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NHPR: In Pittsfield, School Innovation Struggles to Survive Budget Cuts

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Yesterday’s installment in NHPR’s great series on education funding, called Adequacy, brought home the challenges faced by the property poor school district striving against the odds to overcome lack of state support for public education.  The impact on teachers and students is immediate and tangible:

Teacher salaries make up a big chunk of school budgets in New Hampshire. Pittsfield has never been able to offer high salaries, but with creative projects in the past few years, it’s attracted good teachers and high praise. With recent state cuts, though, many say that’s become impossible to sustain…..

Jenny Wellington came to Pittsfield to teach high school English in 2011, when the grant was revving up.

“They were doing exactly what I wanted to be doing in my classroom,” she said. “Which is giving the power back to my students.”

She had just gotten her Master’s at UNH, and before that had taught for six years in New York City. Wellington could have gotten higher pay at a wealthier district, but she chose Pittsfield, because of what the school calls student-centered learning.

“Pittsfield was finding a new identity, with student-centered learning at the heart of it.” — Jenny Wellington…..

To make up for the lack of electives, the school became one of the first in New Hampshire to hire someone to help students get credit for activities outside of school, called “extended learning opportunities,” or ELO’s.

Some of Wellington’s students studied sign language and built a greenhouse; another learned to splice genes at UNH; another studied religion with a rabbi, a minister, and an imam…..

Pittsfield Superintendent John Freeman says the district tracked these developments – and found that attendance at parent-teacher conferences shot up from about 10 percent to 90 percent. More students starting participating in extracurriculars. And more got accepted to college. Test scores did not improve significantly, and teacher pay remained low.

But there was a sense of promise.

“Pittsfield was finding a new identity,” Wellington says. “With student-centered learning at the heart of it.”….

An Era of Increased Cuts

Pittsfield has always struggled with funding. But in 2016, halfway through all these big changes, the state started cutting a type of aid to schools called stabilization grants. In Pittsfield, this meant $87,000 less each year.

Wellington says that’s when it hit her: this transformation of the schools was fragile without strong state support.

“As money from the stabilization grant kept getting taken away, you could feel the tension from students – like what teacher’s going to be cut?” she says. “You could feel it with teachers – like is my job going to be cut?”….

“It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever had to do in a job,” says Superintendent Freeman, “To essentially take apart something that we built up.”

Stefne Ricci was a sophomore when the cuts began…..

Stefne loves music and English. She’s planning to go to college to become an English teacher, like her one of her favorites, Jenny Wellington.

Pittsfield’s emphasis on student leadership and her relationship with teachers have been more important to her than any textbook.

“We have these absolutely amazing teachers who are so good with the students,” she says. “They’re so good at actually teaching. But then they leave – and they get replaced. Their replacement might be good or they might not be and you don’t know what you’re going to get, so it’s a huge loss.”

Wellington noticed this loss too. After six years, she says, she was the only one left of the teachers who had started when she did. Most left for better pay in nearby districts.

The disparity in teacher pay is a challenge for poor districts across New Hampshire. In Pittsfield, the average teacher salary is around $40,000. Just 15 miles away in Concord, it’s over $73,000.

Jenny Wellington says student-centered learning at Pittsfield helped her students explore their interests and possible careers.

Wellington held out, because she loved how Pittsfield was doing education. But last spring, she also decided to leave….

“Explaining that to them was really important so they didn’t feel like I was abandoning them or leaving them for a higher-paying job,” she said.

Stefne was really sad when Wellington, her favorite teacher, left, but she’s making the best of it. She’s taking a class at the Concord Regional Technical School in Concord, learning the ukulele, and organizing forums on education and social justice with Pittsfield Youth In It Together, a project of Pittsfield Listens.

She says her friends who wants to take AP or foreign language classes now have to take those online, but the school iPads no longer work, and many can’t afford their own computers, or internet at home. It’s a series of lost opportunities…..


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