PITTSFIELD — His office at the Mercer Administration Building was nearly cleaned out, but in one corner were stacks of paper, each dictionary-thick.
They were printouts of every set of guidance for running schools during the global coronavirus pandemic that the state has released since spring, a physical representation of what has consumed now-former Superintendent Jason “Jake” McCandless during his final months leading the Pittsfield Public Schools.
“That’s my stack of COVID memos from the state,” he said this week. “I decided early on I’m gonna memorialize this, so that’s everything we had to read and respond to.”
McCandless, whose last day on the job was Friday, will have just one weekend off before he begins his new job as superintendent of the Mount Greylock Regional School District. His departure after seven years at the helm of the city school district sparked disappointment in the School Committee ranks when, in July, he emerged as a finalist for the North County job. He was offered the position soon after a public interview, via Zoom.
Last year, he made no secret that he had been seeking other opportunities, and citing his desire to remain in the community, bowed out of the running for another superintendency, in the eastern part of the state. The city’s School Committee shortly after raised his salary, and those of a few other administrators, and gave him a fresh contract in what one committee member later acknowledged was an effort to incentivize McCandless to stay put.
By the time he accepted the Mount Greylock post, life had been changed by the pandemic, and preparations for returning students to school were in full swing. Over his wishes, his bosses on the Pittsfield School Committee chose to exercise their contractual right to keep McCandless aboard through November.
All participating students have transitioned from fully remote to hybrid instruction by now, and several hundred are enrolled in the Pittsfield Public Virtual Academy. Beginning Monday, Deputy Superintendent Joseph Curtis, who Mayor Linda Tyer said was instrumental in developing COVID-era learning models, will step into the role of interim district chief through midsummer, while the School Committee looks for its next permanent leader.
Though disappointed to lose McCandless, Tyer said she is confident in Curtis’ ability to lead the district.
In 2013, McCandless was offered an unprecedented five-year superintendent’s contract by the Pittsfield School Committee, thus ending his eight-year run as schools chief in Lee, where he started as principal of the middle and high school.
“It felt like a victory, quite frankly, when he was successfully recruited to come to Pittsfield,” Tyer said.
Longtime School Committee member Daniel Elias said relations between the district and its teachers union improved under McCandless’ watch. Notable accomplishments also included completion of the new Taconic High School, the unification of curriculums across schools, and a threefold increase in the number of African American students taking Advanced Placement courses.
“Seven years encompasses a lot, and I think he did well by us,” Elias said. “He appealed to the best in people, and that’s important to me.”
Relationships between the district and many in the community were strained by the time McCandless stepped into the superintendency, according to Tyer, who, as mayor, also serves on the School Committee. The dynamic needed changing, and she said McCandless started moving the needle.
After accepting the job, McCandless was invited to meet with members of the Berkshires chapter of the NAACP, which, at the time, recently had been reactivated, with a focus on diversifying the district’s ranks of teachers, including Will Singleton and Dennis Powell, as well as Shirley Edgerton, and others.
He said he learned about opportunity gaps facing students and staff of color, a workforce devoid of the same diversity as the students it served and what appeared like an “outright effort to stymie the voices of kids.”
He went to listening sessions and heard feedback from hundreds of residents, and came to realize how much he had to learn about Pittsfield beyond the confines of his own neighborhood. An early goal of his tenure, he said, was to “understand my own city, and its history, and its present and what our vision is.”
With McCandless’ hiring, Edgerton said, for the first time in years, a conversation opened between the district and the community about inequities baked into the system.
“We were at the door knocking, but there wasn’t much of a response to let us in,” she said of the time before McCandless’ arrival. “This clearly was 100 percent different.”
McCandless hired Edgerton to the newly created position of cultural competency coach for the district, and supported several new initiatives, including a program Edgerton spearheaded aimed at diversifying the teaching force through partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities — for which Edgerton recently was honored by MassINC.
“Jake’s been supportive; we have a close working relationship with Williams College and the NAACP and BIO [Berkshire Interfaith Organizing],” Edgerton said. “Now, we have a foundation, and I think the new superintendent can build on it.”
Facing a budget shortfall
Shortly after Tyer began her first budget cycle as mayor, she realized the city and its schools faced a “serious financial crisis,” she said. Facing a budget shortfall, McCandless said, the district cut paraprofessionals out of kindergarten classrooms for one year — a deeply unpopular move among teachers for which he later apologized.
“I don’t have regrets, because I am willing to listen,” he said. “We try to catch things before they cause real division.”
Then came COVID-19.
By March, McCandless was reporting to Tyer that anxiety was rising among students and staff as health officials detected the virus spreading in the community. Tyer ordered the closure of school buildings before the statewide order forced all other Massachusetts districts to do the same.
“The basic thing that this really taught us, that I don’t think any of us had thought about, is that we’re really the largest child care agency in the Berkshires,” he said.
Educators rushed to get and distribute thousands of laptops to students as they waded alongside teachers into remote learning, while continuing to distribute meals to children in a district in which the state classified over 53 percent of students as economically disadvantaged. The closure sent Pittsfield families “into chaos” and set kids back in school, he said, while teachers were “becoming remote learning specialists almost overnight.”
But, still, Tyer said, “It was a lot easier to close our schools than it was to reopen them.”
Come late summer, McCandless announced that the school year would begin late, entirely remote, then transition to hybrid learning by first bringing some vocational, special education and English learner students back to classrooms.
The hybrid schedules were unworkable for many, he said, with younger students, in particular, due to attend school for a few hours in person each weekday. The feedback was swift and affected McCandless personally, he said.
“That, to me, has been the hardest piece; reading an email or taking a phone call from a single dad or a single mom … that are trying to keep a job or two, and also trying to figure out how to make this half-day work,” he said.
The past several months have been, in a word, “brutal,” he said, for students, families, bus drivers, paraprofessionals, custodians, teachers and more.
“So, you know, I feel, in most ways, really guilty about leaving, in the midst of all of this,” McCandless said Wednesday.
“My guilt is soothed by the fact that Joe Curtis, who’s coming in as the interim, is simply,” he paused, “I’ve learned more about being a moral, ethical educator from him than anyone.”
News of McCandless’ departure to Mount Greylock took some, including members of the School Committee, by surprise, but it felt right for McCandless and his family, he said.
For starters, he said one of his three children, a high school senior in the Pittsfield school system, would “certainly love” at least one year where her dad didn’t top the list of district brass.
That McCandless is a Pittsfield resident helped anchor him to the district, Tyer said. It also could be the source of unease, he said, as he saw firsthand how his decisions could affect his neighbors and community, a dynamic that only has intensified during the pandemic.
“I want to continue doing this work very much. I don’t know that I want to do it where it might be impacting negatively my next-door neighbor, or a friend of my daughter’s,” he said. “I’m going to bring the same passion, I’m going to bring the same dedication wherever I go. It’s been a challenge to do that here with my immediate friends and neighbors, because it’s your own community.”