Sunday, February 28, 2010

City School Northampton: Week 4 - Education

I have been attending City School here in Northampton, Massachusetts. City School is a unique program where ordinary citizens like me learn the workings of local municipal government. I realize that it has been a while since I've updated you. In the interim we had two snow days and one class where we learned about public education which I will share with you shortly.

When local government calls a snow day - for it's schools, banning overnight parking, readying the snow plows, etc. - you can bet that they will also call off our class, which usually takes place after-hours in a city building with lectures usually delivered by a city employee who either should be doing something more important during a snowstorm or perhaps should be snug at home with her family. (I simply must be the king of the run-on sentence, the aside, and the digression. It is my destiny. It is my quest. More. I want more.)  If the public schools and local colleges are closed, then it is likely that City School will also be. I am lucky to pay nothing for the privilege of being educated in the ways our Libraries are funded by our Library Director and how our city Health Department works by its chief. Eventually, we will hear more about how the city operates from the Mayor and the innards of city finance from the Finance Director.

This week we learned about the two school districts within our city. Northampton is unique in this respect compared to the state. We have Northampton Public Schools and Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School. Northampton Public Schools include four elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school. We met in the Library at Northampton High. It was chilly. It was school vacation week. Everyone who spoke to us that night was taking time from their own vacation.

Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School

Smith Voc, as it is fondly called, is one of the many important institutions in Northampton founded by a  19th century benefactor. In prior weeks, you heard about the Forbes and Lilly Libraries. Others that we are unlikely to address at City School include Smith College, Clarke School For the Deaf, and the Hill Institute. Each has its own colorful history. Each deserves their own essay. I'm sure that there are several more. Institutions like this make our city special. (Pause with me now to thank God for dead 19th century wealthy people. We are especially lucky when they have no heirs or have taken care in writing their wills. More on that shortly.)


Smith Voc was founded at behest of the will of Oliver Smith who died in 1845. The will was contested by his relatives, but defended by New England's own Daniel Webster for Northampton which was still a town (it incorporated into a city in 1884). It may be customary for the time, but the money eventually sat until 1905 when $50,000 was spent to buy land (81 acres for the school, plus 180 acres used by their forestry program). Finally in 1908 Smith Voc opened as the first Vocational School in Massachusetts. It was originally only private, but after UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture opened in 1918, Smith Voc had some local competition. It was after this that it joined forces with Northampton to become a Public-Private school. Northampton students can attend for "free" while out-of-district students "pay". In the bargain, the Mayor and the Northampton School Superintendent are on the board of trustees along with 3 publicly elected board members. In reality, students do not pay. Their respective school districts do. Due to its origins Smith Voc remains the only independent public school in the state.

We heard all this and more from John Cotton who became Chair of the Smith Voc Board of Trustees only the day before our class. He started as an instructor in 1977 and has been on the Board shortly after he retired from teaching. The board was shaken up last year after the death of longtime Trustee David Bourbeau last summer. We also heard from the Superintendent Arthur Apostolou who filled us in on academics and how the school operates.


Students at Smith Voc alternate weeks of academic classes and vocational classes. They choose one of twelve programs including agriculture, forestry, automotive, plumbing, cosmetology, and the like. When new students enter, they rotate between each of the programs, then try out four of them to narrow their choice down to one. Students will often focus their studies to match their programs. For instance, students studying veterinarian/animal science will learn Biology. Juniors and Seniors must intern in their field. When they graduate they receive a High School diploma as well as a Certificate of Occupational Proficiency. They are accredited, of course, and belong to High Schools That Work which is an association of vocational schools.

Smith Voc Students actually compete in Skills USA which is like an Olympics of vocational schools (Smith Voc has alumni who won the nationals in plumbing and autobody.) Students also compete through Future Farmers of America. Additionally, there is an advisory committee for each professional trade and academic area made up of community members. They serve to keep the school up tod ate and help place seniors.

I was much impressed with the school (as you can tell by my lack of digressions here), so I will give you a few more bits of information before pushing on. Last year 117 students graduated, next year there will be about 125 new 9th graders, there are 61 faculty members split about equally between academic and vocational. About one third of the students are from Northampton, the rest are from out-of-district. The school has not had a new building since 1977, but they have received a grant to build a new Agricultural and Science building; this is still in the planning stages.

Since Smith Voc teaches skills, they do real work. Local car dealers might loan them a new car or engines. They actually repair the city Police cruisers, and if you are patient, they will fix your car. You can arrange to get your hair cut at the school, and then actually luncheon at their restaurant (culinary program) during a weekdays.

Northampton Public Schools

We also heard about Northampton Public Schools (NPS) from Superintendent Isabellina Rodriguez, Barbara Black the Early Childhood Coordinator, Nathan Zieglar from Pupil Services, and Karen Jarvis from Health Services. Weeks earlier, we heard from School Committee chair Stephanie Pick about what they do.

I just know that I am going to short-change NPS here, but that is because some of the operations of a public school seems obvious to me because I attended them and have a child currently in school. Also, sadly, their story is more difficult. As you can see from the NPS speakers, none of them are direct educators. Teachers teach, Principals run schools. These people above make sure that things work and comply with laws and guidelines and curriculum and codes. They make sure the numbers add up, that students with problems do not fall through the cracks, that they are ready to enter school. And that our schools comply with onerous testing standards. There is so much to all this, it makes you wonder why government does not get out of the way and let schools educate students in peace. OK. Don't get me started. This is something I won't get into. Nope.

Northampton has an elected School Committee which hires and supervises the Superintendent. They also deal with the school budget. Rodriguez told us about the District Improvement Plan. Which narrows down priorities to set five goals for our schools along with metrics to see if they are being met. Each school has its own corresponding School Improvement Plan. The plans can be used as a basis to make data-driven decisions - something especially important when there are impending cuts and at best flat-lined budgets are on everyone's lips.

We heard about how the schools are trying to use consistency to add efficiency to the school day. For instance, from early on the students learn about "Do Nows" which are short assignments they should do as soon as they enter the classroom. Henry Ford would be proud. The schools plan on setting up advisor/advisee relationships between adults and children in school where they check in for 10 minutes 3 days a week and hopefully end up solving problems before they occur. I also heard the term "sub-groups" several times referring to at-risk students or student demographic groups which simply need more attention so they are successful in school - and often times outside of school.

We heard about Early Childhood education, Pre-School, and a little about the James House Comunity Learning Center which includes the Center for New Americans and the Literacy Project.  Clearly Northampton has grand plans for education at all levels.

Health Services

Karen Jarvis Vance, the Director of Health Services for NPS, spoke about what she and her department does. Health Services deals with the usual - immunizations and sick students. Jarvis reminded us of a quote:
"You cannot educate an unhealthy child and you cannot keep an uneducated child healthy." 
Dr. M. Jocelyn Elders, former US Surgeon General
Jarvis supervises the school nurses who all have Department of Education licenses and other certification. Jarvis herself is an RN and sometimes covers when a school Nurse is sick. Health Services also promotes good health, meets with Physical Education teachers, does health screening and now reports on BMI (body mass index) because of new regulations. Like all other school personnel, she writes grants and is on various committees. If that wasn't enough, she's also currently the sexual harassment and civil rights coordinator. She still loves her job.

Pupil Services

Lastly, we heard from Nathan Zieglar who is the head of Pupil Services. Zieglar was much more technical about education. Like it or not, he's the king of education acronyms. I could be wrong, but he is the master of regulations, compliance, remediation, special-ed, and testing. He was able to rattle off the 12 official disabilities which include autism, developmental delay, intellectual impairment, sensory impairment/hearing, sensory impairment/vision, sensory impairment/deafblind, neurological impairment, emotional impairment, communication impairment, physical impairment, health impairment, and specific learning disabilities. (I only wrote down two that he mentioned. These I just got off the web.) Good thing he's on our side.

Next Week

Actually, everyone who presented to our class to date is on our side. They have been asked to present to a small group of Northampton citizens a summary of what they do. They have an opportunity to boast, but were willing to admit limitations. Generally, the biggest obstacle to our education system is standardized testing from the diversion of time from regular education to the possible consequences should students not do well.

Thus concludes another week at City School. Next week, we will be finally be learning about City Finance, and we will be meeting at Smith Vocational High School. I'll tell you what happens.

And you? I have some homework for you. Please leave some feedback and tell me what you think.

1 comment:

  1. "I simply must be the king of the run-on sentence, the aside, and the digression. It is my destiny. It is my quest. More. I want more."

    I like that