Belchertown teachers get new foundation’s first grants; STEM program at high school to launch

  • Belchertown High School, 142 Springfield Rd.

  • Belchertown High School

For the Gazette
Published: 8/22/2018 8:03:15 AM

BELCHERTOWN — Teachers looking to try new ways to educate their students in the Belchertown schools now have a new place to turn for funding — a new education foundation.

“If a teacher or staff wants to do something creative, they can write to get some of this seed money to start a program to help students with things that are sort of outside the core academic area,” School Committee Chairman Michael Knapp said.

The Belchertown Education Foundation, launched earlier this year by a group of parents, began accepting project applications from teachers for the upcoming school year in June and by this month had distributed some $8,000 for projects throughout the district. Organizers said the money is coming from some $10,000 the nonprofit raised through donations and fundraisers like the Valley Gives campaign.

The idea is to fund educational projects not covered by the regular school budget.

“Our goal is to hopefully raise enough money each year to fund projects by teachers and staff and to help foster some new exciting projects, whether it be new equipment, a project or a new innovative way of thinking,” said Lesley Mugford, the foundation’s president and mother of two Belchertown High School students. “The options are limitless as long as it fits into our goal of trying to impact a large amount of students.”

Some of the grant money this year will be used by the high school band to purchase a new marimba, while the old one is passed down to the middle school. Other grants will help fund a new seating arrangement in a Jabish Brook Middle School classroom to better facilitate a new kind of mathematics instruction, and tools to tend the school garden.

Two years ago, the founding members of the Belchertown Education Foundation met to discuss how they can preserve quality education in a district facing cuts. According to former School Committee chairwoman Dawn French, the high school eliminated several teaching positions at the end of the 2015-16 school year, and had considered cuts to the band and junior varsity sports programs.

“There was talk of some budget shortfalls in the school budget and all of us are parents in town, so we wanted to find a way to still provide some of the really great innovative programs for our children that unfortunately may fall short of what is typically in a school budget,” Mugford said.

The nine-member foundation received its nonprofit status this year and is currently planning its next major fundraiser: a fall gala at the Cold Spring Country Club on Oct. 13.

New STEM program, other changes in offing

Personalized and project-based learning are guiding principles behind some of the changes occurring in the Belchertown school district in the coming year. When students assume more ownership over their studies and focus what they want to learn, it can create a more engaging learning environment, Knapp said.

Belchertown High School’s new grant-funded science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, classroom will also go online later this year. The classroom is funded by $100,000 secured by state Sen. Eric Lesser in 2016 and funded this summer. The new computer science and engineering classroom will offer 3-D graphic design software, programmable robots, and tools to study “green engineering,” among other technologies.

“The district is trying to grow like this, but it’s tough because it requires a different approach to teaching a class and that’s hard to do,” Knapp said. “It requires some training, and in a district you want teachers to do what they’re best at.”

According to Knapp, the high school will introduce new and stricter graduation requirements this school year based on MassCore standards. New requirements include a full year of art education, four years of math (up from three), new elective classes and more credits required to graduate.

The school is also looking to improve its social and emotional learning options by creating specialized resources for students of different age groups and integrating those resources into the standard curriculum. 

At the same time, some students are mourning a cut to the district’s Latin program, which will not be taught to eighth-graders this year, and the subsequent loss of the high school’s longtime Latin teacher Thomas Howell. Knapp said schedules are still being finalized.

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