Back to School: Orange schools to focus on positivity, new educational approaches

  • Ralph C. Mahar Regional School has kicked off the 2019 to 2020 school year with excitement over new programs and educational approaches. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 8/28/2019 6:28:49 PM

ORANGE — Ralph C. Mahar Regional School has kicked off the 2019 to 2020 school year with excitement over new programs and educational approaches.

According to Principal Scott Hemlin, one highlight is the new program The School for Applied Research, called TSAR, which strays away from traditional in-classroom methods of education.

“Over the past few years, Mahar has focused on moving away from the antiquated, industrial model of education to provide students with opportunities to learn in a more collaborative and personalized environment that focuses on skill-building in addition to core curriculum content,” Hemlin said.

In the TSAR program, students will “identify a problem or need that may impact either the school, community, state or a larger regional level. Students work collaboratively to develop a solution to the problem while, at the same time, core curriculum content is infused into the course,” Hemlin continued.

In the first semester, teachers will also be trained in the “Character Strong” curriculum focused on “character education” and “social-emotional learning.” In the second semester, the curriculum will be implemented during advisory blocks school-wide.

New courses this year include dronebotics, journalism and maker space. Furthermore, eligible juniors and seniors looking to take courses not offered by the school can use the Virtual High School platform to take those courses online. Hemlin said Mahar will also continue to develop its own online courses, after an online course, “historical fiction,” was successfully implemented last year.

According to Middle School Principal Eric Dion, some middle school-specific highlights for this year include taking part in the state’s STEM week (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in October, with a focus on surgical techniques, a lunar colony and kinetic sculpturing.

The middle school will also be offering Spanish and French, and will continue its eighth grade advanced math algebra course. Eighth graders will also take part in the Project Lead The Way program, a nonprofit program that teaches technical skills in topics like computer science, engineering and biomedical science, while also teaching problem-solving, creativity and collaboration.

One concern the school has is student vaping, Hemlin said, and the School Committee has approved a $100 fine for any student caught vaping or smoking on school property or at school events. A $50 fine has been put in place for those caught with vaping or smoking materials.

Orange elementary schools

Orange’s two elementary schools, Fisher Hill Elementary School and Dexter Park Innovation School, will share a principal this year, a change from last year’s administration having a principal at each school.

Principal Christopher Dodge, already the Dexter Park principal, is taking the reins at Fisher Hill, and said it’s going to be a priority of his to be active in both buildings.

“I’m going to be in both buildings every day,” Dodge said. “I’m going to be visible in the buildings for students during those transition periods, lunch, recess.”

In addition, two full-time deans of students have been hired, one for each school, who Dodge said will be his “boots on the ground” when he is in the other building. The Fisher Hill dean is Kate Lambert, formerly a longtime teacher in Chicopee, and the Dexter Park dean is Alycia Murphy, previously a teacher at Dexter Park.

“(The deans) are also going to be building relationships with all of our stakeholders, the parents and community,” Dodge said. “They are additional support for those kids.”

Dodge said a top priority this year is maintaining a positive attitude and focusing on the schools’ values of “hope, joy, contribution and relationships,” but also not forget the events of last year.

Dodge acknowledged last year was a particularly difficult year for the schools, and it has been a frequent topic of discussion. During the 2018 to 2019 school year, Fisher Hill dealt with frequent student behavioral problems, with students becoming disruptive, threatening and even violent.

The outbursts led to frequent evacuations of classrooms, especially in the kindergarten and first grade, and teachers would relocate their students away from a potentially dangerous peer to another area of the school. One teacher noted the evacuations happened in her classroom more than 30 times.

Dodge said a “trauma specialist,” Chris Green from the Cambridge-based Institute for Health and Recovery, will work with teachers on how to handle such situations.

Additionally last year, previous Fisher Hill Principal Maureen Donelan was put on paid administrative leave early in the school year, then ultimately fired without explanation from school officials, much to the ire of parents and teachers. Donelan was cleared of wrongdoing by the state’s Department of Children & Families, and had consistent support from teachers and parents via letters to the School Committee and even downtown protests.

Dodge said this is the school year to remain positive and win back the trust of the community.

Swift River School

Swift River School, serving New Salem and Wendell students and also a feeder school for Mahar, is building a new outdoor classroom for its students, according to Secretary Ariel Barilla.

The classroom will be a pavilion near the playground, and work is being done at no labor cost by students from Franklin County Technical School.

“We are also awaiting the return of our goats, who moved here last spring to keep our chickens company in our new mini barn behind the preschool,” Barilla said. “We are looking forward to the students lending a hand with caring for the animals.”

Additionally, a new physical education teacher, Cole Hogg, has been hired.

Reach David McLellan at or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

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