Shaun Cusson praised the support the organization received from the community.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Hillcrest Education celebrated its $4.5 million expansion into the former St. Mark's School.
Hillcrest bought the former parochial school in 2016 for $1.2 million and then invested some $3.2 million more into renovating it.
Now, the organization is serving 81 students who need therapeutic or autistic education and can't be served in the traditional school setting.
Hillcrest Academy is an expansion from its current home on West Housatonic Street.
"Since we opened in December we are educating currently 81 students in this building and we have a significant amount of room to grow in the future," said Vice President Christopher Smith.
The school has some 40,000 square feet on seven acres of land. The students now have a "significantly less stimulating environment" that has led to increased success, more independence, and increased communication. It features plenty of outdoor space.
The organization installed a new HVAC system, fully renovated the gymnasium, put in fire protection, lifts and ramps for ADA compliance, a playground, and increased the amount of technology for students to learn on.
"When kids come to school here it feels like a high school, it feels like a normal school. That's what our kids deserve and have a right to," Smith said.
The organization takes students who can't be educated in the typical public school and hopes to educate them, address behavioral issues, and get them back into the public school. Hillcrest Education accepts students from eight different nearby states.
Cyrus Bellefeuille is one of those students. Bellefeuille had always struggled in school but it got seemingly worse. His mother Soncere Williams remembers countless times being called to Pittsfield schools to pick Bellefeuille up. He was constantly being suspended and was in trouble with the law.
"I could see the caring little boy inside my son just wanted to succeed and I could see his frustration in himself when he was met with failure," Williams said.
In November 2015, he was sent to Hillcrest Academy.
"When I first started Hillcrest I was out of control. I did not do well with consequences or my peers. I could aggravate my peers and staff and get upset when they reacted," Bellefeuille said.
Three years later, however, his outburst went from "daily" to "rarely." And now he'll be re-entering the public school system next year as a freshman at Taconic High School.
After three years at Hillcrest Academy, Cyrus Bellefeuille will be attending Taconic High School next year.
"I watched him grow from a frightened little boy to a confident young man. We've gone from a daily outburst to rarely seeing an outburst. We are all watching him as he uses the skills we have all worked so hard to teach him," Williams said.
Bellefeuille's story meant a lot to Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who had joined the celebration. She remembered her's sons peer who is autistic and was voted by the students chose him as the classmate of the year. She said that is the "community" that supports each other, just as the community in the Berkshires and around Hillcrest support all students.
"The key piece, I feel, to the strength of a community is the quality of its education because education is where you meet a student wherever they are with their needs and you create an opportunity for them to achieve their success," Polito said.
Polito said Massachusetts does rank No. 1 in the country for education. But, truly being No. 1 means making sure that all students are being educated and not just some in some places. Hillcrest is an example of a community meeting the students where they are to educate them.
"Your mission is noble and pure but it is also challenging. I can't thank you enough for your willingness to invest your own personal dollars in the mission of this organization," Polito said.
The expansion was partly supported by a fundraising campaign. The organization was able to raise close to $1 million for the project from other community organizations.
"It really is an example of a quintessential team effort," Executive Director Shaun Cusson said.
The Diocese of Springfield closed St. Mark's School on Columbus Avenue in 2015 after half a century because of shrinking enrollment.
Almost immediately, Hillcrest was interested in the property. In 2016, it purchased the building and in late 2017 started holding classes there.
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