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North Adams schools prepare for a fight

Amid state talks of takeover, officials gear up to press case

NORTH ADAMS -- Alyssa Edmonds's report cards have been a string of paper trophies -- grades of "E" for excellent, "VG" for very good. But when her mother saw her 11-year-old's poor state test scores last year, she worried for the first time that the North Adams schools might be failing her children.

"I would like to know why my daughter. . . didn't test at grade level but passed all her subjects and was passed into the next grade," said Mary Edmonds, 40, a mental health worker who grew up in North Adams. "I want to know why my kids aren't being taught what the state thinks they need to know to graduate and get a diploma."

State officials want to know the same thing. Governor Mitt Romney this month threatened to take over the city's schools, citing concerns over the 10th-worst MCAS scores in the state. The Department of Education had already been weighing whether to declare the district "underperforming," the first step on the road to state intervention.

But the governor's sudden scrutiny turned up the heat on the tiny Berkshire school system, marking a tough new phase in the state's 10-year quest to improve public schools. If Romney follows through on his threat, North Adams would be the first district in Massachusetts to come under state control because of academic problems. Only districts with financial crises or mismanagement have faced state involvement in the past.

Romney's aggressive posture has set off reverberations in school districts around the state, as local officials wonder if the governor is signaling he will take a more activist role in controlling local schools. And in North Adams, led by a feisty mayor, they are readying for a fight.

North Adams officials will take their case to the state Board of Education tomorrow. Next month the board will consider the future of schools in Holyoke, the other troubled district targeted by the governor.

If the board decides to pin the "underperforming" tag on either district, the school systems would have two years to show progress. But if problems persist, the board could disband the school committees, fire the superintendents, hire new teachers, and rewrite the curriculums.

In spotlighting North Adams, Romney singled out a school system that is far different from the large urban districts typically identified as failing in this country. The rusting mill city in the northern Berkshires has 2,100 students in its five public schools, almost all from white, English-speaking families. Many big-city districts, by contrast, struggle to educate large numbers of non-English-speaking immigrants. In Holyoke, where MCAS scores were the state's lowest last year, almost one in five students speak only limited English.

State officials say the North Adams schools are not just bad; they're getting worse. Test scores have been slipping in the past few years, even as statewide scores have risen.

Mayor John A. Barrett III, a Democrat who is the state's longest-serving mayor and one of the Republican governor's most vocal critics, accuses Romney of playing politics with his city's schools. The governor is trying to shame North Adams by making it an icon of failure, said Barrett, a former North Adams elementary teacher who chairs the school committee. But in truth, he says, the district has been aggressively addressing its problems and has shown signs of progress, improving its curriculum and teacher training.

"We've struggled and clawed our way back to respectability," Barrett said in a recent interview in his office overlooking Main Street. "Why would the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts want to do something that hurts his constituents? Doesn't he understand this hurts us economically?"

Tucked into the state's Northwest corner, 140 miles from Boston, North Adams grew in the 19th and early 20th centuries with a nexus of railroad lines and textile mills, and later, electronics manufacturers. A strike at major employer Sprague Electric in the early 1970s eventually led to the plant closing and decades of economic malaise.

Today the city of 14,680 has many working poor, officials said, something it has in common with larger urban systems. The median family income is under $38,000, less than the statewide figure of $61,664.

Barrett, who wants to remake North Adams as an arts and tourism mecca, is credited with starting a gradual revival of the city. In 1999, Sprague's sprawling downtown factory site became the world's largest contemporary art museum, MassmoCA. Vacant storefronts along Main Street have since started to fill with tony restaurants and theater companies.

But while the city has motored slowly into the future, state officials say, its schools have been idling in times past.

Joseph B. Rappa, executive director of the state Office of Educational Quality and Accountability, the independent agency that reviews troubled districts, says North Adams is "tradition bound," to a fault.

When state auditors visited in March, they found a district with "widespread deficiencies," one that did not regularly evaluate student progress or teaching methods, where each administrator filled two or three jobs, and where teachers often failed to follow state curriculum guidelines.

"Things have changed in education, and the city has got to become current," Rappa said.

The city's record is one of backsliding. Continuing a decline since 1999, about 29 percent of North Adams students failed the 2002 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests in English and math, compared with the state average of 17 percent. In the elementary schools, 41 percent of the fourth-graders failed math and 22 percent failed English.

Barrett and other school officials have acknowledged that they fumbled in addressing sliding scores quickly, but insist they have embraced reform. Two years ago the district hired a curriculum coordinator who, they say, began a transformation. As proof of progress, Barrett points to this year's senior class -- 108 of 113 Drury High School seniors have passed the MCAS graduation test.

Interim Superintendent James E. Montepare, who started a few weeks ago after his predecessor's retirement after six years leading the system, said frequent tests are key to improving student performance. "We knew we had issues, and we made all accommodations to address these issues," said Montepare, who also runs the district's special education programs. "I have no doubt in my mind we're doing it and doing it right."

During the first few weeks of school, the 310 pupils at the scuffed, but clean, Sullivan School passed through a testing gantlet. In one classroom, a gaggle of third-graders sat two at a table, scrunched silently over their reading comprehension tests. Every day but Monday this month there's a test for some group of children.

With help from University of Massachusetts graduate students, teachers will use the scores to help determine strengths and weaknesses and tailor lessons to individual needs. Weekly evaluations and future tests will gauge whether students understand the material.

Gail Lucey, the new curriculum director, said the schools also expanded elementary reading and math lessons to 90-minute blocks, to help students focus longer on those subjects. Teachers now meet monthly, and in some cases weekly, to make sure they all know what the others are doing and to ensure that the material taught is the same in each elementary school.

District committees studied the problems with previous curriculums and trashed outdated textbooks, some more than 10 years old. The district also spent $750,000 on new math and reading programs that the state recommended.

Rappa applauds the changes. But ultimately, he says, only one goal matters: "We need to see the improvements in the scores." North Adams parents should demand more, he says.

North Adams Mayor John Barrett at the Brayton Elementary School.
North Adams Mayor John Barrett at the Brayton Elementary School. (Globe Staff Photo / Tom Landers)
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As Massachusetts sharpens scrutiny of low-achieving school systems, a top education official says that the state plans to evaluate more districts every year to decide which should be declared "underperforming," the first step on the road to a possible state takeover. (Boston Globe)
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