‘School Local’ aims to promote city schools, will kick off with rally on steps of City Hall

Last modified: Monday, October 19, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — In a city where patrons are encouraged to eat, bank and shop locally, residents are not surprised that a phrase they have been hearing more and more of is, “School Local.”

School Local Northampton is a campaign started by parents to encourage city families to send their children to the Northampton Public Schools. Organizers say it is a community effort to promote public schools in an era where other options, such as private and charter schools, are able to afford the publicity.

“The public schools, they don’t get to have big marketing budgets,” said organizer Bill Scher, of Northampton. “They don’t get to sponsor a lot of events and spread the good word about what they’re doing.”

Scher and his wife, City Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra, have two daughters, one at Bridge Street School and one in preschool who Scher said will attend city public schools when she reaches kindergarten age.

Scher and fellow school parent Deborah Keisch began organizing meetings in the spring, and the initiative has been gaining momentum with a website, social media, and fliers around the community. Keisch said School Local is being organized and maintained through in-kind donations, with supporters giving their time and expertise.

“I really think it’s an unprecedented collaborative effort with all of the different stakeholders,” she said. Keisch has two children at Bridge Street School.

Julie Spencer-Robinson, the president of the Northampton Association of School Employees and a teacher at JFK Middle School, said school choice has been a “big cost to schools” not just financially, but in losing those students’ academic contributions. She believes School Local has resonated with people for this reason.

“I think that people are frustrated by the exit of families from our district’s public schools,” she said.

The movement will kick off with a rally on the steps of City Hall on Thursday at 5:15 p.m. that will feature remarks from Mayor David Narkewicz, Superintendent John Provost, Massachusetts Teachers Association president Barbara Madeloni, and Pamela Schwartz of the group Yes! Northampton.

This will be followed by a family-friendly celebration in the parking lot behind City Hall. Festivities will include a performance by Northampton schoolchildren under the direction of musician and school parent Nerissa Nields, as well as singing by Northampton High School’s a cappella group, the Northamptones. The event will also feature children’s activities, food, and informational tables about the city schools.

After the kickoff event, Keisch said organizers plan to keep the movement going through promotional efforts for the public schools, including public service announcements on the radio and letters to the editor of the newspaper.

“The message we want to really get out here is just that we really want people to see our public schools in the city as the best option for their children,” she said.

Provost said he has been involved in School Local since Keisch invited him to a meeting in the spring. He said he has helped supporters answer questions about the schools and gather other information that they feel would be helpful to the public.

“Parent-to-parent sharing of information about what’s happening in the schools is often more effective than official communications and school committee meetings,” Provost said.

He said he would not only encourage parents of current students to attend the rally and celebration, but anyone in the community who has an interest in the schools. He said supporters of School Local include grandparents and parents of students who have graduated many years ago.

“I believe that there’s been a national effort from certain parts of the political spectrum to discredit the work of teachers and the results obtained by public schools,” he said. “This effort is in part a response to that, because we’re doing really good things for kids in Northampton Public Schools. We want to make sure people realize that.”

Signs of support

To drum up enthusiasm, School Local volunteers set up photo booths at the elementary school open houses. Families took pictures with a sign on which they were asked to write what they enjoy about the public schools. These pictures, as well as submitted testimonials, are posted on the School Local Northampton website. School Local volunteer Kim Stillwell said between 50 and 60 families took pictures at each of the open houses.

At the Leeds School open house last week, families lined up enthusiastically to take their pictures. Messages on their signs included, “We Love Leeds,” “Everyone works together,” and “I love P.E.”

Parent Colin Chambers wrote “community” on his family’s sign. His wife, Kerry Chambers, said Leeds School has a great network of friends and family who help each other out.

“Leeds is just amazing with community,” she said. With them were their two children, Leeds School students Ellie, 7, and Gabriel, 10.

To prepare for the kickoff event, Nields, who plays in The Nields with her sister Katryna, has been teaching 44 students, from JFK Middle School and the Leeds, Bridge Street and Jackson Street elementary schools, to sing songs she believes captures the spirit of the movement. They have been meeting weekly at Jackson Street School, where Nields’ own two children are students. Her daughter, Lila, 9, will play the violin, while Nields plays guitar. Christine Devlin Eck will play drums.

Nields said she and her sister were originally invited to play at the celebration as The Nields, but decided it would be better to do something involving the students.

She emphasized that School Local is not meant to shame people for using school choice or sending their children to charter or private schools.

“Public schools don’t work for every family, and they don’t work for every kid,” she noted.

For her own two children, she said the city’s public schools seem to provide what they need, and she enjoys having a school in the neighborhood to which they can walk or bike.

“If you had told me how much this would mean to me in my life, I might not have believed you,” she said. “It is an opportunity I would not want anybody to miss.”

Her other child, Johnny, is 7. Her husband, Tom Nields-Duffy, was involved in the rebuilding of the Jackson Street School playground after the longtime wooden structure was taken down for safety reasons last year.

School parent Megan Zinn, who serves on the board of the Northampton Education Foundation, said that when she first moved to Northampton, the first thing that got her to feel at home was meeting the other parents at Bridge Street School.

“It was without a doubt the community at the school that made me feel that way,” she said.

Her two sons are now a senior at Northampton High School and an eighth-grader at JFK Middle School. She said she learned about the movement at an NEF board meeting, and that she jumped at the opportunity to help promote what goes on in the public schools.

“It is a stronger community if we are all involved in our local public schools, in a similar way that it’s a stronger community if we’re all buying from our local stores and farms,” she said. “So I think it resonates particularly well in a place like Northampton.”

More information on School Local can be found on the initiative website, schoollocalnorthampton.org, or on the Facebook page called “School Local Northampton,” www.facebook.com/schoollocal.

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.


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