Editorial: Welcome innovations in area schools this year

  • Assistant Principal Anthony Sabonis Jr., from left, Superintendent Andrew Linkenhoker and Principal Joseph Bianca, are shown during August at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Monday, September 04, 2017

Embracing innovation and adapting to changing social conditions help keep teachers and students fresh. As area schools resume classes this year, there are many initiatives in curriculum and training — some provide a wider range of courses and practical experience for students, while others respond to issues such as bias and examining how children can best use their time outside of school.

Changes in homework policies are being studied in Amherst. Among the goals is determining how best to involve parents in their children’s school work beyond traditional homework assignments. An elementary school homework working group met during the summer and soon will communicate with families about possible changes in the way homework is given.

Victoria Munroe, a first-grade teacher at Wildwood Elementary School and a participant in that group, says the focus is “What’s the best use of children’s time outside of school, knowing they have lives outside of school? ... We want to value what parents do with kids and what they do outside of school as the big picture of their learning.”

Also this year, there will be training for Amherst middle and high school teachers using the Challenge Success program and its premise that “our society has become too focused on grades, test scores, and performance, leaving little time for kids to develop the necessary skills to become resilient, ethical, and motivated learners.”

According to interim Superintendent Michael Morris, that also results from the school department’s asking the question: “What’s the role of promoting family experiences that aren’t homework for our students?”

In Northampton, the training for all school staff will focus on preventing and responding to bias at a time of heightened awareness about discrimination locally and nationally. Earlier this year, Northampton Police discontinued its “High-Five Friday” program — when officers connected informally with elementary school students — after complaints that it was insensitive to students of color. In June and July, students at JFK Middle School focused attention on sexual harassment with a sit-in and downtown march.

“This training comes at a time when districts across the nation are witnessing reports of harassment and intimidation on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual identity,” says Northampton Superintendent John Provost. “Such incidents are completely antithetical to our core district values, and we want to sharpen our focus on nurturing kindness, empathy and tolerance.”

At JFK Middle School, a new peer mentoring program for students will provide strategies in responding to gender violence, sexual harassment and bullying. “It gives students who may be witnessing (incidents of bias) skills to confront — or at least not join in — inappropriate behavior,” Provost says.

New courses at several schools will provide broader opportunities for students to prepare for the job market, in some cases taking advantage of technology.

Hampshire Regional High School in Westhampton will add introductory and advanced classes in computer science. AP Computer Science Principles will allow students to create a mobile application by using math skills learned in previous classes.

The computer courses will be taught by Louis Potorski, a math teacher for 20 years who learned during the summer about making mobile applications. Potorski says he will encourage students to create applications that are socially useful, such as teaching someone how to learn the alphabet or basic math skills.

Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton and Smith Academy in Hatfield are adding language instruction. Spanish is the first foreign language ever taught at Smith Vocational, and Superintendent Andrew Linkenhoker says one group of students who will benefit are those planning a career in law enforcement.

Smith Academy, in partnership with the Willie Ross School for the Deaf in Longmeadow, has a pilot program for seniors introducing them to American Sign Language, with an expansion planned for the spring.

We are certain that those and other initiatives in area schools will pay dividends. We encourage educators to keep examining how to better prepare students for the challenges of living and working in the 21st century.