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Virtual School

School board chooses virtual school’s trustees

GREENFIELD — The Greenfield School Committee’s selection of the five trustees who will lead the town’s cyber school after July 1 was made easier when two of the finalists dropped out hours before Tuesday’s meeting.

With only five finalists to fill as many slots, the School Committee appointed three Greenfield residents to the board: former Town Councilors Edward Berlin and Christopher Joseph and Internet strategist and activist Michael Phillips.

Rounding out the board will be former Stoneleigh Burnham School Head of School Paul Bassett, of Erving, and virtual school parent Christina Powell, of Reading.

After two hours of interviewing the candidates Tuesday, the School Committee voted 5-1 to approve the finalists — with Maryelen Calderwood casting the dissenting vote and Francia Wisnewski abstaining.

In the past week, there were as many as nine finalists chosen by an innovation subcommittee for the board slots.

But former School Committee chairman David Lanoie and Town Councilor Mark Maloni withdrew from consideration Tuesday. And YMCA Executive Director Robert Sunderland and virtual school parent Erica Nahey had dropped out last week.

The five-member board of trustees will now wait and see if the state approves Greenfield’s proposal to transition the 3-year-old Massachusetts Virtual Academy into a state-authorized virtual school. The school uses the Internet to teach 470 students who, for a variety of reasons, struggled in brick-and-mortar schools.

The state has indicated a willingness to support Greenfield’s application — which asked for an increase in tuition from sending districts, and could enroll as many as 750 students next year and 1,750 in five years — but nothing will be set in stone until the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s vote on June 25.

The trustees, who could decide to add two more members to the board, would begin their job six days later.

They would make every decision about the school, including whether to continue contracted service agreements with for-profit curriculum company K12 and Greenfield School Department administrators.

School Committee members asked candidates about relevant work experience as well as their thoughts on virtual education and on K12. Berlin, who was unable to attend the meeting, recorded a short video presentation for the committee.

The candidates expressed a desire to continue and improve Greenfield’s virtual school to provide an alternate form of education for students across the state.

Discussion about K12 dominated the conversation. The board would need to renew a contract with the Virginia-based company that has provided curriculum, teachers and educational materials and infrastructure for the virtual school.

Calderwood and Wisnewski — who have both voiced concerns about negative experiences other states have reported with the company and about the organization’s profiting on public education — asked the candidates if they were familiar with the company and its curriculum.

Chairman John Lunt interrupted one question with a point of order — saying that the Greenfield virtual school, unlike other schools across the country, did not allow K12 to manage the schools. Superintendent Susan Hollins repeated this point later, and spoke highly of the company, when asked by Phillips about K12’s cooperation during the past three years.

Powell, a parent of two in the school, was the only candidate with direct experience or knowledge of K12. She said she liked the way the curriculum was presented — both to student and to the parent or guardian who serve as the child’s learning coach.

None of the four present were steadfast in keeping K12 as the curriculum provider, saying they would review the company and choose the option that was best for the school’s students.

Hollins told the candidates that they represent the diversity in background that she envisioned while drafting Greenfield’s virtual school proposal with the innovation subcommittee.

Bassett spent his entire career as an educator — serving in administrative positions in the Gill-Montague Regional and the Pioneer Valley Regional school districts, before spending 28 years as Stoneleigh-Burnham’s head of school. He continues to work there as a teacher and debate coach.

Berlin — a lawyer and former mayoral candidate — currently works as a labor relations specialist for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

Joseph, who chaired the Town Council’s Ways and Means Committee, has two sons in the Greenfield school system and sits on the Franklin County Technical School Board of Trustees. He works as a business analyst in the information/technology sector.

Phillips is an Internet strategist and web development manager for Yankee Candle and has applied his web knowledge to nonprofit and start-up companies.

And Powell, who has served as the virtual school learning coach for her children the past three years, is a medical and technical writing management consultant. She earned her Ph.D. from Harvard for the study of viruses and is a former trustee of Pennsylvania State University.

The trustees will be paid $200 a meeting, not to exceed $2,400 a year or $1,200 a half year.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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