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DOJ Bringing 'SPIRIT' Program to Area Schools
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
11:32AM / Thursday, May 09, 2019
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The School Committee touched on a handful of topics Wednesday evening.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The U.S. Department of Justice is bringing training to the county to help prevent racial violence in the schools.
 
Superintendent Jason McCandless said Central Berkshire Regional School District had headed an effort to bring in the department's Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together (SPIRIT) program and invited other districts to send representatives to the first meeting. McCandless said eventually the goal is to open to a wider region.
 
"The lead school in the whole county on it is Central Berkshire Regional School District. Dr. [Laurie] Casna, their superintendent, has been working with Multicultural Bridge really for most of the year. The first training is taking place there and the rest of us will be joining in as we are able and as the department is able," McCandless said.
 
The program helps schools improve the way they teach students in middle and high schools to resolve conflicts early. 
 
"They come into communities in an effort to help communities avoid issues, to respond to issues before they become real civil rights issues and then to get better at learning how to avoid issues," McCandless said. "Ideally we are teaching kids in middle and high schools problem-solving skills, something they can continue to build on."
 
The program is free of charge for the district and the superintendent said districts in the future will likely take a regional approach to bringing the training back year after year.
 
"We will probably to try to approach it as a region," he said.
 
McCandless briefed the School Committee on the new program on Wednesday saying it will tie in with a number of programs the district is already running. It ties in nicely with a program headed by the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Berkshire County Superintendents Roundtable that was launched among seven school districts.
 
That program empowered students in middle and high schools about standing up and speaking out against bullying, prejudice, and discrimination. A celebration honoring those students who participated is scheduled for June 5.
 
"We are celebrating all of these middle school students across the county," McCandless said.
 
Cultural competency has been a "foundational brick" in the Pittsfield school system for seven or so years, McCandless said, and these additional programs help bring those skills to the children in the district. 
 
"We really want to take the next step which is to empower kids," McCandless said.
 
In other business, School Committee member Daniel Elias started what is expected to be a more in-depth discussion about foreign studies trips. The School Committee approved school trips to Spain and Italy on Wednesday but the students participating do have to pay a fairly significant cost to do so.
 
Elias said he wants to develop some type of program for students from families that can't afford the cost to be able to earn what they need to participate.
 
"My concern is for that child who wants to go but the families don't have the means, there should be some way for them to earn their ability to go," he said.
 
Elias said the trips provided "great educational value" but schools haven't been doing fundraisers to help drive down the cost for parents. He said there are overarching fundraising efforts in some districts for an array of opportunities that students could tap into for assistance but in Pittsfield, fundraisers seem to be focused on certain activities. He wondered if that could be an option.
 
McCandless responded that at one point there was a push for booster clubs for not just one sport but for all sports. And on one occasion the parents of one sport raised a significant amount of money and was able to light up the field for that sport. Aspects like that complicate how a shared fund-raised pool of money would operate because those parents would want their work to go to their children.
 
He added that there are student activities fund accounts but those aren't enough to fund overseas trips and are already used to drive down the cost of prom, yearbooks, and other field trips.
 
At the same time, McCandless doesn't want to put the responsibility on the teachers to fund raise for the trip. He said those teachers are volunteering their time to take these trips and have the responsibility for the students while they are there.
 
"Some districts take the approach of presenting it in freshman year, 'we are going to have this trip going when you are a junior so be thinking about it,'" he said, adding that with enough of emphasis and knowledge about it, families would have a longer time to save.
 
The School Committee didn't come to a resolution nor dive too deeply on the subject, but Elias has begun the conversation about what else can be done to ensure students who want to go and have earned the right to go can go.
 
"I don't think the answer is stopping travel because some kids can't afford it. I'm also not sure the answer is to require a teacher to step into fundraising roles either," McCandless said.
 
The School Committee also finalized its letter to state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley voicing outrage over  racially insensitive question on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam. The committee had previously discussed the issue and took a position condemning the question for being on the exam.
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