Jenn Smith | Recess: Thanks to College Club, Berkshire educators get a boost for their classrooms

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PITTSFIELD — It's no secret that teachers across the U.S. reach into their own pockets each year to enhance their classrooms, spending hundreds to thousands of dollars on everything from books to food to decor and other kinds of school supplies.

According to one study, Massachusetts teachers, during the 2011-12 school year, spent an average of $451 of their own money on their classrooms, most of which was not reimbursed.

But in Berkshire County, it still seems like a secret that one organization, the College Club, has been trying to help area educators balance the scales for more than a century.

I stopped by The Proprietor's Lodge on Saturday afternoon to briefly catch up with College Club members as they prepared to honor six Berkshire County educators at the group's annual Education Award Program.

This year's awards were given to support a special class activity, materials or equipment that would enhance educational programs for students. Open to educators in Berkshire and Columbia (N.Y.) counties, the College Club received 14 applications for the current school year, and five teachers or teaching teams received grants, typically around a few hundred dollars each.

This year's College Club beneficiaries include Lee Middle and High School teachers Samantha Barbarotta and Carrie Swift Heck; Taconic High School science teacher Zachary Houle and his colleague Michelle Potash; Wahconah Regional High School French teacher Suzanne Polo; and St. Stanislaus Kostka School Principal Joe Rogge.

Programs like this, Polo said, are "instrumental" in supporting student success.

Notably, some of the recipients have smaller departments or niches, and subsequently a smaller set of resources to use to provide enrichment opportunities for their students.

Barbarotta is a physical education and health teacher who used her award to purchase kid-sized weight bars and dumbbells for the school's Fun Fitness Friday Program. Swift Heck and Polo both put their grants towards the purchase of bilingual or language-specific reading books for their respective classroom libraries. Houle shared his award with Potash, so that their students could get some live laboratory learning experiences through a trout-hatching curriculum. Rogge said his grant is helping to fund, "Rogge's Raiders," an eighth-grade leadership program, giving students tools and materials they need to be peer mentors and helpers.

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Swift Heck said her award has had immediate impact. Instead of putting in an incremental budget request over the course of several years to put toward purchasing much-needed literature, she's now been able to procure enough materials all at once for her students.

College Club President Julie Pelletier said she's proud of the club's legacy, mission and purpose, established in July 1915 by Ruth Mills, a local educator. Mills rounded up area college-educated women to share their skills and expertise with one another and to help local teachers and schools.

Pelletier said about half of the dues paid by each of the group's members goes into the Education Award Program. The rest of the dues go into supporting and coordinating enrichment opportunities for its own members, some 150 people or so. The club's members also volunteer to lead interested members in group activities, be it knitting, a book club, or various outings.

"Joining was one of the best decisions I've made," said member Donna Lefkowitz, of Lenox.

"And it all still has to do with the vision of Ruth Mills," Pelletier said.

Mills, a Smith College alumna, founded and operated "Miss Mills' School for Girls" from 1904 to 1933.

According to a profile on Mills written in 2011 by my late colleague Brian Sullivan, Mills was "fiercely devoted to the education of young women in Pittsfield."

The College Club "became one of the first organizations in the city to raise money for scholarships, a somewhat novel idea at the time," he wrote.

But even her own school was not immune to economic factors, and thus came to a close. Mills would go on teaching for the duration of her career. Her legacy to help other teachers continues to live on through the College Club.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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