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Pittsfield Schools Add 'Transformation & Accountability' Post
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
05:30AM / Wednesday, July 10, 2024
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The school district's former special education director has been appointed as the assistant superintendent for school transformation and accountability.

The School Committee on Monday unanimously voted Jennifer Stokes into the role. A special meeting was held at the Mercer Administration Building following a formal interview process.

"I'm very honored," she said. "I feel like it's a privilege to be in this position, that the district has put their faith in me to try to make some big changes."

Stokes will lead initiatives for transforming schools that have been designated in need of targeted assistance from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education: Taconic High School, Reid Middle School, Herberg Middle School, Morningside Community School, Conte Community School, and Crosby Elementary School.

She has worked for the Pittsfield Public Schools for more than a decade as a school adjustment counselor at Morningside, dean of students for Pittsfield High, principal of Morningside, and special education director. Stoked also did district-level work with a safety and prevention grant.

The first order of business will be to work with principals of underperforming schools to determine their leverage point for improvement. Stokes has committed to the role for at least three years, disclosing during the interview that she is "getting close to retirement."

"I think it's really important to follow the principal's leadership in terms of where they want their leverage point, and then to start to create structures around that leverage point and create supports for the principal around that," she said.

Stokes has seen that the mental health needs of students have increased during her time at PPS.

"I wouldn't say that's totally about COVID so I think our teachers need to be trauma-informed and need to be able to look toward mental health needs of our students," she said. "I would say that's the No. 1 factor. I think the number of students with disabilities has increased also."

New to the fiscal year 2025 budget, the position is half grant funded with $70,000 in the school budget.  The deputy superintendent and the curriculum director positions were eliminated.

School Committee member Sara Hathaway said the process for vetting candidates was "very thorough and very fair." Stokes was one of two candidates.

"The feedback from the screening committee, I think we realized we needed more voices and [Superintendent Joseph Curtis] very wisely included district leadership so every principal had a chance for some input," she said.

"It was a very, very difficult choice, I think. Two very strong candidates came through the screening process and it's exciting to finally be able to get somebody to fill that desk and to get to work."

Committee members asked a few additional questions before the vote.

William Cameron asked if the schools' organization is creating a sawtooth effect in which cohort performance on high-stakes assessments drops after assessment reform and then improves over time as test familiarity increases.

Stokes said Morningside found success when staff members embraced professional development for highly effective teaching.

"We were always learning together," she said, explaining that the principal became the leader and it created a culture of learning that was passed down.

When Hathaway asked how the teachers will know that they are a part of the district transformation, Stokes said the principal is the key leader in creating a highly effective instructional team with representation from all teachers in the building.

"It's being present," she said. "I would say to teachers, you should expect to see me in your classrooms every week and you expect to be able to reach out to me and talk to me every time you have a question. So I think it's being present for teachers and being accessible and accountable."

Mayor Peter Marchetti asked how the district can cultivate a professional culture that balances the need for immediate change with a goal of long-term sustainability. 

She emphasized the importance of bringing forward a sense of urgency and keeping it present. The district also has to keep its teachers and be able to fill positions with licensed educators. 

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