Pioneer School Committee approves new graduation requirements

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

Recorder Staff
Saturday, January 27, 2018

NORTHFIELD — The Pioneer Valley Regional School Class of 2020 will graduate having completed the state-recommended “MassCore” curriculum, thanks to a Thursday vote by the School Committee approving increased graduation requirements.

Pioneer Principal Jean Bacon first shared her proposal to increase requirements in November through community forums at each district elementary school, receiving support from a number of parents and teachers interested in raising the bar for students.

“Pioneer’s current requirements aren’t in line with our neighbors and they’re not in line with the state,” Bacon explained.

Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education indicate that at some local schools, like Franklin County Technical School and Mohawk Trail Regional High School, all students complete the state-recommended curriculum, while only 48 percent of Pioneer students achieved MassCore requirements in 2016, a low point for Franklin County.

By increasing requirements, the total number of credits needed to graduate increases only from 118 to 120. New requirements, which will become effective starting with the Class of 2020, include an additional year of math, two years of a foreign language, one year of fine or performing arts electives, and two additional physical education credits.

Juniors and seniors will be required to take courses in six out of seven periods, rather than the former five out of seven, which Bacon said will provide students with more structure. Thirty-nine percent of seniors have two study hall periods, she said, and while about half of them use the time well to study, the other half spend time on their cell phones or take trips to Dunkin’ Donuts.

“I think it’s very important for kids to be engaged throughout the day,” said science teacher Penney Betsold. “Having two study halls a day is not engaging our students.”

Bacon read prepared letters from teachers who couldn’t attend Thursday’s meeting, including high school counselor Kelly Griffith, who supported the changes, saying that raising the standards will increase college readiness and reduce the number of costly remedial courses students need to take in college.

Griffith particularly supported the foreign language requirement, noting that while language experience is a requirement in college, her recommendations to take a course at Pioneer “fall on deaf ears.” Rather, because it’s not a graduation requirement, students are often eager to drop the courses.

“I feel really strongly (that we need) to set those expectations for kids who aren’t in the developmental position yet to set them for themselves,” agreed School Committee member Robin L’Etoile.

Visual art teacher Tracy Derrig spoke in support of the arts requirement, saying the “arts department has a lot of resources that are no longer available in other institutions,” such as a furnace for casting metals. A new requirement might make such resources better used.

“There’s a lot of things here at Pioneer that kids don’t even know are there, and because they have the option to not look into them, they don’t,” she said.

Pioneer parent Deborah Potee hoped putting Pioneer on-par with other local schools like Mohawk might attract families considering moving to the area, while also maintaining the school’s staff.

“Most importantly, it would keep teachers rather than having teachers have to leave,” she said. “I want them to be valuable. They’ll be valuable if they have students in their classrooms every day.”

Bacon said no increase in staff would be needed. Rather, students would fill up classes with low enrollment.

As part of her proposal, Bacon seeks to have an alternative path to graduation for select students, since sitting through a host of classes doesn’t work for every learner. She said Pioneer has received a grant to help develop such an alternative path, that will include demonstrations of competency in literacy, math, science and lifelong skills.

Hopefully, Potee said, raising the bar will help Pioneer “be all that it can be.”

Reach Shelby Ashline at: sashline@recorder.com

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