Formal report from Lenox schools chief touts safety among her priorities

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LENOX — School safety, students' social and emotional learning and the future stability of the public school district are among the top priorities for Superintendent Kimberly Merrick.

Merrick presented her formal superintendent's entry report to the School Committee this week. She began on a one-year contract last July, but at its Dec. 10 meeting, the committee extended it to three years, through June 2021.

She based her report on extensive interviews with school leaders, staff and community members, her administrative team, visits to about 40 classrooms and in-depth study of the district's current strategic plan.

"What jumped out at me was meeting the needs of all students in every way possible, for our highest learners, our most gifted students, how are we challenging them?" she asked.

Equally important is addressing the needs of average and of the most-challenged students, "and how can we do some things better," she told the School Committee.

Student and staff social emotional wellness, arts and enhanced technology in the classroom and "making our schools as safe as they possibly can be" all need attention, she pointed out.

Merrick also cited the role of school choice — it's currently projected at 41 percent of enrollment for the 2019-20 year if all available slots are filled — in helping sustain the district's stability.

"We're very financially stable at this point, and that's a great position to be in, so it's just a matter of where we want to go," she said. "In Lenox, we're in a great philosophical spot, the folks here are positive, everyone I've talked with, and we think very highly of our schools, and that's not the case everywhere, so that's a great place to be."

On school safety, Merrick offered a twofold approach: one centering on bullying and a second "to make sure that our students are as safe as possible."

The report cited a Berkshire United Way survey in 2017 showing that 20 percent of Lenox students responded that they had experienced bullying at school, but most never reported the incident to a teacher or other adult at school.

Building safety at Morris Elementary was cited by administrators as an area of particular concern, according to the report. "Although LMMHS is well-prepared for a crisis or threat, it became apparent that Morris may need some additional support," it stated.

Also, teachers and staff expressed concern regarding "scaring children using practice drills and evacuation procedures."

Merrick's report states that "many stakeholders expressed concern regarding students' sense of belonging and acceptance, especially at [Lenox Memorial Middle and High School]." A task force was proposed to assess current social emotional wellness, and use the data to drive related programming and initiatives.

Noting that "we're preparing our kindergartners for jobs that do not currently exist," the superintendent focused on opportunities for growth at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School and at Morris Elementary, especially around technology.

Merrick proposed programs that can be expanded as a magnet to attract a diverse mix of students, including special education, foreign language for elementary students, beefing up already-strong science, technology, engineering, arts and math offerings, building a gifted and talented program, creating a specialized theater/fine arts program and upgrading the science lab at LMMHS "to really entice students to come here."

A districtwide plan to pursue those goals will emerge this fall, with strategic goals and timelines, Merrick said.

"Given the mood and the needs of the district, this could change at any time and go in a different direction," she suggested.

"I appreciated all your interviews initially with a fresh set of eyes and perspective," School Committee member Molly Elliot said.

"I think we're in a strong position right now," said committee member Robert Munch. "We've kept our enrollment very stable and I don't think we're navigating a precipice or a dire situation by a long shot."

Munch voiced skepticism over the Berkshire County Educational Task Force's projections of a sharp drop in enrollment in the next few years.

Current enrollment in Lenox, including prekindergarten, is 765, rising to 786 in 2019-20 if all choice spaces are filled.

But the task force predicts a drop to 699 in 2021, with additional annual declines to 590 by 2028.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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