Editorial: Pioneer making strides in advocating for student’s bright futures

Friday, December 01, 2017

Pioneer Valley Regional School District’s new superintendent may be discouraged and coasting to the exit, but the high school’s principal and parents are stepping on the gas.

Although the district is suffering from tight budgets and declining enrollment, Pioneer Principal Jean Bacon hopes to increase the number of students going on to college while bolstering graduation rates at the Northfield school.

During recent community forums at Pioneer’s four feeder schools, Bacon shared the two core goals that arose from conversations with the parent-led Academic Excellence Committee. Bacon said she intends to bring the plan to the Pioneer School Committee for approval in December or January.

She has several ideas for raising the bar of achievement at Pioneer, including aligning the high school curriculum with the state’s recommended “MassCore” curriculum and promoting more challenging options through expanded Advance Placement courses and dual enrollment at Greenfield Community College.

To align with MassCore, Pioneer students would have to complete one additional year of math, two years of foreign language, one year of art and five electives.

Only 48 percent of Pioneer students achieved MassCore requirements in 2016, a low for Franklin County. At some local schools, like Franklin County Technical School and Mohawk Trail Regional High School, all students completed MassCore requirements.

“It’s about raising the bar, raising expectations,” Bacon said about shifting to MassCore curriculum guidelines.

In addition to putting students through a more rigorous academic program, Bacon wants to counsel students that there are opportunities and money available for them to go to four-year colleges.

In 2016, 52 percent of Pioneer graduates went directly to four-year colleges compared to the state’s average of 60 percent. Rates throughout Franklin County range from a low of 3 percent for Franklin County Technical School and a high of 62 percent for Frontier Regional School.

But those statistics may belie a stronger underlying interest at Pioneer in academics and college that is demonstrated by the fact 86 percent of graduates in 2016 went on to two-year or four-year colleges. The state’s average is 80 percent.

Pioneer has expanded the number of Advanced Placement classes from four to five this year. Another 12 classes are available online. Among the subjects covered are computer science, biology, statistics, government and psychology.

The district is working hard to expand these advanced courses, Bacon has said.

Sixty-four percent of Pioneer’s students received a score of 3 or higher on AP tests in 2017, compared to the state average of 70 percent. However, Pioneer’s figures are up from 50 percent last year.

AP enrollment at Pioneer is up 27 percent from 88 to 112 students, while dual enrollment at Greenfield Community College is up from eight to 12 students.

Meanwhile, Bacon recognizes that while Pioneer can probably support and groom more students for college, they all won’t want to walk that path. She envisions expanding opportunities for students to experience the world of work through co-ops or internships to learn “basic employability skills” while in school.

At present, students in grades 7 to 12 can participate in career development education, seeing what careers might suit them, what they need to learn at a job — and subsequently, what path they need to take in school.

By at least one other measure, Pioneer is already doing well by all its students, whether on college or workplace tracks. The graduation rate is among the highest in the state, 97 percent in 2016.

These are all indicators pointing in the right direction, and Bacon and the ACE parents want to get behind that momentum and push, and we commend them for that — especially in the face of budget cuts and related staff reductions.

Superintendent Ruth Miller, who has had to cut staff and services and has inherited a huge lunch program deficit during her nearly three-year tenure, has announced she’s moving on when her contract expires this summer — explaining, in essence, that she didn’t sign up to dismantle a school system. We were sorry she feels that way, but she has to choose her own path.

In light of her decision, it’s all the more refreshing and encouraging to see that Bacon and the ACE parents at Pioneer aren’t discouraged but rather intend to work harder to build on their school’s strengths and successes.