Berkshire Compact hears from state; sets local agenda for public pre-K through 12 programs

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NORTH ADAMS — When it comes to the successes of students in Massachusetts, some state officials see the glass as half full, touting student test scores as the top in the nation. But some see the statistics as still missing the mark, while others look to it as an indicator of progress made but more strides to go.

"The whole idea that Massachusetts is number one — I don't care. If more than half our kids are left behind, then that's what we need to focus on," said State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, at a June 8 meeting of the Berkshire Compact.

Held at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, the Compact meeting convened more than 50 public education stakeholders, including public officials, education, business and community leaders.

Farley-Bouvier referred to the statistics on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation's Report Card for math and reading comprehension. Averages scores for grades 4 and 8 ranged from 236 to 297, and were statistically higher than students in other states, but are also measured on a scale of 0 to 500, meaning there are still a great number of gaps in proficiency. Similar gaps also show through in students' scores tracked through the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).

Guest speaker Jass Stewart of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's "Leading the Nation" campaign advocated for a middle ground in balancing the recognition of progress while also highlighting the work that needs to be done at the K-12 levels. Launched earlier this year, and culminating with spring celebrations at the State House and public school districts, the Leading the Nation campaign includes videos, logos and radio spots featuring student and teacher testimonials about the benefits of a Massachusetts public education.

He said that public perceptions of state schools being "mediocre ... does no one justice, especially our kids."

Progress, Stewart said, has been indicated by have top success not only on the NAEP exams, but also with assessments through the Advanced Placement program and Programme for International Student Assessment; in lowering dropout rates and increasing graduation rates; and in having students and teachers being recognized for academic and extracurricular achievements at the national level, including a 2017 national teacher of the year winner.

"We have teachers who are proud to be teaching and students who are learning," he said.

But he, said more needs to be done. "Those [achievement] gaps are real. They're closing over time but are also very persistent," he said. "We need to do more to make sure teachers have the right tools, that we have high standards and accountability."

Also speaking at the event was Amy O'Leary, director of Early Education for All campaign for Strategies for Children, an advocacy and policy organization for children and families from birth to age 5. Similarly, while there have been achievements in early childhood, from quality assessment studies and a proliferation of early educator professional development programs, there are also gaps in funding programs and educators equitably.

"There's a ton of work locally here in Berkshire County being done, but we still haven't figured out how to close that gap," O'Leary said, noting that fiscal 2018 funding levels lagged behind the funding levels nearly a decade prior.

Legislators are, she added, looking to boost the early education budget for fiscal 2019, but the governor's office has yet to deliberate on final numbers.

Another challenge to supporting high-quality, accessible early education: "We don't have good date on how children are doing," O'Leary said.

Having better data, better programs, and better teacher support is something everyone in the room can get on board with. But to achieve that at the local level, Berkshire Compact co-leader, Doug McNally, said that Berkshire County needs more support from the private sector to supplement state efforts. If that can be achieved, he believes the county will see a better local return on investment through more confident, college- and career-ready graduates.

In the meantime, members of the Compact partnerships continue to work on solutions, such as having more subject-specific workshops during the annual county-wide professional development day. Proposed fields include early childhood, special education, arts and science.

To help better support students socially and academically, Berkshire Family YMCA new hire, Carolyn Brooks, announced the launch of mentoring program, which will officially begin in September and be based at Drury High School. The program is currently recruiting mentors and fundraising to build a budget for the program; a grant currently funds Brooks' part-time role. The program will require a two-hour-a-week commitment for mentors and students over the course of a year.

Brooks said while there are plenty of long-term goals set for improving education in the county, "We can also do something now."

To learn more about the YMCA Northern Berkshire mentoring program, contact Brooks at cbrooks@bfymca.org or 413-464-6763.


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