Back to School: Northampton

Anti-bias training is part of schools’ new year

  • Jack Silverman, left, and Christopher Sella of Valley Home Improvement work on the exterior trim of the outdoor classroom being built at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Christopher Sella of Valley Home Improvement measures an exterior trim piece for an outdoor classroom. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — In addition to a structural overhaul at the elementary school level, incoming students at Northampton public schools can expect some new outdoor spaces, an increased focus on bias prevention and new math programs in the coming year.

Palpable changes in the district will begin with a shift in the school calendar — the first day of school this year is Aug. 30, a change from the normal post-Labor Day start date.

Another major academic change will be the adoption of the inquiry-based math program, Math Investigations III, in the elementary and middle schools. Superintendent John Provost said students currently use an earlier version of the program, but the new one reflects updates in math standards as well as developments in technology.

“The online component is brand new and will allow parents to have a better insight into the skills the students are learning and to assist them at home,” he said.

The new program is also more accessible to English language learners, he said, as the materials are available in multiple languages.

Anti-bias training

As a means to nip early signs of bias in the bud, Provost said all staff members at the schools are getting anti-bias training for the coming year.

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

While it seems timely in light of issues of racial, ethnic and gender bias depicted in the news, he said the training is something he already had in the works.

Last year the schools were touched by discussion of bias as some in the district decried the High-Five Friday program in which police officers visited schools to give students high-fives, calling it insensitive to students of color. And some students at JFK Middle School said they felt sexual harassment was an issue at the school.

While Provost said he’s proud of the way the district has handled such issues in the past, he knows there’s always more work to be done.

“It’s something I think Northampton prides itself in and something we know we can always work to improve our skills in,” he said. “Hopefully, it will provide time for reflection on improving bias and tools we can use to create a more welcoming community for our diverse students and faculty.”

As for the students, JFK Principal Lesley Wilson will create a student roundtable to meet with her monthly. Provost said the middle school will also be implementing a peer mentoring program to provide students with strategies for addressing gender violence, sexual harassment and bullying.

Provost said peer mentoring, which he described as bystander training, is an important part of the school’s efforts to quash bias.

“It gives students who may be witnessing (incidents of bias) skills to confront — or at least not join in — inappropriate behavior,” he said.

Elementary overhaul

As for the structural overhaul at the elementary level, Provost said he’s hired seven special education teachers for the coming year.

“With the addition of the new teachers, we project that we will achieve a 10:1 student-to-teacher ratio in our elementary schools,” he said.

The district will also get some new outdoor spaces, equipment and programs for the coming year. A new outdoor classroom is currently under construction at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School, which will provide an area where students can gather to learn about plants in their gardens.

“We’re thrilled to have the outdoor learning space,” said Principal Sarah Madden, adding it will be dedicated to retiring administrative assistant Sharon Matrishon.

She said Valley Home Improvement donated the labor for the work, and Lowe’s donated materials for a neighboring storage shed.

She said the new outdoor classroom expands the work already being done with School Sprouts, a gardening program funded through the Northampton Education Foundation, and a partnership with the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

The PTO was also able to drum up funds for materials for the new classroom through Valley Gives.

“We’ve been lucky,” Madden said of the contributions. “We have some picnic tables, but this will be so much better.”

And with funding from the Leeds Elementary School PTO and volunteer labor, a Gaga Pit has been installed at the Leeds playground.

“Gaga is a new game played in an octagonal pit,” Provost said. “Some have called it a kinder, gentler version of dodgeball.”

Other changes

Provost said Lowe’s also donated building materials for a bike rack for Northampton High School that will be built in the next month or so. The rack will hold bikes donated to the school by Northampton Police Department and others in the community. He said bikes are the primary mode of transportation for students taking courses at Smith College.

Grow Food Northampton and Mass. Farm to School are working with the schools on a new “Harvest of the Month” program. Beginning in October, school lunches will feature Massachusetts-grown food.

The Early Childhood Family Information Center is moving from Bridge Street School to the Puchalski Municipal Building at 212 Main St. “With family information, student registration, and transportation services co-located in the Municipal Building, we hope to be able to provide families with a more streamlined registration experience,” Provost said.

Provost said he additionally hired a literacy coach who will support elementary teachers with best practices for reading and writing, whose job it is to “provide feedback and suggestions for improving the effectiveness of their literacy teaching.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.