Charter school celebrates 25 years: Postponed event to recognize a quarter century for Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School in Easthampton

  • Joy Kinigstein, an art teacher at the Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School, works with Emma Shea earlier this month. The other students are, from left, Saoirse Stevens and Jacqueline Saccento. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hilltown Charter Public School, now in Easthampton, began with 40 students in 1995 in Williamsburg. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gina Wyman, a math teacher at the Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School in Easthampton, works with Juliana Wiljnhoven, 10, left, and Maya Symolon, 9, earlier this month. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 3/11/2020 11:46:19 AM
Modified: 3/11/2020 11:46:09 AM

The Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School originated after a group of five Hampshire County parents, artists and educators came together looking to establish a school with a curriculum catered to expressive arts and student-directed programs. It turns 25 this year.

“At the time, we felt like it would be wonderful to have more diversity in education choices in the Hilltown community,” says Lee MacKinnon, one of the founders of the charter school.

In recognition of the school’s milestone, there will be an event planned for parents, alumni and community members at the Garden House at Look Park. The event was originally slated for Saturday, but was postponed due to concerns over the coronavirus. No postponement date was immediately available.

With a background in early education, MacKinnon was the one who made the initial call to the Department of Education inquiring about any plans for charter schools to open in the western Massachusetts area. In response, she was sent back an application to open a school so the group of five took that as a go-ahead to propose Hilltown Charter. The team expanded to a large community effort of more than 50 volunteers as they began the process setting up the school.

On Dec. 9, 1994, the Massachusetts Secretary of Education granted Hilltown a five-year charter to begin operation in Williamsburg. The school opened its doors in September 1995 with three classrooms and 40 students, kindergarten through sixth grade.

“The school has changed a lot since then but a lot of the key essential elements are still there. It was a way to provide an alternative education for people’s own kids, and it really grew and changed,” says Dierdre Arthen, director of Community and Family Communication at Hilltown Charter. Arthen came as a parent to Hilltown in 1996 and took her working position in 2000.

Hilltown school moved to its current location in Easthampton four years ago from Williamsburg’s Brassworks building. The school no longer has to share a space with other tenants. Not only has it grown in physical size but student numbers have increased.

After the school’s first set of sixth graders expressed interest in staying at Hilltown Charter right up until high school, the students proposed that the school expand to include seventh and eighth grade. Following much debate, Hilltown satisfied these students’ desires in 2000.

“I never anticipated it going up into middle school. I think it’s been a wonderful addition to the school to have older kids be the school leaders,” says MacKinnon.

According to Arthen, currently, the seventh and eighth grades combined have about 60 students, which was the number of students who attended the school when it first opened. Now, there are a total of 218 students spread throughout 12 mixed-age classrooms.

“We became a K-8 school which has expanded our experience in really wonderful ways. It’s great to see the seventh and eighth-grade students in collaboration with the kindergarten and first-grade students and to give a small environment for people to go through their early adolescent phases. It’s been very rewarding,” Arthen says.

Hilltown’s mission separates them from other schools in the area. They are committed to developing a strong community within the school, the classrooms, and between teachers and parents.

“We have an investment in hands-on education, project-based curriculum and on elevating student voices while working with the balance of what it means to be an individual but also part of a community,” says Arthen.

Hilltown’s hallways serve as a student gallery currently lined with hanging sculptures, scratchboard images of Washington, D.C., monuments and colorful floral paintings. Along with visual arts, Hilltown also implements programs in music with singing, instruments and dance.

According to the school’s mission statement, students learn “how to question, how to research, how to analyze, and how to be successful working alone and as a team.” Hilltown believes critical thinking, independent judgment, and problem-solving strategies are essential for students’ future success.

“I think that as we educate children we are creating the society of the future and that helping students graduate who are able to think for themselves, question and listen is probably the biggest accomplishment I see at the school,” says Arthen.

For updated information on the event celebratin the school, visit the school’s website at


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