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Peacebuilders program, technology highlight of upcoming Belchertown school year

Judith C. Houle, superintendent of Belchertown Public Schools, in 2009

Judith C. Houle, superintendent of Belchertown Public Schools, in 2009 Purchase photo reprints »

Superintendent Judith Houle said the drive to incorporate new technology in the classroom began four years ago when the school took advantage of federal stimulus funds.

“Technology is a part of how we connect to the broader global learning community,” Houle said. “It gives students access to the world around them and a wealth of information that is available.”

This year students at Chestnut Hill Community School, which houses grades 4 through 6, will have access to a computer lab with more than 30 new computers and 20 new projectors. Jabish Brook Middle School, which houses grades 7 to 8, which installed Wi-Fi and laptops for every teacher last year, will now also have an iPad for every teacher in the mathematics department.

The new technology is also being incorporated at the early elementary level. According to Principal Robert Kuhn of Swift River Elementary School, “We’re currently doing a lot more integration with technology and online software. Every classroom is equipped with a projector and Wi-Fi in whole building and interactive laptop and white board.” Kuhn said he is excited about the use of technology in the classroom, nothing that it fills a deficit in learning in the school system. Kuhn believes the schools are playing “catch up” after being unable to afford the new technology.

“This is really exciting for us for every teacher to be equipped with that ability,” Kuhn said. We understand that technology doesn’t drive education, but it’s nice to have that resource.”

Kuhn said he believes that incorporating technology at an early age can help students in terms of long-term career-preparation.

“The kids are ready,” Kuhn said. “Kids in the first and second grades are using computers, and then they go to school and have no access. All testing — MCAS and soon PARCC — is now done on computers. Technology is here; it’s not going away. We’re fortunate to have the money to do this.”

Chestnut Hill Community School Principal Paula Fitzgerald said she is also excited about the Belchertown school system’s progressive take on technology in the classrooms. Fitzgerald became acting principal July 1, taking over from Jose Izarry, who has been filling in as interim principal since former Principal Brian Cameron left to become assistant superintendent in Belchertown last winter.

Fitzgerald, a long-term educator in the Pioneer Valley and former principal at Quarry Hill School in Monson, said she is impressed with the school’s positive, professional atmosphere and its focus on the latest trends in education. Fitzgerald said Chestnut Hill will be alternating library science classes with classes in technological science.

Jabish Brook Middle School saw new technology installed in its classrooms last year. Principal Thomas Ruscio said Jabish Brook has been the pilot for many of the new programs in the school district.

“Last year we were finally able to have electronics in every classroom and a laptop for every teacher,” Ruscio said. “Full Wi-Fi too.”

Ruscio said that every math teacher and every special education instructor who teaches math will recieve an iPads to help in the classroom.

“The kids grew up with this technology, and when you use the same sort of tech in the classrooms, they are more interested,” Ruscio said. “This is what the teachers are reporting back to me.”

Ruscio said he does have some concern about overreliance on technology in the classroom.

“We’re not sure it’s a good thing,” Ruscio said. “It’s like moths to light.”

Peacebuilders continues

Belchertown schools are entering the third year of the Peacebuilders program, an anti-bullying initiative adopted by the town in 2011. Peacebuilders is an anti-violence curriculum and professional development program for kindergarten through Grade 12. It was chosen by the town in response to the state mandate that every school have an anti-bullying curriculum in place. Belchertown educators say that the program has had general success across the school system.

“What we’re doing is building the culture of the school and developing a common language,” Kuhn said. “It’s threaded through us. When a student does something inclusive, we say, ‘You’re a peacebuilder.’ It’s become a part of our culture.”

Kuhn said the program has already had a positive impact, changing the culture of the school.

How Peacebuilders is implemented varies with the ages of the students. At the Swift River level, students do monthly activities and recite weekly the Peacebuilders pledge, which promises to praise others, give up put-downs, speak up about hurts caused, right wrongs and help others.

Approaches change as the students get older, with a greater emphasis on personal conduct.

“We’re embedding a new model with more character-building,” Ruscio said. “Here it has to be a little more specific in context. We want to teach what it means to stand up for yourself, skill-building, how to socialize well with peers.”

“It sounds corny, but it has had an effect. We’ve heard it in the halls, kids saying, ‘You’re not being a peacebuilder.’ And maybe it’s a little sarcastically, but we’ve giving them a built-in response, and maybe making the bully the odd one out instead of the other kids.”

Houle said the schools will have an event later in September called Pinwheels for Peace in which every student in the Belchertown school system will create a pinwheel with a peace symbol on it and then line them up on Route 9 on the same weekend as the Belchertown Fair.

“Peacebuilders seems to have had a very positive impact,” Houle said. “Since the program was implemented, we have seen a dip in the number of incidents of physical violence in the schools.”

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