officials had capped the number of spaces available for incoming students in the district’s vocational program at 145 seats for the 2023-2024 school year.

The plan was to use the district’s new admission policy for the CTE program to select students in a lottery drawing if there were more than 145 applicants.

But then, the program received 191 applications.

“It kept us up at night, wanting to only take 145 students knowing at the time that we’d have to say no to 50 students,” Bishop told the Pittsfield Public Schools Committee during a meeting Wednesday evening.

So instead, district officials decided to forego the lottery process and accept all 191 students who applied — including 78 students who would typically attend Pittsfield High School under the district’s resident school rules — into the CTE program.

Over the next four years, these students will get hands-on experience in one of the 13 career pathways that THS offers, pathways ranging from automotive technology to early education and care, culinary arts to horticulture.

Which has landed the district with a new problem: What to do with the ballooning population of THS?

Enrollment data from the district shows that the popularity of the program has blossomed in the last few years, drawing more and more middle school students into the program from the high school’s current feeder middle school, Reid, as well as the feeder school for Pittsfield High School, Herberg Middle School.

Over the last five years the population of THS has grown by 126 students to a school population of 832, while the population at PHS has decreased by about 189 students to 672 students this school year.

The shifting student balance led Bishop, PHS principal Henry Duval and Assistant Superintendent of Career and Technical Education Tammy Gage to introduce a proposal to the School Committee to make THS entirely vocational either by next fall or the fall of the 2023-2024 school year.

The trio used the meeting to introduce the stakes for each option to the committee in preparation for the group to make a decision at a later date.

Gage told the committee that if it decides to make THS entirely vocational next fall, it would displace 60 incoming students from Reid Middle School who have decided not to enroll in the CTE program. Those students would have to be enrolled in PHS and a new transportation arrangement would be required to get them to their new school.

Making the transition to an entirely vocational THS in the fall of 2023 would have major implications for PHS in the 2022-2023 school year. Duval told the committee that as things stand currently, PHS will only have between 80 and 100 ninth grade students next year, bringing the total enrollment down below 600 students.

Fewer students would require fewer teachers, meaning PHS staff would have to be transferred to THS, according to Duval — a process that would require additional negotiation with the teachers’ union.

Superintendent Joe Curtis said that he’d follow the committee’s recommendation to survey the 60 students and families potentially impacted by the proposal. He added that any change would come only after a well publicized discussion and vote by the school committee.

“It’s not that nobody saw this coming it’s that it’s come sooner — which is a credit to the vocational programing obviously — but it’s made a problem arrive on an earlier schedule than was anticipated,” Chair Bill Cameron said.

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6149.

Pittsfield Reporter

Meg Britton-Mehlisch is the Pittsfield reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, she previously worked at the Prior Lake American and its sister publications under the Southwest News Media umbrella in Savage, Minnesota.

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