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SPRINGFIELD — For the second consecutive year, The Enterprise Holdings Foundation has awarded funding to support Square One’s Campaign for Healthy Kids. This year’s gift totaled more than $14,000.

The contribution is made possible through Enterprise Holdings Foundation’s FY22 ROAD (Respect Opportunity Achievement Diversity) Forward program. This is an employee-driven initiative focusing on the improvement of social and racial equity in communities they serve.

In presenting the donation, Shawn Fleming, group Human Resources manager, said, “we are so proud to continue to support Square One in its commitment to providing opportunities for children and families in greater Springfield, for a second year. Advancing diversity, equity and inclusion is a company-wide priority for Enterprise Holdings, and we’re committed to strengthening our community with the help of outstanding organizations like Square One.”

“We were beyond excited to learn that Enterprise selected Square One to receive this very generous gift, again this year” said Kristine Allard, vice president of Development & Communication for Square One. “Our success in serving the children and families in our region is dependent upon the generosity of business and individuals who recognize the need to support our important work. We are so grateful to the Enterprise Holdings Foundation for this amazing gift.”

Last summer, Enterprise Holdings launched its inaugural local ROAD Forward grants to nearly 700 nonprofits addressing social and racial equity gaps facing youth and families in local communities.

The Campaign for Healthy Kids is a multi-year fund development initiative focused on Square One’s commitment to providing healthy meals, physical fitness, social-emotional wellbeing, and a healthy learning environment. All funds raised will directly support the children and families who rely on Square One to help meet their early learning and family support service needs. The campaign includes numerous opportunities for businesses and individuals to become involved as donors and partners.

Square One currently provides early learning services to more than 500 infants, toddlers and school-age children each day; and family support services to 1,500 families each year, as they work to overcome the significant challenges in their lives.

Education Special Coverage

Grade Expectations

Michelle Schutt says that, while it may seem like Greenfield, Mass. is a long way from Twin Falls, Idaho (3,160 miles, to be exact), it’s really not.

At least when it comes to the issues and challenges facing the institutions that now comprise the top lines on her résumé — College of Southern Idaho (CSI), where she was vice president of Community and Learner Services, and Greenfield Community College (GCC), where she started just a few weeks ago as the school’s 11th president — and their overall missions.

“There are many similarities between these communities,” she explained. “There’s a high number of first-generation college students, people who are hungry for educational opportunities, definite need within the community … they are very much alike, which lends itself to the applicability of what I’ve done in the past and what I hope to do the future. I’m a big believer that education opens doors and changes family trees, and that we can all be educated.”

Schutt comes to GCC with a résumé that includes considerable work in the broad realms of student services and diversity, equity, and inclusion, and she said this will be one of the main focal points at GCC.

“If we’re going to recruit and retain students,” she told BusinessWest, “we’ve got to take into account their entire experience because often, it’s not the academic rigor or even the finances that keep them from succeeding; it’s the social-capital issues of how they’re maneuvering through life.

“COVID definitely exasperated the social needs of our students,” she went on. “But they were always there.”

Regarding diversity, she said this issue is often looked at through the lens of ethnic diversity — and that is certainly part of it. But there are many aspects to this matter, some more visible than others, and they must all be considered at institutions like GCC.

“If we’re going to recruit and retain students, we’ve got to take into account their entire experience because often, it’s not the academic rigor or even the finances that keep them from succeeding; it’s the social-capital issues of how they’re maneuvering through life.”

“It’s a little cliché, but this is a bit of an iceberg topic,” she explained. “There are the physical things that we notice about each other, and then there’s the 90% of the iceberg that’s below the water line; you really need to get to know someone before you can fully understand how they, too, are diverse.”

Schutt told BusinessWest that, after more than 20 years of work in higher-education administration — work that had taken her from St. Cloud, Minn. to Hanover, Ind., Laramie, Wyo., and then Idaho, she considered herself ready to be a college president, and began looking to apply for such positions.

This recognition didn’t come overnight, she said, and it was actually several years after the then-president of CSI asked her to consider that position before she considered herself truly qualified and ready to take the helm at a campus.

She said she looked at a few opportunities that presented themselves — there have been a number of retirements and shifts in leadership in higher education (as in other sectors) over the past few years — but soon focused her attention on GCC.

Schutt said the school — which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary — and its mission, the area it serves, the team in place, and the institution’s prospects for future growth and evolution all appealed to her.

Her immediate goals are to become acquainted with the school, its staff and faculty, as well as Greenfield and the broader area served by the college.

Looking longer-term, she said she wants to properly position GCC for a future where enrollment will be even more of a challenge than it is today, and where students’ ‘needs,’ a broad term to be sure, will only grow.

“Nationally, we’re heading for an enrollment cliff,” she said, adding that 2025 is the year when already-declining numbers are expected to reach a new and more ominous level. “We have to ensure that we’re offering what people need and what people are looking for; we have to take a look at what we’re doing in workforce and in community education and what we’re doing with credit-based courses, and align those with good outcomes.”

 

Course of Action

As noted, Schutt brings to GCC a résumé dominated by work in student services, with a focus on diversity and inclusion.

At the College of Southern Idaho, where she started in 2015, she held several positions, starting with associate vice president of Student Services, then vice president of that same department, and, starting just last year, vice president of Community and Learner Services.

“If they’re stressed about some sort of insecurity or some issue related to childcare or transportation, it’s really difficult to focus on calculus. That’s where student affairs and student services come in — to educate the entire student.”

She lists a number of accomplishments, including a sharp rise in enrollment for the 2020-21 school year; steady increases in Hispanic student enrollment, from 17.8% in 2015-16 to 26.3% in 2109-20; and improvement in the graduation rate from 20% in 2016 to 34% in 2020.

But she believes many of her most significant gains came in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Indeed, Schutt noted that, in helping CSI become a Hispanic Serving Institution (HIS), she recruited and hired bilingual staff members for each area of Student Services, spearheaded CSI’s first HIS Week, lobbied the board of trustees for gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, developed and offered a program called Parent College in both English and Spanish, established the Gay-Straight Alliance student group, and advocated for and hired the school’s first full-time veterans’ coordinator.

Prior to CSI, she served as director of Student Affairs at Penn State University’s campus in Scranton. As a member of the school’s senior administrative leadership team, she was engaged in strategic planning, policy development, and problem solving.

She said that she gravitated toward work in student services (she also teaches) because of its importance to the success of not only students but the institution in question. Summing it up, she said such work falls into the realm of student success and making sure they can get on — and stay on — a path to achieving their goals, whatever they may be.

“It’s about ensuring that their housing and food and social integration and mental health and physical health are all taken into account as it relates to their journey,” she explained, “because all of those things play a factor in their academic success.

“If they’re stressed about some sort of insecurity or some issue related to childcare or transportation, it’s really difficult to focus on calculus,” she went on. “That’s where student affairs and student services come in — to educate the entire student.”

When asked what she liked about this aspect of higher education, she said there are many rewards that come with it, especially those derived from helping students clear some of the many hurdles to success.

“I love that we’re able to help each and every student achieve their goals, and that we are looking at them as individuals, as humans, and not another person in a seat, and that we’re educating the whole person.”

“I love that we’re able to help each and every student achieve their goals, and that we are looking at them as individuals, as humans, and not another person in a seat, and that we’re educating the whole person.”

Looking to take her career in higher education to a higher plane, Schutt looked at several job opportunities, but eventually focused on the presidency at GCC because of what she considered a very solid match.

Compatibility was revealed the initial interview, conducted via Zoom, and then reinforced at a day-long, in-person session, during which she met and took questions from several constituencies, including faculty, staff, students, and other stakeholders.

“There is a shared set of values that focuses on students and recognizes the importance of community integration for a community college,” she said when asked what she came away with from that day’s experiences.

“When I came to campus, it was validating to meet people who truly care about students,” she went on. “And that was conveyed in every group that I met with; that was conveyed by the students — that they felt they were cared for. And those things are really important to me; you can’t make that up. And the end of the day, if you don’t care about students, the students know that.”

 

School of Thought

As noted, Schutt will bring a deep focus on the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion to her new role, noting that, while she has always had an appreciation for these matters, it reached a new and much higher level through her experiences teaching English and social justice.

“I was teaching in the evening, when we had the greatest diversity of students,” she explained. “And to understand the general college-student experience was really eye-opening to me and made me a better administrator.

“That’s because, as a vice president, you see the highly successful students, or the students who were in great despair, who may not persist no matter how we helped them,” she went on. “To see the 40-year-old mom coming back to school, the 16-year-old dual-credit student, the student with limited English acquisition, the working dad … all those people coming together in one class really opened my eyes to the immense diversity in who we educate in community college.”

At CSI, Schutt said, it became a priority for the school to become a Hispanic Serving Institution, and the many steps taken to achieve that status became learning experiences on many levels. And, ultimately, they helped enable the school to better serve all its students.

“We worked really hard to make sure we were understanding the Hispanic student experience and that we were ensuring equitable outcomes and inclusionary practices,” she explained. “There were always critics who would say, ‘you’re focused on Hispanic students only.’ Well … no, we were making all our practices and policies better for all of our students.

“We worked very hard to get designation, but along the way, we also worked on broadening our understanding and awareness of all students,” she went on. “I lobbied in front of the board of trustees for more gender-neutral bathrooms and started a food bank and made sure we had a full-time veterans’ coordinator. Those are things that improve opportunities for all our students.

“When we’re taking about equity, we’re making sure that everyone has the same opportunity,” she continued. “But how they get there may look very different, and the inclusion component of it is celebrating those differences, and there’s a lot of work to be done — in the field, in society — and Greenfield isn’t any different.”

Elaborating, she said it’s one of her goals to soon have an administrator focused specifically on diversity, equity, and inclusion, a broad realm that, as she said, goes beyond ethnic diversity and to those matters below the tip of the iceberg.

“DEI here might look at educational attainment, it might look at poverty and wealth inequities, it may include LGBTQ identities — there’s diversity everywhere,” she said. “We can’t say, ‘we all look the same here in Greenfield or in the Pioneer Valley, so there is no diversity.’ Diversity is everywhere; it just may not be as obvious.”

 

Class Act

Looking ahead, Schutt said she’s looking forward to filling her calendar with meetings with local officials and members of the business community as she works to gain a broader understanding of the community served by the college.

She’s also looking forward to the fall, and a projected increase in enrollment as the school looks to fully recover from the pandemic and its many side effects, as well as the coming year, an important milestone for GCC as it celebrates 60 years of growth and change.

Mostly, though, she’s looking forward to continuing what has become, in many respects, her life’s work in student services and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

As she said, if schools like GCC are to successfully recruit and retain students, they must take into account their entire experience. And this will be the focus of her efforts.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Summer Vocation

Eureka! is to increase girls’ confidence

The goal of Eureka! is to increase girls’ confidence in STEM subjects and inspire confidence in STEM careers down the line.

As Emmalene Pirnie thinks about starting college next year, she considers how the past five years in the Eureka! Program at Girls Inc. of the Valley has prepared her for that journey.

“I remember being a shy, nervous seventh-grader. If you had asked me about it then, I probably wouldn’t have answered you,” she said. “The first summer was where I saw how much I loved the community that Girls Inc. built. I loved being able to talk to the staff as friends and the other girls I got to meet. Throughout the past five years, I’d have to say it’s impacted my life in more ways than one.”

She went on to tell BusinessWest that the STEM-focused program made her realize she did enjoy her science, technology, engineering, and mathematics classes in high school; she just didn’t like the way they were being taught.

Suzanne Parker, executive director of Girls Inc. of the Valley, explained that stereotypes linger around women not taking an interest in STEM-related learning, and these stereotypes have created a rigid gender divide in the workforce.

“The whole goal, aside from high-school graduation, is to increase confidence in STEM subjects and to inspire confidence in STEM careers in the future,” Parker said. “Having confidence in those skills is going to benefit you no matter the career path you decide to take.”

Suzanne Parker

Suzanne Parker

The program is five summers long, starting the summer after seventh grade. Through a partnership with UMass Amherst and Bay Path University, students are able to explore fully immersive, STEM-based workshops.

Parker explained that half the time is dedicated to exploring different STEM experiences and building exposure, while 25% of the time is focused around personal development, with students learning soft skills needed for jobs, such as leadership, public speaking, and communication. And the last 25% of the time is related to physical health and wellness and comprehensive sexuality education.

“They’re different from other programs in the area — it’s not just teaching the subject; they are doing science, which is different. They’re immersed in their learning,” said Yadilette Rivera-Colón, board chair for Girls Inc. of the Valley. “When we talk about the STEM workshops, it’s not demonstrations. They actually get in, use equipment, and manipulate specimens, stuff like that. It’s a really hands-on experience when they’re at UMass and Bay Path University.”

“ I loved being able to talk to the staff as friends and the other girls I got to meet. Throughout the past five years, I’d have to say it’s impacted my life in more ways than one.”

Workshops, both single-day and multi-day, range from from landscape architecture and regional planning to chemistry and microbiology. Designed to be accessible to youth, the hands-on workshops promote active, engaged learning, to turn their minds on, Parker said.

“It’s incredible stuff they’re doing — and I have to read it because, most times, I don’t even know what they’re doing. They’re working with incredibly well-known researchers in their fields.”

 

Everybody Wins

Parker told BusinessWest that she views the program as a win-win-win. It is a win for Girls Inc. because the impact of the program is high. It is also a win for UMass, as many of the participating professors are writing the Eureka! program into their National Science Foundation grants. They’re required to engage in what are called ‘broader impacts,’ participating in programs and organizations with the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.

“Professors love the Eureka! program because we bring students they want to work with — girls, other gender-oppressed youth, people of color living in the Springfield, Chicopee, Holyoke areas — but how do you make those connections?” Parker said. “We bus the kids to them, and the professors volunteer their time.”

Rivera-Colón also added that “the youth have a voice in the program. Sometimes the partnerships are born of things the youth want to explore. So we think about who we know in the community that does X, Y, and Z. From there, we get new partnerships, too.”

The biggest winners in the Eureka! Program, of course, are its scholars. They’re often students from lower-income neighborhoods whose families aren’t able to afford other summer programs. Having a completely accessible and free learning environment provides exposure and multiple opportunities.

“Look at opportunities,” Parker said. “More times than not, STEM careers are well-paying careers. They can really lift up themselves, their families, and their communities out of poverty. Making sure there’s access to that type of programming is very important.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 7% of total jobs in the workforce are STEM careers. Within that, about 27% of the workers are women — and 5% of that number are women of color.

“Gender-oppressed people in general are very underrepresented and underserved when they express an interest in science. A lot of it gets squandered by systematic things that happen,” Rivera-Colón said.

She went on to explain that stereotypes, especially around math, are creating barriers for young girls. But actually, girls just have different learning styles than the way concepts have been created by universities.

“Universities were built to cater young, all white men. And a lot of that hasn’t changed to this day, even though women have access to study at those institutions,” she said. “It is up to us at Girls Inc. of the Valley to get our local youth ready to face those challenges and feel like they belong and that they deserve a spot in those programs and careers. The playing field just isn’t leveled for them — they have to do a lot more, so we try to arm them with the tools necessary to be able to move forward.”

Studies suggest that a more diverse group of problem solvers will create more diverse results — which benefits research and society in general because more peoples’ will be catered to.

“There are a lot of big problems in the world, and those problems will go to scientists, engineers, technicians, and mathematicians,” Parker said. “If there are only a small group of people trying to solve the problems that don’t represent the population, then you’re going to get very limited kinds of solutions. Having a broader, diverse group of people that are involved in problem solving is so important.”

Parker told BusinessWest that Girls Inc. of the Valley was chosen be a part of Project Accelerate, a new program through the national Girls Inc. that will track Eureka! scholars that have graduated and help them go on to college and give them the support they need.

“It’s one thing to graduate from high school and get into that engineering program, but what are those supports that will help ensure success through that time period?” Parker said. “We’re really excited about that.”

 

Life Lessons

The Eureka! program was designed to provide a safe and encouraging space for STEM curiosities, but it was built to provide its scholars with much more.

“I’m personally not looking for a career in STEM, but I think the program has taught me much more than what a STEM career has to offer,” Pirnie said. “I learned it’s OK to ask questions and advocate for yourself, especially in underrepresented areas, especially in math and science.”

The West Springfield native isn’t sure yet what major she wants to dive into at college, but is confident in her future journey because of the connections made and skills built by the Eureka! program.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Education

A Class Act

By Keara Moulton

 

Educational assistance programs provide access to learning opportunities for staff members to gain new skills and maintain up-to-date knowledge in their field with financial assistance from their employer.

This is a commonly offered employer benefit, but not all business owners might be aware of the current opportunity to expand this offering.

Keara Moulton

Keara Moulton

“Whether your business already has an educational assistance program in place or you are considering providing one as a benefit soon, this can be a great recruitment and retention program.”

The CARES Act of 2020 included an expansion of Section 127, which allows employers to expense payments to employee student loans in addition to previously allowed payments on tuition, fees, books, and supplies. This expansion was extended through Dec. 31, 2025 by the Taxpayer Certainty and Disasters Tax Relief Act.

Whether your business already has an educational assistance program in place or you are considering providing one as a benefit soon, this can be a great recruitment and retention program. With the expansion to include public and private student-loan payments toward both principal and interest, employers have the potential to provide educational assistance not only to employees currently enrolled in courses, but also to recent graduates who are already making monthly payments using their post-tax income.

To qualify as an educational assistance program, the plan must be written, accessible to all employees, and spell out what the money can be used for. The business can either directly pay the educational institution or student-loan servicer on behalf of the employee, or they can pay the employee directly and then potentially request a receipt of employee payments if their specific written plan requires it.

If the total payments for educational assistance are under $5,250, the employee will not be taxed on this additional benefit. However, if the payments for tuition and loan assistance exceed $5,250, the employee would then pay taxes on the overage as it would now be included in box 1 of their W-2.

Recently, we had a local business reach out to inquire about the potential implementation of an educational assistance program that takes advantage of this expansion of Section 127. One of their key questions was ‘is this something you think we should offer to employees, knowing that we handle payroll in house using QuickBooks?’ Ease of implementation to process this pre-tax contribution will vary with the type of QuickBooks product the business uses (i.e. desktop or online).

QuickBooks payroll will need to be set up to accept and track the payments by going through the CARES Act section to check off the applicable pay items to include. With this expansion available through 2025, your employees can benefit from it for more than three years if your bookkeeper can adapt your program to your payroll system now.

This fringe benefit does mean that employees who receive this money will not be able to claim any of the tax-free education expenses (the amount received under $5,250) as the basis for another deduction or credit on their 1040 tax return. This includes the Lifetime Learning Credit and Student Loan Interest Deduction. However, the Lifetime Learning Credit is limited to a maximum of $2,000 per return and is non-refundable. In other words, the employee could use the credit to pay any tax owed, but they wouldn’t receive any of the tax credit back as a refund.

This credit is also phased out completely if the employee has an adjusted gross income over $69,000 as a single filer or $138,000 if married filing jointly. Moreover, the Student Loan Interest Deduction is limited to $2,500 and is eliminated by a phaseout if adjusted gross income is more than $85,000. With the income limits in place on the credits and deductions currently available to individual students and student-loan borrowers, this expansion to Section 127 has the potential to benefit a broader base of employees than the credits and deductions.

If you have any questions about how this might affect your educational assistance program or any other programs, deductions, or credits, please feel free to reach out for detailed tax advice. u

 

Keara Moulton is an associate at the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

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The Berkshire Economic Recovery Project, a program of 1Berkshire and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, with funding from the United States Economic Development Administration, announced the launch of its women- and minority-owned business enterprise (W/MBE) module.

The training module, available in both English and Spanish, provides a high-level overview of what it means to be a certified women- and/or minority-owned business enterprise, and how such a certification can help support the small businesses in the Berkshires. In addition to the short overview training modules, interested businesses will also find a direct link to schedule a free intake consultation with the Economic Development team at 1Berkshire.

These consultations will allow 1Berkshire to make direct referrals to technical assistance support to help guide interested women- and minority-owned businesses through the certification process.

“We know we have many incredible small businesses in the Berkshires owned and operated by women, immigrants, minorities, and LGBTQ community members, however we find very few businesses are certified as such,” said Benjamin Lamb, 1Berkshire’s director of Economic Development. “This effort aims to move the needle on helping our underserved business owners access the opportunities that W/MBE certification unlocks, including government contracting opportunities, specific loan and grant programs, tax incentives, and more.”

Businesses and business owners are invited to visit the W/MBE module page at https://bit.ly/3yff8zP for more information and to view the recordings.

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LENOX — The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home, announced its 2022 Summer Lecture Series line-up. Now in its 29th year, the Summer Lecture series brings leading biographers and historians to the Berkshires. This year’s series includes journalist and New York Times bestselling author Kati Marton, Pushcart prize-winning poet Ravi Shankar, and Syrian/Jordanian thought leader Luma Mufleh, among other notable speakers. 

Lectures will be held outdoors under an open-air tent on Mondays at 4 p.m. and Tuesdays at 11 a.m., beginning July 11 through August 30. To view the full line-up and purchase tickets, visit EdithWharton.org.

“We have a fascinating mix of narratives about historical figures and contemporary underrepresented voices in this year’s lineup,” said Patricia Pin, The Mount’s Public Program Director. “We are looking forward to welcoming our community back to The Mount for what promises to be an engaging season of meaningful storytelling.” 

  • July 11 and 12: Grace M. Cho, author of Tastes Like War; 
  • July 18 and 19: Victoria Kastner, author of Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect 
  • July 25 and 26: Luma Mufleh, author of Learning America: One Woman’s Fight for Educational Justice for Refugee Children.
  • August 1 and 2: Ravi Shankar, author of Correctional: A Memoir;
  • August 8 and 9: Susan Branson, author of Scientific Americans;
  • August 15 and 16: Chad Williams on “The Voice of W.E.B Du Bois”
  • August 22 and 23: Ann McCutchan, author of The Life She Wished to Live;
  • August 29 and 30: Kati Marton, author of Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel.

For more information, visit EdithWharton.org

Daily News Education Events Health Care

HOLYOKE – Holyoke Community College is now accepting applications for its free Community Health Worker training and apprenticeship program. 

The program begins in September and is tuition free thanks to a federal grant HCC received in 2020. 

The purpose of the four-year, $1.89 million grant, awarded in 2020 from the Health Resources and Service Administration (HRSA) is to increase the number of CHWs qualified to help children and families affected by opioid use.   

HRSA’s Opioid-Impacted Family Support Program supports training programs like HCC’s CHW program that enhance and expand paraprofessionals knowledge, skills, and expertise. 

 

The training involves college level coursework during the first year, as well as supervised field work experience at Behavioral Health Network in Holyoke. Classes are held in person at HCC and require basic computer proficiency and literacy skills. After the first year, students can apply for a full-time, paid apprenticeship placement — the first of its kind in Western Mass. 

 

During the pre-apprenticeship training at HCC, students take two core Community Health Worker classes across two consecutive semesters.

 

“The HCC Community Health Worker Apprenticeship Program is an initiative that offers free training for people interested in pursuing community health and human services,” said Tina Tartaglia, CHW project coordinator. “There is a specific focus on teaching students how to support children and families affected by opioid use and substance use disorders. Students with lived experience are encouraged to apply.”  

 

This is the third year of the four-year grant, which aims to train 25 individuals as CHWs each year. The grant also provides stipends to students as incentives to complete the program and seek employment in the field. Students who enter an apprenticeship after they finish training are eligible for an additional annual stipend of $7,500.

 

“COVID-19 has made clear how essential community health workers are in addressing the wide range of physical, behavioral and mental health issues faced by members of our community,” President Royal said in 2020 after the HRSA grant was awarded. “Through this program and with our partners, we will not only have the ability to support more families struggling with substance use, but we will also be creating more jobs in a sector central to our region’s economic growth.”

 

HCC’s partners in the grant include Behavioral Health Network, Holyoke Health Center, and the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board.

 

For more information or to apply, please visit hcc.edu/chw-free

Daily News Education News

EASTHAMPTON — Matthew Sosik, president and CEO of bankESB, announced that the bank has pledged $30,000 over three years to Girls Inc. of the Valley.

The money will be used to help support the organization’s Her Future, Our Future campaign, a $5 million fundraising effort designed to help the organization better meet the needs of girls from under-resourced communities in Hampden County and beyond. Through this campaign Girls Inc. seeks to triple the number of elementary and teen girls served, reaching more than 1,000 girls annually. Efforts include renovating a new dynamic, state-of-the-art headquarters and program center in Holyoke, expanding geographic reach in public schools in Springfield, Chicopee, and beyond, and supporting their innovative Eureka! STEM program that prepares girls for college and career.

“This incredible gift from bankESB to support the Her Future, Our Future campaign shows their impactful commitment to community,” said Suzanne Parker, executive director at Girls Inc. of the Valley. “We are proud to have bankESB’s support as we aim to deliver our research-based, engaging programs to more youth across the Valley — and in our new headquarters.”

The donation was made as part of the bank’s charitable giving program, The Giving Tree, which reflects the roots the bank has in its communities, its commitment to making a real difference in the neighborhoods it serves, and the belief that everyone’s quality of life is enhanced when we work together to solve our communities’ biggest problems.

“Children are our future, and Girls Inc. of the Valley is helping to build that future for young girls with innovative, supportive, and life-changing programs that inspire them to be strong, smart, and bold,” said Sosik. “bankESB is pleased to do its part in supporting Girls Inc. and its efforts to provide a high-quality environment and programs that help elementary school-age and teenage girls unlock their full potential.”

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AMHERST — UMass Amherst has received a $10 million, five-year award from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to create the New England Center of Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases (NEWVEC).

The UMass-based center is one in a group of regional centers of excellence designated by the CDC to reduce the risk of vector-borne diseases – such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus – spread by ticks, mosquitoes and other blood-sucking arthropods across the U.S.

Stephen Rich, vector-borne disease expert and professor of microbiology, is the principal investigator on the project and will serve as the executive director of NEWVEC, whose three-pronged mission will integrate applied research, training and community of practice to prevent and reduce tick- and mosquito-borne diseases in New England. NEWVEC aims to bring together academic communities, public health practitioners and residents and visitors across the Northeast.

“We’re really excited about building this community of practice and embracing all the stakeholders in the region who need to know how to do things like reduce ticks and mosquitoes on school properties and public spaces. It is also important to inform the public on best practices to keep ticks and mosquitoes from biting people and their pets,” Rich said. “Part of that mission entails training public health entomologists — undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D.-level students — who are going to be the next generation of people confronting these challenges.”

Infectious disease epidemiologist Andrew Lover, assistant professor in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, will serve as deputy director of the center, with co-principal investigator Guang Xu at UMass Amherst, and co-principal investigators at Northern Vermont University, the University of Maine, University of New Hampshire, University of Rhode Island and Western Connecticut State University.

“This center fills a critical gap in responses to vector-borne disease in the region,” said Lover, who aims to apply his prior work with regional malaria elimination programs to build strong networks across the Northeast region. “As pathogens and vectors don’t pay attention to borders, coordination across states is essential for public health response. Among other things, we’ll develop practical public health tools to understand how and where people are most likely to interact with ticks, which will then allow for well-targeted and efficient health programs.”

His lab also will provide technical assistance to directly support local health practitioners in optimizing vector surveillance strategies and designing operational research to improve program effectiveness.

Xu, research professor of microbiology, will be responsible for the center’s pathogen testing core and will conduct applied research in the evaluation of tick suppression approaches.

Rich notes that blood-sucking ticks transmit more vector-borne diseases than any other arthropod in North America, accounting for some 400,000 cases of Lyme disease alone every year. “And at least a half-dozen other pathogens are associated with the blacklegged tick,” commonly known as the deer tick, he adds. “It’s kind of a silent epidemic.”

The researchers say it’s critical to attack the problem on all fronts by using applied research projects to reduce tick populations and optimize personal protection and control products, and by training public health students and workers, as well as individuals.

Daily News Education Events News

SPRINGFIELD —   The Naismith Memorial Basketball hall of Fame has announced the return of “Hoophall Hangouts” which will replace “60 Days of Summer,” the museum’s annual summer program featuring family-oriented fun.

Starting on July 1 and running through August 31, the Hall of Fame will host various appearances from basketball players, personalities, and Hall of Famers.

“The hall is excited to bring summer programming back to Springfield starting in July,” said John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame. “Paired with our newly renovated museum, Hoophall Hangouts will elevate the experience for our museum guests and will hopefully leave everyone with fantastic memories of their visit.”

On August 12, Bob Hurley Sr. (Hall of Fame Class of 2010) will accompany his son, Dan Hurley head coach for UConn’s men’s basketball team for a special father/son appearance. Throughout the summer, museum goers will also have the opportunity to hear from Class of 2022 Inductees Tim Hardaway, Bob Huggins, and George Karl, as well as hall of famers Grant Hill from the Class of 2018 and Jay Wright from the Class of 2021. Head coach Frank Martin from UMass will also be making an appearance.

“Hoophall Hangouts” appearances are free of charge to museum guests, however some appearances will have select VIP opportunities. “Hoophall Hangouts” will be scheduled throughout the summer and will occur at 1 p.m. For more information, visit www.hoophall.com/hoophallhangouts or follow @hoophall on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Education

The 18 Under 18

The 18 Under 18 Class of 2022.

The 18 Under 18 Class of 2022.

Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts (JAWM) honored its inaugural 18 Under 18 Class of 2022, sponsored by Teddy Bear Pools, on May 19 at at Tower Square in Springfield. The event — which included poster board displays by the students, remarks, appreciation presentations and a buffet — recognized outstanding young people throughout Western Mass. who exemplify innovative spirit, leadership, and community involvement.

“We were impressed with the caliber of the nominations we received for this recognition,” said William Dziura, Development Director, JAWM. “It’s gratifying to know there are so many young people committed to making an impact on the world, and we are thrilled to be able to offer a forum through which they can be applauded for their efforts.”

 

The following 18 students comprise the 18 Under 18 Class of 2022:

 

Trinity Baush, Grade 11, Chicopee High School: A multi-sport athlete and member of the National Honor Society and Student Council, Bausch has shown leadership in all these groups by facilitating fundraisers and leading discussions about important issues. She maintains high academic standards and currently has a 4.0 GPA. Outside of school, she works in a leadership role at Applebee’s. Recently, she has helped increase awareness about the war in Ukraine through a fundraising program with money raised sent directly to a school in Ukraine.

 

Nevaeh Branyon, Grade 8, Marcus M. Kiley Middle School, Springfield: An outstanding student with a GPA over 4.0, Branyon is passionate about financial literacy and entrepreneurship because of the unique and innovative perspectives they provide. She serves as a Student Council liaison and is a member of the Yearbook, Math and Art clubs. In addition to being a student athlete, she participates in the FitZone after-school programs and is a member of Girls on the Run.

 

Nathaniel Claudio, Grade 12, Business Information Technology Program, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, Springfield: Claudio is president of the National Honor Society and the student representative to the Springfield School Committee. He has been involved with Junior Achievement since his freshman year, participating in the Stock Market Competition, the 100th Anniversary Gala and Parade, the Summer Accelerator and served as a High School Hero, teaching financial literacy to younger students. Outside of school, he is participating in a cooperative learning experience at Freedom Credit Union.

 

Chase Daigneault, Grade 10, Chicopee High School: Daigneault has participated in school leadership since middle school, where she served and still serves in various class officer positions. Recently, she was voted the class president of the class of 2024. In this role, she plans activities and monitors the social media presence for her class, in addition to organizing fundraisers for charity and scheduling volunteer opportunities for the class.

 

Ella Florence, Grade 11, Chicopee High School: As a member of the National Honor Society and Class Council, Florence leads many fundraisers, social projects and progressive initiatives. She is vice president of her school’s Best Buddies program, which involves students with autism into school events. Last year, she became a member of the Special Olympics Youth Activation Council and attended the statewide Winter Youth Summit, and she recently attended Capitol Hill Day with a Best Buddies peer. Outside of school, she volunteers at the Springfield Boys & Girls Club Family Center.

 

Elise Hansel, Grade 10, Business Information Technology Program, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy: A longtime participant in Junior Achievement programs, Hansel was a student leader in JA’s internship program with the Springfield Thunderbirds, where she played a crucial role in the event’s marketing efforts, including designing the event flier, partnering with area schools to coordinate a group, and making cold-calls to area businesses to sell event business packages. Recently, she won first place for her marketing and design skills in a billboard design competition for the Stop the Swerve campaign.

 

Liberty Basora, Grade 10, Marketing/Retail Program, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy: Known for her outstanding communication skills, fantastic aptitude for working with other students, and innovative mindset, Basora’s most recent project was bringing to life the dormant social media accounts for the school store: Putnam Vocational Beaver Lodge. She analyzed the problems faced by the Beaver Lodge, then created new content that allowed the site to reflect the Marketing Shop and open up two-way conversations with the store’s growing customer base.

 

Adyan Khattak, Grade 12, Chicopee Comprehensive High School: A member of Student Council, Business Club, sports teams, and the DA’s Youth Council Board, Khattak is passionate about creating opportunities for other students to connect with resources that improve and better their lives. As an intern at the Chicopee Comp College & Career Center, he has applied many creative and innovative approaches to help better answer student queries and needs. In addition to fluency in English, this first -generation American also speaks Urdu and Punjabi and reads Arabic.

 

Grace Kuhn, Grade 12, Westfield High School: A member of the cross-country team and vice president of the National Honor Society, Kuhn is also a member of the Best Buddies Club, which works with West Springfield’s preschool program, and the Reshaping Reality Club, which focuses on mental health and body image. She completed and published her first novel, Knox Hollow: Murder on Mayflower, during the pandemic and recently completed her second novel, Dalton Ridge: Homicide on Holiday Hill. She enjoys working closely with children and plans to be a speech pathologist.

 

Katelynn Mersincavage, Grade 12, Hampden Charter School of Science–East: Excelling academically, Mersincavage pushes herself with multiple advanced placement classes and college dual enrollment courses. She is a member of the National Honor Society, Student Council and the soccer team. Outside of school, she is an organizer and active participant in the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, where she regularly participates in fundraising and awareness events for the cause, which hits close to home; her brother lives with type-1 diabetes.

 

Alondra Nieves, Grade 10, Business Information Technology Program, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy: Academically, Nieves maintains a 4.0 GPA. Creatively, during the pandemic, she started teaching herself to play the guitar and write music, using her skills and talents as a poet to create songs. She is actively involved in the Hampden County District Attorney Youth Advisory Board with responsibilities on the Mental Health Teen Task Force. She also reads to elementary students, participated in the Stop the Swerve Campaign, and helped with a school-wide food collection.

 

Sean O’Dea, Grade 12, Mohawk Trail Regional High School: O’Dea is captain of his cross-country team, a member of the Student Council, secretary of the Key Club, a member of the National Honor Society and student representative to the School Committee. He was also selected by his teachers to represent the Town of Heath for Project 351, a non-profit lead by Governor Baker to develop the next generation of community-first leaders through youth service. For his AP language course, he wrote and produced a video essay highlighting local environmental issues in Franklin County.

 

Ricardo Ortiz, Grade 8, Marcus M. Kiley Middle School: Ortiz moved to Springfield from Guatemala at age 11, speaking only Spanish. He has since participated in the Empowerment Academy and the school band, where he plays clarinet. This year, he campaigned successfully to establish a Yearbook Club and inspired the idea of painting an 8th grade mural, so students can leave their mark for future generations. He aspires to be the first person in his family to graduate from college, with the goal of becoming an entrepreneur and opening his own flower shop to honor his late grandmother.

 

Het Parikh, Grade 12, West Springfield High School: Leader of the percussion section of the school band, Parikh is also a member of the National Honor Society and the Key Club, and serves as a student tutor and participant in the Innovation Pathways Program. He has maintained a 3.92 cumulative GPA while simultaneously earning more than 30 transferable college credits. Outside of school, he has volunteered at the Lions Club Food Kitchen at the Big E, the clean-up of Mittineague Park, and the local senior center, where he runs a smart phone clinic.

 

Parmila Sarki, Grade 12, Business Information Technology Program, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy: Since her freshman year, Sarki has been involved with Junior Achievement, participating in the annual Stock Market Competition, the 100th Anniversary Gala and Parade and the Summer Accelerator. She also served as a High School Hero, teaching financial literacy to younger students. During the pandemic, she worked with her teacher to create videos to help younger students understand financial literacy concepts. After school, she helps first graders with schoolwork.

 

Jadyn Smith, Grade 11 Chicopee High School: This student activist works to make the school a better place by advocating on behalf of the entire student body. As a member of the National Honor Society, Smith helps facilitate fundraisers, including one for a school in Ukraine, and is also on the Student Council fundraising committee. Outside of school, she enjoys volunteering at her local church, helping to address food insecurity, and is an assistant manager at McKinstry Market Garden.

 

Kayla Staley, Grade 11, Springfield Conservatory of the Arts: An accomplished singer, Staley has been featured at events across the community ranging from school graduation ceremonies to the Union Station Tree Lighting Ceremony and the Western Massachusetts Chorus Festival. She also excels academically and is president of her class and a member of the National Honor Society. She was selected as a student representative for the Springfield Public Schools Portrait of a Graduate, and to receive private coaching from Broadway stars, college professors and other masterclasses.

 

Victoria Weagle, Grade 11, Frontier Regional High School: This exemplary student leader is passionate about her community and finding creative solutions to complicated problems. Weagle is greatly gifted in scientific research, and hopes to develop these skills in college and throughout her life. She is involved in Quiz Bowl and many extracurricular science projects, including a volunteer research trip to Dominica in 2023, for which she has saved up her own funds.

 

Nominations for the 18 Under 18 were open to anyone 18 years or younger who attends school in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire counties. Judging criteria was divided in three categories: innovative spirit, leadership, and community involvement.

Beyond the award recognition, the students selected will benefit from a meaningful new network of community leaders and peers and may receive additional opportunities through event partners. They will also be invited to participate in a virtual leadership workshop later in the year.

Education Special Coverage

Marking a Milestone

The original home to HCC

The original home to HCC, the former Holyoke High School

The campus today

The campus, and its renovated campus center, today

Holyoke Community College, the state’s first community college, is marking its 75th anniversary this year. This has been a time to reflect on how the school has evolved to meet the changing needs of those living and working in the communities it serves, while remaining loyal to the mission with which it was founded — to open doors to opportunity.

 

It’s called the Itsy Bitsy Child Watch Center.

And the name says it all — if you know about this kind of facility. It’s not a daycare center — there’s already one of those on the Holyoke Community College campus. And it’s not an early education facility — the college has no intention of getting into that business, according to its president, Christina Royal.

Instead, it’s a … child-watch center, a place where students can bring young children for a few minutes or a few hours, while they’re attending classes, taking part in meetings, or perhaps huddling with advisors.

“In daycare, you drop your child off in the morning and you pick it up at the end of the day; it’s generally for full-time working parents,” she explained. “In a child-watch program, you’re dropping the child off for a short-term period that is very specific; you’re coming, you’re taking a class, you need to put your child in a child-watch program for that 50 minutes or an hour and a half that you’re in class.”

The presence of the Itsy Bitzy Child Watch Center is just one example of the profound level of change that has come to the institution now known as Holyoke Community College. There are many others, including the name over the door — the school was originally called the Holyoke Graduate School (a night program), and was later renamed Holyoke Junior College, before becoming HCC in 1964 — as well as the setting. Indeed, the college was originally located in the former Holyoke High School, which was totally destroyed by fire in 1968, to be replaced by the current campus, carved out of a dairy farm, which opened in 1974.

“We were birthed to create opportunities for working adults to be able to get a quality education, and that’s really important still today. Education is accessible to all — that’s the most important piece about community colleges; access is a tenet of a community-college education.”

But for perhaps the most dramatic change we need to juxtapose the picture of the first graduating class in 1948 with some statistics that Royal keeps at the ready, specifically those noting that more than half of the current students are women, and that during the most recent semester, 41 different countries were represented by the study body, and 33 different languages might be heard on the campus.

The first graduating class

The first graduating class (1948) was much smaller, and far less diverse, than the classes today.

But while celebrating all that has changed over the past 75 years, the institution is also marking what hasn’t. And there is quite a bit in that category as well.

Christina Royal, the college’s fourth president

Christina Royal, the college’s fourth president

Indeed, HCC has, seemingly from the beginning, been a place to start for those seeking a college education, but not a final destination, said Royal, noting that many have transferred to four-year schools to obtain bachelor’s degrees and then graduate degrees.

It’s also been a place for those for whom college is certainly not a foregone conclusion.,

“We were birthed to create opportunities for working adults to be able to get a quality education, and that’s really important still today,” said Royal. “Education is accessible to all — that’s the most important piece about community colleges; access is a tenet of a community-college education.

“No matter who you are, or where you’re at in your career, there is a place for you at HCC,” she went on. “This creates doors that open for many students, and it’s also why, when you look at our alumni, we talk about HCC being a family affair; we have many alums who say that either their parents had come here or their siblings or their cousins come here.” because you see many generations of students that continue to come back and have the next generation supported at HCC.”

Meanwhile, the school has always been known for the high levels of support given to its students, many of them being the first in their families to attend college. In 1946, and the years that followed, many of these students were men who had served in World War II and were attending college on the G.I. Bill.

Fire destroyed the college in 1968

Fire destroyed the college in 1968, leaving some to ponder whether HCC had a future.

Today, as noted, more than half are women and far more than half are non-white. Many arrive with specific needs — ranging from food insecurity to transportation to a child-watch facility — and HCC, while helping them earn a degree or certificate, has been steadfast in its efforts to address those needs and “meet students where they are,” as Royal likes to say.

Moving forward, the school is marking its first 75 years with a variety of ceremonies, a commitment to continue its tradition of being accessible, and a refreshed strategic plan, one that has put additional emphasis on academic success and meeting student needs.

“It’s important that we provide equitable opportunities and that there is an equitable chance of success no matter who walks through the door.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Royal about where HCC has been, where it is today, and where it would like to be in the years to come.

 

School of Thought

As she talked with BusinessWest late last month, Royal was planning for, and very much looking forward to, commencement ceremonies at the MassMutual Center on June 4.

This would be the first in-person ceremony in three years, and members of the classes of 2020 and 2021 were invited to join this year’s graduates in the proceedings. Royal; said several dozen members of those earlier classes accepted the invitation to march.

The new Center for Health Education and Simulation

The new Center for Health Education and Simulation on Jarvis Avenue is one of many recent additions to the HCC landscape in recent years.

“We’ve heard from some members of those classes that they desire to have that traditional pomp-and-circumstance experience,” said Royal, noting that, beyond the canceled in-person commencement ceremonies, the pandemic has tested HCC in myriad other ways, from enrollment to helping students secure access to the Internet.

“We were impacted as intensely as everyone else in the world,” said Royal, adding that this has been a test that has left the school stronger and more resilient, in her estimation.

And looking back on HCC’s 75 years of service to the region, the pandemic is certainly not the first, or only, time the school has faced adversity of the highest order — and persevered.

Indeed, the fire of 1968, which broke out on Jan. 4, just before final exams, left the school shaken to its foundation — quite literally, with some wondering if it even had a future.

“Culturally, we have fewer students who start, finish their education, and then focus on work for the rest of their career.”

“Springfield Technical Community College had just opened,” said Royal, only the fourth president in the school’s history. “And there was a lot of conversation about whether we needed another community college in this region — and if so, do we want to build it in Holyoke? It was amazing that while all this debate and discussion was going on, we inherited the land from the Sheehan family, what was the Sheehan Dairy Farm, and be able to rebuild the college in a place that allowed us to continue to expand and grow to what you see today.”

And since opening its facility off Homestead Avenue in 1974, the college has certainly grown within that space, adding several new facilities, including the Bartley Center for Athletics and Education, the Kittredge Center for Business and Workforce Development, a new health sciences facility, and a renovated campus center. It has also returned to its roots with facilities in downtown Holyoke, including the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Center in the Cubit Building on Race Street, and the Picknelly Adult and Family Education Center.

Meanwhile, it has become far more diverse, said Royal, adding that, overall HCC has changed and evolved as the region, its host city, the local business community, and society in general have.

The Kittredge Center

The Kittredge Center for Business and Workforce Development is another of the many recent additions to the HCC campus.

“We are a reflection of the community,” Royal explained, adding that the Itsy Bitsy Child Watch Center is just one example of this phenomenon.

“When you look at the history of our communities and when you think about how these communities have changed, then we’ve had to grow and change with them to keep up with the changing demographics of our region — both in growth in numbers and in terms of the ‘who’ that we’re serving; we really serve a lot of student populations.”

Elaborating, she said that today, as always, the focus is on inclusion, empowering students, and creating an environment in which they can not only attend school, but achieve success, however they wish to define it.

“We’re really focused on equity,” Royal explained. “It’s important that we provide equitable opportunities and that there is an equitable chance of success no matter who walks through the door. And the data shows us that our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of Color) students are not succeeding at the same rate as our white students.

“So our equity initiatives look to be able to provide the additional support and services so we can bring those numbers into alignment,” she went on, adding that, overall the school has become far more data-driven as it works to understand the changing demographics of those it serves — and usethat data to determine how it pivots and changes to better serve students and other constituencies.

Summing it all up, Royal said, “We have a reputation of being a place to come, to start your education at an affordable rate, with high-quality faculty, strong academic rigor, plenty of support services, and to set students up to transfer to any of the prestigious four-year institutions in our area or beyond.”

 

Course of Action

Looking at HCC today, and what she projects for tomorrow, Royal said the process of evolution at the school is ongoing. And that’s because change is a constant — change within the communities being served, change in the business community and the workplace, and change when it comes to the needs of the students coming to the Homestead Avenue campus.

The pandemic accelerated this process of change in some respects, said Royal, and it also brought a greater need for reflection on just what students need — and how those needs can be met.

Returning to the subject of the new child-watch center, she said it’s a reflection of how the school has been focusing on the basic needs of students and taking direct steps to address them, work that was part of the latest strategic plan, which was completed in 2017.

“We want to be a college of academic rigor, known for helping students overcome barriers to success,” she explained, adding that when discussions were launched on this matter, there were four barriers that were initially defined — food, housing, transportation, and childcare — with area focal points, such as digital literacy, mental health, and others, identified

Each has been addressed in various ways, she said, citing initiatives ranging from a program to house students in dorms at Westfield State University (which not only provides housing but provides exposure to potential next step in the higher education journey), to another program that provides 3,000 bus passes to students to help them get to and from the campus.

Childcare has taken longer to address, she went on, adding that collected data clearly showed the need for a facility where students could place children while they were attending class or accessing services at the college. With $100,000 in support from the state, HCC was able to become the second community college in the state (Norther Essex is the other) to offer child-watch services.

While addressing these needs, HCC is also focused on the changing world of work, what it will look like in the years and decades to come, and how to prepare students for that world.

“Our focus is on having students create life-long relationships with the college,” she explained. “Culturally, we have fewer students who start, finish their education, and then focus on work for the rest of their career. Now, the world of work has shifted, the future of work has changed a lot, and we know that people make job changes much more rapidly than they did in past decades, and so therefore, there’s a different interconnection and relationship between education and workforce.

“It’s not linear anymore,” she went on. “It’s integrated, and it changes depending on how a student’s path changes in life, how many career changes they make; they’ll come back and retool through short-term training or perhaps another degree, and then they make their way into a new career field.”

 

Class Act

Summing up both the first 75 years and what comes next, Royal said that while there has been tremendous change since HCC was founded, and there is much more to come, there is a constant:

“We believe in transforming communities through education; that is at the core of what we do,” she told BusinessWest. “We believe there are a lot of different ways that people can find their path and contribute to our local economy.”

Helping individuals forge a path is what this institution has been about since it was called the Holyoke Graduate School. And that is what is being celebrated in this milestone year. u

 

George O’Brien can be reached at
[email protected]

Education

Grade Expectations

By Elizabeth Sears

 

Rachel Romano certainly understands the importance of providing meaningful education opportunities to a community’s youth. She’s the founder and executive director of Veritas Prep Charter School, a charter-school system that uses innovative turnaround strategies to help students reach their full academic potential.

“Most of our students come into middle school performing below grade level, and the vast majority leave us headed to high school at or above the level of their peers across the state,” she said.

That transformative impact will no longer conclude at the end of eighth grade. Indeed, Veritas Prep High School is set to welcome its inaugural ninth-grade class in the fall of 2022. Now scholars have the opportunity to continue with Veritas, complete essential high-school graduation requirements, and even earn credits toward a college degree.

Veritas Prep Charter School started off in 2012 as a middle school in Springfield holding the belief that all students have the ability to achieve at high levels if given the right opportunities. It has been a decade now since the middle school opened, and since its founding, Veritas has grown more than those who created it could have imagined.

Rachel Romano

Rachel Romano

“Most of our students come into middle school performing below grade level, and the vast majority leave us headed to high school at or above the level of their peers across the state.”

The school now serves more than 370 Springfield students and is one of the Bay State’s top-performing middle schools. Veritas also has a Holyoke middle school in addition to its flagship Springfield location. Dramatic gains have been shown in student achievement, with double the ‘proficient’ and ‘advanced’ MCAS scores than those received in Springfield Public Schools. With such growth and success, the enthusiasm surrounding the opening of the new high school is immeasurable.

“We never had intentions of opening a high school when we started, but year after year, our students who matriculated on to ninth grade and were in high school would come back and say, ‘why don’t we have a high school?’” Romano explained. “So given the parent and student demand for Veritas to open a high school, a few years ago we decided maybe it is time that we expand our charter to serve our students through high-school graduation.”

 

Course of Action

Veritas Prep Charter School was given the approval to open a high school back in 2020. Veritas assembled a diverse design team to create a high school that can effectively serve the needs of its students. The design team was comprised of more than 200 Springfield community members, including current students, alumni, families of students, and stakeholders.

“We really wanted to center the voices of our students, our alumni, our teachers, our families, to design a high school that would meet the needs of our students,” Romano told BusinessWest.

That is where the ‘Portrait of a Graduate’ was developed — something Romano is particularly proud of.

‘Portrait of a Graduate’ was developed through the design team and embodies the vision of Veritas — that all of its scholars will “emerge as woke citizens, innovators, leaders of tomorrow, and learners for life.”

An important element of this mission includes the opportunity to earn up to 30 college credits — two years of college worth — completely free of charge. These college credits can be transferred to any state college or university. Students can even potentially earn an associate degree by the time they graduate high school.

“Too few Springfield students complete college degrees, and since we will have our students through high school, we want to go ahead and give them access to college courses while we can support them to earn some credits, tuition-free,” Romano noted.

Currently, only 26.4% of Springfield residents obtain a higher-education degree, compared to almost 50% statewide. Veritas is seeking to address key barriers to higher education such as access, lack of preparation, and cost.

“Our middle school is always focused on getting our students set up with a vision of themselves in college and pointing them toward high school ready to be on a college prep track. What we learned is that even that is sometimes not enough,” she went on. “We really are centering the need in Springfield for degree completion. We know degree completion is going to significantly increase the earning potential, health, and quality of life for our students and their families; earning a degree has been an asset that’s been pretty elusive for many Springfield Public School students.”

The Springfield community was prioritized throughout the entire planning process. Veritas scholars have played a key role in the planning and development of the new high school, providing input on everything from the school’s design to its curriculum. Students will have multiple areas of study to choose from that cover a wide range of high-impact careers, including health sciences, engineering, education, and more.

“With the right voices at the table, we have been able to reimagine what high school can look like and create a compelling, career-focused, early-college model,” Romano said.

Veritas Prep High School is following a career-focused early-college program. Students will not be able to select any course they want from the catalog, but rather will have pathways to choose from that are aligned with career trajectories. Veritas seeks to place its students on pathways where they can be certain about getting jobs and earning a good living.

“With the right voices at the table, we have been able to reimagine what high school can look like and create a compelling, career-focused, early-college model.”

Not only will students have the option to take college classes during their time at Veritas Prep High School, but they will also be able to get relevant and beneficial certificates — for example, a certificate in Google Suites or a nurse-aide certification for students who are in the health-sciences trajectory.

“We’re really trying to equip them with meaningful experiences in the high-school years that will send them off to hopefully four-year degree programs,” Romano said, while helping those who plan to work immediately after high school access gainful employment experiences while they work their way through school.

Even though charter schools operate a bit differently from their traditional public-school counterparts, they serve the community in a similar way. Charter schools were created from federal legislation with the intention of creating innovative schools within the public-school space while providing parents with choices.

Although students do have to apply to Veritas, there is no selection criteria — as long as a student has a mailing address in Springfield, the opportunity to attend is open to them.

“We’re really excited to open a new campus this August … we will have some vacant seats available for other Springfield students to join our inaugural class as well,” Romano said.

Current eighth-graders at Veritas are guaranteed a place in the new high school, and a lottery will be held to fill the remaining spots. The high school will expand by one grade per year up through grade 12.

 

Class Act

When discussing the immense impact Veritas Prep High School will have on the Springfield community, Romano spoke of the unlimited academic and social potential that Springfield students possess.

Given the opportunity, any student can achieve the goals they set their mind to, she insisted. “Veritas scholars will become changemakers who are equipped to choose their path, challenge inequity, and transform the world.”

Education Event Galleries

Women’s Leadership Conference

‘Reimagine’ was the theme for the 25th Bay Path University Women’s Leadership Conference on April 1, a day-long event that drew more than 1,300 women and men to the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield. The conference featured three keynote speakers and a number of educational breakout sessions, as well as networking and a message from Bay Path President Sandra Doran about the university, its 125th anniversary, and its future.

Photos by Leah Martin Photography

 

Mechanic and Girls Auto Clinic founder Patrice Banks takes the stage as the luncheon keynote speaker

Mechanic and Girls Auto Clinic founder Patrice Banks takes the stage as the luncheon keynote speaker

 

Tyra Banks, the closing keynote speaker, answers questions from conference attendees

Tyra Banks, the closing keynote speaker, answers questions from conference attendees

 

author and speaker Christine Cashen kicks off the 2022 conference with laughter and advice as the morning keynote speaker

Doran addresses the audience

Doran addresses the audience

 

Springfield Mayor Dominic Sarno welcomes attendees to the city of Springfield

Springfield Mayor Dominic Sarno welcomes attendees to the city of Springfield

 

 

Education Special Coverage

Back to School

Jonathan Scully

Jonathan Scully says Elms College stays engaged with incoming students from acceptance until they arrive on campus.

 

After two years of massive shakeups on college and university campuses — from sending students home in 2020 to building remote and hybrid programs and instituting sweeping safety protocols — admissions officers are seeing an uptick in enthusiasm, and applications, from prospective students, sparking hope that the coming fall will mark a return not only to normalcy, but to healthy enrollment numbers.

By Mark Morris

 

For college enrollment professionals, March and April are the busiest months of the year.

That’s when, after considering thousands of applications, colleges begin reaching out to students who were accepted for the fall semester. April, particularly for four-year institutions, is crunch time, as May 1 is known as National College Decision Day, the deadline for students to submit their acceptance forms and make a deposit.

According to Jonathan Scully, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Elms College, the job is not done on May 1. He and his staff work with students until they arrive in September.

“When a student has been accepted and they pay their deposit, they’re stoked,” Scully said. “Then they have to wait four months before they come here, so we stay in contact and have events over the summer to make sure that level of engagement stays up.”

There’s plenty of engagement to maintain, as many colleges report that application numbers are hitting new records. In past years, students would typically apply to three or four colleges they hoped to attend. These days, it’s not unusual to see a student apply to 10 or even 15 schools. It’s part of a trend Scully has observed in the last five years.

“With the ability to do everything online, the process has gotten easier,” he said. “As a result, application numbers are hitting astronomical heights.”

He isn’t alone. BusinessWest spoke with several area college-admissions professionals who report that applications are up and admissions are meeting or exceeding expectations. Part of that is a return to some semblance of pre-COVID normalcy. As infection rates have declined, campuses have adopted mask-optional policies, among other shifts, while staying ready to wear them again, if necessary.

Mike Drish

Mike Drish

“They want to live in residence halls, join clubs and organizations in person, eat in dining halls, and cheer on our teams.”

Like every organization, colleges quickly shifted to an online presence early in the pandemic and can now offer courses in person, online, or through a hybrid model, with some coursework offered in person and some online. While remote and virtual options performed well when they were needed, surveys of current and prospective students at UMass Amherst show they still want a residential college experience.

“They want to live in residence halls, join clubs and organizations in person, eat in dining halls, and cheer on our teams,” said Mike Drish, director of First Year Admissions at UMass Amherst.

While students crave the campus experience, they also want more flexibility with the academic part of the experience.

“Students and faculty are looking for more opportunities to blend in-person, online, and hybrid learning,” said Bryan Gross, vice president, Enrollment Management and Marketing at Western New England University (WNE). “They want to know to know more about the technology that exists and how it can enhance learning and outcomes.”

The benefits of this new remote world has brought benefits outside the classroom, said Gina Puc, vice president of Strategic Initiatives at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Now that so many people are comfortable with Zoom, she noted, MCLA’s events can have an impact beyond the campus.

“We’ve been able to host a number of guest speakers and lectures on Zoom and open them to the public,” Puc said. “That has really expanded our audience.”

 

Community Spirit

A common theme admissions professionals discussed with BusinessWest involved “meeting students where they are.” At UMass, Drish said, that can mean expanding access to students from a variety of backgrounds and involving other departments on campus to ensure success for the student.

Meeting students where they are is central to the mission at community colleges. With up to half of their enrollments occurring after July 1, community colleges have a different timetable and different priorities for the application and acceptance process than four-year schools.

Darcey Kemp

Darcey Kemp says STCC has broadened the way it meets student needs over the past two years.

As the pandemic begins to wane, Mark Hudgik, director of Admissions for Holyoke Community College (HCC), said many high-school students graduating in June are fatigued and feeling uncertain about college because of all the disruption in their high-school careers.

“We have conversations with students who question if they are ready for college, if they are prepared enough,” Hudgik said. “Even if they’re not ready to start, we will stay connected with them to help however we can, and when they are ready, we’re here for them.”

Darcey Kemp, vice president of Student Affairs at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), said maintaining “high-touch” connections with students helps keep them on track whether it’s through flexible course offerings or by supporting non-academic needs.

“We provide non-perishable food items for students who have food insecurity,” Kemp said, noting that, before the pandemic, students could stop by Student Affairs and get what they needed, but since the pandemic, STCC has adjusted the program so students can now call or text and receive a package of food or an envelope with a gift card to a grocery store.

“It’s all part of being responsive and providing support based on what students tell us they need,” she added.

Like many organizations, the STCC website has a ‘chat now’ pop-up screen for student questions. Kemp said what was once a rarely used function has turned into a meaningful way to provide additional services to students.

“Before the pandemic, we might see 200 engagements a month,” she noted. “Now, on busy months, we have upwards of 4,000 unique monthly engagements.”

Since the pandemic, more students are seeking courses to gain entry-level jobs in professions that allow them to work while pursuing higher academic credentials, Hudgik explained. For example, a student may sign up for a non-credit certified nurse aide (CNA) course to get their foot in the door in healthcare and, from there, take courses for practical nursing and eventually registered nursing programs.

Community colleges remain a popular way for students to complete the first two years of an undergraduate degree and transfer those credits to a four-year college or university. In addition to providing great value, pursuing an associate degree can change a person’s life.

“We try to reach students who don’t see themselves as learners,” Hudgik said. “When they come to HCC, we will meet them where they are and help them build the skills they need so they can go on to the schools of their choice.”

Since the pandemic, it’s probably not surprising that several colleges are reporting an increase in student enrollment in healthcare majors.

“Our health science major has seen a 35% increase over the last three years,” Puc said. “It’s become an in-demand major as students become more aware of public health, immunology, epidemiology, and similar subjects.”

Gina Puc

Gina Puc says the move to remote learning during the pandemic has brought long-term benefits, with MCLA continuing to expand its geographic reach, and its audience, with its events.

While pharmacy programs at WNE have long been popular, students can now pursue a master’s degree in pharmacogenomics.

“This area of study looks at how a person’s genetic makeup can affect their response to therapeutic drugs,” Gross explained. “Graduates in this degree can go into genetic counseling, traditional pharmacy, as well as areas of research or teaching.”

Another new major influenced by current events involves bachelor’s- and master’s-level courses devoted to construction management. Gross said these offerings are the result of the federal infrastructure bill passed last year.

“We’ve had lots of interest in this subject from freshman on campus, as well as our community-college partners,” he noted. “We’re finding more people want to acquire the necessary skills to be part of the infrastructure movement.”

Gross described WNE as a “new traditional” university that prepares learners and earners for the future of work. “That message has resonated with families, to know we put a lot of value on the traditional campus environment while also focusing on work, jobs, and outcomes.”

“Even if they’re not ready to start, we will stay connected with them to help however we can, and when they are ready, we’re here for them.”

He added that the recent U.S. News and World Report ranking of top colleges showed that WNE graduates had a higher starting salary than 52 of the top 100 universities on the list.

 

Welcome Mat

Colleges have already begun holding events to welcome new students accepted for the fall semester.

“We’re excited that we can now have these events in person,” Puc said. “We usually hold them on Saturdays with faculty there as well. It’s a great way for students to meet other students and become more acquainted with the MCLA community.”

This past fall, when Omicron numbers were trending up, Scully had to cancel the open-house events for prospective students he would normally host. For small colleges like Elms, in-person events are essential.

Mark Hudgik

Mark Hudgik says HCC tries to reach students who don’t see themselves as learners, one of the important qualities community colleges bring to the table.

“On paper, there are so many small liberal-arts colleges, students need a way to find out what makes us different,” he said.

There are occasions when a student will complete the application and acceptance process, send in their deposit, and have their plans change before September. Scully referred to this as the “summer melt.” Drish noted that, even when someone’s plans change, he doesn’t worry. “We have students on the waitlist we can contact who will be excited to say ‘yes.’”

After the pandemic, making a few changes is the easy part. Hudgik discussed what a new normal might look like.

“I’m optimistic that we will emerge to a place where folks understand what it means to plan for the uncertain,” he said, adding that he hopes issues like childcare, remote schooling, and job uncertainty will begin to lessen so students can put a renewed focus on their academic careers.

Gross agrees that COVID has provided a real education. “We’ve learned a lot about collaborating, how to be agile, how to respond to environmental circumstances, as well as responding to the needs of our students,” he said.

For the next several months, admissions professionals will stay plenty busy making sure the next class of students settle into their colleges and universities.

“The day when students return to campus is my favorite day of the year,” Scully said. “I look forward to the fall when students are here because there’s life on campus again.”

While he enjoys stopping to appreciate the fall campus scene, Scully knows there are plenty of new prospective students out there who need to be contacted.

“Once the fall class is settled, then we rinse and repeat. Our staff hits the road, and we start recruiting again.”

Education

Remote Possibilities

By Elizabeth Sears

 

Internships have always been known to take different shapes and forms, from a student teacher eagerly helping to prepare classroom activities to the stereotypical unpaid intern making copies and bringing coffee to co-workers while carefully shadowing how the different jobs at their company work.

Now, a new type of internship has been added to the mix: a student sitting at home in front of their laptop. For many students, this has become the new normal.

With the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the leaders of internship programs at universities in Western Mass. feared that students would not be able to have as many internship opportunities. George Layng, an internship coordinator at Westfield State University, recalled feelings of uncertainty when the fall 2020 semester approached.

“School was back in session, but it was all virtual … would internship sites be as receptive to having interns as they were in the past? Usually, we have more places that are willing to have interns than we have interns for, but our fear was that we’d be in the reverse, that we’d have more interns than we have places for,” Layng said.

“I think, actually, students are better able to manage that shift now because their classes are online and they are working more independently.”

However, despite the copious amounts of instability in many areas of academic life brought on by the pandemic, internship programs at colleges in the Western Mass. region have been running strongly with abundant student success. Layng said the number of students participating in his internship program has remained steady over the course of the pandemic, even when compared to pre-pandemic years.

“I think, actually, students are better able to manage that shift now because their classes are online and they are working more independently,” he told BusinessWest. “One of the silver linings is that they are more able and more prepared to work somewhat independently, somewhat virtually, and it not being a big issue.”

A large part of this success was credited to the ability of students, professors, and employers to remain adaptable during the continuously changing protocols throughout the pandemic. The willingness of employers to take on interns remotely and overcome that boundary, along with the determination of students to work through uncertain conditions, has proven to be a winning combination for successfully running internship programs during the pandemic.

 

New Normal

This is not to say internship programs have been running without their fair share of challenges.

Alan Bloomgarden, director of Experiential Learning at Elms College, spoke of how, even though his students have shown remarkable success at obtaining placements at various internship sites, constantly evolving safety concerns impacted some student internships and experiential-learning experiences.

Alan Bloomgarden

Alan Bloomgarden says students have done well with internship placements during the pandemic, but safety concerns have impacted some experiences.

“The employers themselves are, I think, not necessarily prioritizing construction of internships, where their employees are really required to do an additional amount of work to supervise students,” he said. “That is difficult under normal circumstances, and it may be a bridge too far for some employers under the current pressures of staffing and adapting to changing health and safety conditions.”

Bloomgarden noted that students in the social sciences and humanities have been encountering a greater degree of difficulty in internship placements because of changing circumstances. Even though the internship program at large is functioning well, some students have still found themselves in a place where the pandemic caused certain internships to fall short, when they might have been successful in a normal year.

Layng echoed this sentiment, remembering a particular instance with a student seeking an internship that highlights the recent limitations of certain internship placements caused by the pandemic.

“I had a student who I was trying to place at Baystate [Health] in the public relations department, and he had experience in healthcare public relations and marketing,” Layng noted. “He would have been an excellent candidate to take the next step … but the person at Baystate said they were just so busy, there’s so many cases, they just can’t really work with interns in the way that would really help them. That’s one clear way the pandemic lessened the opportunities for interns.”

On the other hand, one perhaps unexpected benefit of the recent shift to online internships has been the newfound ability for students to be placed at sites whose far-away locations would have typically eliminated them from being realistic options. The normalization of remote work has opened up opportunities for students in Western Mass. to intern at businesses in larger cities like Boston and New York without having to spend an entire semester away from their university.

“I have seen students develop some creative adaptations to the circumstances that we’re all facing,” Bloomgarden said. “Just as we’re seeing a changing workplace as a society, we’re seeing changes in the face of what internships look like.”

He spoke of how Elms College’s teacher-licensure students had been conducting their experiential learning in a hybrid format but are now being placed at schools in-person. The students in the college’s social-work program have also found themselves returning to in-person internship sites, Bloomgarden said.

“Just as we’re seeing a changing workplace as a society, we’re seeing changes in the face of what internships look like.”

While most students have been gradually returning to in-person internships, some students have been doing internships in this fashion throughout the course of the pandemic. This has been especially true for students who are looking to enter the medical field.

Bloomgarden described the experiences of students in the nursing program at the Elms, and how they have been continuing with clinical placements even with the pandemic.

“They are, in many ways, frontline workers,” he said. “Our students are conducting experiential learning in the same way that the permanent, full-time employees of the organizations hosting them are asking of their employees.”

Internship programs in Western Mass. colleges and universities have found that both students and employers now expect a conversation about the possibility of a virtually formatted internship. The high level of adaptability shown by employers has positively impacted students by allowing them internship opportunities even during very uncertain times.

“Employers are seeing the value of interns and the value of internships as an education practice,” Bloomgarden said. “Internships help with career readiness… they deepen one’s understanding of one’s discipline, having a chance to apply the methods, whatever the field is.”

 

Community Impact

Whether in-person, hybrid, or fully remote, leaders of internship programs still assert that internships in any format are substantially beneficial to students — and for a variety of reasons. Both Layng and Bloomgarden enthusiastically emphasized the importance of internships and the value they provide for a student’s future career.

“It’s a really good stepping stone to a career,” Layng said. “They are going to prepare you for what it’s like, getting ready for the professional world.”

He added that student feedback has been mostly satisfactory, with students expressing that they feel like they are still getting a quality internship even if a fair percentage of them are partially or completely remote.

“Internships and experiential learning can enable active citizenship and the advancement of social action.”

Bloomgarden spoke of the numerous ways that internships are beneficial not only to the students themselves, but also to the businesses they work at and the communities they are a part of.

“Internships and experiential learning can enable active citizenship and the advancement of social action,” he said. “Our job is to encourage and support the development of those pathways to making positive impact on the world. We want to encourage them in becoming meaningful contributors to their communities.”

Education Special Coverage

After the Sticker Shock

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross says families aren’t always aware how many resources are available to help pay for college.

It’s not exactly news that the cost of college — at least, the published price tag — has consistently risen over the past two decades. But the net cost — what students actually pay — has actually crept down a bit. That’s largely due to the myriad resources families can access to help bring those costs down and reduce the initial sticker shock. Putting the pieces together takes some effort, self-education, and patience, but most families would agree that the end result, a degree, is worth the journey.

 

Fifty thousand. Sixty thousand. Seventy-five thousand.

A generation ago, dollar figures in that range might get a student through college; these days, at many schools, they’re typical price tags for one year.

Good thing no one pays sticker.

“I don’t care if you’re making $5 million a year or no money; there isn’t a single student paying the sticker price,” said Richard O’Connor, director of Financial Aid at American International College (AIC). “There’s a lot of shock when families see the sticker price, but as you take them further through the process, they see what the final bottom line is for them.”

Indeed, according to the College Board, for the 2021-22 year, the average published tuition and fees for full-time students average $10,740 for a public, four-year, in-state college, 1.6% higher than in 2020-21. For public, four-year, out-of-state schools, it’s $27,560, 1.5% higher than in 2020-21. Private, four-year colleges currently average $38,070, 2.1% higher than the year before.

However, the majority of full-time undergraduate students receive grant aid that helps them pay for a good deal of those costs. The average net tuition and fees paid by first-time, full-time, in-state students enrolled in public four-year institutions currently sit at $2,640, a 15-year-low. At private schools, it’s $14,990 — again, a 15-year low.

“Almost all families enrolling in college do not pay that sticker price,” said Bryan Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Western New England University. “There’s always a combination of merit-based and need-based money that goes into it.”

Kerry Cole, vice president for Admissions at AIC, noted that all colleges offer merit scholarships based on a student’s GPA and other measures of high-school success. “They would receive it for all four years, as long as they’re successful progressing in the program. Every school has different guidelines students need to hit, but it’s usually pretty attainable for most students, in addition to federal or other institutional aid.”

In addition, she noted, “students may find it less expensive to go to private school, because of the aid award, than it is to go to a state school. When I was going through 20-plus years ago, that’s exactly what happened. I was a low-income student, had high academics, and was able to attend a private school and live on campus for the equivalent cost of a state school. A lot of people don’t know that until financial-aid time.”

“Almost all families enrolling in college do not pay that sticker price. There’s always a combination of merit-based and need-based money that goes into it.”

On the admissions side, Gross added, “it’s really important for families to understand that different colleges and universities have different ways they evaluate the family’s financial circumstances.” For example, some schools are ‘need-aware’ in crafting the merit package, incorporating a family’s ability to pay, while others, including AIC, are ‘need-blind’ when they award financial-aid packages.

Merit decisions are based on more than grades, too; schools also consider standardized test scores — although these are starting to recede in importance, and many colleges are even test-optional now — as well as extracurricular activities, volunteerism, letters of recommendation, and more.

And that’s just the start of what families need to know about paying for college — a process that can be confusing and intimidating, but is also rife with opportunities to shave down that sticker price even further.

 

Guiding Lights

Community colleges offer a less-daunting price tag to begin with, but that doesn’t mean the process of seeking aid and paying for school is any less thorny. Darcey Kemp, vice president of Student Affairs at Springfield Technical Community College, said STCC guides entering students and their families through a robust onboarding process.

“We do an initiative called Roadmap to STCC, a series of live webinars with students, parents, and guidance counselors on different topics over the course of the year, depending on the time of year it is,” she explained, noting that topics range from testing and placement to financial-aid deadlines and filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Darcey Kemp

Darcey Kemp says efforts to help students manage college costs begin well before they arrive on campus and continue through their time at STCC.

“We make sure we’re ahead of all that,” Kemp said. “FAFSA can be intimidating, and we always want to make sure they know it’s coming and we’re helping them through the process.

“It’s important to normalize the financial-aid process,” she added. “It can be overwhelming — in particular, for anyone who has not had experience doing it before.”

Cole said colleges offer an online net price calculator, where families can input data on GPA, expected family contribution, and other factors to generate an expected net cost well before submitting FAFSA or getting an offer. “It’s not exact,” she noted, “but it’s pretty darn close.”

In addition, O’Connor noted, Western Mass. is rich with resources to secure outside scholarships, from entities ranging from community banks to Big Y; from the Horace Smith Fund to the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the latter of which provides access to scores of scholarship opportunities with one application.

“The importance of a little effort in writing an essay can yield you thousands of dollars in outside scholarship money,” he added.

And high-school seniors shouldn’t overlook the smaller ones, Cole said. “Make this your part-time job on Sunday afternoon — take an hour or two, look for scholarships, write an essay, and send those out. Even $25, $50, $100, those add up; that’s a textbook.”

Gross refers students to fastweb.com, which he calls “a clearinghouse of lots of external scholarships. A lot of students don’t realize these scholarships often have a lot fewer applicants than you would expect, especially those that require an essay.”

Like Cole, Gross suggested students carve out time on the weekends to make an investment in their finances. “Now, the last thing you want to do is write another essay, but take Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and do some essay prompts; what you find on Fastweb can be reused and apply to a bunch. I’ve seen families surprised they got some of these national and regional scholarships — $1,000, $2,000, $3,000 … every bit helps.”

Meanwhile, he added, parents might reach out to their employers to see if they offer tuition-reimbursement programs they might not have even been aware of.

Once on campus, many students take advantage of federal work-study programs to reduce their tuition bill — and gain valuable work experience to boot.

“It’s a job on campus, but it’s also a learning experience for students,” Cole said. “If they’re going to make mistakes, better to make them here, and be mentored and educated through the process, than make them out in the corporate world. Many of them don’t have office experience; most students wouldn’t at 18 years old. That’s another benefit of work study.”

Gross stressed that jobs on campus are available, but not guaranteed. “You still need to interview for a job, show up, demonstrate skill, or you could lose the job.

“It’s a good opportunity for students,” he added, “but at the same time, with COVID-19 stress and academic demands, you always want to have a family conversation about whether working the first semester makes sense, or if it’s better to adjust to all the academic issues before working.”

 

A Dramatic Shift

A few colleges have made a splash in recent years by eliminating loans from their financial-aid packages and replacing them with grants. Smith College recently announced it would begin doing that starting this fall.

This expansion of the college’s financial-aid program represents a new annual investment of $7 million, which will bring the college’s total aid awarded next year to more than $90 million. All students receiving need-based institutional aid, which represents more than 60% of the student body, will receive an increase in their grant funding from the college.

Kerry Cole and Richard O’Connor

Kerry Cole and Richard O’Connor say students shouldn’t be hesitant to reach out if they run into difficulties with college costs during their time at AIC.

“Eliminating loans from financial-aid packages will enable Smith to recruit and enroll the best students, regardless of family resources, and enable future alums to begin their careers or continue their studies with their debts greatly reduced or eliminated,” President Kathleen McCartney wrote in a letter to the campus body last fall. Reducing college debt, she added, “will be life-changing for students, families, and future alums.”

In addition to providing financial aid, Smith will award one-time ‘startup grants’ of $1,000 to entering students with an expected family contribution of less than $7,000. And to seniors graduating in 2022 with need-based institutional grants, Smith will offer one-time ‘launch grants’ of $2,000 to help with the cost of transitioning to life after college. All these new initiatives will be funded through gifts to the college and recent endowment gains.

That’s a turn for the better for many students at the Northampton institution. But circumstances can turn for the worse, too, on any campus. A job loss or death in the family can suddenly put a student in financial distress, O’Connor noted. “There are some resources we use at AIC to try to help students who are enrolled and on their path, but face some financial hurdles, which pop up all the time for families.”

Sometimes the hurdle is too much to overcome, but he stressed the importance of contacting the Financial Aid office sooner than later. “My advice is, if you know you’re having some financial issues, reach out and start those conversations.”

Sometimes AIC isn’t the right school for a prospective student right now, but it could be in the future, Cole said. In that case, a transfer path from a community college may be the best option. “The important thing is to keep the same timeline. If you want to graduate in four years as a history major, go get yourself a solid liberal-arts foundation at a community college.

“We can talk about all your options early on,” she added. “Our goal is to have students finish.”

Kemp said families should learn about the Commonwealth Commitment program, which aims to significantly reduce college costs by having students do just that — spend two years at a community college followed by two years at a four-year institution. “We always want to make sure, especially in such challenging times, that we’re as proactive and sharing as much information as possible with the student.”

“It’s important to normalize the financial-aid process. It can be overwhelming — in particular, for anyone who has not had experience doing it before.”

Gross noted that the federal government has a process called professional judgment in the case of changing financial circumstances for students already enrolled at WNE or any other college. “We take families through the professional-judgment process, the government re-looks at the FAFSA information, and can adjust families’ expected contribution, which would potentially qualify them for more federal or state funding.”

In addition, “most schools have some emergency funding, which is limited,” he said, as colleges can’t hand out money to everyone.

 

Toward the Finish Line

At STCC, the importance of understanding the financial process, and laying down a foundation for success after college, doesn’t end with enrollment. A counselor is on campus twice a week, working with students individually with financial-aid questions.

In addition, the Center for Access Services provides a broad range of non-academic supports, including assistance with food and basic supplies in the event of financial hardship.

“There are some resources we use at AIC to try to help students who are enrolled and on their path, but face some financial hurdles, which pop up all the time for families.”

“During COVID in particular, we’ve seen an increase in students encountering short-term financial emergences that prevent them from continuing their education goal, so we help them overcome those short-term emergencies and successfully complete their coursework,” Kemp explained.

There’s a curricular focus on financial literacy as well, including a personal-finance course, she noted. “Everyone has different needs when it comes to personal finances. We’re really trying to provide as many supports as possible but educate students from a financial-literacy perspective as well.”

The bottom line? Colleges want students to succeed — when they’re on campus, to be sure, but also when they’re still pondering whether they can afford to enroll at all.

“The average school may discount tuition by 40% or 50%,” Gross said. “So definitely look beyond the sticker price.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Special Coverage

A Stern Test Continues

Springfield Technical Community College President John Cook

Springfield Technical Community College President John Cook

 

For the area community’s colleges, the enrollment numbers continue to fall, with annual declines recently in the double digits. There are many reasons for these declines, which actually started well before COVID but were greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. With many students and potential students now in a state of what one college president called “paralysis,” there are hard-to-answer questions about what ‘normal’ will be like moving forward.

 

It’s been a while since anyone has talked about parking at Springfield Technical Community College — or the lack thereof.

John Cook, the school’s president, sometimes yearns for the days when they did.

And that was most days. Indeed, going back decades, parking was a problem at this urban campus that sits on the site of the Springfield Armory, despite numerous efforts to add more. By the time Cook arrived in 2017, the school was still parking cars on the commons (the old parade grounds converted by the school into athletic fields) the first few days of classes to make sure all students had a space. That practice was no longer necessary after a new lot was built near the Pearl Street entrance in 2019.

These days, there’s plenty of space in that lot and all the others as enrollment at the school continues a downward trajectory, a pattern seen at the other community colleges in the area — one that is defying many of the patterns concerning these schools and the economy, but one that was already in evidence before the pandemic and only accelerated by it.

“People are in a state of paralysis. And that fear, uncertainty, and the unknown is a driving factor for a lot of people; they feel stuck, they feel lost, and they don’t have a sense of even what they should be preparing for.”

Indeed, since STCC saw enrollment hit its high-water mark just after the Great Recession of 2008, roughly 7,000 students, the numbers have been declining steadily to the present 4,000 or so.

“We were down 16 or 17% last year, and this fall, we were down another 10%,” said Cook, adding that this pattern has been seen at other schools as well, with COVID-19 adding an exclamation point to the problem. At Holyoke Community College, for example, enrollment saw another double-digit decline in 2021, and President Christina Royal said that, with just six weeks to the start of the spring semester, the numbers are down another 7% or so from this time last year.

While most all colleges are seeing enrollment declines at this time, community colleges are being especially hard-hit, in large part because the students who attend these schools, especially older, non-traditional students, are those most impacted by the pandemic and its many side effects, from unemployment to issues with childcare to overall problems balancing life, work, and school.

Christina Royal

Christina Royal says some students and potential students are stuck in state of what she called ‘paralysis,’ not knowing exactly what kind of career to prepare for.

While many have returned to the classroom, others have remained on the sidelines, and they are in a state of what Royal likened to paralysis, not knowing exactly what to do with their lives or even what course of study to embark upon. And this distinguishes what’s happening now in the economy from almost anything that has happened before.

“A recession, as difficult as it is, is a predictable circumstance — and it has been up to this point,” she noted. “People are familiar with the ebbs and flows of the economy. What we’re dealing with now is fear, uncertainty, and the unknown.

“Now people are in a state of paralysis,” she went on. “And that fear, uncertainty, and the unknown is a driving factor for a lot of people; they feel stuck, they feel lost, and they don’t have a sense of even what they should be preparing for.”

She said these factors help explain why enrollment continues to decline at a time when logic says they should be rising based on previous performance. Indeed, community-college enrollment would normally rise when the country is in recession or something close to it, when unemployment is still higher than average, and, especially, when businesses in every sector, from manufacturing to IT to healthcare, are facing a workforce crisis unlike anything seen before. And it would also be expected to rise when the cost of four-year schools continue to soar and many parents are looking to community colleges as a sound alternative for those first two years.

“A two-year college is just as good as a four-year school, and it can potentially be a feeder to the four-year college, where they will do even better because they have the foundation from us.”

Michelle Coach, campus CEO at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, agreed. She said enrollment at ACC (one of 12 schools currently being merged into something called the Connecticut State Community College), which hit its peak of just under 1,000 a few years ago, is now in the mid-700s for full-time equivalents, up from a low of 650. The numbers are down for several reasons, including restrictions due to COVID that kept inmates from four prisons within just a few miles of the school from attending.

Even enrollment in the school’s popular manufacturing program, which has been supplying graduates to area plants in desperate need of workers, is down, she said, adding that many who would be applying are cautious and hesitant for all those reasons mentioned above.

Overall, many factors are contributing to the falling numbers, from COVID to smaller high-school graduating classes. The ongoing challenge for schools, Coach said, is to tap into new pools of students and consistently stress the value — in the many ways it can be defined — of a community-college education.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with area community-college leaders about the present and, to the extent they can project, the future as well. In short, these administrators don’t know when, or to what to extent, things will return to normal.

 

Unsteady Course

As she talked about enrollment and the state of community colleges today, Royal, like the others we spoke with, reiterated that the declines in the numbers started well before COVID.

Indeed, if one were to chart the numbers from the past 15 years or so, she explained, there would be a bell curve, or something approximating it, with the numbers slowly rising until they hit their peak just after the Great Recession and then beginning a gradual tumble after that.

“When I came in in 2017, we had already seen seven consecutive years of declining enrollment — this is certainly a long-term trend,” she said, adding that she believes there is some artificiality in comparing today’s numbers to the high-water marks of a decade or so ago. “If you take out the effect of the recession, both the ramp-up and the decline afterwards, it doesn’t look as extreme and bumpy.” 

Michelle Coach says there is general optimism

Michelle Coach says there is general optimism that enrollment numbers at ACC and elsewhere in Connecticut will start to move higher, especially with the many incentives being offered.

But ‘gradual’ turned into something much more pronounced during the pandemic, said those we spoke with, noting that enrollment is off 20% or more from a few years ago, and for a host of reasons.

The declines have become the most pressing topic — after ever-changing COVID protocols — at the regular meetings of the state’s 15 community-college presidents, said Cook, adding that, collectively, the schools are looking for answers, a path forward, and perhaps an understanding of what ‘normal’ will look like in the short and long term.

The answers won’t come easily because COVID has created a situation without precedent, and the current trends, as noted earlier, defy historical patterns, he explained, adding that the overarching question now is “where are the people who would be our students? What are they doing?”

And at the moment, many of them are still trying to simply cope with the pandemic.
“They’re still trying to figure out childcare in many cases,” he went on. “Or they may be reconsidering what their own career process might be. And there’s a lot of people who are standing pat and taking stock of what’s important.”

Cook said there has been growth in some numbers, especially those involving students of color and especially the Hispanic population, and there has been growth in some individual programs, such as health science, which the school didn’t have four years ago.

But numbers are down in many areas, including nursing — at least from a retention standpoint — at a time when demand for people in that profession has perhaps never been greater. It’s another sign that these are certainly not normal times.

Royal agreed. “When we have a typical recession, people don’t like the fact that they can’t find jobs or that they’re laid off,” she noted. “But they know that they have to retool, they go back to college, so that they can be prepared for when the jobs come back and the wages start to go up. Now, people are stuck.

“When you have such a global event as COVID-19 has been for our world, then it has put a lot of people in this state of ‘I don’t even know what a couple of months is going to look like — I might not even know what next week is going to look like. How can I think about going to college and starting a future when I’m not even sure what we’re here for anymore, what my purpose is, and what I want to do?’ All of this is causing people to stay still.”

And it’s prompting those running community colleges to do what they can to get them moving again, understanding this may be difficult given those factors that Royal described and fresh uncertainty in the wake of the Omicron variant and rising COVID cases as the winter months approach.

Indeed, most of the colleges are doing some targeted marketing and putting some of the federal-assistance funds to work helping students with the financial aspects of a community-college education.

“We certainly have used every tool available to us to help us with recruitment and retention,” Cook explained, adding that STCC has issued checks of up to $1,500 to help them defray the costs of their education.

“These are not loans … it’s $1,500 to use as you as you decide,” he said. “We’ve done things like that, and we’ve done it for three semesters. This is a real shot in the arm for people.”

Some are taking advantage of the unique opportunity, but many others remain on the sidelines because of COVID-related issues such as childcare, matters that $1,500 checks cannot fix.

At Asnuntuck, the school is being equally aggressive, especially when it comes to recruiting students from the Bay State. Through its Dare to Cross the Line program, Massachusetts residents can attend ACC for the same price as those in Connecticut.

“Currently, 10% of our students are from Massachusetts, and that has stayed fairly consistent,” Coach explained, adding that many enroll in the manufacturing program and a good number in cosmetology, but there is interest across the board. “We’re trying to get the word out, and we’ve done some additional outreach to Massachusetts high-school students.”

Meanwhile, thanks to a grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, ACC was able to place ‘smart classrooms’ in each of the nearby prisons to allow inmates to take classes, bringing enrollment numbers up somewhat.

Moving forward, with high-school graduating classes getting consistently smaller, there will be greater outreach to non-traditional students, but also a focus on high-school and even middle-school students — and their parents — with the goal of stressing the many advantages presented by the two-year schools.

“For the high schools, we’re trying to change the perception of community colleges,” Coach explained. “In the past, they’ve always said, ‘this is how many students are going to a four-year university.’ Well, a two-year college is just as good as a four-year school, and it can potentially be a feeder to the four-year college, where they will do even better because they have the foundation from us.”

 

Learning Curves

Overall, Royal and others said it’s clear that community colleges will have to make continual adjustments to bring more people to their schools and see them through to completion of their program. Changes and priorities will likely include everything from a greater emphasis on early college — enabling high-school students to earn credits for college in hopes that this might change their overall career trajectory — to greater flexibility with semester schedules and length of same, to efforts to address the many work/life/school issues challenging students, especially older, non-traditional students.

Royal noted that those who will graduate next spring will have spent their entire time at HCC coping with a global pandemic and everything that has come with it.

These students hung in and persevered, received their degrees, and, in many cases, will be moving on to a four-year school. 

“These are the students that have embraced that uncertainty, and say, ‘I’m going to do something with my life; we don’t know what’s going to happen in the world, but I’m going to further myself and be prepared for when we get to the other side of that.’ That’s who you’re going to see in our graduating class.”

What you won’t see are those who became stuck, as she called it, those who didn’t have the inclination or the ability to plow forward during the pandemic.

Just when people can and will move out of this state of paralysis is still a question mark. Until then, parking will remain a non-issue at STCC — and other schools as well — and the region’s community colleges will remain tested by a situation that is defying trends and their own history.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education

A Class Act

Janis Santos

Janis Santos has spent nearly a half-century as an administrator, but she never lost her enthusiasm for being in the classroom and reading to children.

During the early, and darkest, days of the pandemic, Janis Santos recalls, she considered it vitally important to remain positive and find ways to permit her positive attitude to trickle down to every employee and every facet of the Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start operation.

And so, in her daily communications with staff, she would include quotes designed to inspire and uplift others at a time of unprecedented challenge. She borrowed quotes from many, but leaned heavily on Fred Rogers (better known to most as Mister Rogers) — whom she described as a hero for the way he forcefully drove home the message about how very young children learn through play — and also the poet Maya Angelou.

From the latter, there was one passage she remembers using more than a few times: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

But as powerful and effectual as those words were, it was probably some from Santos herself that helped propel her staff through those tumultuous times. 

When asked to recall and paraphrase, she said, “everyone needed to hear that we’ve been through things before, maybe not as bad as this … but we do this for children. Why are we here? What is our purpose? We’re committed and dedicated to America’s most vulnerable children. We have a big challenge to face — we need to keep the children safe and their families safe — so let’s do it together.”

Those comments are quite poignant because they sum up not only what Santos was saying at the height of the pandemic, but what she’s been saying — and doing — during a remarkable, nearly half-century-long career in Head Start that will come to a close — officially, but not in reality — on Dec. 31.

Indeed, from the time she opened a Head Start facility in the basement of the Boys & Girls Club in Ludlow in 1973, she has been dedicated to the country’s, and this region’s, most vulnerable children. But just as important, she’s been dedicated to those who work with and on behalf of those children, working tirelessly to stress the importance of early-childhood education and lobby for appropriate wages for those at the front of the classrooms.

“I will stay connected to Head Start; I’ve devoted my life to advocating for America’s most vulnerable children, and I will continue to do that.”

And, in what could only be considered irony, the pandemic that tested her mettle as no other challenge during her long career has helped reinforce that message and bring it home in ways that seem destined to bring real change to the landscape.

“During COVID, when there was a lack of childcare and no place for parents to leave their children when they went to work, it became a point of focus,” she explained. “The public finally saw that this is important; they saw how important these facilities are to parents, employers, and the economy.”

But while COVID-19 enlightened many on this topic, it also brought attention to another aspect of this profession that has been a career-long priority for Santos — the need to raise the salary levels for preschool educators.

Indeed, at a time when employers in every sector of the economy are struggling to retain workers being tempted by higher wages and better benefits elsewhere, the problem is especially acute in early-childhood education.

“This year, I’ve lost 15 Head Start teachers to public schools,” she noted, adding that, while it has always been a challenge to recruit people to this profession and retain them, at this critical juncture, it is even more so.

As noted, Santos will be retiring at the end of the year, but not leaving the scene when it comes to advocating for early-childhood education and those who provide it.

“I will stay connected to Head Start; I’ve devoted my life to advocating for America’s most vulnerable children, and I will continue to do that,” she said, adding that, while continuing those lobbying efforts, she plans to write a history of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start.

It’s a rich history, obviously, and Santos, named a Woman of Impact by BusinessWest in 2018, had a hand in most of it. For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Santos about her career, the changes that have come to early-childhood education, and the changes she believes still need to come.

 

School of Thought

By now, most people in the region know at least some of what we’ll call the Janis Santos story. Most versions begin when she was a mother of three enrolled in night classes at Holyoke Community College, with the dream of being a preschool teacher.

It was there, and then, that a young man in her class who was from Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start encouraged her to start a facility in Ludlow. She did, eventually opening the Parkside Learning Center in that aforementioned basement of the Boys & Girls Club, in 1973. But as she would eventually learn, nothing about getting that facility off the ground — from securing the space to securing the funding — was going to be easy.

Janis Santos, seen here with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy

Janis Santos, seen here with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, has spent a lifetime preaching the importance of early-childhood education.

She recalls that Head Start was struggling financially as an organization and was not able to actually pay her a salary.

“They offered me $18 a week in Commonwealth Corp. money, and I took it,” she recalled. “I had no benefits, no nothing, and I took that for about three years until my site started to generate some income.”

But what she also learned, rather quickly and much to her dismay, was that there wasn’t much respect within the community, and within the broad realm of education, for what she was doing with her life and her career.

“The perception was that we were babysitters out there, and I felt that people just don’t understand that these are critical learning years for children,” she said. “And the other piece is that children in that age group learn through play; some of my friends would visit and say, ‘why don’t you become a real teacher and go teach kindergarten?’”

Instead of listening to that advice, she spent a lifetime convincing others that she was a real teacher and that early education was vital to young people, their families, and society in general.

“The perception was that we were babysitters out there, and I felt that people just don’t understand that these are critical learning years for children, Some of my friends would visit and say, ‘why don’t you become a real teacher and go teach kindergarten?’”

“I was determined to change those perceptions,” she said. “I wanted people, and educators, and the community to know the importance of those years.”

She would become the director of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start in 1979 and also go on to serve on the National Head Start Board of Directors for 14 years, which gave her the opportunity to not only advocate for the nation’s most vulnerable children, but make the case for early-childhood education.

Over the years, she would meet three American presidents and lobby countless elected officials on the importance of pre-K and the need to improve the wages of those in that profession. She has pictures of herself with then-U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, several governors, and many other elected leaders.

But as important as her time with those elected leaders has been — and it has been vitally important to moving the needle on early-childhood education — Santos said the most valuable time she spent was with children in the classroom and with teachers and other staff members as a mentor.

She has taken on that role with countless individuals over the years, including the woman chosen in a national search to be her successor at HCS Head Start, Nicole Blais.

To say these two go way back is an understatement. Indeed, Santos was Blais’s preschool teacher in Ludlow in the ’70s.

Santos said she has been working with Blais during the transition, and has some pointed advice for her based on nearly 45 years of being in that job — and also advice provided by those who mentored her.

“One of them told me, ‘you have to take a bold, respectful approach,’ and I’ve never forgotten that,” she told BusinessWest.

She has some other advice for as well — to follow her lead when it comes to taking risks, something one needs to do to succeed as a leader.

“I’m a risk taker,” she told BusinessWest, referring to everything from that first gambit in Ludlow, the one that paid her $18 a week, to her partnership with MGM Springfield on a new facility in Springfield, to her involvement in the new Educare program that opened in 2019. “You can’t sit back; you have to go out there and take risks, and that’s what I tell those that I mentor. I tell them, ‘if you don’t take risks, you will not succeed.’”

 

Learning Experiences

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.  But for children, play is serious learning.”

That’s one of those quotes from Mister Rogers that Santos used to help encourage and inspire staff during the darkest times of the pandemic.

It’s more than that, though. It’s one of the pillars on which early-childhood education is built and one of the critical points Santos has spent a career trying to drive home to a wide range of constituencies.

With a little help from COVID, there is a now a better understanding of the importance of early-childhood education and perhaps better odds for universal pre-K to become policy in this country.

In the meantime, most have stopped referring to early-childhood educators as babysitters. And at a time when Santos is being honored by a number of groups for her many accomplishments, that is probably the biggest.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education Special Coverage

Continuing Education

Matthew Scott says the double protection of vaccines and masks

Matthew Scott says the double protection of vaccines and masks are a good start to keeping AIC’s campus safe.

 

After a year when colleges offered a wide variety of learning options during the pandemic, from in-person to remote to a blend of both, the vast majority have opened their classrooms, residence halls, and athletic fields for a true on-campus experience this fall. But they’re doing so with caution, both internally — in the form of vaccine requirements — and backed by municipalities that are issuing broad mask mandates. The bottom line through all the changes? The idea that young people need the full college experience, and no one wants to risk a disheartening retreat to Zoom.

 

Everyone is tired of pivoting, Matthew Scott said. But, by now, they’re good at it, too.

“We’ve learned that our students are adaptable. They don’t always want to be, but they’ll go with the flow and make it happen. And our staff members have just rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘what needs to be done?’”

As vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students at American International College (AIC) in Springfield, Scott is just one of countless higher-education administrators who have spent the past 18 months adapting to one unexpected development after another when it came to COVID-19 and how students could best learn and interact during the pandemic.

“You want to plan in times when you aren’t in the middle of a crisis, so that you’re ready to use that plan when a crisis occurs,” he said. “But when you’re thinking through your crisis-planning process, you’re thinking of things like a fire or a hurricane coming through. Nobody planned for a pandemic. We had protocols for a specific outbreak, but not something like this.”

The lesson? “We learned that we need to be agile. You might spend weeks planning something, and then one order comes through from the local or state government, and you need to pivot.”

The latest pivot for AIC, one similar to what most colleges and universities are doing, involves students living and learning on campus, with residence halls open and clubs and sports in full swing. But a facemask requirement is back, too, at least indoors. And AIC is also requiring students and employees to be vaccinated against COVID.

“We learned that we need to be agile. You might spend weeks planning something, and then one order comes through from the local or state government, and you need to pivot.”

“At last count, we were at 98%, which is a phenomenal number to get to,” Scott said, noting that religious and medical exemptions are being given, but those people are required to be tested weekly, and their quarantine and isolation protocols in the case of infection differ from those of a vaccinated individual. “So far, the vaccination rate has been helping us quite a bit.”

Elms College in Chicopee has also mandated both masks indoors and vaccination for everyone (students, faculty, and staff) without a legitimate exemption.

“Last year, masks were required everywhere. Now, they are not required outdoors if you don’t have anyone within six feet of you,” President Harry Dumay said. “We don’t have distancing in the clasrooms like last year. But we’ll be functioning with a campus that is fully vaccinated.”

While students could choose to take classes in person or remotely last year, Dumay said the college is asking all undergraduates to be in classrooms this year, although remote capabilities are in place in case someone needs to quarantine.

President Harry Dumay says Elms College not only has a plan

President Harry Dumay says Elms College not only has a plan for this fall, but “a backup to the plan and a backup to the backup.”

“We thought this year would be completely free of all these things, but what we’re seeing in the region and on campus are a lot of breakthrough cases, and Delta is more contagious than the original virus,” Dumay said.

When asked about pushback from students on the vaccine mandate, he said he wouldn’t use that word, exactly. “We certainly had quite a few inquiries from parents, saying, ‘is that necessary?’ Or from staff or employees asking, ‘so what does that mean if I don’t do it?’ I don’t know if anyone resigned on our campus or decided not to come because of the vaccination. There might be one or two cases, but I haven’t heard that.”

Scott said students tend to understand that vaccines not only prevent COVID in many cases, but reduce its severity in others.

At the same time, however, “college-age people are not particularly concerned about hospitalization or death because, for the vast majority of them, they’re able to weather the storm and get through it. But part of the education process is making sure they understand it’s not just about them, it’s about the people around them who might have underlying conditions they might not know about.”

If there has been any pushback, he noted, it has taken the form of questions about why both vaccines and masks are necessary.

“We thought this year would be completely free of all these things, but what we’re seeing in the region and on campus are a lot of breakthrough cases, and Delta is more contagious than the original virus.”

“We’d say, ‘yes, you’re vaccinated, and yes, that probably means there’s a lower likelihood of you contracting COVID, but if you do, you might not know you have it, and you might pass it on to somebody else — maybe a child who can’t get a vaccine, or maybe someone who’s immunocompromised,’” he explained. “For the most part, people get it. More than 1,000 U.S. colleges are requiring vaccines, so we’re among many at this point.”

 

Taking Their Shot

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal said HCC balanced the desire among many students to get back to in-person learning with the constantly changing health metrics around the Delta variant. “So we decided to open with about a third of classes in person, face to face; a third online; and another third blended of some sort.”

The original plan earlier this summer called for about 25% of classes in person, she explained, “but as those classes were filling up, we heard students wanted more of them, so we added some additional sections. Then we increased class sizes, which were lowered during the pandemic.”

Now 15 students are allowed in a class, still small enough to allow for social distancing, Royal said.

At the same time, “we were also hearing from other students who were not comfortable coming back in, given the conditions in the world. So that’s where we are this semester — we wanted to have a range of options for students so we can match whatever their comfort level is.”

HCC has had a mask mandate on campus since the start of the pandemic and has never lifted it. The college also modified its ventilation systems. “We have several classrooms that don’t have windows, and we wanted to make sure people felt comfortable in the learning spaces.”

In addition, the campus added protective barriers in many places and signage reminding students about masks, social distancing, and hand washing, as well as the need to get vaccinated.

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal says the state’s community-college presidents are unified in their support of a vaccine mandate.

That is more than a nudge now, as all 15 community colleges in Massachusetts instituted a vaccine mandate last week for all students, faculty, and staff, which must be fully met by January.

“During the last 18 months, the Massachusetts community colleges have prioritized the health and safety of our communities while also recognizing that many of our students have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the presidents said in a statement shared with their campuses. “While a significant number of students, faculty, and staff are already vaccinated or are in the process of becoming vaccinated, the 15 colleges are seeking to increase the health and safety of the learning and working environment in light of the ongoing public health concerns and current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

In her own message to the HCC community, Royal noted that, “while there is no ironclad defense against coronavirus, extensive public-health research has shown that vaccination greatly reduces the risk of hospitalization and death.”

While the UMass system has not yet instituted a vaccine mandate, UMass Amherst is strongly advising shots for all students and employees. “The science is clear that vaccination is the best way to stop COVID-19 from spreading, and our best way to continue protecting each other’s well-being,” an official statement reads.

In the meantime, individuals who are not vaccinated are required to participate in the university’s asymptomatic testing program.

UMass Amherst is also back to in-person learning, but is following public-health guidelines for wearing masks indoors and distancing where possible.

“If we need to do more education and bring some public-health experts in to reduce misinformation and allow for people to get the facts, then we’ll certainly do that as part of our strategy.”

“The use of indoor masks, required on campus and in the town of Amherst … reduce the spread of infection, said Ann Becker, Public Health director, and Jeffrey Hescock, executive director of Environmental Health and Safety, in the campus’ Public Health Promotion Center, in a statement. But they also laid out the stark facts when it comes to vaccination.

“Our data shows that, among our vaccinated population, only 1.7% have tested positive. Among the approximately 500 individuals who have received religious or medical exemptions from vaccination, 10.05% have tested positive. We urge those not yet vaccinated to consider doing so.”

They noted, however, that positive cases have been predominately among undergraduate off-campus students connected to unmasked social activities. “We have not seen any spread in academic settings. Most cases continue to be of short duration, resulting in mild to moderate illness.”

UMass makes vaccine clinics readily availabe on campus, as do the 15 community colleges. HCC offers free COVID-19 vaccinations for four hours every Tuesday, as well as COVID-19 testing six days a week on campus through the Holyoke Board of Health.

Royal was adamant that a vaccine mandate was the right call.

“I think this is in our collective best interest, for our community colleges and for our region as well,” she told BusinessWest. “At this point, the vaccines have been shown to be effective when we’re talking about preventing disease or reducing hospitalizations and deaths.”

She recognizes that people have many different perspectives that should be respected, but that the college has a duty to combat misinformation.

“If we need to do more education and bring some public-health experts in to reduce misinformation and allow for people to get the facts, then we’ll certainly do that as part of our strategy.”

 

Life of the Campus

In some ways, it has been a frustrating start to the semester, Dumay said, noting that the general feeling earlier in the summer was that masks would be optional, let alone vaccines, as COVID gradually retreated. While it hasn’t, he noted that it’s important for students to safety enjoy the full Elms experience.

“One of the distinctive features of an Elms College education … is that it offers a vibrant and nurturing environment, and not just with the instruction that happens in the classroom,” he said. “It’s all the interactions and how people behave with one another.”

College leaders believe important personal growth occurs through that interaction, he added.

“You can’t really do that with an online model. You can approximate it, but it’s not ideal. So to the extent we can, we’ll take the steps that are necessary so we’re safe and have an on-campus education, particularly for young people who are at that stage in their life where they’re forming their character.”

Like Scott, Dumay said the key lesson from the pandemic has been that it’s good to have a plan, but one thet can be modified at any given time. “We have a backup to the plan and a backup to the backup. We’re prepared to shift as the environment changes.”

The second lesson is the importance of transparent communication, he noted, because without it, people tend to fill the gaps with misinformation.

“We’re not pretending the pandemic is over by any means,” AIC’s Scott said. “We’re complying with the Springfield mask mandate right now and requiring masks indoors and outdoors when you can’t maintain the six feet. But we still have a tent set up outside; we’re trying to drive people outside as much as possible, just as an extra layer of protection.

“But the 98% vaccination rate, along with masking — I don’t want to give people a false sense of security where you don’t have to be vigilant, but we’re feeling pretty confident that we’re doing what we need to do to keep people safe.”

If a pocket of infection arises, the campus is ready to bring in more testing supplies and trigger quarantine protocols, but Scott feels like the double protection offered by vaccines and masks are the best way to keep that possibility at bay.

“There’s no one to be mad at,” he added. “I’m not mad at the mayor for putting in a mask mandate; he’s doing what needs to be done to keep the people in the community safe. But is it frustrating when you think you have a plan and the pandemic doesn’t cooperate? Of course, but a virus doesn’t cooperate.”

What makes all the planning and inconveniences worthwhile, he said, was seeing the energy of the students as they moved back onto campus a month ago.

“It was kind of a heartwarming moment seeing some of these returners … they left in March of 2020, and they didn’t come back until the beginning of this September. So when they see each other in person for the very first time in a long while, you can see it, you can feel it. They want to be with each other.

“We believe in the on-campus experience,” he added. “They’re coming here for all these things — to participate in athletics, to live in the residence halls, to eat in the dining commons. We’re on an online campus in this moment.”

Dumay saw the same energy at the Elms — and doesn’t want to do anything that might threaten to snuff it out.

“The first week, seeing students back on campus, was fantastic,” he said. “They’re happy to be here. They don’t want to be sent back to Zoom. They’re happy to be with each other. And we’re happy to see them.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Access and Opportunity

 

The University of Massachusetts recently announced it will receive a cash gift of $50 million from Robert and Donna Manning. The gift, the largest of any kind in the university’s history, is aimed at increasing access and opportunity across the five-campus university system.

The first distribution of the $50 million will be $15 million to endow the UMass Boston Nursing program, which will become the Robert and Donna Manning College of Nursing and Health Sciences. The funds will be focused on supporting student diversity and ensuring that the new cohort of nursing professionals are champions of equitable patient care.

Donna Manning’s 35-year career as an oncology nurse at Boston Medical Center inspired the decision to focus the gift on nursing at UMass Boston. Known for her dedication to patients, Manning donated her salary to the hospital each year.

“For the majority of my career in Boston, I was struck by the fact that most of the nurses looked like me, while most of the patients didn’t,” she said. “UMass Boston plays a critical role in supporting diversity in Boston, and I have seen firsthand how diversity in the nursing workforce can improve patient care and address health inequities. We look forward to actively working with the college on these important goals.”

The College of Nursing and Health Sciences is the fastest-growing college at UMass Boston and offers the only four-year public programs in nursing and exercise and health sciences in the Greater Boston area. The undergraduate and graduate population of approximately 2,100 students in the college is 19% black, 12% Latinx, and 11% Asian-American/Pacific islander.

“This transformational gift from Rob and Donna comes at the right time and the right place and for a beautiful cause: to foster a culture of healing and health equity in Boston and beyond. It will enable UMass Boston to take the education of the next generation of nurses nobly serving as caregivers to the next level of excellence and engagement,” UMass Boston Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco said. “Amidst a pandemic, rampant medical disinformation, nursing shortages, and the heroism of healthcare workers, we at UMass Boston are more committed than ever to cultivating extraordinary nursing talent. The Mannings’ historic gift will be put to use to nurture the next generation of health and wellness scientific expertise, but also the humane heart, the empathy and cultural awareness that define caregiving in its truest sense.”

In the coming months, the Mannings plan to announce distributions from the overall gift to improve access and opportunity on the other UMass campuses in Amherst, Dartmouth, Lowell, and Worcester.

“Donna and I are at a point in our lives where we want to make a real difference, and this was the best way to do that because we know what UMass does for students — it transforms lives,” said Robert Manning, who is chairman of MFS Investment Management and the long-time chair of the UMass board of trustees. “We firmly believe that UMass is the most important asset in the Commonwealth and that the greatest thing we can do to support the Commonwealth is to support the UMass campuses and UMass students.”

The $50 million gift from the Mannings is a transformational moment for the UMass system and would represent the largest-ever commitment received by the university even if it were not an upfront, cash gift.

“The significance of this gift cannot be overstated,” UMass President Marty Meehan said. “Rob and Donna are two of our own. As first-generation college graduates, they experienced the transformational impact UMass has on students’ lives. Rob and Donna have always led by example in their philanthropy, and this remarkable gift is a call to action to the philanthropic community. It says that UMass is a good investment and an opportunity to have direct and immediate impact on the future of the Commonwealth. On behalf of the five campuses, we thank the Mannings for their incredible generosity and commitment to students.”

The Mannings are Methuen natives and were high-school sweethearts. They both commuted to UMass Lowell, with Robert receiving a degree in information systems management from UMass Lowell in 1984 and Donna receiving a nursing degree in 1985 and an MBA from UMass Lowell in 1991. They each received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from UMass Lowell in 2011.

Immediately after graduating from UMass Lowell, Robert Manning began working at MFS Investment Management as a research analyst in its high-yield bond group, and credits his UMass education with giving him a competitive edge. Over his career at MFS, he rose to become president, CEO, and then chair. Under his leadership, MFS has grown to manage more than $670 billion in assets annually. He will retire this year. Donna Manning retired from Boston Medical Center in 2018. The couple plans to be heavily engaged in the UMass programs their gifts will support.

The Mannings were already among UMass’ greatest supporters, having committed more than $11 million to UMass Lowell, where the Manning School of Business bears their name. On the Lowell campus, they have endowed several faculty chairs, sponsored a nursing-simulation lab, and established the Robert and Donna Manning Endowed Scholarship Fund. The Manning Prize for Excellence in Teaching is awarded to faculty on all five UMass campuses for high-impact teaching.

Education

Dollars and Sense

By Mark Morris

From left: Square One’s Dawn DiStefano, Melissa Blissett, and Kristine Allard; and FP Investment Group’s Flavia McCaughey, Flavia Cote, and Peter Cote.

Given the scope of Square One’s work for children and families, it’s not unusual for the organization to receive contributions to support its efforts.

But recently, FR Investment Group offered a donation that goes far beyond writing a check.

“Instead of making a monetary donation, we’ve chosen to do something harder,” said Peter Cote, president of FP Investment Group. “We’re giving our time and services to help Square One clients and staff improve their financial literacy.”

Dawn DiStefano, Square One’s executive director, had seen similar attempts at financial education fizzle out, despite good intentions. This latest proposal was different.

“The FR group wanted to understand who we are and what we want for our clients and staff,” she said. “They were curious, inquisitive, and showed us they valued our expertise as well.”

The Empower Financial Literacy program is now a monthly offering at Square One. Flavia Cote, executive vice president of FR Investment and Peter’s wife, runs the session each month with FR staff, including her daughter, Flavia McCaughey, a vice president with FR.

McCaughey presented the idea to her parents that working with families at the lowest income levels to help them understand the basics of finance could have a huge impact on those families — and also on the community at large. The Cotes supported the idea but also offered some sage advice.

“My parents told me to be prepared that maybe only one person would show up to the meeting,” McCaughey said. “I discussed that possibility with the team, and we decided if the program makes a difference in even one person’s life, it’s worth it.”

Instead, 14 people have signed up for the program, with eight or nine regularly attending the monthly sessions.

“Given that we’re still dealing with COVID and that everyone has busy lives, I’m excited about 14 sign-ups,” DiStefano said. “The program will be here when they’re ready. It’s not a one-and-done.”

“Instead of making a monetary donation, we’ve chosen to do something harder.”

Far from it. Peter has committed his firm to running the financial-literacy program for the next 30 to 50 years.

“That’s how long it’s going to take to make real change in the financial well-being of our community,” he said. “You have to be on the ground and commit to the long term.”

 

Changing the Narrative

This kind of commitment is necessary to break what DiStefano called a self-fulfilling prophecy of bad outcomes.

“Those who grew up in a family where they worried about how they were going to eat and get to school often end up creating that same unstable environment for themselves when they are adults,” she said. “They’re not surprised when they lose an apartment or don’t care about their credit score because they feel they couldn’t buy a car anyway.”

Just like savings, tough situations also have a way of compounding and growing. DiStefano gave an example of someone who lost a job, and in order to receive housing assistance, they had to be in arrears on their rent, which would then negatively affect their credit score. “This is what people are dealing with,” she said.

Melissa Blissett, vice president of Family Support Services at Square One, asks people what’s going on that prohibits them from living a better life and uses a tool called the family-goal plan to help them.

Flavia McCaughey leads a financial-literacy session at Square One.

Flavia McCaughey leads a financial-literacy session at Square One.

“The FR folks speak the same language we use with our families, and we both use the SMART goal approach,” Blissett said. SMART, a popular goal-setting technique, is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely.

Flavia Cote said her team encourages people to set a goal such as buying a reliable car, and the FR staff breaks it down to the actions needed to eventually reach the goal.

“We encourage people to try to save at least $10 a month,” she said. “Even if they can’t save $10 next month, they have started to think about saving.”

To prevent being overwhelmed by a large goal, Peter suggests taking it one step at a time. “I don’t want people to think about years from now — just think about the next 24 hours. When you bring it down to 24 hours, you help people see an attainable goal.”

In their monthly sessions, the FR staff help people with figuring the numbers and, more importantly, understanding the emotions that come with handling finances.

“If someone can’t save for one month, we encourage them to set the goal for next month,” Flavia said. “We want to bring hope and make finance simple enough for people to achieve some sort of financial independence.”

Like dedicated saving, positive actions can also have a compounding effect. Recently, a class-action case involving overdraft fees at a regional bank reached a settlement for several million dollars. Once all the claimants received their share, $23,000 remained. This final amount is usually provided to a nonprofit program in alignment with the core theme of the case and is known as a ‘cy pres,’ from a French phrase meaning ‘as near as possible.’

The plaintiff’s counsel, Angela Edwards, learned about the Square One program from Flavia Cote and thought it sounded perfect. “I recommended the cy pres for Square One, the defense counsel agreed, and the judge approved it.”

 

Making Progress

Peter Cote sees his main job not as a financial person, but as a champion for others. “We’re dealing with people who have a variety of financial challenges, and we are their champions to let them know it will be OK.”

When people attend the sessions at Square One, Flavia said, they show they are ready to make progress with their lives. “We try to help people understand their situation is not permanent and there is a way to change it.”

While a term like financial literacy might sound academic, Peter offered a few different terms that might better describe the course.

“You could call it financial well-being, or Life 101,” he said. “Maybe Figuring It Out 101.”

Education Special Coverage

Challenge Accepted

Linda Thompson, the 21st president of Westfield State University.

Linda Thompson had never applied for a college presidency position before a recruiter called and invited her to pursue that post at Westfield State University. She listened, and agreed it was time to take a 40-year-career in healthcare, public policy, and healthcare education to a new and much higher plane. She becomes WSU’s 21st president at a challenging time, especially as schools large and small return to something approaching normal after 16 months of life in a pandemic. But with her diverse background, she believes she’s ready for that challenge.

 

Linda Thompson remembers not only the call from the headhunter, made to gauge her interest in applying for the president’s position at Westfield State University, but the words of encouragement that accompanied it.

“She said, ‘Linda, I think you’re ready to think about being a president,’” said Thompson, who at the time was dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at UMass Boston and hadn’t pursued a president’s position before. “She said, ‘you’re a dean now … look at the work deans do; they raise money, they create new programs, they create partnerships, they work with the board. The things you do as a dean are the things you’ll do as a president.”

More important than the recruiter thinking she was ready for the post at WSU, Thompson knew she was ready, even if she needed a little convincing.

“I thought I had the right background at this point in time to make a difference at this specific university,” she said, adding that it’s much more than the 35 years in higher education in various positions within nursing and health-sciences programs that gave her the confidence to enter and then prevail in the nationwide search for the school’s 21st president. It was also experience in public policy, working with a host of elected leaders to address a wide range of health and public-safety issues and, essentially, problem-solve.

“Education, to me, is a ticket out of poverty; it’s a ticket for creating wonderful solutions for society and for people.”

“Most of my career, I’ve worked with children and youth, trying to develop programs and policies to promote healthy outcomes for children, youth, and families,” she explained. “I started out, like most people in nursing, in a hospital and moved to community and public-health work. I really became interested in high-risk children just based on my work in public health, seeing how children who grew up in poverty, children who grew up in less-than-fortunate environments, were impacted by those circumstances.”

She points to her own family as an example, and noted that her two older sisters both died young, one from a gunshot wound at age 21 and the other from complications from diabetes during her second pregnancy as a teen.

“I always thought that the reason I thrived was education,” she told BusinessWest. “Education, to me, is a ticket out of poverty; it’s a ticket for creating wonderful solutions for society and for people. I’ve been blessed; I’ve not only had the opportunity to work as a nurse, I’ve also had the opportunity to work to develop programs for children who were in the justice system, people who were in state custody. I did work all over the country looking at ways we can promote good outcomes for people who had the misfortune to be engaged in the criminal-justice system.

Linda Thompson says Westfield State University learned a number of lessons during the pandemic

Linda Thompson says Westfield State University learned a number of lessons during the pandemic, and it will apply them as the school, its students, faculty, and staff return to something approaching normal this fall.

“I worked for the governor of Maryland for five years and developed programs and policies for children and youth statewide,” she went on. “We looked at how we could develop inter-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary programs, starting with education, all the way to how we need to work with housing and economic development to create good outcomes for families and for children.”

Thompson arrives at the rural WSU campus at an intriguing time for all those in higher education. Smaller high-school graduating classes have contributed to enrollment challenges at many institutions, and even some closures of smaller schools, and the soaring cost of a college education has brought ever-more attention to the value of such an education and how schools provide it.

Meanwhile, institutions will be returning to something approaching normal this fall after enduring two and a half semesters of life in a global pandemic, an experience that tested all schools in every way imaginable and also provided learning experiences and opportunities to do things in a different, and sometimes better, way.

Thompson acknowledged these developments and said they will be among the challenges and opportunities awaiting her as she takes the helm at the 182-year-old institution, founded by Horace Mann, whose pioneering efforts in education — and inclusion — are certainly a source of inspiration for her.

“He wanted to look at how education is important to a new society — a society that was going to be self-governed and where people needed to understand how to engage in civil society. I was very intrigued with this history, the inclusive nature of his approach to higher education, and how he looked back at some of the historical development of what I will call democracies in ancient Greece and the importance of an educated community to support democracies and health societies.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Thompson about Horace Mann, the challenges facing those in higher education, and why she believes WSU is well-positioned to meet them head-on.

 

Grade Expectations

As noted earlier, Thompson brings a diverse portfolio of experience to her latest challenge.

Our story begins in 1979, when she began her career as a clinical nurse specialist in the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Soon thereafter, she would begin interspersing jobs in education with those in the public sector.

Linda Thompson says the timing was right for her to pursue a college presidency, and Westfield State University was the ideal fit.

Linda Thompson says the timing was right for her to pursue a college presidency, and Westfield State University was the ideal fit.

In 1987, she became assistant dean at the School of Nursing at Coppin State College in Baltimore, and two years later took a job as director of the Office of Occupational Medicine and Safety in Baltimore. In 1993, she joined the school of Nursing at the University of Maryland, where she would hold a variety of positions between 1993 and 2003, with a four-year diversion in the middle to serve as special secretary for Children, Youth & Families in the Maryland Governor’s Office.

In 2003, she became dean of Nursing at Oakland University in Troy, Mich., and later returned to the East Coast, where she would join the staff at North Carolina A&T State University, first as provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, then as associate vice chancellor for Outreach, Professional Development & Distance Education.

“I see myself as a servant leader, a person who tries to see how I can help another person maximize their opportunity to dig deep inside themselves, and identify their strengths and bring those strengths out.”

In 2013, she became dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences and a professor of Nursing at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and in 2017, she came to UMass Boston, serving as dean of the College of Nursing and Health Services.

Slicing through all that, she said she’s had decades of experience working collaboratively with others to achieve progress in areas ranging from student success to diversity with staff and faculty; from forging partnerships with private-sector institutions to creating strategic plans; from creating new academic programs to securing new philanthropic revenue streams for faculty research.

And she intends to tap into all that experience as she leads WSU out of the pandemic and into the next chapter in its history.

As she does so, she intends to lean heavily on Horace Mann, considered by many to be the father of public education, for both inspiration and direction. In many respects, they share common viewpoints about the importance of education and inclusion.

“This whole idea of looking at healthy communities and using education to strengthen communities resonated with me,” Thompson explained. “And it resonated with me given some of the things we’re starting to see with our divided country; how do we get people educated so that they’re able to know how to be critical thinkers, how to separate fact from fiction, and how to begin looking at the importance of creating communities where everyone is healthy? To me, healthy is more than physical health — it’s emotional and social and environmental, this whole way that we look at values that really enable people to thrive and survive in society.”

Looking forward, she said she has many goals and ambitions for the school, with greater diversity and inclusion at the top of the list. She pointed to UMass Boston, which she described as one of the most diverse schools in the country, as both a model and a true reflection of the demographic changes that have taken place in the U.S.

“Those diverse populations are the future of higher education in this country,” she told BusinessWest. “We are becoming a majority minority population, and there are opportunities to reach out to communities of color and stress the importance of education to be part of a lifestyle where we’re constantly looking at ways to engage with people and give them tools to thrive.”

 

Course of Action

Thompson arrived at the WSU campus at the start of this month. She will use the two months before the fall semester begins to make connections — both on campus and within the community.

She said the calendar was quickly filling up with appointments with area civic, business, and education leaders, at which she will gauge needs, come to fully understand how the university partners with others to meet those needs, and discuss ways to broaden WSU’s impact and become even more of a difference maker in the community.
The discussions with business leaders will focus on the needs of the workforce and how to make graduates more workforce-ready, she said, adding that the school has been a reliable supplier of qualified workers to sectors ranging from education to healthcare to criminal justice.

Meanwhile, the meetings with those in education focus on widening and strengthening a pipeline of students through K-12 and into higher education, and also on finding paths for those who can’t, for various reasons, take such a direct path.

“For those who are not able to go to college right after high school, how do make it easy for these adults to come back to school?” she asked, adding that she will work with others to answer that question.

And some of the answers may have been found during the pandemic, she went on, noting that, out of necessity, educators used technology to find new and different ways to teach and engage students. And this imagination and persistence — not to mention the direct lessons learned about how to do things, especially with regard to remote learning — will carry on into this fall, when the campus returns to ‘normal’ and well beyond.

“For us, moving forward, I’ll think we’ll never go back to the way we educated people before,” she told BusinessWest, “because people have learned to do this work in a different kind of way, and the public has learned that this is an option moving forward to give people an opportunity to return to college.”

When asked about what she brings to her latest challenge, Thompson reiterated that it’s more than her work in higher education, as significant as that is. It’s also her work in public policy, and, more specifically, working in partnership with others to address global issues.

She counts among her mentors David Mathews, former president of the University of Alabama and secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Ford. She worked with him when he was leading the Kettering Foundation.

“I spent time with him learning about the way he approached leadership and the way he approached democracy,” she noted. “I’ve been a dean, and I’ve had experience as a provost; overall, I believe I have the right set of skills to use the lessons I’ve learned to help develop the next set of community leaders in all fields.

“We need to look at a way that we can create curriculum and graduate people who are innovative, who are critical thinkers, who know how to research on their own, who know to look at problems and how to work in teams with other people in order to create solutions,” she went on. “These are things I’ve learned in my life, and those are things I want to impart to the students who come to this campus.”

As for her leadership style, Thompson described it this way: “I look at creating a vision and an idea and working with and through people — people who are above me, people who work alongside me, people who are younger — and learning from people at all levels and ages and stages of their development.

“I tend to see myself as someone who is transformational,” she went on. “I see myself as a servant leader, a person who tries to see how I can help another person maximize their opportunity to dig deep inside themselves, and identify their strengths and bring those strengths out.”

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Maintaining Momentum

Anne Massey

Anne Massey says that early on, she told faculty and staff at Isenberg that the pandemic was not to be looked at as “a short-term problem we’re just trying to solve.” Instead, it has been a learning experience on many levels.

 

When Anne Massey arrived at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst in the late summer of 2019, she came with a lengthy set of plans, goals, and ambitions for an institution that was steadily moving up in the ranks of the nation’s business schools and determined to further enhance its reputation.

The overarching plan was to decide what was being done right, what could be done better, and how the school could continue and even accelerate its ascendency with those rankings.

Massey was already making considerable headway with such initiatives when COVID-19 arrived just eight months later and turned normalcy on its ear. But she was determined not to let the pandemic create a loss of focus or momentum.

And almost 16 months after students went home for a spring break from which they would not return, she can say with a great deal of confidence that she has succeeded with that broad mission.

In fact, the pandemic may in some ways have even created more momentum for Isenberg, which is now the top-ranked public business school in the Northeast.

Indeed, those at the school have used the past 15 months as a valuable learning experience, said Massey, who was most recently the chair of the Wisconsin School of Business. She stressed repeatedly that this was a time, as challenging as it was, not to simply get through or survive, and as a homework assignment for her staff, she strongly recommended Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle Is the Way — The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph.

“I said early on that we’re not going to be looking at this pandemic, and all the things that it wrought for us in terms of remote teaching, remote learning, and remote work, as a short-term problem that we’re just trying to solve,” she explained. “I said that we’re going to learn things, and we’re going to carry them over to when we came back and be better than we were in March of 2020.”

She believes the school will be better because of how it has learned to use technology to do things differently and in some ways better than before, but also because of the many experiences working together as a team to address challenges and find solutions.

“I said early on that we’re not going to be looking at this pandemic, and all the things that it wrought for us in terms of remote teaching, remote learning, and remote work, as a short-term problem that we’re just trying to solve. I said that we’re going to learn things, and we’re going to carry them over to when we came back and be better than we were in March of 2020.”

Moving forward, Massey said those at Isenberg, whether they’ve read Holiday’s book or not, are responding well to the notion of looking at obstacles as opportunities and not letting challenges, even global pandemics, stand in the way of achieving goals and improving continuously.

As she noted, this mindset will serve the institution well in the future as it and all of its many competitors prepare to return to normal, but not a world exactly like the one that existed 16 months ago.

“It was also obvious to me in March and April of 2020 that everyone was going to be forced to be remote, at least for some period of time,” she said. “We’d been in the online space for 20 years, so we were ahead of the game. But now, suddenly, everyone was going to be playing the game. They weren’t all going to be good at it; some of them still aren’t good at it, but think they are.

“But now, there are going to be more people joining this competitive space,” she went on. “And some of them have more resources than we do. So we needed to say, ‘we’re just going to keep plowing forward. We need to be better than they were because that’s the only way we’re going to maintain our competitive position.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Massey about her challenging and, in many ways, intriguing first two years at the helm at Isenberg, and especially about how the school will take the experiences from the pandemic and use them to make the school, as she said, better than it was before anyone heard of COVID-19.

 

Getting Down to Business

The lawn signs were first introduced a year or so ago.

They say ‘Destination Isenberg,’ and were intended to be placed on the front lawns of the homes of students bound for the school — enrollment in which is increasingly becoming a point of pride.

While those first signs to be issued were technically accurate, many of the students didn’t have the Amherst campus as their actual destination because of COVID, said Massey, adding that that the latest signs — they’re at the printer now and will be distributed soon — speak the full truth: students will be back in the fall.

There will be a party in August to welcome them to campus, and planning continues for an orientation that will feature programs and events not only for freshmen but also the sophomores who couldn’t enjoy such an experience last fall because of the pandemic. As part of those celebrations, there will be recognition of the national-champion UMass hockey team, which included 15 players who are enrolled at Isenberg.

The students will be coming back to the ultra-modern, $62 million Isenberg Innovation Hub, which opened in January 2019 and sat mostly quiet for the bulk of the pandemic. They’ll be coming back to a school now ranked 53rd in the country by U.S. News & World Report when it comes to undergraduate programs (34th among public schools).

The ‘Destination Isenberg’ signs soon to grace lawns

The ‘Destination Isenberg’ signs soon to grace lawns across the country will have real meaning this year, with the school back to fully in-person learning this fall.

They’ll be returning to a school where enrollment continues to grow even as competition increases and high-school graduating classes shrink. “We have the largest incoming class ever,” Massey said. “We have more than we probably should have, but we’ll deal with it.”

But they won’t be returning to the same school. Indeed, as she noted, they’ll be coming back to, or joining, an Isenberg that used the pandemic as a learning laboratory of sorts, one that will stand the school in good stead as it continues its quest for continuous improvement and movement up the rankings in an even more competitive environment.

She said this work actually started before the pandemic, soon after she arrived on the campus. She started with a survey that went out to faculty and staff that included three key questions:

• ‘What unexploited opportunities do you see for Isenberg?’

• ‘What’s standing in our way of those opportunities?’ and

• ‘Given what you know, what do you think Anne Masse should focus on for the next year?’

She received a 95% response rate to that survey, and the answers provided considerable fodder for discussion at what would eventually be more than 30 meetings with various groups within the school, including faculty and staff.

She then developed five key priorities for maintaining and enhancing the school’s reputation for excellence and went “on the road,” as she put it, visiting alumni in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and other cities. These visits continued until the pandemic arrived, she said, adding that, while the road trips have to come to a halt, the work of developing these priorities, identifying areas in which the school needs to invest, and shaping all this into a strategic plan have continued unabated.

Getting back to the pandemic, Massey actually had considerable experience on her résumé in the realm of research regarding virtual teams and how they function. And that work came in handy during the pandemic, especially as it related to communication, coordination, and relationships among individuals in those teams.

“We have the tools and technology that support communication and that support collaboration and coordination of our work,” she explained. “But the relationship building and maintaining relationships is something that people often don’t pay attention to. They get wrapped up in the work, and not the nature of the team and the relationships amongst the team members.”

Flashing back to March 2020, when students, faculty, and staff were sent home for spring break, Massey said she knew they wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon and that all operations, from teaching to recruiting to development, would have to go remote.

“I knew that we had the tools, but what we really needed to focus on were the connections,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she soon launched what became knowns as the Dean’s Briefing, which, as that name suggests, was a briefing sent out to faculty and staff almost weekly.

“Sometimes it was a pat on the back, sometimes it was ‘I know how hard it is,’ sometimes it was personal, sometimes it was about what was going on at the university and what we thought the summer was going to look like and what the fall would look like; it was always about trying to keep people in the loop,” she said, adding that she encouraged the associate deans, the department, and others to do the same with their own group. “They needed to maintain communication that was positive and supportive.”

 

Driving Forces

At the same time, Massey emphasized the importance of the faculty engaging with students and helping them through a difficult and unprecedented time.

Because not all faculty members had taught online, or certainly to that extent, the school named five Isenberg teaching fellows, all of them experts in remote learning, who are assigned to one or a few departments and a cohort of faculty.

“They took the ball and ran with it,” Massey said, adding quickly that she wasn’t sure at first how this initiative would go over. “They had workshops, they had brown-bag lunches, they used Zoom, they coached people, they surfaced new best practices, they shared ideas … they even wrote a few research papers that have been published. They were phenomenal.”

Lessons learned from the pandemic and these teaching fellows will carry over into ‘normal’ times, she said, adding that she’s expecting to get back on the road in the fall and continue to push the five priorities for the school as it works to sustain and enhance its overall reputation for excellence, a key driver of those all-important rankings.

“They’re all about reputation in various ways,” Massey said of the rankings, of which there are many across several categories, from undergraduate offerings to part-time MBA programs. “The question that I asked over a year ago, and that I always ask, is ‘how might we sustain or advance our reputation for excellence in all we do? And excellence in terms of students and our quality of students, the quality of our faculty and their research, the placement of our students, what the recruiters think, and companies once students are working for them and they’re out a few years. Do they deliver the goods? All of that.”

Listing those priorities, which all intersect, she started with attracting exceptional students, which means more than those with the top GPAs. It also means achieving diversity and attracting students with a commitment to their communities, she said, adding that another priority is sustaining faculty excellence, especially at a time when business schools, and higher education in general, is facing what Massey described as a “looming retirement problem.”

“It’s becoming more and more difficult to attract and retain faculty; we’re not producing Ph.D.s at the rate that we probably need to,” she explained. “So I’m always thinking about how we can make this a good place for prospective faculty, and then, when we get them, how do we keep them? And how do we support them in their research efforts, and how do we support them becoming better teachers?”

Another priority is what Massey called “enabling career success,” which involves both current students and alumni, many of whom were impacted by the pandemic and the toll it took on employers in many sectors. To address this matter, she created an Office of Career Success and integrated the Chase Career Center with the school’s Business and Professional Communications faculty in an effort to expand services to alumni as well as current students.

Still other priorities include “creating global citizens and inclusive leaders” and “inspiring innovation in teaching and learning,” Massey said, adding that she wants Isenberg to be a significant player in business education, especially when it comes to advances in teaching and the use of emerging technology.

“How do we use 3D? What about augmented reality?” she asked, adding that these are just some of the questions she and others at the school are addressing. “One of our initiatives when it comes to inspiring innovation in teaching and learning is the creation of a ‘technology sandbox,’ a dedicated space where new and emerging technologies will be available for our faculty to play with and our staff to play with — because you can’t provide support for something if you don’t know how to use it — and for our students to play with.”

 

Positive Signs

Getting back to those lawn signs, Massey, who has one in her yard (her son attends the school), said they’re great exposure for Isenberg, especially outside of Massachusetts, where the name is somewhat less-known, but becoming better-known.

“It’s good to have them all over the country, and the students love them,” she said, adding that these are literal signs of growth and progress at Isenberg, but there are many others, from the record class for the fall of 2020 to its longstanding home at to the top of the rankings of public business schools in the Northeast — it’s been there since 2015.

There were signs of progress during the pandemic as well, she said, even if they’re harder to see. The school was determined not to lose momentum during that challenging time and to turn that obstacle into an opportunity.

Time will tell just how successful that mission was, but Massey already considers it a triumph for all those at the school.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education Special Coverage

Back to Normal?

It’s hard to gauge what ‘normal’ looks like during the era of COVID-19, when normalcy is a moving target. For area colleges and universities, though, getting back to normal means one thing: bringing as many students back to dorms and classrooms as possible. Make no mistake, campus life this fall will still be different from the pre-pandemic college experience, but just opening those classroom and residence-hall doors is a big step — the result of many lessons learned during the most unusual academic year in memory.

Normalcy.

It’s an attractive concept these days, if an elusive one. Just ask the folks planning for the fall 2021 semester at the region’s colleges and universities.

“This fall, we’ll go back to some normalcy, with classes back in person full-time, students in the residence halls, and athletes on the fields,” said Jonathan Scully, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Elms College. “That’s the plan right now.”

Scully said Elms has long maintained a COVID-19 task force that meets every week to discuss public-health data, on-campus health metrics, current recommendations of the CDC and the state Department of Public Health, and, importantly, how faculty and staff feel about a full return. “That all played a part in making decisions for the fall.”

He noted that students seem excited about coming back to Springfield Street in Chicopee, even though the college’s ElmsFlex hybrid plan, by which students could learn on campus, remotely, or with a combination of both, has been well-received.

“We’re not fully remote; we had that ElmsFlex option, because some students learn better in person, and some did better virtually, and they had the ability to move between the two freely,” Scully said. “But everyone is looking forward to a return to normalcy.”

Western New England University (WNEU) was among just 27% of U.S. colleges and universities that opened to mainly in-person learning and residential living last fall and remained open through the 2020-21 year, having delivered about 75% of courses on campus and the rest through online and hybrid formats, said Bryan Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing.

Jonathan Scully

Jonathan Scully

“Because some students learn better in person, and some did better virtually, and they had the ability to move between the two freely. But everyone is looking forward to a return to normalcy.”

Two factors played into that success, he said: a culture of small class sizes (the average student-teacher ratio is 12:1) and plenty of space that made social distancing much easier to implement, and a commitment — a compact, really, among students, faculty, and staff — to make sure the campus could stay open.

“They adhered to that social distancing, we put up tons of signage, we brought in extra cleaning staff, we had plexiglass throughout … all those things contributed to the plan for the past year,” Gross told BusinessWest.

He noted that colleges and universities don’t have the luxury of making their fall opening plans in July or August; the shift on the fly to remote learning that happened last spring is not the preferred model for campus planning. So, while the course of the pandemic might still alter the plans before September, those plans still need to be made and set in motion.

At WNEU, that will mean all courses normally taught on campus will be, indeed, taught in person, with three-foot distancing in place and masks required, at least according to current guidance. While some hybrid options may be available, Gross said, “we feel Western New England is best with face-to-face classwork, and that’s what we’re moving forward with.”

American International College (AIC) is moving in that direction as well, said Matt Scott, vice president for Student Affairs.

For the current year, he explained, residence halls are open, and students are allowed to live on campus, but most classes are remote, and athletics have continued as normal. Surveillance testing for COVID is widespread, and other safety and sanitization protocols are a regular part of life.

For the fall, Scott said, the current plan is to go back to “whatever the new normal will look like,” but the goal being full residence halls and in-person instruction.

“We’re still waiting to see some state guidance — there’s K-12 guidance that came out in terms of desk distancing in classrooms and things of that nature, but they have not come out with specific guidance for colleges yet,” he added. “But that’s the plan.”

Chet Jordan

Chet Jordan

“Safety on our campus is paramount; one of the biggest considerations in our return to campus is how to utilize our space safely.”

The plan at most campuses, it turns out, is for normalcy, or, as Gross noted, whatever that term might mean come September. But optimism is high that college life will finally begin to look like it used to.

 

Safety First

Community colleges, for the most part, were more fully remote than most schools, and are being more cautious with their return to normalcy. For example, Greenfield Community College (GCC) will offer classes in a face-to-face or hybrid format, meeting at least once a week on campus with some possible online instruction as well.

“Safety on our campus is paramount; one of the biggest considerations in our return to campus is how to utilize our space safely,” said Chet Jordan, dean of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at GCC. “Our faculty and staff have been almost entirely remote for the past year, so their input in how we can phase in a slow reopening of the campus was essential to us.”

GCC brought together a group of faculty, staff, and administrators to talk through the complexities of a reopening, eventually crafting a hybrid model. “We want to make sure our faculty and staff feel safe when they return to campus,” Jordan added. “The situation is constantly changing, but we addressed the key questions as best we could.”

Students in GCC’s health-career programs will meet on campus in hands-on courses to best prepare them for essential jobs in the growing healthcare industry. Those in other professional programs, such as business and education, will also have on-campus options. In most programs, students will complete some of their coursework online and will participate in weekly experiential learning opportunities, including lab activities and field trips.

GCC will follow state guidelines on occupancy rates in classrooms and offices, mask requirements, and health screenings, as well as maintaining scrupulous air-quality practices and a thorough sanitizing schedule.

The class schedule is roughly 55% online and 45% in person, Jordan said, which allows time to space out the classes between sections to avoid a bottleneck of students entering and exiting, while maintaining appropriate distancing.

“It gives students who want to be on campus that in-person experience, but also flexibility the rest of the week to finish online,” he said, adding that the library will be available for students to access a virtual class between in-person sessions on any given day. “So they won’t have to jump between campus and home, we’re giving them space to do a remote class and then go to their next class on campus.”

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross

“The long and short of it is, we’re hopeful to have a more normal, on-the-ground campus experience for our students and families.”

UMass Amherst also expects campus life to return to normal operations in fall 2021. That means an emphasis on face-to-face instruction, full residence halls — an expected 13,000 students will live on campus — and a complement of student events and activities.

Planning for summer orientation is well underway, as new students will be invited to participate in a series of synchronous and asynchronous orientation programs over the summer before they arrive for in-person welcome sessions at the end of August.

This past fall, many first-year students who would have experienced on-campus housing for the first time did not get that opportunity. So, in an effort to support these students, freshmen and sophomores will receive priority consideration to select on-campus spaces this fall. Still, based on current interest, UMass expects to be able to meet all housing requests, including all interested juniors and seniors.

Finally, UMass announced that its renovated Student Union is now open, offering space for events, student organizations, student businesses, and a ballroom.

The campus experience is more than academics, WNEU’s Gross said, noting that the university creative in finding ways to bring students together for small-group activities in the campus center. This fall, he expects larger outdoor activities, including intramural sports, to return, as well as indoor events as long as safety protocols are followed.

“The long and short of it is, we’re hopeful to have a more normal, on-the-ground campus experience for our students and families,” he said, including a big homecoming event inviting back the 2020 graduates, who were unable to have a traditional commencement experience.

 

Learning by Doing

In his first year working at GCC, Jordan said he has been “incredibly warmed and inspired by the creativity of the faculty, who do anything they can do make sure students have the best experience.”

For example, science classes have included more outdoor, experiential learning. Meanwhile, students in the health sciences have been on campus throughout the pandemic, due to the unique, hands-on needs of their training. “They paved the way,” he said. “They’re the ones who figured out how to open as safely as we possibly can.”

At AIC, students in those fields have been diligent about safety protocols and personal protective equipment, Scott said. “Because they’re health-science students, they tend to take it a little further than some of our other students. If they’re getting up close and personal, they’re wearing face shields and masks and such.”

Particularly during the 2020, he noted, constant pivoting was the order of the day for college faculty and administrators, who had to constantly monitor the development of the pandemic and guide a testing and safety plan for their campuses.

“But I think, overall, our plan stayed the same,” he added. “We thought it was safest this year to keep as many students remote as possible and have some in-person experiences that are kind of controlled for the pandemic-related protocols we had in place. That all stayed the same throughout the year, but the way we approached them adjusted as we needed to.”

Some of the lessons learned led to positive developments, said Kerry Cole, vice president for Admissions at AIC. For example, the college used to deliver its certificate of advanced graduate study (CAGS) programs for teachers at 11 physical sites. Once the program was forced online by COVID, administrators began to hear from the grad students that they loved it.

“So, beginning in the fall, we’re moving to a virtual format throughout the state, where we’re able to deliver licensing programs in a virtual format for all the programs we offer,” Cole said. “That came directly from students. They wanted virtual — not online, but virtual, synchronous, so they can communicate with each other.

“We’re very, very excited about it,” she went on. “Our teachers now need more flexibility than ever. They’re rock stars, and we need to be able to support them.”

Scott agreed, noting that there were many instances where he and others said, “wow, we didn’t realize this would work, that students would enjoy this.” One example is online counseling services, which are now much more accessible to commuter students.

That doesn’t mean students don’t want to return to in-person learning, of course; for the most part, they certainly do. But they’ve handled an unusual year well, he said.

“I am amazed every day how well our students are doing with these protocols. You’ll always have the occasional mask below the nose, and that’s going to happen, usually because they have a mask that doesn’t fit them well. But we have not really had any issues with students giving people a hard time when they’re entering the dining commons to get food. We planned for that; we asked, ‘how are we going to deal with the student who shows up and flat-out refuses to wear a mask?’ But we have not had that happen.”

In fact, the worst incidents have been the occasional group of students who head to the mall and don’t wear masks in the car.

“They’re not supposed to do it, but there are far worse things they could be doing and far worse ways they could be violating our protocols,” Scott said. “We try not to have a heavy hand; we try to take an educational approach and make sure they understand the potential impact, the ripple effect those actions can have on the community. But we’ve been very impressed with the way our students have responded this year.”

 

Waiting for the Return

Enrollment dipped last year at many colleges due to uncertainty about what the academic experience and college life would entail, but most area institutions see the application and enrollment numbers on the rise in 2021.

“Along with the rest of the community-college sector, we saw a decline over the past year, but that was an anomaly,” Jordan said. “In most recessions, community colleges do really well, but this was the reverse; this sector was the hardest-hit. The reason is that low-income students and students of color have been unprecedentedly hit by this pandemic, and those are our students.”

It’s especially important, then, for community colleges to offer a flexible model during these times, and that’s what GCC is aiming for, he added.

“We want to be sure we’re reaching students at home with kids, so those students can take classes online, and also opening the campus in such a way that students who need to be on campus will get that in-person instruction. Having more flexible classroom options will invite more people back.”

Cole said AIC successfully implemented the plan it thought best for 2020-21, and will now expand upon that.

“We’re very excited about it,” she said, noting that campus tours have begun again, and the campus hosted its first in-person admissions event of the school year in mid-April. “Graduate students love virtual info sessions and open houses. Undergrads are a mixed bag, but graduate students will take it all day. So we’ll likely keep some of that.”

Scully said nothing is set in stone when it comes to pandemic planning; the past 13 months at the Elms have been proof of that.

“We’re monitoring everything very closely, and our first priority is the safety of students and staff,” he said. “We know things could change on a dime.”

Elms, like many colleges, already offered some programs online before the pandemic, and has since bolstered the technology to conduct those, having purchased new cameras, microphones, and other equipment. “But, like everyone else, we’re looking forward to getting back to normal.”

And doing so safely, Gross said.

“I’ve never been so proud to be part of an organization as I’ve been of our students, faculty, and staff over the last year and a half,” he said. “I can’t stress how many extra hours our faculty and staff put into adjusting curriculum, adjusting extracurriculars, and changing everything we do, from open houses to the way we engage with current students, prospective students, and alumni. It was a group effort in flexibility, agility, determination, and energy.

That said, “the community is tired,” he went on. “We’ve been going non-stop; I can’t tell you how many faculty and staff have told me about the extra hours they’ve put in over the weekends. We’ve all been chipping in to do whatever it takes to keep things safe and enjoyable for students.”

But there’s no time to take a break. Not with the fall semester right around the corner.

“Things are constantly changing,” Gross said. “We’re all learning as we go. But we are a learning organization, after all.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Making Change

By Mark Morris

Sustainathon

Students gather at a booth during the 2019 Sustainathon, the last time it was held in person.

One modest act can inspire others — and when that happens, the entire community benefits.

That’s the premise behind the Cooler Communities effort led by Uli Nagel, project director for Ener-G-Save, a program run by the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation.

Cooler Communities (the word ‘Cooler’ refers to reducing global warming) encourages school systems in Western Mass. to take on class projects relating to energy and energy efficiency. These projects are then displayed at a public exhibition in the community, where all attendees are asked to pledge one action they will take to conserve energy.

“Whether a person replaces standard light bulbs with LEDs or decides to buy an electric car, we encourage every action that saves energy,” Nagel said. Staff from Ener-G-Save keep a running total on pledged actions to measure their impact on the community.

For example, in 2019, Agawam schools held a Cooler Communities event in which 115 people took an energy-conservation pledge. Ener-G-Save estimated that follow-through by those Agawam residents would result in $87,600 in energy savings and 605 tons of carbon emissions eliminated from the air every year.

“Put another way, the energy-saving impact would be similar to removing 86 cars from Agawam roads every year,” Nagel said, demonstrating the impact from just one town.

The Cooler Communities efforts have continued this spring in the Berkshires and Agawam. This is the first year Springfield is taking part, as more than 1,000 high-school students have researched energy-related topics and recommended different actions they and their peers can take to make Springfield a safer, cleaner, and healthier place to live.

“Whether a person replaces standard light bulbs with LEDs or decides to buy an electric car, we encourage every action that saves energy.”

Nagel credited Springfield school officials for taking on Cooler Communities during the challenging year everyone has faced due to COVID-19 concerns. Ron St. Amand, director of Science for Springfield schools, appreciates the educational opportunity.

“It’s exciting to be able to help our students understand their choices have an impact,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to empower students to save energy, reduce carbon emissions, and slow climate change.”

To properly display all the student exhibits and invite others to take actions on saving energy, Ener-G-Save worked with Springfield to develop a dedicated website to make the effort accessible to everyone at a time when in-person exhibits are not possible.

From left, the 2019 Sustainathon

From left, the 2019 Sustainathon, STCC mascot Rowdy the Ram, Reena Randhir, the three-student winning team from Springfield Sci-Tech School, and (back row) Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman and STCC president John Cook.

Nagel pointed out that setting up a virtual exhibit has definite advantages because more people can see all the student projects and pledge to reduce their energy usage online.

“The Berkshires Cooler Communities online event drew 600 visitors to the site, nearly double the number who attended the live event the year before,” Nagel said. “Keeping the exhibits and information online encourages more people to take part in the experience.”

 

Sustaining Momentum

A similar effort to raise awareness and take action on environmental challenges, known as Sustainathon, is happening at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC). This effort, now in its fourth year, brings together STCC students and high-school students to create awareness of environmental-sustainability challenges and how science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields contribute to finding solutions.

Reena Randhir, director of STEM Starter Academy at STCC, said Sustainathon was developed because many students are not aware of environmental efforts in their own backyard.

“While we certainly have environmental challenges, Western Mass. also has many success stories, like turning food waste into fuel,” Randhir said. “People from other countries are studying what’s happening here, so our students should also be on top of these innovations.”

Similar to Cooler Communities, students who take part in Sustainathon create exhibits relating to environmental issues and present them at a public event. Because of COVID concerns, the public event switched to a livestream on April 14 that attracted more than 800 registrants. While Randhir hopes to once again hold Sustainathon in-person, moving online this year turned it into an international happening.

“This is a great opportunity to empower students to save energy, reduce carbon emissions, and slow climate change.”

“Nearly 80 people from India participated in the live event, as well as smaller numbers of students from five other countries,” she said. “By livestreaming, we were able to reach classrooms around the world as well as our own students.”

The Sustainathon also encourages participants to pledge at least one action to benefit the environment, Randhir said. “We hope everyone is a champion of change in their life. Even the simple act of eliminating the use of plastic bags can make a difference.”

One of the actions she and her students had planned was a tree-planting campaign around Western Mass. timed for Earth Day on April 22.

The Grinspoon Foundation and the Community Fund of Western Massachusetts have come together to provide $5,000 grants to the school systems taking part in Cooler Communities efforts. Nagel explained that philanthropist (and recent BusinessWest Difference Maker) Harold Grinspoon started Ener-G-Save because, as a real-estate developer, he was always troubled by energy-inefficient New England homes that commonly leaked heat from roofs, windows, and walls.

“Harold made it his goal to raise awareness of energy efficiency to help people spend less money on energy that is, literally, going out the window,” Nagel said. At one point, Ener-G-Save took drive-by thermal images of 100,000 homes in Western Mass. and encouraged homeowners with the worst heat leakage to take advantage of free energy audits from Mass Save.

 

Every Bit Helps

Though a number of the energy-saving pledges are tied to home ownership, Nagel said one doesn’t need to own a home to find plenty of ways to make a difference. “Simple acts like stopping junk mail and including more meat-free meals in your diet are two easy things anyone can do that benefit you and the environment.”

She also suggested riding a bike for a short trip instead of driving a car and, when using a car to run errands, consolidating trips to save gas and time.

“Energy use and conservation are huge topics,” Nagel said. “When we see the simple things others are doing that make a difference, we are less likely to feel overwhelmed and more likely to act.”

Education

Prepared for Launch

By Laurie Loisel

 

David Gruel stands next to the launchpad

David Gruel stands next to the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center on July 29, 2020, the day before NASA’ s Perseverance rover mission launch.

Not many people can say they’ve worked on every U.S.-led rover mission to Mars. One who can is David Gruel, a Holyoke Community College graduate from the class of 1991.

Five years out of HCC, Gruel was part of the Pathfinder mission that landed the Sojourner rover on Mars, the second Mars mission since the Viking became the first-ever U.S. mission to Mars in 1975. Sojourner had limited movement when compared to other rovers (most recently Perseverance) that travel across the planet, but it was a milestone nonetheless.

“Pathfinder was the return to the red planet some 20 years after Viking,” he said of the rover that launched in December 1996, landing on Mars in July 1997.

After that, through his job as an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Gruel was among the crews working on the Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance NASA rover missions.

Considering that Gruel falls into a category of people for whom the maxim “it’s not rocket science” most definitely does not apply, the 50-year-old is modest and candid about his high-school years as an avid underachiever. He is equally clear about the role HCC played in putting him on a path to a career in rocket science. In fact, he flat-out declares that, if not for HCC, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

“I still have an incredible memory of the math and physics professors at HCC, and it was mutual. They went out of their way to know their students and to figure out where they could help.”

As a student at Westfield High School, Gruel spent more energy stocking grocery-store shelves, tending to the car those earnings bought him, and socializing with his friends than on academics. “I was looking for the easy road out at all times,” he admits.

After graduation, when many of his friends headed off to four-year colleges, Gruel continued working in the grocery store. “And then I realized I needed a different challenge in life,” he said.

That’s how he ended up at Holyoke Community College. Despite a less-than-stellar high-school transcript, he knew HCC “would actually give me a chance,” he said. “HCC was there to give people a second chance.”

Once enrolled, encouraged by his professors, he buckled down. He believes he had a better academic experience at HCC than he would have had he attended a four-year program right out of high school.

“The classes were small, and the teachers actually cared about you,” he said. “I still have an incredible memory of the math and physics professors at HCC, and it was mutual. They went out of their way to know their students and to figure out where they could help.”

It was not easy. He worked two jobs while a full-time HCC student, sometimes studying while logging third shift at a gas station.

“I was willing to work at it,” he said, “but there were people who were willing to support me, and that’s what I needed.”

Gruel graduated with honors and an associate degree in engineering, an accomplishment he remains proud of to this day. “This was something I had done for myself, and I had earned it.”

 

Up, Up, and Away

It also earned him acceptance at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where he found he had a real affinity for engineering. And here is where his humility rears its head again.

“A lot of things went my way,” he said. “In addition to working hard, there’s a lot of luck involved in where we end up in our lives.”

In his senior year at RPI, he learned that two friends who also had gone to HCC were doing co-op semesters in the field, working at engineering jobs. He decided to pursue one, landing a co-op placement at the prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, a federally funded research and design center managed by Caltech, with the vast majority of its funding and contract work coming from NASA.

Dave Gruel’s favorite photo of Perseverance was captured moments before the Mars landing

Dave Gruel’s favorite photo of Perseverance was captured moments before the Mars landing by one of the EDL (entry, descent, landing) cameras he installed on the rover.

Gruel thought the experience would spice up his résumé by adding that he worked on a team designing interplanetary spacecraft. Little did he know it would lead to his life’s work.

After eight months, he went back to RPI to finish school and graduate. Once on the job market, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was among the job offers he received, and though he always imagined settling down in New England, he found himself changing those plans when such an enticing job.

“The challenge of JPL massively dwarfed the benefits of being in New England,” he said.

Gruel’s role in the last two Mars missions was to lead the team known as ATLO (“I’m the boss man,” he said cheerfully.) ATLO stands for Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations. Essentially, the team takes all the parts for the rover and its spacecraft — tens of thousands of them — and assembles them.

“We get delivered to us a bunch of intricate Legos,” is how Gruel put it.

Next the team conducts endless tests to simulate launch, touchdown, and the harsh conditions on the ground. “So when it’s cruising from Earth to Mars, it works as designed,” he noted.

To simulate launch, the machine goes into a large vibe table; to mimic the Mars environment, it goes into a vacuum chamber that gets as cold as the red planet itself.

From mission start to landing, it takes about six to eight years, he explained. And timing is everything: because the planets align every 26 months in a way that creates optimal conditions for Earth-to-Mars travel, all assembly and testing must be fully complete when that time comes.

“The schedule pressure is intense,” he said. “We need to get our testing done and our design done in order for it to be ready to launch.”

In addition to finding a career at JPL, Gruel met his wife, Danelle, there when she was working in the Finance division, though now she stays home with their two boys, Dylan, 14, and Ethan, 11 (who also love Legos, as well as watching mission launches with their father).

Typically, once a mission has landed, Gruel’s role slows down quite a bit, but the Perseverance landing in February 2021 was different because he had installed a camera system to take video and still images of the descent, and he was responsible for it.

“Even after we launched, I was still intimately involved in making sure that system was going to function,” he said. “We continued to do testing on it to make sure it would reach its full potential, and it sure did. The images were amazing.”

Those images captured the spacecraft’s descent and landing, including video of the rover setting down on Mars and kicking up dust. “We joked it was kind of like our selfie cam,” he said.

 

Back to His Roots

In 1998, Gruel returned to HCC as the recipient of a Distinguished Service Award at commencement and delivered the keynote address, an invitation he seems to still find hard to believe to this day: “I spoke at commencement! Me, a flunkie out of high school!”

It’s a fact he mentions not to boast, but rather to inspire. If there’s anything he hopes people take away from his story, it’s that they should never underestimate their potential, even if they’ve had trouble living up to it.

“When you as a person make a decision to do something, the sky opens up,” he said. “The sky is no longer the limit.”

And that’s coming from someone who knows how to get to Mars.

 

Laurie Loisel is a freelance writer based in Northampton.

Education Special Coverage

Portrait of a Graduate

 

The program is called ‘Portrait of a Graduate,’ and that name pretty much says it all.

But maybe an adjective is in order to get the complete picture, pun intended.

Indeed, what the Springfield Public Schools are focused on now is creating a portrait of a successful high-school graduate, through an initiative designed to gain feedback from a host of constituencies regarding the skills — as in all the skills — that young people will need to not only earn a high-school diploma, but thrive in an ever-changing, technology-driven economy.

And this portrait will become a valuable blueprint of sorts as school administrators go about creating a new strategic plan for the city’s public schools, said Superintendent Dan Warwick, who stressed repeatedly that Portrait of a Graduate is very much a community-driven process that will define success for Springfield students, including the values, knowledge, skills, and work habits they will need to thrive as learners, workers, and leaders.

Among those providing input are members of the business community, said Trisha Canavan, president of United Personnel and current president of Springfield Business Leaders for Education, adding that their commentary will be critical to creating that portrait and then inspiring needed changes to programming and curriculum.

Made possible by a grant from the Barr Foundation, this Portrait of a Graduate initiative is part of a broad movement across the country to involve the community in shaping a school system’s strategic plan and specific programming and curriculum for helping to ensure student success.

The list of communities that have embarked on such programs grows each year, and now includes Lowell, Shrewsbury, and other cities and towns in Massachusetts, as well as Hartford, Conn., Fairfax County, Va., and many others, said Warwick.

In most of those communities, Portrait of a Graduate is used as part of a strategic plan for a specific school system, said Paul Foster, chief information officer for Springfield Public Schools. Here, though, it will help guide development of a new strategic plan, which is an important distinction.

Dan Warwick

Dan Warwick

“Clearly, this has become a best practice — communities need to take a look at what everyone thinks our graduates should look like, not only the academic skills, but all the other skills as well.”

“Most communities make it one of the activities as part of creating a plan,” he explained. “It’s not as common to create that vision first and then build the plan based on the vision. I think it’s important that we not make decisions on how to change schools until we have that clarity of vision that a portrait provides.”

Warwick agreed. “Clearly, this has become a best practice — communities need to take a look at what everyone thinks our graduates should look like, not only the academic skills, but all the other skills as well.

“Other iterations of our strategic plans were mostly academic-focused, which is what you would expect for a school system to put forward in a strategic plan,” he went on. “But this piece is designed to take a wider look and really get the community to rally around what they want our graduates to look like and what attributes they’ll need, and then we’ll build the actual strategic plan from that profile.”

By most accounts, he noted, it has succeeded in its goal of garnering community interest in helping to create this portrait.

“I think it excited people,” Warwick told BusinessWest. “The community involvement has been tremendous — the breadth of the input from every sector of the community has been significant, and this new concept has helped us with that.”

The acknowledgment that needed skills for success in the 21st-century workplace extends well beyond academics is made clear in the six ‘pillars’ of the portrait — learn, work, thrive, lead, persist, and communicate, said Azell Cavaan, chief Communications officer for Springfield Public Schools, adding that the school system has received more than 1,400 responses to a survey regarding a draft portrait that reflects how these pillars will be addressed moving forward.

All those we spoke with noted that there are few real surprises in the feedback that has been received, and the skills and attributes identified as needed are included in most school systems’ strategic plans. However, it is important to have these sentiments reinforced, and equally important to gain input from a broad, diverse audience, one that reflects the community in question.

“We’ve had hundreds of meetings in every segment of the community, and folks have really stayed with this,” Warwick said, adding that the city has been able to maintain momentum for the initiative even in the middle of pandemic, a clear indicator of its importance to the future of the city and the region.

Paul Foster

Paul Foster

“Instead of traditional educators looking at this problem, we have a wider breadth of involvement from the community at large and the business community.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Portrait of a Graduate initiative, its goals, and why Springfield school officials believe it will pay dividends in their ongoing efforts to ensure that students not only graduate, but can succeed after they do.

 

Course of Action

Foster told BusinessWest that Portrait of a Graduate, or POG for short, is becoming an increasingly popular response to what has a national issue, or concern — helping students succeed beyond the classroom.

He said the movement, if it can be called that, started several years ago in the private-school arena, and was quickly embraced by public schools as well. The basic concept is to ask a question — what skills and attributes will students need to succeed years and decades down the road? — and ask a lot of different of people that question. It sounds logical, but it in many ways represents a new way of thinking about this issue, Warwick said.

“Instead of traditional educators looking at this problem, we have a wider breadth of involvement from the community at large and the business community,” he explained. “We’re getting a lot of input on the skills and attributes that people are looking for that, for traditional educators like myself, wouldn’t have been the first things we would be thinking about.”

What are these attributes and skills? The list includes financial literacy, problem solving, and perseverance — being able to stick with something until the problem is solved, said Foster, adding that what has been most important in this process has been not only hearing such comments, but hearing them over and over, and from different constituencies.

“What I thought was surprising, and important, was how aligned what we heard was,” he told BusinessWest. “We went from conversation to conversation and heard the same things over and over again. For example, we heard ‘financial literacy’ at every conversation. There wasn’t a group that we spoke with that didn’t say that was important.

“It was the same with things like problem solving,” he went on. “It wasn’t surprising that we heard those things; I think it was surprising that we were hearing the same things from every group; we were talking to business leaders, we were talking to parents, and we were talking to teachers, and they were identifying the same things, which is good.”

Canavan agreed, and said one of the broad goals of the initiative is to create a sense of ownership within the community when it comes to the city’s schools, or a stronger sense of ownership, as the case may be.

“Getting the collective wisdom of the community is important,” she said, “because I’m hopeful that one of the things that will come out of this is our community embracing that notion that this is our responsibility — that it’s not just the responsibility of the schools or just the responsibility of the parents — it’s our responsibility.”

The process of gathering feedback from these constituencies began in the fall of 2019, and the seeds were planted for the initiative maybe six months before that, said Foster, adding that the school department has been hosting what it calls ‘community conversations,’ a phrase chosen over ‘focus groups,’ which comes with some preconceived notions, not all of them good.

These conversations, organized by various stakeholders, have been going on continuously, he went on, adding that they have involved the business community, the refugee community, parents, educators, students, alumni, the faith community, and other constituencies. One was comprised of area business owners who are also alumni of Springfield Public Schools.

Traditionally, these groups, when involved in such conversations, focus on what needs to be done differently in the schools. For this exercise, they didn’t start there, but rather with two questions: ‘what are your hopes and dreams for children growing up in Springfield?’ and ‘what are the knowledge and skills that young people growing up in Springfield will need to realize those dreams?’

The feedback was intriguing, and in some cases powerful, said those we spoke with, especially when it came to students, what their dreams are, and what they need to make them reality.

This is reflected in those six aforementioned pillars and how the assembled feedback has shaped the working portrait with regard to how the school system must address each one.

Under ‘persist,’ for example, it notes that the Springfield Public Schools and the Springfield community will prepare students to:

• Remain focused on goals, using coping strategies and flexibility to overcome obstacles;

• Speak up for themselves and the issues that are important to them;

• Engage in self-reflection to build on strengths and weaknesses;

• Evaluate choices and outcomes when making decisions; and

• Give, receive, and respond to constructive feedback.

Under ‘communicate,’ the bullet points include ‘write and speak with clarity, evidence, and purpose’; and ‘know how to listen to others, ask questions, and seek to understand.’ And under ‘lead’ are these points, among others: ‘be curious, creative, open-minded, and flexible in new situations’; ‘advocate for themselves and for others’; and ‘seek opportunities to understand and serve the community.’

Now that the portrait is essentially complete, said Foster, those leading this initiative are pivoting from writing that document to writing a strategic plan, one that will attempt to prioritize what has been learned over the past year or so and create a blueprint for action and change moving forward. The aggressive timeline has the plan being completed in August, in time to implement changes for the next school year.

“We ended this with a recognition that there are some small ways and some big ways that we need to think differently and change schools,” he explained. “Schooling in the United States has been done in a relatively similar way for a very long time, and some pretty significant things need to change; some of those are going to be one-year changes, and others are going to be five-year changes.”

 

Drawing Conclusions

Moving forward, those we spoke with they expect the POG initiative to help introduce new performance measures and ways of evaluating whether students are ready to not simply receive a diploma, but succeed in what has always been the broader goal — success in the workplace and in life.

“You can have someone has mastered English and mastered math who is not ready for the workforce,” Foster said. “So part of the strategic plan will be introducing new performance measures that are not a replacement of but an addition to the ones we have today; we’re thinking about how you evaluate student performance differently.”

Where this thinking takes the school system is a question still to be answered. But the process begins with a portrait of a graduate, and in Springfield, this is still a work in progress and an important step forward.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Balance Sheet

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

For Dawn Forbes DiStefano, it was the quintessential all-or-nothing proposition.

As the search for a successor to Joan Kagan, Square One’s long-time president and CEO, commenced last summer, Forbes DiStefano knew what few outside the organization — and probably few inside it, as well — knew: if she did not prevail in the nationwide search, she would no longer be working for the Springfield-based provider of childcare and other services for children and families.

That’s because the position she held at the time — executive vice president — was to be eliminated as the agency continued on a course of restructuring its top management.

But Forbes DiStefano, one of roughly 60 candidates to apply for the post, certainly had a leg up on the others — in large part because she was in that position. But also because she and Kagan had entered into what she described as a ‘shared management’ situation, one that familiarized her with all aspects of this operation and fully prepared her for the role she was seeking.

“I don’t think it was a shock that I was able to answer questions with more detail and probably more insight than other candidates, because I worked here,” she told BusinessWest. “But I worked really hard over the past 30 years to position myself to apply for a position like this.”

By that, she was referring to a lengthy career in the nonprofit realm, most of it at the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, but the past five at Square One, where she has displayed what she and others consider perhaps her best strength — an ability to combine a passion for the agency’s mission with a strong business sense and attention to the bottom line needed to make sure a nonprofit can survive and carry out that mission.

It’s a mindset that embodies a quote she attributes to Sr. Mary Caritas, the long-time president of what is now Mercy Medical Center, and uses often: “no margin, no mission.”

Her outlook on nonprofit management, and her take on her own management style and the need for that balance between business and mission, are further summed up as follows:

“My management style is direct, it’s collaborative, it’s mission-focused, with an acknowledgement that we’re running a business. And to a certain extent, as a nonprofit, that’s a tax status — it’s not a way to do business.”

Forbes DiStefano, who took the helm in late December, leads the agency at a time of perhaps unprecedented challenge — most of it brought on by COVID-19, although it was a difficult time for nonprofits even before the pandemic reached Western Mass. While coping with the pandemic and its day-to-day decision making, execution, and ongoing efforts to create an environment “not in crisis,” she is also planning for the long term and life after COVID.

“My management style is direct, it’s collaborative, it’s mission-focused, with an acknowledgement that we’re running a business. And to a certain extent, as a nonprofit, that’s a tax status — it’s not a way to do business.”

She admitting to disliking the word ‘normal,’ at least in the way many are using it now, and told BusinessWest she isn’t sure what ‘normal’ will mean moving forward. She will help create at definition, at Square One, anyway, while also continuing to build on the legacy and broad portfolio of programs she’s inherited.

“When Joan arrived, we were the expert in early education and care, and we remain the expert in early education and care,” she explained. “She knew that she wanted to focus on families and a holistic, family approach; she knew that children would thrive and families would stabilize and become self-sufficient if we were serving whole families. We have the foundation, and we want to keep building on it.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Forbes DiStefano about her new role, her long career in nonprofit management, and how she intends to apply all she has learned to effectively write the next chapter in this agency’s long history.

 

School of Thought

In many ways, Forbes DiStefano said, her career has come full circle. Well, sort of.

Indeed, she went to Boston College and then UMass Amherst with the goal of becoming an elementary-school teacher, although she never really made it into the classroom as an instructor, as we’ll see in a minute.

But she is now leading an agency specializing in early-childhood education, but not devoted to that exclusively, as it was decades ago.

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

Dawn Forbes DiStefano wants to build on Square One’s foundation of serving whole families, not just children.

Flashing back to her college years, or just after she graduated in 1993, to be more precise, Forbes DiStefano said she encountered a challenging job market and had trouble breaking into the profession locally. She recalled a conversation she had with the superintendent in Southwick, who happened to be her high-school principal in West Springfield, about her struggles.

“He told me that it might have been worthwhile for me to do my student teaching here in Western Mass. instead of in Boston — we hire local.”

After spending some time at home thinking about what to do with her life and career, she decided to take what she could find, and this was a job at the YWCA of Greater Springfield as a receptionist. She didn’t take it expecting to stay more than 23 years, but that’s what happened, because, well, “I found my home … I found my calling,” she explained. “I was just smitten by being surrounded by women and girls whose mission — and passion — was to make life better for women and girls.”

Despite this enthusiasm, boredom quickly settled in. However, she would soon take on a new and rewarding role, somewhat by accident.

“We would get piles of mail every day with grant applications, RFPs, and proposals, and told the executive director at the time, Mary Reardon Johnson, ‘we should be applying for some of these grants; we’re doing amazing work here,’” Forbes DiStefano recalled. “She sort of flippantly said, ‘I don’t care what you do, just don’t lie too much; practice, do whatever you want to do, stay busy.’”

She did all of that and started responding to grant applications, and in short order, she started to get some approvals. And this eventually led to a role as grants manager, and then as director of Resource Development, playing a lead role in a capital campaign and raising funds for a number of building projects and new-program creation.

“It was an exciting time to be a part of the YWCA,” she said, adding that, while her teaching degree came in handy in many ways, she never did enter the classroom.

In late 2015, with a change of leadership at that agency, she decided it was time to seek a new challenge, and to get some advice on what the next chapter could and should be, she invited Kagan out for coffee.

“With 100% of our families experiencing something, whether it’s poverty, hunger, or homelessness, we know that the majority of our children have experienced some level of trauma at some point in their life.”

In that conservation, she told Kagan she liked grant writing and knew there were opportunities for people with that unique and coveted skill. But she said she couldn’t write grants for just anyone or anything.

“I told her that the magic of grant writing comes because it’s something I care deeply about,” she recalled. “I told her I wanted her help because I had been offered a few opportunities, but wasn’t sure I could make it with those agencies.”

She wasn’t expecting to be given a job offer, especially because the agency had recently hired Kris Allard as vice president of Development and Communications, and wasn’t — at least initially. But she credits Kagan with sensing, and then seizing, an opportunity to strengthen Square One by bringing her on as a full-time grants officer.

But her role would soon involve much more than that.

Indeed, she would take a deep dive into the agency’s financial status, which at that time was “very unique and somewhat worrisome,” as she put it, and would eventually take on a broader role as chief Finance and Grants officer.

Over the next several years, she and Kagan would guide the agency through some difficult but necessary steps to stabilize the agency financially. These included closing Square One’s early-childhood education center in Holyoke in early 2017 — the agency still has a presence in that city with other services — and also a consolidation of services focused on infants and toddlers, with a greater emphasis on preschool.

“It was a very methodical and financially driven decision-making process,” she recalled. “And this is where Joan and I started finding a balance between the two of us. Joan is a social worker; she understands people and the strengths people bring to an organization, and she is phenomenal at program development. I think what I brought to her is an equal understanding of people and certainly the same amount of passion for children, but I really came to it with a fiscal mindset that we need to get this business financially viable.”

Through a hard focus on maximizing enrollment, creating efficiencies, and reducing expenses (often, again, as a result of difficult decisions), the agency, which was seeing annual deficits of $1.5 million or more only a few years ago, was at the break-even point for fiscal 2019.

“We have seen a massive improvement in our financial stability,” she said. “And we did that while keeping children and families at the core of what we do.”

 

Successful Succession

Forbes DiStefano told BusinessWest that she credits Kagan with taking a number of steps to successful transition to Square One to new leadership, work she believes will create a seamless passage of the baton.

“Joan reorganized Square One back in the fall of 2019,” she explained. “One of the senior-level administrators was leaving, and she [Kagan] took the opportunity not to announce her retirement, but certainly organize and structure the agency so it would be ready for when she was ready to announce.”

As part of that organizing and structuring, Kagan created an executive vice president’s role for Forbes DiStefano, one she said would enable her to make a desired transition away from the finance side of the operation and into a shared leadership role.

“From the fall of 2019 to the summer of 2020, we enjoyed that relationship,” Forbes DiStefano explained. “Joan was very mindful, very practical, and extremely generous in that space; I think some leaders want to be in a shared-leadership position, but then, when it really comes to fruition, they don’t want to be. Joan really lived it.”

As noted, there was a nationwide search for a successor, something the agency’s board, Kagan, and Forbes DiStefano all thought was necessary. In the end, she said her 30 years of experience with nonprofits, her five years in Square One in roles that exposed her to all aspects of its operation, and especially that time in that shared-leadership role, positioned her to excel in that search.

Moving forward, she intends to use all that experience and learning, both on the job and in the classroom — over the years she has added a bachelor’s degree in nonprofit management and a master’s degree in nonprofit management and finance — to guide Square One through the next chapter in its long history.

While doing so, she must first contend with the pandemic, which has tested the agency in myriad ways. Overall, she said it has been Square One’s goal to create a calm, safe place in the midst of the pandemic, and in most all ways, it has been successful in that mission.

“We’re making decisions minute by minute about the health and safety of everyone at Square One,” she said. “What we have done very well is read, digest, interpret, and then operationalize all the CDC and DPH guidelines for health and safety. We don’t want you to be in crisis when you’re here at Square One. We understand that there’s a crisis going on our world, but our job, every single day from 7:30 to 5:30, is to create a stable, warm, non-crisis, non-traumatic environment for children to be able to learn and thrive.”

Meanwhile, Forbes DiStefano said she, Allard, and other members of the leadership team are focused on “expanding what we do well.”

That broad phrase includes early-childhood education, obviously, but also other services, including those focused on the mental health of children, needs that have only grown during the pandemic.

“With 100% of our families experiencing something, whether it’s poverty, hunger, or homelessness, we know that the majority of our children have experienced some level of trauma at some point in their life,” she explained, noting that Square One has, in recent years, expanded what would be considered traditional mental-health services — referrals to therapists — with an early-childhood mental-services center called Cornerstone.

Launched as a pilot program, the center has grown in size, scope, and services.

“It’s designed to be both a physical and a social/emotional space — you can’t help but feel calm when you walk in,” she explained. “And I think it’s the most outstanding achievement we’ve made at Square One in the last five years.

“What we’ve created is a space where children can come with their peers,” she went on, adding that, instead of one-on-one therapy, there are group activities, such as games and book reading. “Everyone is experiencing some level of healing; it’s children helping each other learn how to cope, have healthy reactions, and reduce the triggers. And teachers are learning as well; they’re watching the therapist engage with the children.”

 

Bottom Line

Moving forward, Forbes DiStefano said it’s her goal — and now her job — to build on the solid foundation that’s been built at the agency and continually look for new ways to carry out the overriding mission: to improve quality of life for children and families. And there are many aspects to that work.

“It’s my job to welcome everyone to the table, make sure that our services are working seamlessly, and then find opportunities to bring new partners, new donors, new investors, and new ways of thinking to build on the good work that exists here,” she said.

That’s all part of managing Square One with that mindset, and with that balance, she described earlier.

As she said, ‘nonprofit’ is a tax status; it’s not a way to do business.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Christina Royal

Christina Royal

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay

Three local college presidents are among only 13 nationwide to be recognized last week for leadership in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion by the Assoc. of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the education-technology company Cengage.

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal, Greenfield Community College President Yves Salomon-Fernández, and Elms College President Harry Dumay were among that select group of 13 to receive the AAC&U-Cengage Inclusion Scholarship, which recognizes college and university presidents whose outstanding leadership to advance liberal education has resulted in reduced equity gaps, improved inclusion and belonging for minority students, and reformed hiring practices to promote greater diversity.

“Growing up as a first-generation, low-income, multi-racial college student, I understand some of the challenges today’s students face and the importance of having an inclusive environment where everyone can thrive,” said Royal, who was also honored last week by BusinessWest as one of the 2020 Women of Impact. “These are very important issues to me personally and professionally, as well as to our college community, and I’m honored to receive this recognition on behalf of HCC.”

The recipients were announced on Jan. 22 at the AAC&U Presidents’ Trust Symposium, part of the organization’s virtual annual meeting. The symposium brings together higher-education leaders from all institutional types to explore the most pressing issues facing colleges and universities and to share strategies for success.

“I am honored by this recognition, and I am most proud of the work that my colleagues and I are engaged in at Greenfield Community College with and for our local communities,” Salomon-Fernández said. “We know that a more just and equitable world is most conducive to citizenship and democracy.”

The other recipients of the 2021 AAC&U-Cengage Inclusion Scholarship are Sandra Boham, president of Salish Kootenai College in Montana; Roslyn Clark Artis, president of Benedict College in South Carolina; Karrie Dixon, president of Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina; Alicia Harvey-Smith, president of Pittsburgh Technical College in Pennsylvania; Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in Louisiana; Valerie Roberson, president of Roxbury Community College in Massachusetts; Ron Rochon, president of University of Southern Indiana; Ivy Taylor, president of Rust College in Mississippi; Dwaun Warmack, president of Claflin University in South Carolina; and David Yarlott Jr., president of Little Big Horn College in Montana.

“We are so excited to be able to support these amazing higher-ed leaders who are making a real difference by reducing inequities and increasing access to education. At Cengage, we believe learning transforms lives, and the work of these leaders is so critical in giving students the opportunity to better their lives and in creating an educated, informed, and just society.”

Four Massachusetts presidents made the cut, two more than any other state.

“AAC&U is proud to recognize and support these exceptional leaders in their efforts to advance equity and quality as hallmarks of a liberal education across a diverse range of campuses and student populations,” AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella said.

The AAC&U-Cengage Inclusion Scholarship recognizes higher-education leaders who support and advance quality, equity, and student success in undergraduate education. This includes improving degree completion or transfer for students from underrepresented groups; closing equity gaps in student success; improving diversity in hiring practices and creating more equitable hiring policies; and increasing the sense of belonging, well-being, and inclusion among students from historically underserved populations (including racial and ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and LGBTQIA students).

“We are so excited to be able to support these amazing higher-ed leaders who are making a real difference by reducing inequities and increasing access to education,” said Fernando Bleichmar, executive vice president and general manager for U.S. Higher Education at Cengage. “At Cengage, we believe learning transforms lives, and the work of these leaders is so critical in giving students the opportunity to better their lives and in creating an educated, informed, and just society.”

In recognition of their accomplishments, the AAC&U-Cengage Inclusion Scholarship recipients will each receive a one-year, complimentary AAC&U campus membership and a one-year complimentary membership in the AAC&U Presidents’ Trust, a diverse network of CEOs who are committed to advancing the vision, values, and practices that connect liberal education with the needs of an increasingly diverse student body, a global workforce, and thriving communities. The trust provides members with access to dedicated resources and events as well as exclusive opportunities to promote their thought leadership.

Education Special Coverage

The Sternest of Tests

By George O’Brien

 

Yves Salomon-Fernández says the region’s community colleges were facing some pretty severe headwinds before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Western Mass. in March.

Indeed, these institutions, like all colleges and universities, have been seriously impacted by demographic trends — specifically, a decade or more of consistently smaller high-school graduating classes, said Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC).

But they’ve also been adversely impacted by what was the nation’s longest economic expansion and historically low unemployment rates, in a continuation of a trend that has become quite familiar to those in the community-college realm — when times are good, enrollment suffers, she noted; when times are bad, like during the Great Recession, people go back to school and enrollment climbs.

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Yves Salomon-Fernández says the pandemic has in some ways accelerated the pace of change when it comes to jobs and the workforce, and community colleges will need to help individuals thrive in this altered landscape.

But while the pandemic has created some of the worst times this region has seen in the past 90 years or so and put thousands on the unemployment rolls, that development hasn’t benefited the community colleges in the manner it has in the past, said Salomon-Fernández and others we spoke with. There are a number of reasons for that, many of which have to do with the ongoing health crisis itself.

Listing some, Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC) and one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2020, said many individuals and families are simply coping with too many issues right now — from balancing life and work to trying to find employment, to simply putting food on the table — to consider adding a college education to the mix.

Beyond that, one of the real strengths of community colleges is their personal style of learning in the classroom, something taken away by the pandemic, and something that is keeping many students on the sidelines, Royal continued.

“We have a lot of students who prefer in-person learning,” she explained, noting that, in what would be normal times, roughly 20% of courses offered by the school are taught remotely; now, that number is closer to 95% or even 98%, and it will be that way at least through next spring. “So some students feel frustrated that the pandemic is continuing; what they thought would be a one-semester impact is now much more than that.”

But maybe the biggest reason this crisis has hit the community colleges harder than other institutions of higher learning is that this has not been an equal-opportunity pandemic, said John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), noting that it has impacted those in urban areas, those in lower-income brackets, and those in the minority community more severely than other constituencies. And these individuals, which were already struggling in many ways before the pandemic, form the base of the student populations at all of the state’s community colleges.

“For us and for the other community colleges, this is a conversation about equity,” he told BusinessWest. “We are a college that has a majority of students of color, and we’re seeing steep enrollment declines. It’s right in line with the way the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the African-American community and the Hispanic community.”

Christina Royal

Christina Royal says enrollment at community colleges has been dropping consistently since 2012, a pattern exacerbated by the pandemic.

Add all this up, and the region’s community colleges have had a very trying time since the spring. There have been cutbacks — STCC has had to cut several programs, for example, everything from automotive technology to landscape architecture (more on that later) — and workforce reductions by attrition at each school. And no one is really sure when the picture might at least start to brighten, which may be the biggest challenge of all.

“I’m encouraged, like the world, by vaccines, but just like everything with this pandemic, there is a great deal of uncertainty as to when anything is going to take place,” Cook said. “So it’s really hard to forecast for next fall and beyond.”

But in some ways, this has been a proud moment for the schools, if that’s the right term, as they have focused their attention on the students who are enrolled and their growing needs during the pandemic — for everything from Chromebooks to hotspots so students can have internet access, to food and even desks so students can study remotely.

“From 2012 until now, we’ve lost about 40% of our enrollment. This is staggering for any industry, any sector, and it tells a certain story about community colleges.”

Meanwhile, the schools are doing what they always do — looking to the future and seeing how the pandemic will impact the employment landscape with an eye toward preparing students for what will be a changing job market.

“The economy is changing, and jobs are changing, and we were already beginning to see these shifts before the pandemic,” said Salomon-Fernández. “When you read reports from the World Economic Forum, you see predictions that, over the next several years, many of the jobs that exist now will disappear. We knew there was a change coming in the future of work, and what we’re seeing now is that the pandemic is affecting how we work — and what the work is.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the pandemic has impacted the region’s community colleges, and how they’re responding to these even stronger headwinds.

 

Difficult Course

Cook told BusinessWest that the presidents of the state’s 15 community colleges meet weekly.

They’ve always done this, he said, but the meetings are different now. For starters, they’re by Zoom, obviously, and the tone is decidedly different as the schools collectively deal with challenges on an unprecedented scale.

Unprecedented, because the schools have never faced a perfect storm like this one.

“There’s a solidarity there, for sure — you’re with a group of peers and colleagues contending with similarly difficult circumstances,” he said with some understatement in his voice. “We do a lot of listening and sharing — of strategic actions; navigation of federal, state, and local regulations; and best practices. We’re all coping with the same challenges.”

And there are many of them, starting with enrollment. As noted earlier, several forces have been pulling the numbers down for the bulk of the past decade, including the smaller high-school graduating classes and the economy — and the impact has been significant.

Indeed, overall enrollment at STCC had fallen by 30% between 2012 (when there were 7,000 students on campus) and the fall of 2019, said Cook, and it took another 15% hit this fall.

“From 2012 until now, we’ve lost about 40% of our enrollment,” he noted. “This is staggering for any industry, any sector, and it tells a certain story about community colleges.”

John Cook

John Cook says the pandemic has disproportionately impacted urban areas and communities of color — constituencies served by community colleges.

The story is similar at most all of the other community colleges. Royal said enrollment has been declining at a rate of roughly 5% a year since 2012, or the peak, if you will, when it comes to enrollment growth in the wake of the Great Recession, and the pandemic has certainly compounded the problem. At HCC, enrollment is down 13.7% (roughly 600 students) from the fall of 2019, while the number of full-time equivalents is down 17%. And they are projected to decline further for the spring (enrollment is traditionally lower in the spring than the fall), she noted, as her school and other community colleges have announced that all learning next semester will be remote.

At GCC, the school hasn’t been hit as hard when it comes to enrollment, perhaps an 8% decline, said Salomon-Fernández, but the numbers are still down, and the long-term projections show they will continue trending downward for perhaps the balance of the decade, something GCC and other schools have been trying to plan for.

These enrollment declines obviously take a toll on these schools financially, said those we spoke with, a toll that has been greatly acerbated by the pandemic; Cook equated the 15% drop in enrollment from last year to $3 million in lost revenues. State and federal assistance from the CARES Act and other relief efforts have helped, he said, but there are restrictions on those monies, and, overall, they certainly don’t offset the steep losses.

Meanwhile, other headwinds are blowing, he said. At STCC, for example, the school has a number of issues with its buildings, some of which are more than 150 years old, with costs totaling several million dollars.

In response, the institutions have been using every tool in the toolbox to cope with the declines in revenue, including inducements to retire, not filling positions when people do retire or leave, reducing part-time personnel (and then full-time workers) if needed, creating efficiencies when possible, and cutting down on expenses wherever possible, including travel, utilities, and more.

In some cases, schools have had to go further and cut programs, as at STCC, which has eliminated several programs, including automotive, cosmetology, civil engineering, and dental assisting, which together enrolled roughly 120 students. These cuts came down to simple mathematics, said Cook, adding that, while some programs were popular and certainly needed within the community, like automotive, they are losing propositions, budget-wise.

“As much as we try to encourage them to stick with their plan and help them, through myriad services, to persist, the numbers seem to indicate that they need to take a break. And that’s disproportionately unique to community colleges — we don’t see the same level of enrollment decline at state universities, at UMass, or at undergraduate private institutions.”

“By and large, with every program we offer, the tuition and fees do not cover the costs; no program really breaks even, especially anything that has a lab or a technical or clinical element to it; those are all losing endeavors,” he explained. “Which means there’s even more pressure when enrollment falls.”

 

Steep Grade

And, as noted, enrollment is projected to keep falling for the foreseeable future, and for all of the reasons, many of them pandemic-related, mentioned above — from individuals not able to attend college for financial or other reasons to people not wanting to learn remotely, which is all that community colleges can offer right now, except for some lab programs. And these trends are piling up atop those falling birth rates and smaller high-school classes.

Overall, it’s far more than enough to offset any gains that might come from the economy declining and the jobless rate soaring, said Royal, noting that this downturn is unlike those that came before because of the pandemic and the wave of uncertainty that has accompanied it.

“When we think about the conditions that tend to drive more students to higher education during a recession, in normal times, there is more predictability when it comes to economic cycles,” she explained. “We know that during a recession, jobs are limited, and you use the time to focus on your education; the market is going to turn, and when it does, you’ll have more credentials and certificates to be competitive for a job.

“When you think of the conditions we’re in now, there’s still so much uncertainty that people are feeling nervous about starting a new program when they just don’t have a sense for where the world is going to end up,” she went on. “They’re thinking, ‘what is the world going to look like, and how do we even navigate this?’”

With many schools forced to offer only remote learning, Salomon-Fernández noted, there was some speculation that students, perhaps with some prodding from their parents, might opt to learn remotely at a community college rather than a far more expensive four-year institution of higher learning. But thus far, such a movement has not materialized, she said, adding that some students are opting out altogether and taking at least a semester or year off rather than enroll remotely at any institution.

What is materializing is a situation where those in the minority communities and the lower end of the income scale — frontline workers, in many instances — are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. And this is the constituency that fills many of the seats — another term that takes on new meaning during the pandemic — at this region’s community colleges.

“If you look at Holyoke, Springfield, Chicopee, and Westfield — those are our top feeder communities,” Royal said. “These are the communities that are getting impacted by the pandemic in a significant way; we know the pandemic is disproportionately impacting communities of color and low-income communities.”

She and the others we spoke with said the pandemic is putting many people out of work or reducing their hours, affecting everything from housing to food insecurity. Meanwhile, for others, the pandemic has them in a situation where balancing work and life has become more challenging and complicated, leaving fewer hours in the day and less time and opportunity for things like attaining the associate degree that might open some doors career-wise.

“There are so many uncertainties right now that have many people saying, ‘I don’t know if I can handle another thing right now — so I’m just going to wait and see if we can stabilize some of these other factors, especially some consistency with K-12 education and a better understanding of where the jobs are and who’s hiring,’” Royal said.

Cook concurred. “A lot of what we see in our enrollment decline is students not going anywhere — they’re sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “They’re not seeking another option because, frankly, we’re the most affordable and most accessible option in Springfield. They’re literally staying home — taking care of children who are similarly home, or taking care of family members, or addressing working concerns. That’s what we see, and that’s part of the larger story around racial concerns, equity, and structural racism, and this is how it lands at a place like STCC.

“As much as we try to encourage them to stick with their plan and help them, through myriad services, to persist, the numbers seem to indicate that they need to take a break,” he went on. “And that’s disproportionately unique to community colleges — we don’t see the same level of enrollment decline at state universities, at UMass, or at undergraduate private institutions.”

 

Learning Curves

While coping with falling enrollment, the community colleges are facing additional challenges when it comes to serving those who are enrolled, said those we spoke with, noting, again, the disproportionate impact on those in lower-income brackets.

One of the biggest challenges many students face is getting internet access, said Salomon-Fernández, noting that this was already a challenge for some in rural Franklin County before the pandemic; now, it’s even more of an issue.

Royal agreed, noting that many students made use of HCC’s wi-fi and computer labs before the pandemic because they didn’t have it at home or had limited, low-band service.

The schools have responded by giving out laptops and Chromebooks on loan, as well as mobile hotspots to help with wi-fi connectivity.

“We’ve had hundreds of students access technology to help them with remote learning,” said Royal, adding that, through the school’s Student Emergency Fund, help has been provided for everything from rent payments to auto insurance to food, with more than $90,000 distributed to more than 230 students.

But the help goes beyond money, she said, adding that, at the school’s Thrive Center, students can get assistance with filling out applications for unemployment, get connected to mental-health services, find digital-literacy programs, and receive support from the school’s food pantry, in addition to those internet hot spots.

Looking ahead, though, the colleges face a much larger and even more important challenge as they try to anticipate changes to the job market, some of them being shaped by and accelerated by the pandemic, and adjust their programs accordingly.

“We’re trying to understand and anticipate how the job market will change. We expect some jobs to be gone and not come back, and as a community college, we’re preparing ourselves to support the most vulnerable people whose jobs will cease to exist.”

“We’re trying to understand and anticipate how the job market will change,” said Salomon-Fernández. “We expect some jobs to be gone and not come back, and as a community college, we’re preparing ourselves to support the most vulnerable people whose jobs will cease to exist.

“We’re already working with our Workforce Investment Board and with our chamber of commerce and other employment partners to help them think through training, both right now and for what’s coming down the pike,” she added. “It’s a matter of being agile in our thinking, of being responsive in terms of what new academic programs and new workforce-development programs might be needed, and making sure they are informed by industry and that we are ready to serve when people are ready to re-engage in this work.”

‘Ready to serve’ is a phrase that defines the purpose and the mission of the region’s community colleges. Carrying out that mission has become more difficult during the pandemic and the many changes it has brought, but the schools are persevering.

This has been the sternest of tests for them, but they are determined to pass it themselves, and enable all those they serve to do the same.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Education Special Coverage

Writing the Next Chapter

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

At least once, and perhaps twice, Robert Johnson strongly considered removing himself from the mix as a search committee narrowed the field of candidates to succeed Anthony Caprio as president of Western New England University (WNEU) in Springfield.

It was early spring, and the COVID-19 pandemic was presenting every institution of higher learning, including UMass-Dartmouth, which he served as chancellor, with a laundry list of stern — and, in some cases, unprecedented — challenges.

Johnson told BusinessWest that the campus needed his full attention and that it might be time to call a halt to his quest for the WNEU job. But he “hung in there,” as he put it, and for the same reason that he eventually decided to pursue the position after at least twice telling a persistent recruiter that he wasn’t really interested.

“We are at an inflection point in higher education,” said Johnson, who arrived on the campus on Aug. 15, just a few weeks before students arrived for the fall semester. “Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.

“I think it’s fair to say that, when we think about higher education, the last time we’ve seen the level of transformation that is about to happen was just after World War II, with the GI Bill and the creation of more urban public universities, community colleges, and the list goes on,” he continued, as talked through a mask to emphasize the point that they are to be worn at all times on this campus. “As we think about the world of work and the future, colleges and universities will be educating people for jobs that don’t exist yet, utilizing technologies that haven’t been created to solve problems that have yet to be identified.”

Elaborating, he said today’s young people, and he counts his son and daughter in this constituency, are expected to hold upwards of 17 jobs in five different industries (three of which don’t currently exist) during their career. All this begs a question he asked: “what does an institution of higher learning look like in an environment like this, where the pace of change is unlike anything the world has ever seen?”

The short answer — he would give a longer one later — is that this now-101-year-old institution looks a whole lot like WNEU, which, he said, is relatively small, agile, and able to adapt and be nimble, qualities that will certainly be needed as schools of all sizes move to what Johnson called a “clicks and mortar” — or “mortar and clicks” — model of operation that, as those words suggest, blends remote with in-person learning.

The process of changing to this model is clearly being accelerated by the pandemic that accompanies Johnson’s arrival at WNEU, and that has already turned this fall semester upside down and inside out at a number of schools large and small.

“Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.”

Indeed, a number of schools that opened their campuses to students have already closed them and reverted to remote learning. Meanwhile, others trying to keep campuses open are encountering huge problems — and bad press: Northeastern University recently sent 11 students packing after they violated rules and staged a gathering in one of the living areas, for example, and the University of Alabama has reported more than 1,200 cases on its campus in Tuscaloosa.

It’s very early in the semester, but Johnson is optimistic, even confident, that his new place of employment can avoid such occurrences.

“The decision to go with in-person learning was essentially made before I got here, and I think it was the right decision,” he explained, noting that students are living on campus and only 16% of the courses are being taught fully online, with the rest in-person or a hybrid model. “We’ve tested more than 2,500 individuals, and we’ve had only three positive cases, all asymptomatic. It’s worked out well so far, but this is only the end of the first week.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, and we take it day to day,” he went on, adding that the school’s smaller size and strict set of protocols, such as testing students upon arrival, may help prevent some of those calamities that have visited other institutions. “We’ve been very judicious, and our small size makes us a bit different. We’re kind of like Cheers, where everybody knows your name; we don’t have tens of thousands of students that we have to manage.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Johnson about everything from the business of education in this unsettled time to the next chapter in higher education, which he intends to help write.

Screen Test

Flashing back to that aforementioned search for Caprio’s successor, Johnson noted that it was certainly different than anything he’s experienced before — and he’s been through a number of these, as we’ll see shortly.

Indeed, this was a search in the era of COVID-19, which meant pretty much everything was done remotely, including the later rounds of interviews, which usually involve large numbers of people sitting around a table.

Robert Johnson says he’s confident

Robert Johnson says he’s confident that WNEU, a smaller, tight-knit school, can avoid some of the problems larger institutions have had when reopening this fall.

“It was all Zoom, and it was … interesting,” he said of the interview process. “You don’t know if you’re truly connecting or not. As a person being interviewed, you have much more self-awareness of not only what you’re saying but how you’re saying it, and your own non-verbal communication, because you can see yourself on the screen.

“You have to make sure your background is right, the lighting is right, you’re wearing the right colors, all that,” he went on. “It’s like being on TV, literally, because the first impression people get is what they see on screen.”

Those on the search panel were nonetheless obviously impressed, both by what they saw and heard, and also the great depth of experience that Johnson brings to this latest stop in a nearly 30-year career in higher education.

Indeed, Johnson notes, with a discernable amount of pride in his voice, that he has worked at just about every type of higher-education facility.

“I worked in every not-for-profit higher-education sector,” he noted. “Public, private, two-year, four-year, private, Catholic, large, medium, and small — this is my seventh institution. And I think that gives me a unique lens as a leader in higher education.”

Prior to his stint at UMass Dartmouth, he served as president of Becker College in Worcester from 2010 to 2017, and has also held positions at Oakland University in Michigan and Sinclair College, the University of Dayton, and Central State University, all in Ohio.

As noted earlier, when Johnson was invited by a recruiter to consider perhaps making WNEU the next line on his résumé, he was at first reluctant to become a candidate.

“The search consultant, who I happen to know, called me two or three times, and I did not bite,” he noted. “But as she told me more, and I learned more about Western New England University, I began to take a look. I knew about the school, but I had never taken a deep dive into the institution, its history, and what it had to offer.”

He subsequently took this deep dive, liked what he saw, and, as he noted, hung in through the lengthy interview process because of the unique opportunity this job — at this moment in time — presented.

Since arriving on campus, he has made a point of meeting as many staff members and faculty as possible, but this, too, is difficult during the COVID-19 era. Indeed, meetings can involve only a few participants, so, therefore, there must be more of them.

“We can’t have any of those big ‘meet the president’ meetings,” he noted. “So I’ve had six, seven, or eight meetings with small groups or facility and staff, and I probably have another 15 or 20 of those scheduled. I’m getting to know people, and they’re getting to know me; I’m doing a lot of listening and learning.”

Overall, it’s a challenging time in many respects, he said, adding quickly that higher education was challenging before COVID, for reasons ranging from demographics — smaller high-school graduating classes, for starters — to economics and the growing need to provide value at a time when many are questioning the high cost of a college education.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently,” he told BusinessWest. “I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently. I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.”

“It was a Monday, and seven to nine days later, every college in the country was teaching remotely and working remotely, in ways we never imagined,” he continued. “So the very idea that colleges and universities will go back to 100% of what that old business model was is a non-starter. So the question is, ‘how do we reinvent ourselves?’”

Courses of Action

As he commenced answering that question, he started by addressing a question that is being asked in every corner of the country. While there is certainly a place for remote learning, he noted, and it will be part of the equation for every institution, it cannot fully replace in-person learning.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future,” he noted. “I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

Elaborating, he said that, for many students, and classes of students, the in-person, on-campus model is one that can not only provide a pathway to a career but also help an individual mature, meet people from different backgrounds, and develop important interpersonal skills.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future. I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

“For the student coming from a wealthy family, I think they need socialization, and they need a face-to-face environment,” he explained. “For the first-generation student whose parents did not go to college, I think they need socialization. And for students who come from poor families, they need socialization.

“My point being that online learning is not a panacea,” he continued. Some would argue that, if you have online learning, it would help poor kids go to college. I would say that the poor kids, the first-generation kids, are the very ones who need to be on that college campus, to socialize and meet people different from themselves. And the same is true for those kids coming from the upper middle class and wealthy families — they need that socialization.

“In my humble opinion, face-to-face never goes away,” he went on. “But does that mean that one might be living on campus five years from now, taking five classes a semester, with maybe one or two of them being online or hybrid? Absolutely. I think the new model is going to be click and mortar, or mortar and click.”

Expanding on that point while explaining what such a model can and ultimately must provide to students, he returned to those numbers he mentioned earlier — 17 jobs in five industries, at least a few of which don’t exist in 2020. Johnson told BusinessWest that a college education will likely only prepare a student for perhaps of the first of these jobs. Beyond that, though, it can provide critical thinking skills and other qualities needed to take on the next 16.

“That very first job that a student gets out of college — they’ve been trained for that. But that fifth job … they have not been trained for that,” he said. “And I think the role of the academy in the 21st century, the new model, is all about giving students and graduates what I call the agile mindset, which is knowledge and the power of learning — giving students essential human skills that cannot be replicated by robots and gives them the mindset to continually add value throughout their professional careers.

“We’re educating people to get that first job, and to create every job after that,” he continued. “We’re making sure that every person who graduates from college is resilient and has social and emotional intelligence and has an entrepreneurial outlook, which is not about being an entrepreneur; it’s about value creation and having those essential human skills. What that means, fundamentally, is that no algorithm will ever put them out of a job.”

To get his point across, he relayed a conversation he had with some students enrolled in a nursing program. “They said, ‘this doesn’t apply to us,’ and I said, ‘yes, it does, because there are robots in Japan that are turning patients over in hospitals. So if you think technology does not impact what you do, you’re mistaken.’”

Summing it all up, he said that, moving forward, and more than ever before, a college education must make the student resilient, something he does not believe can be accomplished solely through online learning.

“How do I put the engineer and the artist together, give them a real-world problem, and say, ‘have at it, go solve it?’” he asked. “They have to be face to face, hands-on. We can come up with alternate reality, virtual reality, and all the technology you want, but at some point, people have to sit down and look each other in the eye.”

Bottom Line

Returning to the subject of the pandemic and the ongoing fall semester, Johnson reiterated his cautious optimism about getting to the finish line without any major incidents, and said simply, “get me to Thanksgiving with everyone still on campus.” That’s when students will be heading for a lengthy break after a semester that started early (late August) and, to steal a line from Bill Belichick, featured no days off — classes were even in session on Labor Day.

But while he wants to get to Thanksgiving, Johnson is, of course, looking much further down the road, to the future of higher education, which is, in some important respects, already here.

He believes WNEU represents that future, and that’s why he “hung in there” during that search process.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]businesswest.com

Education

The Experiment Begins

Some of the outdoor spaces Academy Hill School

Some of the outdoor spaces Academy Hill School will repurpose for class time this fall — weather permitting.

Brian Easler learned a saying during his time in the Army: “two is one, and one is none.”

It’s a way of stressing the importance of having a backup plan — and he certainly put that concept into action this summer.

“The idea is, anything can fail at any time. You have to have a backup,” said Easler, head of school at Wilbraham & Monson Academy (WMA). “We did everything we could think of to make the campus as safe as possible. We have layers of filters where, even if one preventive measure seems duplicative of something else we’ve done, we did both anyway.”

For instance, all HVAC systems on campus were updated and fitted with ionizers to filter air. But the school also bought 287 Honeywell HEPA air purifiers, similar to what hospitals use, and placed one in every room on campus. And when public-health officials said students at school could stay three feet apart while wearing masks, WMA kept a six-foot standard.

“Again,” he told BusinessWest, “we’re layering precautions on top of precautions.”

The reason is simple: parents want to send their kids to school to learn in person — despite its widespread use, no one believes remote learning is the best option from an academic and social perspective — and they also want to feel their kids will be safe.

Melissa Earls is a believer in in-person learning, which is why, as head of school at Academy Hill School in Springfield, she has spent the last several months making sure the campus is safe.

And not only because younger students — unlike WMA, Academy Hill is a pre-K to grade 8 school — have a tougher time handling remote education without the physical presence of parents, who often simultaneously hold jobs.

“It’s not just the autonomy factor, but what’s developmentally appropriate,” she said. “It’s just not developmentally appropriate for students that young to be in front of a screen for so long. It’s also an abstract concept to engage in virtual learning, seeing their friends on a Brady Bunch Zoom screen. For them, it’s an abstract concept to wrap their heads around. Developmentally, we much prefer having them here with us.”

That’s not to say classes don’t look a little different these days.

“We’re a small private school, and we typically have a lot of collaborative tables, reflective of our instructional model. We’ve replaced them with rows and columns of desks, which was not our style,” Earls explained. “We also purchased tents to create outdoor spaces, sheltered from the sun, and even the rain, to respond to the space challenge.”

John Austin, head of school at Deerfield Academy, in a letter to parents last month, outlined the many precautions and protocols unfolding to make the campus safe (more on that later). But he also stressed that students have to buy in to make it work.

“We know from experience — and science tells us with near-certainty — that wearing masks, physical distancing, and enhanced hygiene can help mitigate the spread of this virus. And that is what, together, we will endeavor to accomplish. We begin the year knowing that our students will arrive ready to express their care for others by following these simple expectations,” he wrote.

Noting that students must sign a ‘community health pledge,’ he called the document “an attempt to clearly and explicitly capture that ethos of care, citizenship, and sacrifice that will allow us to return to school safely and be together as a campus community.”

In other words, if students want to be on campus — and private schools throughout the region are definitely emphasizing that model — they know they’re all in it together. It’s an intriguing experiment in the first fall semester of the COVID-19 era, one that follows a summer that was also unlike any other.

Team Effort

The first question at Academy Hill, Earls said, was whether the campus had the space and ability to pull off on-campus learning.

“Once we knew we could do this, it became a priority to get them back,” she said. “Getting here was a team effort. What impressed us was the selflessness of everyone who worked all summer long. Actually, they didn’t have a summer. The plan was constantly evolving, and everyone was so generous with their time and their thoughts.”

While students are expected to be on campus if they’re not sick, a blended learning option is available for those who have to quarantine because they or a family member have been exposed to coronavirus. At the same time, if a faculty member is exposed, but is able to teach from home, students will attend classes on campus while the teacher instructs from a remote location, with the assistance of technology.

Melissa Earls

Melissa Earls

“It’s just not developmentally appropriate for students that young to be in front of a screen for so long. It’s also an abstract concept to engage in virtual learning, seeing their friends on a Brady Bunch Zoom screen.”

And, of course, in an echo of the spring, when schools and colleges across the U.S. shut down and switched to online learning, Academy Hill will be able to do so if a viral spike forces such a move — but it won’t be so on the fly this time, as teachers engaged in professional development over the summer to prepare for the possibility of remote learning.

“Our plan is a living document,” Earls said. “We looked at CDC and state guidelines, and our goal was to exceed them. When they shortened the physical distance to three feet, we still do six feet apart. We made sure we were meeting or exceeding all the guidelines, and we shared every iteration of the plan with families. I sent notes home weekly over the summer, if not moreso.”

Easler said prepping WMA for an influx of students included renovating a former school meeting space into a second dining hall, installing new bathrooms in a boys’ dorm, and, perhaps most dramatically, instituting an aggressive testing program. The school engaged with a lab at MIT to implement twice-weekly testing for all students, faculty, and staff, with no more than four days between tests.

“The rationale is, the only way to prevent widespread transmission on campus is to know where the virus is, especially with a population that’s often asymptomatic. And the only way to know where the virus is, is to test. The testing program is our first defense.”

Easler spoke with BusinessWest the second day students were on campus, and said students were adapting well to the new protocols, which include mandatory masks, although there are outdoor mask-free zones that offer some relief. Among close to 400 students at WMA, only 64 have opted for remote learning this fall.

“The kids seem pretty happy; it’s encouraging to see how quickly they adapted to everything. Kids are adaptable in general, but we’re still really proud of them.”

He added that WMA isn’t among the wealthiest private schools, but he’s pleased with the investments that have been made, from campus renovations to the testing plan. “Testing is expensive, but it’s worth every penny.”

Testing, Testing

To a similar end, Deerfield Academy has partnered with Concentric by Ginkgo, a program that provides COVID-19 testing in support of schools and businesses. Students were tested before they arrived on campus, as soon as they arrived, and again several days after. Weekly testing will continue for students, faculty, and staff throughout the fall term.

The school will also employ daily reporting and symptom screening and has prepared guidelines for contact tracing in order to quickly isolate any positive cases and quarantine all close contacts. In addition, all boarding students have single rooms, and weekend off-campus travel is being limited, as are family visits.

Meanwhile, a new, modular academic schedule will reduce the number of classes students take over the course of the day and gather them in smaller classes, and all HVAC systems have been fitted with advanced air filters, and are circulating fresh, filtered air at an increased rate.

“In my 35 years in education, never before have I seen such effort, sacrifice, and commitment to mission,” Austin wrote. “Every member of our community has generously given their time and effort over these summer months to prepare the campus and its buildings to safely welcome students.”

Easler agreed. “We did lot of work over the summer, meaning we really didn’t get much of a summer,” he said, adding that part of the process was training faculty on the Canvas learning-management platform, allowing them to teach face-to-face and remotely at the same time.

“The rest of the staff spent the summer planning logistics around campus,” he added. “It was so much work because we literally did everything we could think of.”

While enrollment projections dipped slightly early in the summer, Easler said it picked up again once word got out into the community of what WMA was doing to make the campus a safe environment. “Families want a little more predictability than they get out of the local public systems, which don’t have the kind of flexibility and resources we do.”

With such resources come a responsibility, Earls said, to understand what students are going through during this unprecedented year.

“I told the teachers, ‘always remember that hundreds of kids will pass through here during the course of your career, but to John or Jameel or Suzy, you are their only second-grade teacher, their only math teacher, their only Spanish teacher. You need to respect that.’ This year more than ever, we need to pay attention to their anxiety levels, their social and emotional well-being. We’re going to make sure they feel safe and normalize the situation for them.”

That normalization, she believes, begins with in-person learning, and getting to that point took a lot of work. Now, she and other area heads of school can only hope it’s enough.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Education

Entrance Exam

Come back to campus, or don’t — either way, you’ll learn.

Just don’t expect campus life to be anything like you’re used to.

That’s essentially the message from UMass Amherst, by far the region’s largest of roughly 20 colleges and universities grappling with how to welcome students back to campus this fall — or setting them up for online instruction, as the case may be. Or, in some cases, both.

“We heard loud and clear from our student body that, even if they’re taking courses remotely, they would really like to be on campus or around campus,” Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said during a recent conference call discussing the university’s fall plans.

In a nutshell, the vast majority of students will not be required to return to Amherst, with most courses offered remotely. But they may return — for residence-hall life and in-person instruction — if they’d like.

“Our communication will be very explicit about what the campus might look like and what our expectations are, and what we will hold all of our students responsible for,” he continued. “With all of that knowledge, if they still want to come to campus and live in campus housing, they’re most welcome to. And whether they come back to campus or not, we will really provide a rich and rewarding academic experience with not only remote courses but also advising and lots of peer-to-peer interactions and faculty-to-student interactions and so forth.”

In other words, Subbaswamy noted, “we’re prepared to serve our community to the best possible extent in terms of providing all the college experience can under these different circumstances because of the pandemic. That’s the bottom line.”

Bryan Gross says WNEU’s mission prioritizes on-campus education

Bryan Gross says WNEU’s mission prioritizes on-campus education, but the university is ready to pivot if the pandemic worsens.

That said, life in the residence halls will be altered to include pedestrian-flow guidelines, restrictions on group gatherings, and limited face-to-face contact. No guests will be allowed in residence halls, at least at first. Most student services will be offered remotely. The Recreation Center will be open — with limits and restrictions placed on activities.

In short, things have changed since COVID-19 arrived in Massachusetts. Leaders at the region’s higher-education institutions have been meeting since … well, pretty much since they sent students home in mid-March, to hash out what classrooms and the campus experience will look like come late August, when the fall semester begins for most.

“We need to make sure we’re providing them with some sense of security, and do everything that we can to make this experience one where they are able to continue their studies and get to graduation.”

None of the schools’ plans are exactly the same, with some emphasizing on-campus instruction, some — including most of the community colleges — opting for an online-heavy approach, and others landing somewhere in between, with students choosing between in-person, online, and hybrid programs (see box on page 19).

Western New England University, touting its ample space and small classes, has decided to conduct the vast majority of classes fully on-campus this fall, while a small number of courses will be delivered in a hybrid or online format.

“We keep coming back to discussions regarding our mission, which is to provide a highly personalized educational experience inside and outside class,” said Bryan Gross, vice president for Enrollment Management and Marketing. “For the faculty and staff working on this plan, any time we get stuck on details, we come back to that mission.”

Students will be required to wear a mask or face shield, practice social distancing, and maintain a high standard of hygiene. In addition, plexiglass barriers will be installed throughout campus, including classrooms. Most buildings will be one-directional to minimize hallway contact, buildings will be cleaned more frequently, and residence halls will be limited to single and double rooming options, among other measures.

Walter Breau

Walter Breau

“We learned a lot in the spring when we had to go online — we understand what we did well and what we can do better. If a second surge happens and everyone decides to move online, the Elms flex model allows that to happen.”

“We watch the news every day,” Gross told BusinessWest. “Things are constantly changing in terms of safety, and we have to follow state and federal regulations, but based on the information we currently have, we feel confident our plan is doable — that it meets our values and protects the health and safety of students. But if things change, we also have to be open and honest, and we are willing and able to change.”

That’s why WNEU, like many colleges and universities, has actually been planning for three different scenarios — most students on campus, online learning, and a hybrid of the two.

“The majority of our families are ready for their children to be on campus and have the campus experience,” he added, “They trust our Health Services and know, if it’s ever not safe to be here, we’re going to make the right decision in the best interest of our students.”

That’s the COVID-19 world colleges and universities must grapple with — with every day bringing changing news and more moving targets. As enrollment planning goes, it’s unprecedented, at least within living memory. And students aren’t the only ones who will be learning something.

Course Corrections

At Elms College, classes will be taught this fall in a hybrid, flexible model that gives students the option of attending sessions in the classroom, online, or both. Students can move between the options based on their personal preferences, while international and non-local students will be able to continue their coursework from afar.

“We know some students are high-risk or living with someone high-risk and don’t feel comfortable being in a classroom, but we also know students want an in-person experience,” said Walter Breau, vice president of Academic Affairs. “So they can choose when to be in the classroom.”

The usual mix of masks, distancing, and plexiglass will be in play, and on-campus students will be expected to monitor and record any COVID-like symptoms they might have. As is the case at other campuses welcoming students this fall, any positive symptoms must be reported to the Health Center for consultation, and the college will have a separate living space for any student in need of quarantine.

Fall 2020 Plans … for Now

Leaders at 20 area colleges and universities continue to discuss plans for how academic programs will be delivered fall. Those plans might change, and even schools planning on a mostly on-campus experience will likely offer some programs remotely. Here are the latest plans, grouped by categories that may not capture all the nuances of each plan; readers are encouraged to visit the schools’ specific websites for more information.

• All courses delivered online, but students have option of attending in person: UMass Amherst.

• All online, with students in some programs (such as healthcare and culinary arts) on campus part of the time: Asnuntuck Community College, Cambridge College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College.

• Blend of on-campus, online, and hybrid instruction: Bay Path University, Berkshire Community College, Elms College, Mount Holyoke College, Springfield College, Westfield State University, Williams College. American International College is discussing this model as well.

• Blend of on-campus and online instruction with students on campus for either fall or spring: Amherst College, Smith College.

• Mostly on-campus instruction: Bard’s College at Simon’s Rock, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Hampshire College, Western New England University.

“Safety is our number-one priority,” Breau told BusinessWest. “We know students want to come back. How to keep them safe while doing that has been the prime goal of reopening. Our task force made sure safety was always number one on the list.”

To that end, students will need to review safety-training materials when they return to campus. “It’s going to be a team-based effort. It’s not just administrators, faculty, and staff, but students have to be a part of the process as well. We’ll certainly rely on them to help us stay safe.”

There’s a safety net built into the ‘HyFlex’ model as well, Breau noted, in that it wouldn’t be difficult to transfer all learning online if the region’s infection rates soar.

“We learned a lot in the spring when we had to go online — we understand what we did well and what we can do better. If a second surge happens and everyone decides to move online, the Elms flex model allows that to happen; it’s built into the syllabus and the way instructors plan the courses.”

American International College is also seriously considering a HyFlex model, and plans to announce its detailed fall strategy by the end of July, said Nicolle Cestero, chief of staff, senior vice president for Human Relations, and Title IX coordinator. She said a group of campus leaders has been meeting for several months and are doing all they can to give students an on-campus option.

With more than half of its undergraduate student body first-generation college students and more than 50% also Pell Grant-eligible — meaning they come from low-income families — AIC doesn’t want to add additional challenges to their lives, she noted.

“We need to make sure we’re providing them with some sense of security, and do everything that we can to make this experience one where they are able to continue their studies and get to graduation,” Cestero said, noting that the HyFlex option is an ideal model in that it allows students to access their education in a way that best serves their needs in this most difficult year.

Plus, there’s value in the on-campus experience that can’t be replicated remotely, she added. “Maybe your roommate becomes your best friend for life. Or you’re participating in a conversation that you never would have participated in — on race or gender or power and privilege, or whatever it is — and you don’t necessarily get to do that if you’re not on campus. You develop so much in these years — it’s your first time away from home, and you’re teaching yourself how to do things, how to manage your own time and finances, all that stuff.”

In a letter to the Springfield College family, President Mary-Beth Cooper detailed a blend of in-person, remote, and hybrid instruction, with all learning moving online after Thanksgiving. But she emphasized that new safety measures — from masks and distancing to a contact-tracing program and isolation spaces — are key to making the plan work.

“Successfully remaining on campus throughout the fall semester will depend on the degree to which we, as a community, work together to reduce the possibility of the virus appearing on campus and, if it does, responding quickly to limit its spread,” she explained.

Brandi Hephner LeBlanc, vice chancellor for Student Affairs at UMass Amherst, noted that the university will distribute a student agreement that details the testing and symptom self-monitoring they’re asked to do, as well as the need to carry hand sanitizer and face coverings when moving about, among other safety measures.

“We’re really asking them to be a responsible community member, first and foremost, and to be a part of the bystander intervention,” she said. “When you see someone without a mask, remind them.”

And if students don’t comply?

“There is going to be what I would term an escalation of intervention,” she explained. “We’ll have public-health ambassadors on campus that will help remind folks, and there will be a lot of communication to find out if there’s a problem. This is not going to be an immediate referral to the Conduct Office, unless it’s something so egregious that that’s necessary. But this is something that takes a lot of reminding to manage the behavior. And we’re prepared to do that.”

Catalog of Options

A few institutions across the region have emphasized the value of returning as much activity to campus as possible. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President James Birge cited recent survey data collected from 10,000 high-school and college students; 78% of respondents find the experience of in-class learning this fall appealing, while one-third would transfer out of their institution if the college shifted to online course delivery.

Nicolle Cestero

Nicolle Cestero says the value of the campus experience shouldn’t be minimized, but a hybrid flex model might be the smartest way to go this fall.

“We know the residential and in-person class experience is important to our students, students at state universities across the Commonwealth, and nationally,” Birge said, which is why MCLA is moving ahead with an ambitious on-campus approach. “Although returning to campus this fall presents some risk, we will work to make the campus experience as safe as possible for everyone. Of course, this means we will have to significantly shift our way of learning, teaching, and working.”

Other campuses, like Amherst College and Smith College, are looking at having roughly half the students on campus for the fall, to better achieve physical distancing, with the ones sent home for remote learning having on-campus priority for the spring.

“We know that any scenario short of bringing everyone to campus will be bitterly disappointing to those who will have to wait until the spring,” Amherst College President Biddy Martin wrote in a letter to students and families. “With this structure, we can provide the opportunity for every student who wishes to be on campus to spend at least one semester here and, if things go well, both semesters for a large number of those students.”

Meanwhile, Springfield Technical Community College is among a handful of area institutions — several community colleges among them — to continue with an online model this fall, though some programs in STCC’s School of Health and Patient Simulation will include low-density, on-campus labs adhering to social-distancing, PPE, and sanitizing protocols.

“STCC has no intention of becoming a fully online institution,” said Geraldine de Berly, vice president of Academic Affairs. “The pivot to online is driven by a health pandemic. COVID-19 has forced the college to adjust, and we do hope in the future to return to the robust utilization of campus facilities.”

In some instances, STCC will use synchronous teaching strategies, with students gathering at a specific time through videoconferencing. But most of the classes will be taught using an asynchronous approach, which gives students flexibility to set their own hours to complete their studies and assignments.

“Many of our students have childcare obligations, work commitments, and a host of other complicated circumstances,” President John Cook said. “We know that our students benefit from having flexibility in their classwork, and online is yet another way STCC lives its mission of ensuring access to higher education.”

Flexibility, in many ways, has become a key word in the region’s higher-education sector, which suddenly offers a wide array of learning models heading into perhaps the most unusual fall semester for American students in generations.

What these schools have in common is an emphasis on safety, and on making sure students know their own responsibilities in keeping COVID-19 infections low — and keeping the campus experience alive, in whatever curtailed form it might take.

WNEU’s Gross is confident it’s a message they will understand.

“You’re not doing it for yourself, but for other people. And that’s such a positive message we can send,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s why human beings are on this earth, to care for one another and take actions that help the community. We hope that value is something that’s embraced by our students. It’s an amazing opportunity to learn and grow and take actions to help others.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

‘This Is Our Moment’

Sandra Doran

While the pandemic presents a number of challenges, Sandra Doran says, it might also create opportunities for Bay Path University.

Sandra Doran says her family has long been attracted to careers in education and the law.

One great-grandfather traveled from New York to Colorado and set up the first one-room schoolhouse in that state, she noted, while her grandfather was superintendent of a school district in New York City, and her mother was a music teacher. And her other great-grandfather was a bankruptcy lawyer, kept especially busy during the Great Depression.

So it’s logical she would take one of those career paths. Actually, she took both.

Indeed, after serving as chief legal officer for Shaw’s supermarkets, she later served as vice president, general counsel, and chief of staff at Lesley University in Cambridge. And it was that position that eventually inspired a full shift to higher education — although she always calls on her legal background — and put her on a path to … Bay Path University and its president’s office.

“At Lesley, I came to realize that higher education was my passion, and my calling,” said Doran, who’s been handed the attractive, but perhaps also daunting, assignment of succeeding Carol Leary and building on the strong foundation she built during a 25-year tenure that saw the college become a university and expand in every way imaginable.

She arrives at Bay Path at a critical juncture, when several powerful forces are colliding — stern challenges in higher education that started emerging years ago; the COVID-19 pandemic, which is exacerbating those challenges and creating new ones; a financial crisis; and a nationwide focus on racial justice.

“This is a historical leadership opportunity for all of us — how we lead through the months and years ahead is really going to define what kind of community we are, how resilient we are, and now adaptive and nimble we are.”

This collision of crises, as Doran called them, presents a real test — actually, several of them — but also opportunities for the school, and higher education in general.

“This is a historical leadership opportunity for all of us — how we lead through the months and years ahead is really going to define what kind of community we are, how resilient we are, and now adaptive and nimble we are,” said Doran, adding that she believes Bay Path is well-positioned to be a leader during this time of crisis, introspection, and profound change, and that she is looking forward to the challenge of helping it play that role.

As she talked with BusinessWest at a small table positioned on the lawn behind the college’s administration building, Deepwood Hall — a nod to social distancing and keeping safe during the pandemic — Doran talked about the college’s plans for reopening this fall. It will embrace what many are calling a hybrid model blending online and in-person classes, with far more of the former. The plan, overall, is to “de-densify the campus,” as she put it, with a limited number of students living on campus, all in single rooms.

But mostly, she talked about this convergence of crises and how, rather than be a roadblock or even a speed bump, it could serve to accelerate the process of Bay Path’s emergence as a leader not simply in remote learning — only she doesn’t call it that; she prefers ‘technology-assisted learning’ — but in guiding students to fulfillment of their goals and ultimate success in the workplace. And also accelerating the process of creating systemic change in how higher education carries out its mission.

For the school, this opportunity to further cement its reputation as a pioneer and frontrunner in remote learning has been confirmed by the large number of colleges and universities calling to seek assistance as they establish or build their own programs (more on that later).

And for higher education, the pandemic presents a unique if not entirely welcome (at some schools) opportunity to rethink and perhaps reinvent many aspects of a college education and put more (and much-needed) emphasis on cost, access, and pathways to success in the workplace, and less on the on-campus experience (more on that later as well).

For all of this, Bay Path is well-positioned, if not uniquely positioned, to grasp these opportunities.

“This is our moment at Bay Path,” she said with noticeable energy in her voice, “because we’ve always been that place where students come to further their career ideals, and we’re going to continue to provide that opportunity.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Doran about what she ultimately called “an exciting moment in time,” and all the reasons that make it so.

School of Thought

When asked what appealed to her about Bay Path and its presidency, Doran said, in essence, that there was little, if anything, that didn’t appeal to her.

Indeed, she said the once-struggling two-year college that was resurrected and then taken to dizzying new heights during Leary’s tenure represents an opportunity that brings together her collective passions and many of the initiatives that have marked the latter stages of her career.

These include women’s education, technology and technology-assisted learning, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

Sandra Doran, seen here with a student

Sandra Doran, seen here with a student on Feb. 27, the day she was introduced to the campus community, embraces the challenge of building on the foundation built by her predecessor, Carol Leary.

“This opportunity is a perfect fit and really the culmination of all my professional work,” she explained. “I’ve had the opportunity to lead a women’s college, so I understand the value of a women’s education. But another part of my background involves adaptive learning and the power of online education to really bring out the best of everyone in terms of mastering the subject matter and ensuring that everyone has a voice. I’ve also led a software company and been an entrepreneur. This opportunity brings all that together, and that’s why it’s a perfect fit.”

A quick recap of her career to date will explain why she said that.

We start at Shaw’s, where Doran, in addition to her work as general counsel, oversaw the company’s portfolio of mergers and acquisitions, which included the acquisition of Star Market Inc.

Later, at Lesley, which she also served as general counsel, she came to that realization that higher education was a passion, one that led her to pursue and then garner the role of president of American College of Education, an online doctoral institution serving more than 3,500 students.

From there, while serving as an entrepreneur in residence at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., she served as the CEO of Castle Point Learning Systems, a Stevens Institute-supported educational technology startup that had developed an instructional framework for calculus, enabling students and teachers to develop a more robust foundation for higher-level mathematics.

Concurrently, she took a position as National Policy director for the New England Board of Higher Education, where, among other responsibilities, she created and implemented an innovative initiative for multi-state collaboration to increase educational attainment and access for students through online, hybrid, and distance education.

Her career then took another intriguing turn when she was appointed president of Salem Academy and College in North Carolina, the country’s oldest women’s college, founded in 1772. There, she put the school on firm financial footing, developed a strategic plan, and initiated several new programs, including an entrepreneurial makerspace in downtown Winston-Salem where students could work directly with the city’s innovation ecosystem.

As noted earlier, while education has become her career, she calls on her background in law on an almost daily basis, and finds that the two professions coexist effectively.

“One of the great roles of lawyers is to educate,” she explained. “It’s to educate clients, to educate themselves, to mediate, to bring people together, to critically analyze the data and synthesize the data, and communicate. Lawyers are problem solvers, except for the high-profile ones, which are litigators; most lawyers are solving problems.”

When a search firm called last year to gauge her interest in the Bay Path position, she responded enthusiastically, and for the reasons — and passions — mentioned earlier.

“I was familiar with the pioneering aspects of Bay Path — it was one of the first institutions to immerse themselves in the online education experience and understand what that could provide for our students,” she explained, adding, again, that she viewed this opportunity as the culmination of all the career work that had come before it.

Many schools don’t have an online presence at all, and so imagine their consternation when faced with this pandemic. It’s interesting that other liberal-arts colleges are reaching out to us and looking to us as being able to provide that kind of education.”

Since arriving on campus late last month, Doran, while working with staff on the reopening plan, has also been trying to meet with local leaders and the campus community alike — in COVID-mandated ways, especially phone calls and Zoom meetings.

It’s not the same as meeting people in person, but it’s been effective in that she’s getting to know and better understand the community the school serves. And this work continues with an initiative she calls “Let’s Come Together: Virtual Conversations with President Doran.”

“I’m eager to get to know my colleagues, and they’re eager to get to know me,” she said. “So these are conversations we’re conducting virtually, almost one a day — so faculty and staff have an opportunity to sit and talk and learn about each other. It’s a great opportunity for me to learn about our staff and faculty and what excites them about Bay Path, and, frankly, to learn about areas of strength and areas we need to improve.”

Course of Action

Doran was introduced to the Bay Path community on Feb. 27, just before the school sent its students home for the semester and essentially closed the campus. By the time of that announcement, it was already becoming clear that the approaching pandemic could alter the calendar and impact lives — but no one could really have predicted just how profoundly the landscape would change or how schools would be challenged by the virus.

As the story on page 17 reveals, schools have been spending the past several weeks carefully putting together reopening plans for the fall that incorporate a host of different strategies.

For Bay Path, the assignment, while not easy by any stretch, was made less complicated by what could be called the school’s head start when it came to online programs. Its first fully online graduate program was the MS in Nonprofit Management & Philanthropy, launched in 2007, followed by other online graduate programs for men and women and the fully online bachelor’s-degree program offered by the American Women’s College.

Bay Path’s plan, blueprinted with the help of a 75-member task force, calls for essentially cutting the number of students living on campus by half — down to roughly 200 — and conducting most courses, except those with some lab component, online. It’s a plan the school feels comfortable with because so many of its students were already learning remotely.

“It’s an environment where we’re making decisions with imperfect information — our environment is changing on a weekly basis, if not on a daily basis,” Doran noted. “So we’re going to be ready to pivot if we need to, but we feel strongly that we’ve got the right plan in place.”

This head start with remote learning has certainly caught the attention of others in academia, she added, noting those phone calls and e-mails seeking Bay Path’s assistance with online programming and inquiring about potential partnership opportunities.

“We’ve had several schools reach out to us to ask if they can enroll their students in our courses or think about ways we can partner,” she told BusinessWest, noting that inquiries are coming from institutions across the country. “Many schools don’t have an online presence at all, and so imagine their consternation when faced with this pandemic. It’s interesting that other liberal-arts colleges are reaching out to us and looking to us as being able to provide that kind of education.

“They want to learn from what we’ve learned,” she went on. “So it’s exciting to be in that position of being able to share what we know, what we’ve learned about how to provide the best opportunities for students.”

And these phone calls represent just one of the opportunities, a strange word to use in this climate, to arise from the pandemic, said Doran, adding that she chooses to look upon them in that light.

“We have an opportunity to rethink how we meet the needs of students whose ideals and thoughts around higher education are changing in the midst of everything that we’re dealing with,” she said. “So, just as the pandemic is impacting every single person in terms of how they think about their own career and their own lives, our students are doing the same thing.”

Elaborating, she noted that fewer than 20% of those attending college today are having what would be called a traditional college experience, meaning a four-year school and living on campus.

“The other 80% attend a very different — and have a very different — college experience,” she went on. “And one’s not better than the other, but I think there’s a new reality that higher education is embracing that’s focusing on the academic part of the experience, the part of the experience that enables students to have productive careers and move forward with their life goals and their life dreams.

“And that’s what Bay Path has always been — our mission is rooted in this idea that we want to provide career paths,” she continued, noting, again, that the school is well-positioned to embrace this new reality, as she called it, and this is reflected in enrollment numbers for the fall, which are quite solid at a time when many schools are struggling.

“We have — and this is another strength of Bay Path — a very diverse set of students,” she said. “We have students who are only online students, so they were never contemplating coming to campus, so we feel secure in those enrollments; we have graduate students, many of whom are online, so we feel secure in those enrollments; and our undergraduate enrollment is up for this fall in terms of deposits and commitments. We’re feeling very confident, and we’ve had a good response to our plan.”

Overall, the school is on solid financial ground, Doran said, and in a good position to withstand the challenges created by the pandemic.

“The finances around higher education are always challenging,” she explained. “The pandemic has certainly raised another level of gauze around all this, because it’s hard to see through and see what the next steps are. But we have a number of task forces looking at the long-term aspects, and, overall, we see some opportunities.”

Bottom Line

Looking ahead … well, Doran acknowledged it’s difficult to look very far ahead in the era of COVID-19.

Her immediate goals are to continue building on the foundation that Leary has built and develop new growth opportunities for a school that has come a long way in the past quarter-century.

And rather than somehow slow or stifle those efforts, this convergence of crises that greeted her upon her arrival may, as she said, actually serve to accelerate that process.

As she noted, “this is our moment.”

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Carol Leary

Carol Leary

Since arriving at the campus of Bay Path College in 1994, Carol Leary has always had her focus on what the future of higher education would — or should — look like, and positioning the institution for that day. As she prepares to retire in late June, she still has her eye on the future. She predicts that careers — and college programs to prepare people for them — will look much different years down the road, and institutions must be open to changing how they do business.

Carol Leary says she found the photo as she commenced the still-ongoing task of essentially packing up after a remarkable 26-year career as the president of Bay Path University — only it wasn’t a university when she arrived, as we all know.

It’s a shot of herself with former Secretary of Labor and Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole — one of the first keynoters at the school’s Women’s Leadership Conference — and Caron Hobin, an administrator at Bay Path who back then had the title of dean of Continuing Education, and is now vice president of Strategic Alliances, a role we’ll hear more about later.

Since finding it on a shelf not far from her first edition of Bay Path Crossroads, the school’s admissions magazine (which also features Dole on the cover), Leary has been showing this photo to pretty much everyone who ventures into her office.

“It brings back so many memories — and it was the beginning,” she said, adding that it has become her favorite photo, not just because she and others can marvel at how much younger she and Hobin were back when it was taken, but because of the way it makes her pause and think about everything that has happened since it was snapped.

It is quite a list — from that aforementioned progression to a university to its dramatic growth; from the addition of baccalaureate, then master’s, and finally doctoral degrees to the creation of the American Women’s College, the first all-women, all-online baccalaureate program in the nation; from the opening of a new science center to national recognition is such fields as cybersecurity. And it is certainly worth dwelling on all those accomplishments.

Leary has certainly been doing some of that over the past several weeks as she winds down her tenure and anticipates the beginning of retirement in late June, especially as she finds more artifacts as she starts to pack up her belongings. But not too much, as her time has been consumed with everything from welcoming her successor — Sandra Doran was introduced to the campus community in late February — to dealing with the many effects of coronavirus, which has hit the higher-education sector extremely hard.

And while the latter is now dominating the final weeks of her tenure, with decisions to be made about events, classes, and more, Leary spent much of her time this winter not looking back, but looking ahead to the future of higher education and how schools like Bay Path can prepare for, and be on the cutting edge of, what should be profound change.

In most respects, this is merely a continuation of what she’s been doing since arrived at the Longmeadow campus in the fall of 1994.

“Colleges are facing some incredible headwinds,” she said. “And beginning a year ago, at each executive committee meeting of the board, I started sharing some of those challenges and opportunities facing not only Bay Path but all colleges and universities.”

When asked to elaborate on these headwinds, she started with demographics, especially those concerning the size of high-school graduating classes. “The number of 18-year-olds is dropping dramatically in this country, and that won’t turn around unless immigration is opened up and you get a flood of immigrants,” she explained. “All colleges are facing it, so what do you do?”

Many schools are shifting their focus to graduate degrees and adult students, and Bay Path was somewhat ahead of this curve when it started added such programs 20 years ago, Leary said, adding quickly that, while such steps have worked, schools can’t depend on them moving forward.

Carol Leary, seen here introducing poet Maya Angelou

Carol Leary, seen here introducing poet Maya Angelou at one of Bay Path’s Women’s Leadership Conferences, has led the school through a period of unprecedented growth and expansion.

“There are now many more competitors — everyone is adding new programs,” she went on, noting that this is true of both adult (non-traditional) programs and online education, another arena where Bay Path was a pioneer. “As more schools enter the marketplace, that increases your competition, and then pricing gets driven down.”

There are many other headwinds, especially the soaring cost of higher education and the ways in which students will learn, she said, adding that it is incumbent upon all schools to try to get ahead of these issues and respond proactively, rather than react when it is perhaps too late.

This is the mindset she took to Bay Path back in 1994, and it’s the one she’s leaving with the board and her staff as she packs up those photos and other memory-triggering artifacts from a career with a number of milestones.

For this issue and its focus on education, training, and employment, BusinessWest talked at length with Leary. It was supposed to be to flip through a figurative photo album assembled over a quarter-century, but, in keeping with her character, she was much more focused on the future than the past.

Developing Story

As noted, that photo of Leary with Dole and Hobin triggers a number of memories — and stories, which lead to even more stories.

One that Leary likes to tell involves how Dole’s presence at the conference helped lead to another keynoter of note — Margaret Thatcher.

“People ask how we accomplished what we did, and I always said the number-one reason was that I hired very committed, very passionate, and very smart people. And that is the secret sauce — who you hire. I give them all the credit.”

“She [Dole] had an advance person, a young man maybe 25 years old, and I’m in the wings with him listening to her speak, and he said, ‘who else would you like to have?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘we don’t have the first woman president of the United States yet, so I’d love the first woman prime minister of Great Britain.’ And he said, ‘my mother is her advance person.’”

Fast-forwarding a little, she said arrangements were made for Leary and Hobin to fly to Washington and deliver the invitation to Thatcher personally. She eventually came to downtown Springfield in the spring of 1998, thus adding her name to a lengthy list of keynoters that also includes Maya Angelou, Jane Fonda, Madeleine Albright, Rita Moreno, Queen Latifah, and many others.

There are stories — and photos — involving all those individuals, said Leary, who got to spend some time with each one of them.

But while she loves to tell those stories, an even more pleasant assignment is talking about the women, many of them first-generation college students, who have come to the Bay Path campus over the past quarter-century. Creating opportunities for them has been the most significant accomplishment of her career, she said, adding that her tenure has in many ways been defined by the small framed copy of that quote attributed to Steve Jobs — “The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usually do” — she keeps near her desk.

“I don’t even know if he actually said that, but they say he said it,” she noted with a laugh. “Anyway, I always tell people that’s how we have to look at every issue.”

And that mindset has led to a stunning transformation of the 123-year-old school, which was a secretarial school decades ago and a sleepy two-year school when she and her husband, Noel, first visited it after she was recruited to apply to be its fifth president.

By now, most know the story. While many of their friends and family were dubious about this small school as her next career stop after working for several years at Simmons College (another women’s school), the Learys didn’t have any doubts.

But nothing about the turnaround effort — and it has to be called that — was quick or easy. And all the efforts were the result of teamwork, said Leary, who, over the years, has said repeatedly that the success of the institution is not due to one person, but rather a large and talented team.

“People ask how we accomplished what we did, and I always said the number-one reason was that I hired very committed, very passionate, and very smart people,” she said. “And that is the secret sauce — who you hire. I give them all the credit.”

While finding old photographs and items like that issue of Crossroads, Leary has also come across some of the letters (yes, she kept them) from institutions trying to recruit her and headhunters asking to apply for positions. More than the letters themselves, she remembers how she replied to them.

This copy of Bay Path College Crossroads

This copy of Bay Path College Crossroads, with Elizabeth Dole on the cover, is one of many poignant pieces of memorabilia Carol Leary has come across while packing up after her remarkable career at the school.

“I always said, ‘my work here isn’t done — I’m in the middle of this vision or that vision,’” she recalled. “I never had the yearning to go anywhere.”

The work was never done because the school was seemingly always in a state of transition — first from a two-year school to the baccalaureate level, then to the master’s level, and then online and the introduction of new healthcare programs, and then doctorate programs.

And because it needs to, the school is still transitioning.

School of Thought

As she talked with BusinessWest a few weeks ago, Leary was splitting her time a number of different ways — although coronavirus had certainly seized most of it as this article was being written, including the postponement of the annual Women’s Leadership Conference, which had been set for March 27 at the MassMutual Center. Meanwhile, there are several retirement parties scheduled, as well as the annual President’s Gala, a huge fundraiser for the university and, specifically, the President’s Scholarships established by Leary to assist first-generation students. Those are still proceeding as scheduled, although the virus and the response to it is a story that changes quickly.

What won’t be changing quickly — in speed or direction — are those headwinds facing seemingly all the most prestigious colleges and universities.

And the most pressing issue, she told BusinessWest, is doing something about the high cost of a college education.

“As higher-education professionals, we have to figure out how to deliver our model in an affordable way so that families can send their children and adults can attend as well and not have high debt,” she explained. “That’s why the American Women’s College was created in 2013, but it is not going to be unique anymore because, as the number of 18-year-olds goes down, colleges have to think about other sources of revenue.”

With this in mind, Leary said Bay Path long ago started looking at new strategies for growth and creating learning opportunities. And it has created a new division, the Office of Strategic Alliances — Hobin now leads it — which is focused on non-credit work and professional development.

“We’re thinking not necessarily about a student coming to us, graduating in four years, and maybe getting a graduate degree, but more in terms of ‘what do we need to do to educate that student through her life cycle,” Leary explained, pointing, with emphasis, to a report she’s seen indicating that a child born today has the potential to live to 150 years.

“If you think about that, they may have an 80-year work life,” she went on. “And so, the college degree they earn at age 22 may not be relevant at age 60, 70, or even 80; a child today will have a longer work life, and it will be a much different work life than what people are experiencing today.

“I can’t even predict what it will be like, but colleges have to stay relevant,” she said, adding that Bay Path’s new division will handle professional development for businesses that want to retool and retrain their workforces. “That’s probably the future; that’s where we need to be — not just offering degrees but also offering lifelong learning opportunities.”

In that future, which is probably not far down the road, Leary projects that higher education will be “unbundled,” as she put it, into degrees but also short- and long-term programs, and with students not necessarily spending four years at one institution, but rather moving in and out of a school.

“This is going to shake up my colleagues in the field, but if I had a crystal ball … I don’t think students are going to come to one college and stay there for 120 credits,” she explained, summoning the acronym CLEP, or college-level examination program, which enables individuals with prior knowledge in a college course subject to earn college credits by passing an exam, thus possibly earning a degree more efficiently and inexpensively.

“I always said, ‘my work here isn’t done — I’m in the middle of this vision or that vision.’ I never had the yearning to go anywhere.”

“We already see students coming and going, bringing in community college and other college credits, CLEP, advanced placement, and more,” she went on. Meanwhile, adults don’t some in expecting to take 120 credits because somewhere in their life they may have taken a year somewhere and then life happened and they dropped out.

“Overall, colleges are going to have to reflect on what is learning, how does learning place, where does it take place, and how does it fit it into a credential like a degree; I don’t believe that degrees are going to be place-bound,” she said in conclusion, adding that such reflection must lead to often-profound change in how things are done.

And higher education is not exactly noted for its willingness to change, she said, adding that this sentiment must shift if the smaller institutions want to not only survive but thrive.

Future Course

As noted, Leary will be staying on until late June, and between now and then she has to move out of her home on campus and pack up everything in her office, including a number of awards she’s received from organizations ranging from the Girl Scouts to BusinessWest; she’s actually won two honors from this magazine — its Difference Makers award and its Women of Impact award.

She’s also planned out the first several months of retirement, with several trips scheduled — to England in July and Italy in August, if coronavirus doesn’t get in the way — and work on two boards in Ogunquit, Maine, where she will spend roughly half the year, with the other half in Fort Lauderdale. She even has a T-shirt that reads, “Yes, I have a plan for retirement.”

As for the school she’s leaving … it’s a much different, much better, and much more resilient institution than the one she found a quarter-century ago. She insists that people shouldn’t credit her for that. Instead, they should maybe credit Steve Jobs and that quote attributed to him.

Leary didn’t set out to change the world, necessarily, just that small bit of it off Longmeadow Street. To say she did so would be a huge understatement, and in the course of doing so, she changed countless lives in the process.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Valuable Perspectives

Students at UMass Amherst participate in the 2017 International Festival.

International students can add a lot to a university or college. They bring diversity when it comes to cultural traditions, and they give domestic students a chance to experience global perspectives. However, it is not always easy to be an international student at a U.S. institution. The process to get in can be very difficult, tuition is expensive, and a rocky political climate makes the decision to go to a different country for school even more unsettling. But colleges and universities in the area are taking steps to make international students feel at home.

Imagine moving to a new country where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the predominant language.

This is the reality for international students who travel to the U.S. to further their education. But local institutions in Western Mass. are well aware of this and have implemented several new strategies to make these students feel more at home.

The 2019 Open Doors Report on International Education released by the Institute of International Education and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs notes that the total number of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges fell by 2.1% from 2017 to 2018, and continues to drop. This national decline is being attributed to many factors, including student visa delays and denials, the steep price of U.S. higher education, and a rocky political climate.

However, a few institutions in Western Mass. are bucking this trend and continue to accept a consistent number of international students. In some cases, the numbers are even increasing.

While dedicating resources, staff members, and lots of time toward specifically reaching out to international students may not have been on the radar for institutions 10 or 15 years ago, the benefits of bringing these students to campus has become clearer for schools, several of which have adopted strategies for recruiting international students. Some even have positions dedicated to just this effort.

“It’s only been about 10 years that we’ve been really putting our mind to it,” said Kregg Strehorn, assistant provost for Enrollment Management of Undergraduate International Admissions at UMass Amherst.

But putting forth such an effort can’t happen all at once; it requires thoughtfulness, a solid plan, and a team willing to put in the work to make sure these students not only enroll in the university, but thrive there.

“One thing when we began to recruit international students was to make sure that we had a slow-growth model,” said Strehorn, adding that they didn’t just open up the doors and welcome any qualified international student because they wanted to increase the numbers. “We were very planful, very guided. That included me being in constant contact with our campus partners.”

At Western New England University (WNEU), two staff members travel internationally to recruit students, and the institution works with several companies geared toward marketing efforts specifically for international students.

Michelle Kowalsky Goodfellow, executive director of Undergraduate Admissions at WNEU, said a big part of the process is making the students feel welcome, just like they do for any domestic student as well.

“We really try, as we do for any student here, to get them involved in other clubs and organizations and get them to a place where they can make some connections with other friends and not just treat them as, ‘oh, they’re the international students,’” she said. “We want them to have the full experience like any other student.”

Despite a tense political climate and some difficult circumstances, these two universities, among many others, have implemented specific plans to give international students a great experience from start to finish — and those efforts are bearing fruit.

Welcoming Diversity

Strehorn summoned a phrase — “the farther you get away from home, the more you understand home” — to explain how he approached learning about the international student market.

So much so, in fact, that he moved to China with his family for four months to get to the bottom of it.

“China was the first market that we really drilled down and tried to understand how we would compete in that market,” he told BusinessWest, adding that UMass Amherst was already receiving a solid flow of applications from China before implementing specific outreach strategies.

UMass and other institutions have honed strategies for not only attracting international students, but creating a welcoming environment for them.

Living there, he added, helped him understand the intricacies of the market and helped him develop a strategy to move forward.

And it’s working.

According to a fact sheet from the Office of Institutional Research at UMass, the number of entering first-year international students has grown continuously over the past decade, from 54 in the fall of 2010 to 444 last fall.

“From that slow-growth model, we can meet and decide, how many more students can we add for the following year?” Strehorn said.

WNEU has had similar experiences, and Goodfellow says the university accepts around 50 new international students each fall at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

One of the ways UMass and WNEU have been able to retain these students is by cultivating an open and welcoming environment. Goodfellow noted that, despite the negative perception the media may portray regarding the U.S. and its relationship with international visitors in general, most are able to recognize that they will be coming to a safe space.

Massachusetts also leans toward the more progressive side — another talking point for international students and their families.

“I tend to articulate that and say, ‘you would be coming to a place that’s a lot more open to diversity and people with different backgrounds,’” she said. “That’s kind of a big part of a university in general — the inclusion and feeling of acceptance of all people.”

Strehorn added that creating a welcoming environment from start to finish is a big part of recruiting and retaining international students. When they are admitted, the first department they hear from on campus is International Programs, where they receive help with their I-20 document and visa to enter the country, as well as assistance with how to travel to the U.S., where to land, and how to get to campus.

Michelle Kowalsky

“We really try, as we do for any student here, to get them involved in other clubs and organizations and get them to a place where they can make some connections with other friends.”

“It’s really that welcoming spirit that then carries through,” he said. “Not only have they had a good experience through the admissions process, that first handoff over to International Programs is quite smooth and friendly.”

Strehorn said the somewhat tumultuous political climate in the U.S. is a common topic for international students and their families. He added that these families frequently see Americans on the news being less than welcoming of people from other countries, and that can be a valid concern.

“We hear from students and families constantly about the political atmosphere in the United States, whether they will be safe,” he went on. “We are consistently asked about the president and his policies. I think people are doing their due diligence when they’re sending their children here, wondering, are they still going to get a good education at a fair price? And are they going to be safe and welcomed?”

A more recent concern is the spread of the coronavirus, which continues to wreak havoc in China. As a result, UMass has decided to suspend its spring 2020 program to China, affecting seven students. However, the university has not yet made any changes to recruiting Chinese international students. Like everyone else, Strehorn noted, they are waiting for more information before making any big decisions.

“Right now, we are moving business ahead as usual,” he said, adding that they have reached out to several contacts at universities in the U.S. as well as overseas. “We’re hoping to support people from China as always, and we’re hoping this doesn’t turn out to be as devastating as it has the potential to be.”

Home Away from Home

Despite these challenges, there are certainly benefits to bringing international students to an American campus. The first, Goodfellow says, is the diversity factor.

“It allows both our domestic students to interact with folks from all over the world, as well as for those students that are coming from abroad to get a perspective of a U.S. student,” she said.

Another reason is the economic impact international students have on universities and the areas surrounding them.

International students are not eligible to receive federal financial aid, meaning most students, aside from merit-based scholarships like the #YouAreWelcomeHere scholarship at WNEU, are paying full price to attend these universities, boosting revenues for schools and the areas around them.

To put a specific number on that impact, according to the Assoc. of International Educators, international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contribute $39 billion to the U.S. national economy and support more than 400,000 jobs.

Strehorn added that UMass likes to call itself a “global community,” and it can’t be that without representation from the globe.

“Having folks from all different countries is imperative,” he said. “Domestic students can benefit tremendously from being in classes, discussions, clubs, and social events with students from other countries. I think all of that has formed kind of a home away from home for these students.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Joint Effort

Jeff Hayden says the Cannabis Education Center is a much-needed training ground that will support the growth of an industry on the rise in Holyoke and across Massachusetts.

Investment, job creation, and tax revenue.

According to Jeff Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at Holyoke Community College (HCC), these are the three keys to economic development.

They’re also precisely what the cannabis industry is bringing to the state of Massachusetts, which is why HCC has created the Cannabis Education Center, a new series of non-credit courses that provide skilled workforce training to prepare participants for a career in the cannabis industry.

HCC has partnered with the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN) to create the first-ever cannabis training center in the state, and classes and programs are in full swing.

Hayden said the conversation about a cannabis training course started two and a half years ago, when discussion was heating up across the Bay State about the prospects of legal, adult-use cannabis — and how the Cannabis Control Commission would handle an expected proliferation of businesses. Once word got out that the commission would be licensing companies — and, therefore, creating jobs in the state — HCC jumped into action.

“Right now, there are about 75 employees in Holyoke who work for cannabis companies, but the projection is that, within a year of those licenses being granted to them, there will be somewhere between 400 or 500 employees in Holyoke.”

“When we heard that, we started to look around for different resources to try to learn more about what was going to happen, and especially what was going to happen in terms of the workforce training and how does someone get ready for the jobs that are going to come in this field,” he told BusinessWest.

About 14 companies have already applied for 21 licenses, and counting, in Holyoke alone. Two are active, both run by Green Thumb Industries on Appleton Street, and the rest are provisional or pending. But that won’t be the case for long.

“Right now, there are about 75 employees in Holyoke who work for cannabis companies, but the projection is that, within a year of those licenses being granted to them, there will be somewhere between 400 or 500 employees in Holyoke,” Hayden said.

Soon, the demand for trained, qualified employees in several different cannabis careers will skyrocket, and there needs to be people to fill those positions.

That’s where HCC comes in.

Growing Like a Weed

Hayden says there are currently five key pillars under the Cannabis Education Center’s umbrella: community education, meaning teaching people all about the cannabis industry; social-equity training; occupational training; custom contract training to cannabis businesses, including communication, leadership, and mentorship skills; and developing different trainings that would be useful for the industry.

Sage Franetovich says there’s a lot of curiosity around the subject of cannabis, and she expects the career prospects to draw people from different backgrounds.

“In all these pillars that we have, we hope that we’re providing a broad-based approach to the industry to either the job seeker or the business so that they can get the training and skills they need either to get on that career track or to be able to be a successful business,” said Hayden. “The hope, really, in terms of what they walk away with, are stackable credentials.”

A few examples of rising careers in this industry are cannabis culinary assistant, cannabis retail/patient advocate, cannabis cultivation assistant, and cannabis extraction technician assistant.

But HCC’s cannabis education doesn’t stop at the center. The college is also soon to offer its first credit-based cannabis-related course, called “Cannabis Today,” through its Sustainability Studies program. While no cannabis will be allowed on campus, the programs will use off-site locations for programs that require practice with the plant.

Sage Franetovich, Biology professor at HCC, will be teaching the class and said she has been working on developing the curriculum for the fall of 2020, and hopefully sooner, in the summer, if all goes well.

“With a response to the growing market and job market, we decided it would be a good fit to offer a course on cannabis cultivation with a focus on hemp,” she said.

The class will target topics such as the cultivation of hemp, indoor growing versus outdoor growing, and plant diseases and pest management.

Franetovich said she has been working with several people in the cannabis industry to develop the best possible curriculum for the class. “I think there’s a lot of curiosity around the subject, and I think that will be a draw for people from different backgrounds.”

All this activity comes in response to what will soon be incredibly high (no pun intended) demand for a cannabis workforce.

“When you start to think about that many new people coming in, that’s the equivalent of some of the large things that have happened regionally, like the CRRC company in Springfield, or MGM,” Hayden said.

And this center is striving to prepare people for careers in cannabis with everything from knowledge of the cannabis plant to knowledge of the industry itself, to understanding the commission’s regulations and how those impact the way they’ll do their jobs.

For example, a culinary technician working with edibles needs to know some of the ways the chemicals impact the edible product, specific measurements, levels of dosing, and more.

In the end, all this training is an investment that will, hopefully, bring the city of Holyoke a lot of jobs, and a lot of revenue.

High Expectations

Hayden estimates that between $20 million and $30 million has already been invested in the cannabis industry in Holyoke alone, despite only two operating licenses so far. He says the taxes going to the state will be significant, but 3% of sales also goes to the municipality. That means $1 million in sales equals $30,000 in taxes for the city of Holyoke.

“It’s a significant amount of money that the town can garner,” he said. “This past year, we’ve already received over $100,000 from cannabis-related companies for the city of Holyoke with only two licenses.”

And, so far, the response to the center has been positive, he noted. One of the first programs, a one-time class on the business and accounting side, drew 15 participants, and more than 100 people have expressed interest in training.

The first occupational training course began on Jan. 25 at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute and will continue for five more Saturdays for eight hours a day. C3RN will then place those who successfully complete the course in internships with local companies.

The ultimate goal of all these trainings is not simply to hand participants a diploma, but give them several certifications that will allow them to thrive in every aspect of the field.

“That’s really what we’re shooting for, someone who’s got multiple pieces of paper,” Hayden said. “It’s not just one diploma, it’s multiple pieces of paper that show to an employer that they’re ready for the job and that they can learn from the employer in terms of the skills they need for the future.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Breaking Down Stereotypes

A mom of two young children, Alysha Putnam strives to be a mentor for women of all ages in the PVWIS.

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs have historically been labeled careers for men. Those stereotypes, along with unfair treatment of women in STEM, have dissuaded many from beginning or furthering such careers. Luckily, women in STEM are becoming less of an exception, and thanks to the hard work and dedication of many colleges and organizations, women now have more resources than ever to follow their STEM dreams.

Wearing many hats is a common theme for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

Parent, teacher, student, and scientist are only a few that Alysha Putnam can name off the top of her head.

When speaking about her journey, she recalls it was a bumpy road, and says several female mentors helped her become the successful woman she is today.

“It was because of various key people — particularly women, actually — who believed in me despite the life challenges that I was going through, that I was able to be successful despite all the chaos,” she said.

One of these women was her master’s adviser, Paulette Peckol, who, as Putnam recalls, was very accepting of the fact that she had two young children and was flexible with her schedule.

Now, as a teaching and research assistant at UMass Amherst in the organismic and evolutionary biology Ph.D. program, she teaches classes while pursuing her research-focused doctoral degree. Throughout this journey through education, Putnam said, she has developed a strong passion for giving back in the same way she was supported.

Unfortunately, women in STEM, including moms like Putnam, have historically faced backlash, oftentimes driving them away from pursuing a career in these fields or even discouraging them from continuing to climb the ladder once they are established. But Putnam and other women in Western Mass. are using their own personal experiences to try to improve the lives of other women who are hoping to make it in these fields.

That’s why Putnam wears yet another hat: co-founder of Pioneer Valley Women in STEM (PVWIS). She and fellow co-founders Melissa Paciulli, Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh, and Michelle Rame dedicate much of their time to being a support system and connector to women either already in STEM fields or pursuing such a career. Putnam is an alumna of Holyoke Community College (HCC), Paciulli serves as the director of the STEM Starter Academy at HCC, and Rame is an HCC graduate and current engineering student at Western New England University.

One of their biggest goals is to squash many of the stereotypes that surround both women in STEM, at community colleges specifically. 

“Stereotypes in STEM as a whole exist,” Paciulli said. “I think it’s important to really recognize that all people belong in STEM — people of all abilities and all races and all sexual orientations. We at PVWIS really believe in inclusivity, and through the community colleges we can provide access to a wide, diverse population for STEM, and we can really tackle that issue of diversity in STEM through our work within the region and within the community colleges.”

And they are not the only women in the area making it their goal to help women pursue and excel in these fields.

Gina Semprebon, founding director for the Center for Excellence in Women in STEM (CEWS) at Bay Path University, notes that her own experiences inspired her to start this program to help women pursuing STEM careers.

“I had a really hard time trying to break into the STEM field when I did,” she said. “It was so clear, even as a student for my graduate work, that there was bias. The males were breezing through, and the few women that were in there were not getting the help or support they needed, or were actually being thwarted.”

Fortunately, programs like PVWIS and CEWS are providing access to resources and educational opportunities for these women to follow their passion and climb the STEM ladder.

Turning Experience Into Expertise

When Susanna Swanker walked into the first day of her college internship, the women’s restroom had to be cleaned out for her because it was being used for storage.

Susanne Swanker

At S.I. Group (formerly Schenectady International), she was a chemist working on a pilot project. Aside from the secretary (whom Swanker bonded with very well), she was the only woman in her area. She remembers going to work in a hardhat and jeans while her other friends in accounting or social-services positions were getting dressed in business professional attire.

“It’s a different field, so you have to be willing to do those things,” she said. “I think sometimes maybe that’s a little off-putting or it’s not so attractive for people. But if you love the work, and I think that’s maybe where the challenge is, you get past that.”

Now dean of the School of Business, Arts, and Sciences at American International College, she is working toward refining STEM programs at the university to better fit students’ interests.

Being the only woman in a STEM room is not limited to the workplace. McGinnis-Cavanaugh said it is not unusual for her to be the only woman in the room while she is teaching engineering courses at Springfield Technical Community College.

While the percentage of female faculty in STEM programs at STCC is healthy, she said, the female student population is not so great.

Melissa Paciulli says the events hosted by the PVWIS are intended to make connections and build relationships among fellow STEM women.

Being a woman who went to community college and experienced many of the same struggles her students now face is one of the main reasons why she co-founded PVWIS and continues to teach at STCC.

“I see myself in my students,” she said. “I don’t care what anybody says — community colleges still have that stigma attached to them. ‘Oh, you go to a community college, you couldn’t get into a real college,’ that type of thing. That really bothers me because I went to a community college, so that resonates with me in a big way.”

These stigmas, she said, are an issue of equity in the community-college world, and the everyday issues women in STEM often face come back to one word: access.

Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh

“There should be no difference between the opportunities that men and women have,” McGinnis-Cavanaugh argued. “We kept coming around to the same thing, that our students needed access. That was the word that we kept coming back to. We were trying to think of ways that we could expose them to professional women, to professional situations and professional networks.”

Bay Path’s Leadership Exploration Analysis Development program has similar goals. This 100% online initiative under the CEWS umbrella provides a certificate to early- to mid-career women in STEM fields, giving them the leadership skills they need to advance in their career.

Michele Heyward, founder of PositiveHire and CEO of Heyward Business Consulting, acts as an industry expert for the program, and says this certificate provides women with the tools they need to continue to move up the ladder in their career.

 

From left: Gina Semprebon, Michele Heyward, and Caron Hobin.

“Men are generally promoted based on potential, while women and people of color are promoted based on the proof that they know what they’re doing,” she said. “It is truly essential to have programs like this that are in place, active and engaging for students who are generally going to go out into a workplace where they may be the only one.”

Caron Hobin, vice president of Bay Path, partnered with Semprebon on CEWS and says stereotypes and stigmas faced by women in STEM made it a no-brainer to kick-start the program in 2013.

“I was moved by the statistics that would scream loud and clear that women were just not advancing at the same level as men,” she said. “You’re surrounded by really sharp women, and you look around and say, ‘why is this?’”

Toward a More Equal Future

The statistics speak for themselves.

According to Million Women Mentors, 75% of STEM workers are male. In addition, only three out of 12 women who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field still work in a STEM career 10 years after graduation.

That is why programs and organizations like CEWS and PVWIS exist, and these stigmas are slowly being squashed.

“We see ourselves as being the connecting point of all these different women across the Valley and bringing them together to support each other, to share knowledge, to encourage, to uplift, to make connections, to empower,” Putnam said. “As we interact with our community-college students here in Western Mass., we are seeing incredible women of all ages coming through the community-college system who are very capable and smart and just need the support and encouragement to say, ‘yes, you can do it.’”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Center of Attention

Nikki Burnett, seen here in one of the Educare center’s outdoor play areas, says the facility is a showcase of what early education should be — and what all young children deserve.

Nikki Burnett says Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood and those surrounding it certainly need the gleaming new $14 million Educare facility constructed next door to the Elias Brookings Elementary School on Walnut Street.

More to the point, though, she told BusinessWest, they deserve this facility, which can only be described with that phrase state-of-the-art when it comes to everything from its programs to its play areas to its bathrooms.

“Mason Square, Old Hill, McKnight, Bay, all those neighborhoods … they’re so rich in history, so they’re rich in great success stories that have come out of here and are still coming out of here,” said Burnett, the recently named executive director of the 27,000-square-foot facility, who should know; she grew up there herself. “People like Ruth Carter, who just won an Oscar for the costume design in the movie Black Panther — she’s from Springfield.

“We have to celebrate those things, and we have to model those things for our children so they can see that they have greatness in them,” she went on. “One of the very important things about Educare is that it aligns potential with opportunity. I believe all children are born with immense potential, but many do not have the same opportunity to realize that, so Educare will give them that push — it will help readjust their trajectory.”

That’s why this area of the city, traditionally among the poorest neighborhoods in the state, deserves this Educare facility, just the 24th of its kind in the country and the only one in Massachusetts, she continued, adding quickly that this building, and the Educare model itself, were designed to show decision makers and society in general what all young children deserve and what has to be done so that they can all enjoy a similar experience.

Mary Walachy, executive director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, which spearheaded efforts to bring the Educare facility to fruition, agreed.

“The message being sent here is that it costs money to do this work well,” she said. “It costs money to fund quality at the level that children in this community and others deserve, and we can’t expect outcomes that we want from children if the investment is not there at the front end.”

Considering those comments, Educare is certainly much more than a building, and those who visit it — and many will in the weeks and months to come — will come to understand that.

Indeed, the facility set to open later this year, supported by the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and to be operated in partnership with Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, is, for lack of a better term, a standard — or the new standard when it comes to early-childhood education.

And it is, as Burnett and Walachy noted, a model — hopefully to be emulated — that incorporates everything science says young children need to flourish. This includes data utilization, high-quality teaching practices (three teachers to a classroom instead of the traditional two), embedded professional development, and intensive family engagement.

All this and more will come together at the much-anticipated facility, which will provide 141 children up to age 5 (already enrolled at a Head Start facility in that neighborhood) and their families with a full-day, full-year program that Burnett projects will be a place to learn — and not just for the young children enrolled there.

The Educare facility in Springfield is just one of 24 in the country and the only one in Massachusetts.

“Educare is going to be a demonstration site; we’re going to be able to bring in students of education, social work, counseling and therapy, and other areas from across the state and have them observe and learn our model,” she explained. “We understand that 141 children is not every child; however, what we learn here, we’re going to be able to send out — others can do what we’re doing. And on a policy level, it’s my hope that legislators can see the success of this and realize that, when they’re making out the budget, it needs to be funded so everyone can enjoy Educare quality.

“Educare is not going to be on every corner,” she went on. “But that doesn’t mean that the quality of Educare cannot be beneficial to all children.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest toured the Educare facility and talked with Burnett and others about what this unique early-education center means for Springfield and especially those young people who walk through its doors.

New School of Thought

Janis Santos, the longtime director of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, recalled that, when she toured the Educare facility recently as construction was winding down, she became quite emotional.

“I have to be honest, I started crying,” said Santos, honored roughly a year ago by BusinessWest as one of its Women of Impact for 2018. “One of the construction-crew members said, ‘why are you crying?’ and I said, ‘because I’m so happy.’

“Educare is going to be a demonstration site; we’re going to be able to bring in students of education, social work, counseling and therapy, and other areas from across the state and have them observe and learn our model.”

“This is a dream come true,” she went on, adding that the facility provides dramatic evidence of how far early-childhood education has come during her career — it was considered babysitting when she got her start — and how important it is to the overall development of young people.

Tears of joy have been a common emotional response among those who have toured the site, especially those involved in this initiative from the beginning, but there have been others as well. Indeed, Burnett told BusinessWest, when the staff members assigned to the Educare center visited the well-appointed teachers’ room, many of them started clapping.

These reactions provide ample evidence that the six-year journey to get the facility built and the doors open was certainly time and energy incredibly well-spent.

By now, most are familiar with the story of how an Educare facility — again, one of only 24 in the country — came to be in Springfield. It’s a story laced with serendipity and good fortune at a number of turns.

It begins back in 2014 when an early-childhood center on Katherine Street in Springfield closed down abruptly, leaving more than 100 children without classroom seats, said Walachy, adding that the Davis Foundation began looking at other options for early education in that building.

One of them was Educare, she went on, adding that officials with the Buffett Foundation and other agencies involved, as well as architects, came and looked at the property. They quickly determined that it was not up to the high standards for Educare centers.

“Their model is ‘make it a state-of-the-art, unbelievable building to send a strong message that this is what all kids deserve,’” said Walachy, adding that, after those inspections and being informed that a new facility would have to be built at a cost of more than $12 million, the Educare concept was essentially put on the shelf.

And it stayed there for the better part of two years until an anonymous donor from outside the Bay State who wanted to fund an Educare facility came into the picture.

“This individual pledged to pay for at least half the cost of building an Educare somewhere in the country, and she was willing to do it here in Springfield,” she said, adding that the donor has written checks totaling more than $9 million for both the construction and operation of the facility.

With this commitment, those involved went about raising the balance of the needed funds — the Davis Foundation and another donor committed $2 million each, and state grants as well as New Market Tax Credits were secured, bringing the total raised to more than $20 million — and then clearing what became another significant hurdle, finding a site on which to build.

Indeed, the Educare model is for these facilities to be built adjacent to elementary schools, and in Springfield, that proved a challenging mandate. But the tornado that ravaged the city, and especially the Old Hill area, in 2011, forcing the construction of a new Brookings School, actually provided an answer.

Indeed, land adjacent to the new school owned by Springfield College was heavily damaged by the tornado, making redevelopment a difficult proposition. Thus, the college became an important partner in the project by donating the needed land.

But while it’s been a long, hard fight to get this far, the journey is far from over, said both Burnett and Walachy, noting that another $500,000 must be raised to fund an endowment that will help cover operating expenses at the school.

And raising that money is just one of many responsibilities within Burnett’s lengthy job description, a list that also includes everything from becoming an expert on the Educare model to attending regular meetings of Educare facility directors — there’s one in New Orleans later this year, for example.

At the moment, one of the duties assuming much of her time is acting as a tour guide. She even joked that she hasn’t mastered the art of walking backward while talking with tour participants, but she’s working on it. To date, tours have been given to city officials, funders and potential funders, hired staff members, like those aforementioned teachers, and, yes, members of the media.

BusinessWest took its own tour, one that featured a number of stops, because items pointed out are certainly not typical of those found in traditional early-education centers.

“I literally cannot wait to see the children in there — that will be a special moment.”

Starting with what Burnett and others called the “outside-in” of the building’s design, which, as that phrase indicates, works to bring the outside environment into the school to provide continuity and the sense that the school is part of the larger world. Thus, green, grass-like carpeting was put down in the entranceways, and green carpet prevails pretty much throughout the facility. Meanwhile, the brick façade on the exterior is continued inside the building.

Throughout the building, there are generous amounts of light and state-of-the-art facilities throughout, from the well-equipped play areas inside and out to the two sinks in each of the classrooms — one for food preparation, the other for hand washing — to the restrooms designed especially for small people.

In addition, each classroom is equipped with small viewing areas with one-way mirrors so that so-called ‘master teachers’ and others can see and evaluate what’s happening.

In all, there are 12 classrooms, seven for infants and toddlers and five for preschool. As noted earlier, they will be places of learning, and not just for the students.

Model of Excellence

Returning to that emotional tour of the Educare facility she took a few weeks ago, Santos said that, as joyous and uplifting as it was, she’s looking forward to the next one even more.

“I literally cannot wait to see the children in there — that will be a special moment,” she told BusinessWest, putting almost a half-century of work in early childhood behind those words.

She can’t wait because students will be learning and playing in a facility that really was only a dream a few years ago — a dream that came true.

It’s a facility that those students truly need, but as Burnett and all the others we spoke said, it’s one they deserve — one that all students deserve.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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