Recess: New funding, new initiatives follow Berkshire schools into new year

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I don't like to use cliches, but Massachusetts and the Berkshires might be at a tipping point for education, for better and for worse.

In her inaugural address on Monday morning, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer mentioned the city's school leaders working to address the need for a more diverse teaching workforce, the need to close pay gaps and wage disparities among educators, the need to plan school spaces according to projected student population shifts, and that children and families need to feel safe and secure in their neighborhoods and schools.

Thanks to the approval of some landmark education spending legislation, Pittsfield over the next seven years is slated to receive a significant portion, more than $5 million, of the $1.5 billion expected to flow into the commonwealth's high-needs public school systems. Increases in Chapter 70 to the county's other public schools range between $2,000 and $89,000, comparatively speaking. The county is expected to benefit from a million-dollar boost in statewide rural education aid, too, as soon as legislators figure out how to generate that revenue.

In also looking to the future, the Berkshire County Education Task Force has also received some grants in the past year to help local schools plan partnerships for sharing resources for teaching, learning, transportation and administration.

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Several Berkshire County schools and districts are also rethinking what it means to be a successful high school graduate and how to change what the pathway to get there looks like. Numeric scoring and letter grades, for example, may fall by the wayside in favor of portfolio models that might better detail what a student is capable of. Let's face it, as it stands now, it's really hard to distinguish what an "A" or a "90" actually means, and whether it stands for the same thing grade by grade, school by school, district by district.

It will always be said that the world is changing, and so should schools and the way we educate people.

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Right now, there's great momentum for progressive changes in the future, but is it enough to help schools and students grapple with the challenges they face here and now?

Is there a crash course in "Life: 101" to help make sure this spring's graduates are ready to take on new opportunities as well as take on taxes, loan debt and self-sufficiency? It was this time last year that Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a financial literacy bill for schools, but there's been little state or other funding made available to help schools roll out curriculum and teacher training on the matter. In higher ed, places like the Center for Financial Independence exist at private institutions like Northeastern University, but do not equally exist across public higher education. On average, according to federal student aid statistics, Massachusetts borrowers owe $32,730 each. The median household income for a North Adams resident is $38,774.

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In 2015, the state treasurer and Financial Literacy Task Force literally created a "Roadmap to Economic Empowerment" for all citizens, but like many streets in the state, this plan, too, seems to have fallen prone to cracks.

Another urgent issue schools, from early childhood to higher ed, are facing is maintaining a healthy school climate. Despite having a presence of conflict-resolution, restorative justice, tolerance and social justice programs in schools for decades, racism, sexism, prejudice and classism persist in classrooms in disruptive ways, from shouted slurs to graffiti on walls. Bullying happens not only kid-to-kid, but among co-workers and also can be directed from teacher to student and in the reverse direction too. It's one thing to respond by having an assembly or a series of workshops on how to keep the peace with each other, but what about LGBTQ and multicultural school counselors, or curricula? Is this something talked about at parent-teacher conferences? In cafeterias and dinner tables?

If students can't get along with one another in their own community, how will they manage with the rest of the world and its problems?

Jenn Smith can be reached at or 413-496-6239.


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