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New School Year Starting in Pittsfield
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
03:45AM / Wednesday, August 30, 2017
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Superintendent Jason McCandless recently placed this slideshow onto a screen and made these promises to the parent's and family members of the students.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Wednesday marks another year for the Pittsfield School Department.
 
Teachers have already returned to classrooms ahead of time but Wednesday morning, teachers, local officials, and members of the Police and Fire departments will stand outside of the city's elementary schools rolling out the red carpet for the children who will enter the doors.
 
Wednesday is the first day for elementary, sixth-graders, and ninth-graders; the rest of the students return on Thursday, bringing enrollment up to more than 5,500 throughout the 12 city schools.
 
"I'm always personally very glad to see this time of year roll back around," said Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless. 
 
The students are coming back after passage of difficult budget for the year, which has led to somewhat of a shakeup of staff. The approved budget for the schools was cut by a quarter of a million dollars and with that, 68 staff positions were reduced.
 
McCandless said eliminated positions were specifically chosen to limit the impact on the education being provided and to meet the needs of the students under the district's care.
 
"We made the staff reductions based on the data we had at the time," McCandless said, adding that class sizes, for the most part, are being kept down. "We've got a couple elementary grades where if five or six kids register, we'd look to adding a teacher. And we have some classes on the edge."
 
The biggest hit in staff members came among paraprofessionals. McCandless said determining where to deploy both the paraprofessionals and the teachers was an extensive process. Many of the staff members are finding themselves working out of new buildings or with new grade levels.
 
"We had quite a bit of movement this year ... It was a lot of work for our [Human Resources] Department and the paraprofessional union," McCandless said. "We got people into positions that played to their strengths."
 
He said nearly all of the teaching reductions were made through attrition, with teachers retiring or leaving the district for other jobs. The staff determined a plan to eliminate positions called for in the budget but moved those individual teachers into new roles being vacated by others.
 
"We have almost no teachers who remain on the call-back list. We have been able to pull back the teachers who got layoff notices," McCandless said. "We have not replaced the positions that were reduced, but most of the individual people have returned."
 
There was also some rearrangement in school leadership as well. Lidia White is taking over as the academic vice principal for Crosby Elementary School; Brendan Sheran stepped into a similar role at Pittsfield High School; Sara Luciani takes over as the principal at Stearns Elementary; Tammy Gage oversees the career and vocational tech programs; Melissa Brites is the new director of alternative education; Ryan Sabourin moves from dean of students at Reid to the dean at Taconic High; and Michael Henault will take over as dean of students at Reid Middle School. 
 
McCandless is confident that when the students arrive, they'll still get a quality education. The crafted plan to handle the changes was made in an attempt to isolate children from being negatively impacted. While the movement and new leadership affects the adults in the building, McCandless said the staff continues to focus on the primary goal of educating the city's children. 
 
"We just really try to focus and refocus on what we need to do for our students," he said. "We try to base everything we do on that."
 
McCandless said the district keeps a "singular focus" on doing what is best for students. That is particularly shown in two areas: curriculum development and extracurricular and electives. School officials had protected those two items during the budget process to ensure there are plenty of quality offerings academically.
 
"We don't look at these things as extras. We look at them as part of the DNA of who we are," the superintendent said.
 
The district has been really focusing on providing advanced placement courses recently. Right now there are 23 different offerings, though not all offered at the same time, and at times teachers will craft new ones for particular students if needed. The two high schools have been trying to get more of their students onto a track toward Advanced Placement courses early, offering classes in the ninth grade to get students thinking about it even when in middle school. 
 
"We don't offer everything every year but in our student's four-year career, they'll have a chance to take everything," McCandless said. 
 
The same goes for fine and performing arts, programs that tend to be the first to go in many districts when budget cuts loom. McCandless said the district has "made commitments" to those programs.
 
At the lower levels, the district is continuing to revamp its curriculum. This year will be the implementation of "Go Math," a new mathematics curriculum for K-8. The program had been piloted in previous years and will roll out districtwide this year. 
 
"We've been doing professional development for a good part of the summer," McCandless said.
 
A group of teachers will be working with Deputy Superintendent Joseph Curtis and Curriculum Director Judy Rush on choosing a new science curriculum to purchase and implement in coming years. The district has been updating its curriculum across the elementary and middle school levels over the last three years, starting with new English and literacy programs. 
 
This year will also be the start of a two-year look at the schools themselves. The district will be engaging with the New England School Development Council to plan out what the district will physically look like in the future. That means looking at if the possibilities of combining schools to align with a decreased enrollment trend.
 
"It is to have a way to get our school building fleet a little more right-sized for our enrollment," McCandless said. 
 
Also of note, when students walk into the current Taconic building to begin the school year, it will be for the last time. The new school will be open in fall 2018. The students have already adjusted to the construction zone but students and teachers will be taking note of all of the bittersweet last times throughout the year. 
 
Recently, McCandless made a promise to parents that the district will do its best:
  • to provide your children with emotionally and physically safe places to learn.
  • to provide your children with rich, engaging learning materials and experiences.
  • to provide your child with opportunities that extend beyond their classroom, and that help them grow as ethical, responsible members of our community.
  • to help your child understand that they have immense potential, have a deep capacity to learn and grow, and that together we can help them reach real academic, social and civic potential.
  • to listen to them, to listen to you, and to listen to each other as we face the challenges of educating today and beyond.
  • to continue to be learners ourselves, so that we can be reflective practitioners and educators and build our capacity to serve your family.
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