Stokes leaving Morningside principal post to head up special education in Pittsfield schools

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PITTSFIELD — Morningside Community School Principal Jenny Stokes is taking charge of special education in city schools at an important time for the district.

Stokes told The Eagle she looks forward to helping Pittsfield Public Schools work on systems that better serve children receiving special education services as the district's new special education director.

"It's a massive, massive job," Superintendent Jason McCandless said. "Here in Pittsfield, of our 5,500 students, about 1,400 of them fall under the umbrella somewhere of the special education director."

Stokes began taking over duties of the directorship on Monday, but the three-year contract proposed by McCandless still requires final approval from the city's School Committee.

Stokes said she's straddling the offices until the principal of Richmond Consolidated School, Monica Zanin, becomes Morningside's new principal later this month.

Gretchen West, the district's outgoing special education director, couldn't be reached for comment, though an automated message at Central Berkshire's Student Services Department identified West as the student services director — a position that had been filled by Maria Geryk about a year ago.

Geryk, formerly a superintendent for the Amherst Regional School District, applied in the spring for the open superintendent's position in the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District. That position was given to John Vosburgh, the former principal at Taconic High School.

Stokes was in her fourth year at the helm of Morningside, McCandless said. Previously she worked as a dean at Pittsfield High School, and she also has experience working for nonprofits as a therapist and a counselor.

Stokes said she hadn't been looking to leave Morningside and she loved her job there — "I'm leaving Morningside with a very heavy heart" — but added that at the same time, she also loves working at the systems level to solve problems.

"That piece is really hard for me," she said of leaving Morningside. "But I love a challenge, so that's why I'm doing it. It's a big job and I have a very steep learning curve so I'm ready to jump in with both feet."

She said she's hoping to help McCandless close the achievement gap between students in special education programs and the rest. At the systems level, she said she's looking to re-evaluate best practices for removing students from the mainstream classroom.

The district continues to be concerned with excluding students, and she said it's good that it avoid "knee-jerk reactions" when it comes to making decisions about removing children from the mainstream. That said, "what we're seeing is we're not able to meet their needs."

"Let's look at what's working," she said. "And let's do what's best for our kids."

McCandless said Stokes brings experience to the job.

"She has a deep, deep background in working with not only disabled students, but students with a real variety of life needs," he said.

He said what Stokes is taking on is "really a huge job."

West, Stokes' predecessor, worked for the district for 22 years, including the last three as special education director.

"It's a really hard, personally taxing position to take," he said.

McCandless said he's loathe to ask Stokes to leave Morningside, where he said she's done tremendous work, but Zanin's return to the district makes the staffing shift a win.

"To have the opportunity to bring her back to Pittsfield is a real cause for celebration," he said.

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

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