BART students 'a stream of energy' on first day

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ADAMS — Some of the changes at Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School were front and center Monday at the start of the academic year.

Sean Keogh arrived to school at 6:50 a.m. and went not to his old English classroom, but to his new office. He put on a sticker badge that read, "Hello, my name is Mr. Keogh (Principal)." Then, he had a morning meeting with faculty and staff to discuss how to set the tone and orchestrate the flow for the first day.

Just before 8 a.m., he joined Executive Director Jay White in the school's entryway to open the doors and greet the kids. "My goal today is to make sure I'm in front of students and out in the building," he said. Throughout the day, he referred to a color-coded block schedule attached to a clipboard that strategically put him in places where he could have the most interactions with people, from the classrooms to the lunchroom.

"There is nothing more exciting and beautiful than lines of children coming in to start a new day," White said. "Most were excited, some were nervous, some were rolling their heads back thinking why am I here so early. But they're all a stream of energy and there's nothing like it."

The school's cafeteria was another source of excitement as the school got its first live test run for its free breakfast and lunch program.

Back in the spring Business Manager Julia Marko offered a presentation to school colleagues on the proposed program, citing how more than 40 percent of the school's students automatically meet state and federal income guidelines to receive free and reduced-cost meals; another 20 percent or so apply for and receive subsidies for meals each school year. When she said that the school was planning to work with the National School Lunch Program to adopt a plan to offer meals to all students at no charge, the faculty cheered.

"There was an audible feeling that this was right," Keogh said.

Marko said BART has since adopted the free meal plan into its operating budget knowing that most of the costs will be reimbursed to them through what's known as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). It's designed to both reduce the time and stigma of families having to apply for financial assistance, while ensuring that all students have access to breakfast, lunch and after-school snacks every school day.

"If we can eliminate one burden to families, that's great," she said.

On Monday morning, Marko said that 50 students took advantage of picking up breakfast at school. "That's up from last year. It's not as high as I had hoped, but then again, it is the first day of school," she said.

There are currently 380 students enrolled in the middle and high school, with 135 new attendees, 60 of which are sixth graders.

While the lunch period had not yet begun at the time of taking with The Eagle, Marko said that last school year, an average of 160 students got lunch each day from the BART meal program.

"I'm hoping that will increase," she said.

Letters about the free breakfast and lunch program went home to families at the end of July, and Marko said she and her colleagues will continue to remind students throughout the first weeks of school that this option is available.

She said the program is something already being offered by districts in the towns the BART charter agreement extends to, including Adams-Cheshire Regional School District, North Adams Public Schools and Pittsfield Public Schools.

Since BART does not have a kitchen, it is continuing to have an outside contractor bring in meals. This year, BART is partnering with North Adams Public Schools, transitioning from its contract with Bounti-Fare Restaurant & Catering to one that is fluent in school food nutrition guidelines and practices. This means students will have more choices in a la carte fare at both breakfast and lunch — especially when it comes to fresh fruit and vegetables, Marko said — instead of a single meal option.

On the academic and administrative front, White said that BART has several major initiatives in the works. The school's charter is up for renewal and will welcome outside assessors in the coming months. The school will also resume a strategic planning process to better engage and serve students, staff and families. The school paused that process last year when April West announced her departure and it launched the principal search that turned up Keogh.

Part of that strategic plan will be to create an academic master plan that better aligns curricula and projects as students progress from the middle to high school grades.

While this may sound exhausting for some, White says he's confident staff and students will rise to the expectations. "This makes things exciting and dynamic," he said.


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