PITTSFIELD — Two of four finalists for superintendent of Berkshire county’s largest school district fielded questions from the School Committee on Monday evening, in the first of two live sessions before leaders decide in whose hands to place the district’s reins.
Joseph Curtis, the deputy superintendent appointed by the School Committee last summer to serve as interim superintendent, was interviewed first, followed by Portia Bonner, the interim Bozrah, Conn., superintendent and former superintendent of New Bedford Public Schools, a large urban district in Eastern Massachusetts.
The candidates chronicled their educational visions, outlined their experience and, in separate interviews, acknowledged the work ahead helping students and educators rebound from the disruptions caused by COVID-19.
Curtis, who was raised in Springfield and has been an administrator in the Pittsfield Public Schools in several roles for more than two decades, highlighted district initiatives underway and outlined some of what he hopes to accomplish if hired. In his opening statement, Curtis drew a measure of distance between himself and his mentor, former PPS Superintendent Jason “Jake” McCandless, saying he progressed professionally while working with him yet stressing, “I am my own person with my own leadership style, and a vision for our school district.”
In response to a question about why he is seeking the district’s top job, Curtis said he wants to “lead in a district where the students and families actually do know my name, where they recognize me, and I recognize them out in our city, where they can feel comfortable if I’m at the Big Y, or Target, to discuss with me anything they wish.”
Asked how he would support diversity, equity and inclusion, Curtis said the district’s staff must become more diverse, sending “a strong message of acceptance, and ultimately producing more relevant instructional experience to our students.” He said an “equity audit” is beginning next month that will address curriculum, student and staff opportunity and leadership, and “provide us with the direction that we’ve needed.”
Curtis mentioned a proposal in the district’s recent draft budget that would place a prekindergarten classroom “at every elementary school for the first time in our school district’s history,” a result of community talks about overcoming barriers to success, he said.
Noting his time as principal of Morningside Community School, Curtis said a combination of one-on-one student supports with educators and regular assessments aimed at identifying where students need additional support would help ensure that all students can overcome hurdles.
“All of our students, no matter what their current situation, can achieve active academic growth. If strong relationships are fostered with that child, at the school level, high standards supported with empathy rather than sympathy, which is important, must be held with each one of our students at all times,” he said.
Bonner, who previously served as superintendent of school districts in East Haven, Conn., said that as she searched for her next superintendency, she sought a position she could serve in “long term,” in an urban district that celebrates diversity.
In response to a question about the most difficult challenge she faced as an educator, Bonner said she guided the East Haven district through the “difficult process” of consolidating schools at the request of that community’s School Committee.
She said she was sensitive and attentive to concerns of parents fearful about the decision to close a neighborhood school, and assisted families with feeling accepted in their new building, while celebrating the history of the closed school.
“You really have to be very transparent with your community in terms of what’s going on, step by step by step, and let them voice their opinions and be heard,” she said.
Enrollment in Pittsfield Public Schools has trended down for years. Consolidating schools within the district was a topic of discussion at the School Committee level as recently as last month.
Responding further to the question about crisis management, Bonner brought up the press, saying that when she is approached for comment, “I’m ready with a statement, and I try to stay with factual statements, but it’s important to address issues right away.”
Fostering diversity, equity and inclusion requires a community effort, she said, and demands a comprehensive plan that includes a review of district practices, procedures and curriculum, while addressing barriers to attracting and retaining educators of color. She also emphasized the importance of getting families involved in decision-making.
“For me, equity is about making sure that there is a level of fairness that students are able to reach their fullest potential [and] that they have the opportunity to be successful,” she said.
“Are we allowing children to choose resources that are representative of authors of color? ... And this goes deeper than just multiculturalism, where we celebrate National Hispanic Month during mid-September to October, or we celebrate Black History Month or we look at Native American, Indigenous people. It’s more than that. It has to be a practice where kids feel that they’re a part of it all, not just for the moment.”
The School Committee will conduct its final two interviews Tuesday, starting at 5 p.m., with Wayland Public Schools Superintendent Arthur Unobskey, followed by Marisa Mendonsa, principal of Mohawk Trail Regional High School. The committee is expected to make its hiring decision Wednesday.