Citing 'tremendous' impact, Pittsfield Public Schools sparks conversation on school choice

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PITTSFIELD - "Choice is powerful."

That's the message of a new advertising campaign launched by Pittsfield Public Schools aimed at reversing a long period of declining enrollment.

"We think this notion of choice, we need to take head on," said Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless.

It's easy to see why.

Pittsfield's school system has seen a drop in student rolls both from overall population loss and school choice - which allows public education funds to follow students - for more than a decade.

In fiscal 2015, 443 students opted to attend school outside of Pittsfield resulting in a loss of $2,466,640. Ninety-nine students from neighboring communities chose to attend school in the city, bringing with them $534,879, according to information provided by the district.

"As a percentage of our entire student body, we actually lose a smaller percent of our students to choice than many of our neighbors," he said, "but due to our relative size, the financial impact is tremendous."

This is the first time the district has prominently featured students in an advertising campaign, which turns the idea of school choice on its head.

"Choice is powerful," reads one of the billboards placed around the city. "Choose more with the Pittsfield Public Schools."

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In addition to billboards, postcards will be distributed to a variety of locations and shared on social media. The effort cost $9,500, according to the district.

With open houses set for Jan. 12 at Pittsfield High School and Jan. 19 at Taconic High School, McCandless said the district decided to promote what it believes distinguishes the schools: more advanced placement and vocational courses, sports, and arts, as well as a diverse student body. About 20 to 25 percent of the 1,568 enrolled in district high schools are students of color.

"We don't begrudge any parent the opportunity to make a choice, but we would like for parents to know who we are and what we do," McCandless said. "We want to get people to have a conversation about what the Pittsfield Public Schools really is; not what they perceive it to be."

Among the challenges the district faces is the schools' ranking on state testing: both high schools are deemed "Level 3," meaning they are among the lowest performing 20 percent of schools tracked by the state. Pittsfield High School is in the 7th percentile and Taconic is in the 16th percentile compared to other schools that serve the same or similar grades.

But Katherine Yon, chairwoman of the Pittsfield School Committee, said the state's classifications do not tell the entire story.

"It's so easy to put a label on school," she said. "To latch on to a number is easy."

She said the open houses are opportunities to see beyond the numbers and instead learn about the vast advance placement course offerings, an orchestra that performed at New York City's Lincoln Center, or a chorus that toured internationally.

"It's a shame that people have the wrong perceptions of the schools," Yon said. "People don't take time to dig deeper and see what Pittsfield Public Schools have to offer."

Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 413-496-6221 and @carriesaldo.


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