David Pill: Teacher diversity, school choice, critical to city

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PITTSFIELD — PCTV again did a stellar job in partnering with various groups to provide debates for those running for political offices during the just-concluded city election campaign. Combined with some simulcasts on WTBR, there was little excuse to not understand who the candidates are at all levels.

One of the more interesting debates was the Oct. 21 School Committee debate. Most of the candidates were perplexed over two issues: Diversity of the teaching staff and school choice.

While hiring a more diverse staff may be difficult, it's not impossible. Many private sector companies meet this challenge, and instead of "brainstorming" perhaps it would be wise to go to organizations near and far that have met the challenge and see how to replicate their success. It's not all about money, so something is driving these candidates away. What is within our control and needs changing? Then we should work to quickly change those things.

But a quick scan of the debate stage might provide a hint to the lack of diversity in the teaching corps. There is a glaring lack of diversity in the candidate pool, and on the committee as it currently exists. Since the School Committee has but one main job — to supervise the superintendent, who in turn supervises the principals who do the hiring — maybe the first focus should be on making the principal corps more diverse. Why? There are fewer of them, so if you just hire four diverse people, you've made your principal corps 33 percent diverse, as there are 12 schools in the city. Then you work on a fifth candidate to plan for the future changes we will face. You would see a more diverse teacher population I am fairly certain.

How do you achieve this? You change the review criteria for the superintendent to make this criteria worth a third of the points available. No points for "trying" only points for success. The old saw goes, what gets measured gets produced. If you want to produce diverse staff, you need to measure and then reward or punish based on the results. If the School Committee can't produce a diverse teaching staff itcan at least tie the fate of the superintendent to that goal if they truly share it.

DAMAGE BY A FEW KIDS

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As far as school choice goes, maybe the current committee needs to watch its own meetings on PCTV. If you are looking at a community and you watch the meetings where the discussion is dominated by how to get some huge number of kids to attend school regularly, review programs which indicate a large percentage of kids are just nowhere near where they need to be to be a fully functioning member of society, and then speak to a few school resource officers (police officers working in the schools), any parent with a motivated student might have not just have second thoughts on the schools but wonder if they should even buy in this community. Prices in Richmond and Lenox are high but just need to get close enough to get your kid there. In fact, Lenox has a bus that picks up kids who choice in at a shopping plaza on Route 7.

I recently asked a high-achieving middle schooler if he liked the school he attends in Pittsfield. He admitted that it is rough to be in a school where controlling behavior of a few kids who are not parented, or being in a class with folks who are unmotivated, makes his days tough. What good parent wants their kids in a chaotic classroom? Walking a parent through the building to discuss all of the programs that are meant to make it less chaotic (Katherine Yon's idea) won't produce the same result as simply enrolling your kids in a school where the environment is less chaotic.

Those schools aren't perfect, but when was the last time you heard of gang activity at Lenox's high school or a gun incident, or an out of control kid with non-supportive parents in Richmond. You want to keep folks in our city schools and have them proud to have attended. I am shocked we even debate the alternative school, since closing it seems to have caused many of the problems we see today. Folks in public housing asre able to recognize the quality of the schools and send their kids to BART since Lenox or Richmond seem beyond their reach. When folks with the fewest options abandon the system, you need to wonder if we are even close to being on the right track.

When a community sends more than 10 percent of its students to other school systems there may be some "there" there. All of those parents cannot be misinformed. You would then be saying about 1,200 parents (600 kids) are not intelligent, yet their kids are the best and brightest of what our schools could produce and their absence is felt. But those problems are less answered at a School Committee level and more by the City Council and mayor's offices. An honest evaluation of why folks believe what they believe (some must be based on experience) seems to be in order, and I hope the next School Committee can address that.

I love this city, but to keep buffaloing me that everything I hear is wrong gets old, especially when tied to the other problems we keep seeing.

Dave Pill is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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