Editorial: The demise of Tri-County Schools

  • The home of the former Tri-County Schools on East Street in Eashtampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 6/4/2019 7:30:22 PM

In its heyday, Tri-County Schools provided a noble service to many vulnerable youth from throughout western Massachusetts and beyond who were in danger of dropping out of school because of a range of emotional, educational and behavioral factors.

They did this by implementing targeted help for K-12 students in small class settings, introducing life- and job-skills classes and providing one-on-one instruction. The goal was to return these students, some of whom lived in foster homes or residential facilities operated by the school’s parent agency, back to a regular school setting.

The model was so successful in the years following its founding in 1986 that the school underwent two big multimillion dollar expansions in Easthampton and continued a steady growth in enrollment that reached more than 100 students.

“I want Tri-County to be viewed as doing a good job of educating kids,” then executive director of the school’s parent agency, Tri-County Youth Programs Inc., told the Gazette in 1998.

As it continued to grow, the agency built a new high school in 2000 on 20 acres of a former tobacco farm on East Street in Easthampton. It eventually expanded its student base from only serving high school students to lower grades, adding teachers and administrators along the way.

Five years later, in 2005, to address a waiting list that had grown to 30 students, Tri-County opened a new school wing and built a new administrative headquarters next door. The school grew to educate kindergarten through grade 12 students with educational and vocational programs that included auto repair, culinary arts and sustainable life learning programs.

This success story began to unravel in 2011, when a scathing state audit found that the Northeast Center for Youth and Families, which had taken over Tri-County Youth Programs, misused $1.2 million in public funds between 2005 and 2009 — money that should have been returned to the commonwealth to serve the state’s neediest youths.

Then following the 2018 school year, Tri-County Schools announced it would close to prepare a new 11-month school year proposal to submit to the state. The goal, the school said, was to reopen when the plan was approved.

Just a few months later, in August 2018, came a disturbing report by the Disability Law Center, of Boston, describing alleged abuse of students at the school. The report found that staff repeatedly used excessive force against students in restraints, imposed improper time-out and disciplinary practices and neglected students in a variety of ways.

Shortly after the report came out, officials decided to close the school altogether. Paul Rilla, executive director of the Northeast Center for Youth and Families, told Gazette reporter Greta Jochem last month that the decision to close was tied to low enrollment and not the result of the allegations of abuse and neglect.

While it’s true enrollment had declined — down to 43 students during the 2017-2018 school year — we can’t help but see a correlation between that decline and the Disability Law Center’s report. The report contains some of the same concerns raised in a 2015 program review and corrective active plan by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

We are disappointed Rilla and other school board members made this decision to close quietly and, were it not for inquiries by the Gazette, the school would likely have faded away without any word of why it didn’t reopen.

There’s no question the school faced challenges. The job was made more difficult over time because traditional public schools are keeping an increasing number of special education students in their own districts and because of the types of issues students walked through the school doors with — from emotional and psychiatric to conduct disorder issues.

Perhaps the school would have ended up in the same place anyway, but it’s disingenuous to say the Disability Law Center’s report had nothing to do with the decision to close.

School officials had little to say following last summer’s report, though Rilla did weigh in last month with disappointing comments about the report. He called the findings “exaggerated” and said that he “never thought the kids were unsafe here.”

We wish Rilla wouldn’t be so dismissive about those details, even if the school is now closed for good.

The demise of this once important piece to the educational puzzle is a blow to the youth it served. But we hope the school will soon again be put to good use. The NEARI School, a special education school in Holyoke, may lease the school and move to Easthampton in September.

NEARI, which has been looking for a new school building for more than a decade, provides specialized care for students with significant social-emotional, behavioral, and/or learning challenges.

The day school serves about 40 students ages 7 to 22 in Hampshire and Hampden counties, and parts of Franklin, Worcester and Berkshire counties.

Maybe this story will have a brighter ending after all.




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