Pittsfield schools usher in new academic year

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PITTSFIELD — Hands raised and faces squinted with determination Tuesday in Andrew Mickle's fifth grade classroom at Stearns Elementary School.

In a nearby second grade classroom, two girls grinned wildly as they squeezed each other, taking turns lifting each other's feet off the ground. The sight drew a laugh from Principal Sara Luciani.

"They're so excited to be back," she said.

Tuesday was the first day of school of the new academic year in Pittsfield Public Schools. The 231-student school on Lebanon Avenue stands among the smallest in the district, which has 5,397 students enrolled — 2,575 elementary school students, 1,184 middle school students and 1,638 high school students.

Students started the year amid an unprecedented influx in state reimbursements, $1 million of which city councilors approved last month. Superintendent Jason McCandless said he's still working to hire the 19 new employees authorized under the revised spending plan.

Between those new positions and replacing staff lost through retirement and attrition, McCandless said he's looking to hire or already has hired about 75 new people for this academic year.

"We had a lot of hiring to do this year," he said Tuesday.

As McCandless went about the hiring process, he said he and other district leaders prioritized special education positions, as well as vocational posts at Taconic High School.

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Construction work is winding to a close at the new $121 million high school complex, he said, and the district was able to add horticulture and auto body shops to the offerings this fall.

"We're finally seeing the end of that rainbow," he said of the school, which welcomed its first students last year, though work on the campus remained ongoing.

As the school draws in more vocational students, McCandless said the district might need to consider making Taconic a strictly vocational school. Enrollment at the high school is at 848 this year, he said, and the building's maximum capacity is 920.

"It's certainly something to think about," he said.

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Filling positions

The newly expanded alternative education program on Eagle Street was fully operational as of Tuesday, he said. The city directed most of the new money approved last month toward the program, which takes in students who struggle in the mainstream environment.

McCandless said Tuesday that former school adjustment counselor Brian Kelley was hired to fill the role of program director at the site, which currently houses 31 students. He called the program a work in progress, as the district will need to beef up staffing at the site in the coming weeks.

Principals at the elementary schools were tasked with hiring six new support staff among them, and "those have largely been hired."

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"The principals got right [to work] after that," he said.

He said two deportment teachers will soon be hired to staff new restorative justice centers at the district's middle schools. The school year also opened with two new grade-level sections at Crosby and Egremont elementary schools, he said.

Some positions came with contractual restrictions around posting, he said, and because of the timing of last month's approvals, the hiring process has been challenging.

"We were really pushing it with some of these positions," he said.

McCandless said he's also still working on staffing among the ranks of the district's school nurses, who urged him to address what they described as unsafe conditions during a School Committee meeting in the spring. Because nursing staff in the district dips below state guidelines, and because the school nursing chief left the district over the summer, the school system lost its medication delegation certification, impacting the ability to plan field trips.

Still, he said, he has some time to figure out things ahead of the first trips of the school year.

"That's sort of a work in process, to get where the state wants us to be," he said.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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