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Paul Tough is the bestselling author of “How Children Succeed” and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine and This American Life. In his new book, “The Years That Matter Most,” Tough describes the way higher education in America can both help and hinder young people searching for better opportunities. The book tells the stories of several remarkable students, including some for whom college acts as a powerful engine of social mobility. But Tough also reveals the sometimes hidden ways that our higher education system favors children of wealth and privilege and holds back striving young Americans from modest backgrounds.

This event is part of our “Spotlight on Education Series” which is sponsored by Platinum Sponsor, MassMutual.

The Western Mass Real Estate Investors group is excited to announce that we are hosting our first annual Real Estate Investors Summit here in the Greater Springfield area on Saturday October 19th, 2019. Join other North East Real Estate Investors at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield, MA for the REI event of the fall. Whether you are a seasoned investor or just starting out, this event will bring the value and change that you may be looking for to succeed in real estate and your business.

This is a fully educational and networking type event and will not be a pitch fest of services. For more info and to grab a ticket, head over to our site we recently launched at https://nereisummit.com/. Hope to see many of you there!

Buy Tickets here!: https://nereisummit.com/register/
Ticket Prices : $75

Agenda: https://nereisummit.com/agenda/
Travel/Parking: https://nereisummit.com/travel/

Law

The #MeToo Movement Has Vast Implications in This Sector

The #MeToo movement has brought about change and challenge — from a liability standpoint — in workplaces of all kinds. And this includes the broad spectrum of education. Indeed, recent cases indicate that courts may soon hold schools, colleges, and universities strictly liable for any sexual misconduct by their staff toward their students.

By Justice John Greaney, Jeffrey Poindexter, and Elizabeth Zuckerman

By now, we’ve all seen the #MeToo movement change how Massachusetts and the nation are talking about sexual harassment and other misconduct in the workplace, in schools, in social settings, on sports teams, in public places, and in our private lives.

Justice John Greaney

Jeffrey Poindexter

Elizabeth Zuckerman

The movement has ended careers, felled prominent figures, and made many newly aware of the great number of people — men and women — who face sexual harassment at some point in their lives. It has also reminded students, teachers, professors, administrators, and parents that schools and institutions of higher education are far from immune to this type of misconduct, and that students are sometimes victims of the very staff, faculty, and coaches expected to educate, guide, coach, and protect them.

Against this backdrop, administrators of Massachusetts schools, colleges, and universities have a special reason to take note of the rising tide of complaints about sexual harassment and other gender-based discrimination. The sea change in how sexual harassment is viewed, along with the development of Massachusetts law surrounding sexual harassment in schools, colleges, and universities, suggest that Massachusetts courts may soon hold these institutions strictly liable for any sexual misconduct by their staff toward their students.

That means, whether or not the school, college, or university knew about the conduct, whether or not the institution was negligent in any way, it could be on the hook for substantial damages if a staff member commits sexual harassment. In other words, even without doing anything wrong, or knowing anything wrong was happening, an educational institution could be liable for the entirety of the harm that befalls a student.

As a result, schools, colleges, and universities need to act now to implement policies which provide the best defense if a claim of sexual harassment is made.

In Massachusetts, Chapter 151C of the General Laws, the Massachusetts Fair Educational Practices Act (MFEPA), provides students who have been subjected to sexual harassment by a teacher, coach, guidance counselor, or other school personnel with a cause of action against the educational institution. MFEPA declares that “it shall be an unfair educational practice for an educational institution … to sexually harass students in any program or course of study in any educational institution.” In conjunction with General Laws c. 214, § 1C, the right for students to be free of harassment can be enforced through the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) or through the Superior Court.

“Administrators of Massachusetts schools, colleges, and universities have a special reason to take note of the rising tide of complaints about sexual harassment and other gender-based discrimination.”

The statutes also define sexual harassment broadly, including “any sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when: (i) submission to or rejection of such advances, requests, or conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of the provision of the benefits, privileges, or placement services or as a basis for the evaluation of academic achievement; or (ii) such advances, requests, or conduct have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s education by creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or sexually offensive educational environment.”

Chapter 151C has been interpreted several times in the courts in Massachusetts, including when:

• A male athletic director of a Massachusetts community college was reported to have provided alcohol to female students in exchange for sexual favors. Several years later, more complaints about his behavior led the college to implement a policy to prevent sexual harassment.

Reports of further inappropriate conduct led to an investigation and agreement that he would no longer coach female athletic teams. However, he continued to work at the school and, eventually, resumed coaching a women’s basketball team. Students who had been coached by the athletic director brought claims against both him and the school.

• During the investigation into a rape of a student by a teacher at a Massachusetts high school, it was disclosed that a male guidance counselor had been involved in sexual misconduct with students. The superintendent of the school district acknowledged that he was aware of continuing reports about the guidance counselor’s inappropriate relationships with students after a female student alleged that the counselor had brought her to his home on two occasions and attempted to coerce her into having sex.

• Parents reported the inappropriate conduct of a male middle-school science teacher to the vice principal and a guidance counselor. The teacher had made inappropriate comments and touched female students, and had been told by school officials to stop on three occasions. The teacher was fired after an internal investigation, but not before he allegedly molested an 11-year-old student.

Despite occasions to consider the applications of Chapter 151C, Massachusetts courts have not yet decided whether schools, colleges, and universities will be held strictly vicariously liable for sexual harassment. In the cases referenced above, it appears the schools or colleges knew about the misconduct and, at least passively, allowed it to continue.

That means that the schools or colleges could be considered negligent, because they knew, or should have known, an employee’s behavior was problematic, but they failed to act, or failed to take adequate measures to remedy the situation. However, if Massachusetts courts rule for strict liability under Chapter 151C, it will mean that it is no defense that the institution did not know what its employee was doing, or even that it took reasonable measures to screen that employee before hiring.

Instead, the mere occurrence of sexual harassment by an employee will be enough to make the institution liable to the victim.

There are indications this may be the direction in which the courts go, because a closely related statute, Chapter 151B, which governs sexual harassment in the workplace, does impose strict liability. It seems entirely possible that the courts will conclude that liability under Chapter 151C should be no different, given that the two statutes relate to the same subject matter and share a common purpose.

Furthermore, because the operative statute is clearly intended to protect vulnerable students from abuses of power by those entrusted with their well-being, it seems likely that the courts may conclude that a strict standard of liability is consistent with the underlying purposes of the statute.

“The rising awareness of the problem of sexual harassment and assault appears to make it more likely that courts will conclude that the only way to stem the tide of abuse is to put the burden on those in the best position to protect vulnerable students — the schools they attend.”

This argument seems strengthened by the popular mood regarding sexual harassment. The rising awareness of the problem of sexual harassment and assault appears to make it more likely that courts will conclude that the only way to stem the tide of abuse is to put the burden on those in the best position to protect vulnerable students — the schools they attend.

Two recent decisions suggest this result may be coming. In a 2016 federal court case, Doe v. Brashaw, Judge Douglas Woodlock gave the first indication that the courts may come down on the side of strict liability under Chapter 151C. He noted there was no clear guidance in the text of the law on whether negligence was required to hold the school, college, or university liable.

Weighing the arguments on each side, he concluded it made sense, at least at the early stage in the case at which he was reviewing the matter, to apply a strict vicarious liability standard.

More recently, in 2017, another federal judge again noted that the standard was unsettled and deferred considering the argument, made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as defendant, that it was entitled to a more favorable standard than strict liability.

Given the significant risk that Massachusetts schools, colleges, and universities will be considered liable for their employees’ misconduct, regardless of what they knew, or didn’t know, about it, how can these institutions respond? The answer is that schools, colleges, and universities need to ensure their sexual-harassment, disciplinary, and hiring policies are up to date.

This will allow these institutions to avoid hiring or retaining employees who show any indication that they will engage in sexually harassing behavior, and also allow the institutions to respond rapidly and effectively if any employee does. In addition, schools, colleges, and universities need to appropriately train and supervise all employees.

For many institutions, this will mean implementing new requirements for training and new policies for ensuring sexual harassment cannot go on in a school, college, or university without rapid detection. In addition to in-house training, the institutions should consider learning sessions taught by outside consultants, particularly law firms, with experience in handling sexual misconduct in the educational environment.

Outside investigations by impartial law firms will, when appropriate, removed the inference of bias on the part of the educational institution when considering possible misconduct by a teacher, administrator, or staff member. In sum, educational institutions need to be prepared to act quickly and decisively when faced with a complaint of sexual harassment in order to remediate any misconduct.

Justice John Greaney is a former justice of the Supreme Judicial Court and senior counsel at Bulkley Richardson. Jeffrey Poindexter is a partner and co-chair of the Litigation Department at Bulkley Richardson. Elizabeth Zuckerman is an associate in the Litigation Department at Bulkley Richardson.

Features

Grade Expectations

Trisha Canavan tells the story often, and for a reason — it resonates with everyone who hears it.

United Personnel, the staffing agency she serves as president and CEO, used to make candidates for jobs in warehousing and manufacturing, two of the company’s strongest niches, take and pass what she called a “basic math test” before they could be considered for placement with a client.

That’s ‘used to.’

United stopped the practice some time back, said Canavan, because no one — and she was only slightly exaggerating when she says ‘no one’ — passed the test.

“This was a very, very basic math-skills test, fourth- or fifth-grade level if I had to guess,” said Canavan, a former educator herself (she taught at Berkshire Community College and Cambridge Rindge & Latin School). “We’re talking about basic measurements with a ruler or tape measure, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and pretty much everybody, I would say 95% of those who took it, was unable to get a passing grade.

“We had used it as a screening tool but stopped doing that — otherwise, we wouldn’t have any employees,” she went on. “This wasn’t just people from Springfield, but because our headquarters are in Springfield, we’re seeing a lot of Springfield residents who really don’t have the basic knowledge to be successful.”

With these experiences concerning the math test ringing in her head — and filling her with frustration — Canavan offered a resounding ‘yes’ when asked a few years ago if she would like to join a group called Springfield Business Leaders for Education, or SBLE, as it has come to be called, a name that certainly tells all or most of the story.

This is a group of Springfield-area business leaders focused on education in the community and, more specifically, strategies for improving it. John Davis, president of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, which helped lead efforts to create the SBLE and now co-chairs it with Canavan, called it “a critical friend of the Springfield public school system.” And by critical, he meant both important and judicious in its assessment of what’s happening — and not happening.

The group’s unofficial mission is to ensure that students not only receive a diploma signifying they have fulfilled the requirements needed to graduate from high school, but that they have the skills needed to succeed in the workplace. One is clearly not the same as the other, said those we spoke with, using one loud, resounding voice.

“This was a very, very basic math-skills test, fourth- or fifth-grade level if I had to guess. We’re taking about basic measurements with a ruler or tape measure, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and pretty much everybody, I would say 95% of those who took it, was unable to get a passing grade.”

Put another way — not that Canavan actually said this — the group exists to perhaps create a day when United Personnel can dust off the basic math test it put on the shelf, once again give it to candidates, and see the vast majority of them pass.

That day, unfortunately, seems far off, she said, adding that SBLE is obviously working to bring it closer. It does this through advocacy, enlightenng its members about the issues in education — it recently hosted a well-attended talk by Gov. Charlie Baker on the subject of education reform at the Basketball Hall of Fame — and, most importantly, through partnerships with other advocacy groups.

These include Massachusetts Parents United (MPU), a statewide group comprised of concerned parents, and the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE), which has a mission similar to SBLE, but is also statewide.

Trisha Canavan

Trisha Canavan says too many students are graduating from high school without the basic skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

Keri Rodrigues, founder of Mass. Parents United, now headquartered on Maple Street in Springfield, said the group started as three women meeting in a public library. Today, it has more than 7,000 members and is the largest urban parent-advocacy organization in the Commonwealth.

The work of these groups, individually and collectively, comes at what many describe as a watershed moment for education reform in Massachusetts — when dueling education bills (more than $1 billion apart in overall funding) are being debated in the State House and when those in Gateway cities such as Springfield say students of color are disadvantaged by what they call systemic educational inequity.

Collectively, these groups intend to use this critical moment to press for real and lasting change, adequate funding, far greater accountability when it comes to how education dollars are spent, and, overall, an end to those inequities they cited.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with those involved with SBLE and other advocacy groups about just what is at stake when it comes to education reform in the Commonwealth, but also the broad work of making students workforce-ready when their days in school are over.

School of Thought

It’s called “Defining Our Path: A Strategic Plan for Education in Worcester 2018-2023.”

It’s a 40-plus-page document that, as the name suggests, is a strategic plan for the school system for the next five years. Sections in the document have titles ranging from “Culture of Innovation” to “Investing in Educators” to “Academic Excellence.”

Davis presented BusinessWest with a copy for the sole purpose of pointing out that Springfield doesn’t have such a plan — and it desperately needs one.

“There are three things that have to happen in Springfield, three questions to be asked and answered, and it’s an open discussion among all the players — the parents, the educators, the political establishment, and others,” he said. “First, where are we? We need a real, open, and honest discussion about that, because it’s never really happened. Two, where are we going, and where do we want to go? What skills will our kids need?’ And, three, how do we get there? We have to come up with a plan.”

Work to create such a plan has become a priority for the SBLE, said Davis, adding that, as it goes about such work, it knows it needs to partner with other groups, and especially those that involve parents.

Which brings us to the MPU. Rodrigues said she started the organization out of frustration born from how the system was failing her three children, especially one with special needs.

Keri Rodrigues

Keri Rodrigues says Massachusetts Parents United was formed to give a voice to an important, and often overlooked, constituency.

“I saw that my child was already falling through the cracks in kindergarten,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she knew there were others and that it was time to advocate on their behalf. “I saw all these inequities with my kids and could actually fight a little bit. I decided to use my skills as an organizer to help those who were underserved. But I was also looking around and seeing how parents were being left out of the conversation completely.

“Parents are kind of pushed in when it’s convenient and we want to hear them and their little anecdotes, and then we push them along,” she continued. “But we’re prime stakeholders; we have to be advocates for our kids, who are supposed to be the center of the education conversation. So many of us are survivors of our public education system — I was a foster kid myself and got expelled from a public high school and was lucky to get to college — and then to watch my children, from kindergarten on, be underserved, is really frustrating.”

Not wanting to see that cycle perpetuated, she started MPU, which has steadily grown both its membership and its influence, said Rodrigues, and has been especially visible during the ongoing debate over education reform and school funding.

“A few weeks ago, we had more than 150 parents get on buses and go directly to Beacon Hill and advocate for education funding,” she said, “and making sure there’s some accountability with how this money is spent.”

But as large and powerful a constituency as parents may be, MPU knew early on it needed allies in this ongoing fight, said Rodrigues, adding that MBAE has become such an ally.

“Parents are an important constituency, and so is the business community,” she explained. “We’re both invested in these outcomes in our children because it’s not just about getting them to graduation day and handing them a diploma; we want our kids to have access to these wonderful jobs.”

Ed Lambert, executive director of the MBAE, which has been in existence for nearly 30 years, agreed, and noted that, while significant progress has been achieved since the Education Reform Act was passed in 1993, there are still significant achievement gaps — and opportunity gaps — that exist in this state.

“Our achievement gaps are among the largest in the country,” he told BusinessWest. “Students are passing MCAS and graduating, but many are inadequately prepared for college and a career.”

Thus, MBAE, working in partnership with other groups, has been examining and using data to question and “critically, but diplomatically” challenge the establishment.

“We think that, with this next iteration of education reform, with the new funding that is going to come, particularly to the Gateway cities like Springfield, there is an opportunity to close those achievement gaps,” he said. “But only if there’s continued emphasis on improvement and reform.

“Money alone is not is not going to move the needle for a lot of students,” he went on. “We have data and information showing that, statewide, some school systems, with the same or comparable demographics, are spending much more, sometimes twice as much, per student, and not getting the results.”

Subjects Matter

Returning to the state of public education in Springfield, Davis and others said the city needs a strategic plan — and the state needs to further reform education — because inequities persist, and there are serious ramifications stemming from these inequities.

“I was very, very struck by the inequities that exist,” said Canavan, again speaking from experience as an educator and screener of potential employees. “Kids who are living in the surrounding suburbs have different experiences, different opportunities, and different outcomes than their peers in Springfield and other Gateway cities, and we should all be outraged, frankly.

“There have been improvements in the school system,” she went on. “But they’re too incremental for our kids to get where they need to be fast enough. And this is an economic-development issue; employers will not locate here, and they will not stay here, if they do not have the workers they need.”

Rodrigues agreed, noting that her group was inspired by, and outraged by, recent comments she attributed to Springfield’s school superintendent to the effect that the main problem with the city’s schools wasn’t one of performance or results, but merely one of “public relations.”

“That presentation wasn’t based in reality,” she said. “When you take a look at the numbers, the outcomes we’re getting for children … they show something much different. They were talking about growth percentiles, not proficiency.”

John Davis

John Davis says Springfield lacks a strategic plan for its public school system and needs one moving forward.

Indeed, hard data suggests there are problems, and the numbers come to life in a document prepared for SBLE as it goes about its mission of education and advocacy.

Titled “A Call to Action: Building a 21st-century Education System,” the report uses numbers and words to paint a disturbing picture. Here are some examples:

• “Only 33% of third graders meet expectations for grade-level reading, which means that two-thirds of Springfield’s third-graders don’t read at grade level. Children who are not proficient readers are more likely to drop out, not attend college, and are more likely to be incarcerated.”

• “By eighth grade, only 22% are reading at grade level; only 19% are at grade level in math. That means nearly 80% of Springfield’s eighth-graders are not at grade level for math or reading.”

• “The graduation rate for Springfield’s Latino population is only 74%, and only 9% of Latinos have a bachelor’s degree.”

• “Springfield’s dropout rate is more than two times higher than the state average.”

• “While 72% of jobs will require a career certificate or college degree by 2020, only 17% of Springfield ninth-graders go on to earn a college degree or certificate within six years of leaving high school.”

The numbers are followed by that call to action, and for formation of a plan that will, among other things, improve the quality of education in Springfield by ensuring the attraction of talented, high-quality teachers; establish universal pre-K; introduce acceleration academies for immediate intervention in schools in critical condition; and lengthen school days for extended learning time with high-quality teachers.

And with that plan, those with SBLE and MPU want more transparency from school leaders and, overall, more accountability.

“We’re not getting the information, and we can’t even agree to the fact there’s a problem,” said Rodrigues. “If we’re lucky enough to get our kids to graduation day, we hand them a piece of paper that says, ‘you have a foundation, and you’re ready to access all of this opportunity in your future.’ And then we find out that the paper means nothing — they have to take two years of remedial courses before they can take a college-level course.”

Canavan agreed, and stressed, again, that lack of proficiency in school translates into both employment issues and economic-development issues.

“We continue to see a persistent skills gap, a persistent gap in work behaviors that would torpedo people’s efforts to be in the workforce,” she said in reference to what she’s observed in her business. “It’s creating more and more challenges for us as a company, but also for employers — we hear over and over again that they don’t have the qualified employees that they need to meet production needs and to meet operational needs.

“We need to look at not just whether people are qualified to get a job,” she went on, “but are they qualified, and do they have the persistence and problem-solving skills to keep a job?”

Doing the Math

Returning to the matter of that very basic math test that United Personnel once gave to candidates, Canavan said the exam had become, toward the end, what she called a “waste of paper.”

“If we used it as a screening tool, we literally would have been unable to run our business,” she said. “But what that means is that, when people go to work, they need much more training and support, and sometimes they can’t even be successful with that support and training.”

But if those tests can, indeed, become part of a movement that brings about real change and an end to the persistent inequities in education that still exist in this state, then they won’t be a waste at all.

That is Canavan’s hope, and the hope of all those in SBLE, MPU, and MBAE, who, as critical friends of the school system, have decided to take on a larger, more impactful role in trying to bring about change.

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

Opinion

Editorial

Let’s start by saying that manufacturers griping about how recent high-school graduates cannot do seemingly basic math is certainly nothing new.

They’ve been complaining about that for decades. They’ve probably always complained about that.

But such gripes are not what Springfield Business Leaders for Education (SBLE) is all about — although those complaints are duly noted, to be sure. This group of several dozen business owners and managers came together because the problem with Springfield’s schools — and the schools in many of the state’s Gateway cities — goes well beyond basic math (see related story, page 6).

In short, many students graduating from high school are not ready for college or the workplace, even though they have that diploma in their hands. Again, this is not exactly a recent phenomenon, but it’s a growing problem, one that has caught the attention of the business community — and with good reason.

These are the workers of tomorrow, or not, as is often the case. Or they’re the workers of tomorrow after they receive considerable training that amounts to what they should have learned in high school. In short, it’s an economic-development issue as well as an education issue.

This is why SBLE was created. Quality education is as important to the future of area businesses as it is to the future of the students in the classroom.

As we said at the top, SBLE wasn’t formed to bring gripes about job candidates not being to add columns of numbers to the superintendent of schools — or to tell the superintendent how to do his or her job. Or to change the curriculum. It was formed to be what co-chair John Davis, president of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, calls a critical friend of the schools — an ally, if you will.

As an ally, SBLE is working with other groups, such as Massachusetts Parents United and the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, to advocate for schools and much-needed education reform, with the broad goal of improving overall outcomes and closing the wide achievement gap that still exists in the state between students in affluent communities and those in the aforementioned Gateway cities.

At the same time, and as the story on page 6 makes clear, SBLA is also working to achieve greater transparency and accountability from city school officials, because both are clearly needed. As is a long-term strategic plan for the schools moving forward — again, because one is needed.

That’s because, while everyone, or most everyone, agrees that some progress has been made in Springfield, both at individual schools and the system as a whole, the numbers don’t lie.

And those numbers show that far too many students are not able to read at grade level, the graduation rate is still far too low, and not enough students are going on to college at a time when such education is critical to achieving success in our technology-driven economy. Most importantly, the numbers show that far too many students are not going to be able to capitalize on the opportunities others are seizing because the education they received doesn’t make them ready to do so.

These are the numbers that matter. And we believe the SBLE can help change them. Business owners speak with a loud voice, they know how to partner with others to achieve success, and, most importantly, they have a huge stake in all this — their future workforce.

So, while griping about a lack of math skills is nothing new, business leaders in Springfield taking a very active role in advocating for education reform and bringing about real change is.

And we’re very glad that this is happening at this critical time.

Education

The Face of a Changing Landscape

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson

As high-school graduating classes continue to get smaller and the competition for those intensifies, many smaller independent colleges are finding themselves fighting for their very survival. One of them is Hampshire College in Amherst, which, because of its unique mission, alternative style, and famous alums (including Ken Burns), has in many ways become the face of a growing crisis.

Miriam Nelson says she became a candidate to become the seventh president of Hampshire College — and accepted the job when it was offered to her last April — with her eyes wide open, fully aware of the challenges facing that Amherst-based institution and others like it — not that there are many quite like Hampshire.

Then she clarified those comments a little. She said she knew the school was struggling with enrollment and therefore facing financial challenges — again, as many smaller independent schools were and still are. But she didn’t know just how bad things were going to get — and how soon.

She became aware through a phone call on May 2 from the man she would succeed as president of the school, Jonathan Lash.

“He let me know that our target number for enrollment this year was significantly lower than what was expected; I think he knew, and I knew, at that time that my job this year was going to be different than what I’d planned,” she recalled, with a discernable amount of understatement in her voice.

Indeed, with that phone call — and the ensuing fight for its very survival — Hampshire became, in many ways, the face of a changing landscape in higher education, at least in the Northeast.

That’s partly because of the school’s unique mission, alternative style, and notable alums such as documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. But also because of heavy media coverage — the New York Times visited the campus earlier this month, one of many outlets to make the trip to South Amherst — and the fact that the school is really the first to carry on such a fight in an open, transparent way.

In some ways, Hampshire is unique; again, it has a high profile, and it has had some national and even international news-making controversies in recent years, including a decision by school leaders to take down the American flag on campus shortly after the 2016 election, while students and faculty members at the college discussed and confronted “deeply held beliefs about what the flag represents to the members of our campus community,” a move that led veterans’ groups to protest, some Hampshire students to transfer out, and prospective students to look elsewhere.

But in most respects, Hampshire is typical of the schools now facing an uncertain future, said Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), adding that those fitting the profile are smaller independent schools with high price tags (tuition, room, and board at Hampshire is $65,000), comparatively small endowments, and student bodies made up largely, if not exclusively, of recent high-school graduates.

That’s because high-school graduating classes have been getting smaller over the past several years, and the trend will only continue and even worsen, said Brittingham, citing a number of recent demographic reports.

Meanwhile, all schools are confronting an environment where there is rising concern about student debt and an increased focus on career-oriented degrees, another extreme challenge at Hampshire, where traditional majors do not exist.

“He let me know that our target number for enrollment this year was significantly lower than what was expected; I think he knew, and I knew, at that time that my job this year was going to be different than what I’d planned.”

None of these changes to the landscape came about suddenly or without warning, said Brittingham, noting that the storm clouds could be seen on the horizon years ago. Proactive schools have taken a variety of steps, from a greater emphasis on student success to hiring consultants to help with recruiting and enrollment management.

But for some, including several schools in New England, continued independence and survival in their original state was simply not possible. Some have closed — perhaps the most notable being Mount Ida College in Newton, which shut down abruptly two months before commencement last spring — while others have entered into partnerships, a loose term that can have a number of meanings.

In some cases, it has meant an effective merger, as has been the case with Wheelock College and Boston University and also the Boston Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music, but in others, it was much more of a real-estate acquisition, as it was with Mount Ida, bought by UMass Amherst.

What lies ahead for Hampshire College is not known, and skepticism abounds, especially after the school made the hard decision not to admit a full class for the fall of 2019. But Nelson remains optimistic.

An aerial photo of the Hampshire College campus

An aerial photo of the Hampshire College campus, which has been in the national media spotlight since it was announced that the school was looking to forge a partnership with another school in order to continue operations.

“Hampshire has always been innovative, and we’re going to do this the ‘Hampshire way,’” she said during an interview in the president’s off-campus residence because her office on the campus was occupied by protesting students. “We’re thinking about our future and making sure that we’re as innovative as we were founded to be. We need to make sure that our financial model matches our educational model.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Nelson and Brittingham about the situation at Hampshire and the changing environment in higher education, and how the school in South Amherst has become the face of an ongoing problem.

New-school Thinking

Those looking for signs indicating just how serious the situation is getting within the higher-education universe saw another one earlier this month when Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation to strengthen the state’s ability to monitor the financial health of private colleges.

“Our legislation will strengthen this crucial component of our economy, but most importantly, it will help protect students and their families from an abrupt closure that could significantly impact their lives,” Baker said in a statement that was a clear reference to the Mount Ida fiasco.

The bill applies to any college in Massachusetts that “has any known liabilities or risks which may result in imminent closure of the institution or jeopardize the institution’s ability to fulfill its obligations to current and admitted students.”

And that’s a constituency that could get larger in the years and decades to come, said Brittingham, adding that demographic trends, as she noted, certainly do not bode well for small, independent schools populated by recent high-school graduates.

She cited research conducted by Nathan Grawe, author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, which shows that, in the wake of the Great Recession that started roughly 11 years ago, many families made a conscious decision to have fewer children, which means the high-school graduating classes in the middle and end of the next decade will be smaller.

“Things are going to get worse around 2026,” she said. “The decline that is there now will only get more dramatic, especially in New England.”

As noted earlier, Nelson understood the landscape in higher education was changing when she decided to pursue a college presidency, and eventually the one at Hampshire, after a lengthy stint at Tufts and then at the University of New Hampshire as director of its Sustainability Institute.

She told BusinessWest that Hampshire offered the setting — and the challenge — she was looking for.

“Hampshire was the one where I thought there was the most opportunity, and the school that was most aligned with more core values and my interests,” she explained, adding that she was recruited by Lash for the post. “This school has always been inquiry-based, and I always like to start with a question mark. To be at Hampshire means you have to have imagination and you have to be able to handle ambiguity when you have an uncertain future; that’s one of the hallmarks here at Hampshire.”

Imagination is just one of the qualities that will be needed to help secure a solid future for the school, she acknowledged, adding that, while the current situation would be considered an extreme, the college has been operating in challenging fiscal conditions almost from the day it opened in 1970 — and even before that.

“We started out under-resourced, and we’ve had different moments during almost every president’s tenure where there were serious concerns about whether the college could continue,” she said. “We’ve always been lean, but we’ve managed.”

Barbara Brittingham

Barbara Brittingham

“Things are going to get worse around 2026. The decline that is there now will only get more dramatic, especially in New England.”

However, this relatively thin ice that the college has operated on became even thinner with the changing environment over the past several years, a climate Nelson put in its proper perspective.

“Higher education is witnessing one of the most disruptive times in history, with decreasing demographics, increased competition for lower-priced educational offerings, and families demanding return on investment in a college education in a short period of time,” she told BusinessWest. “There’s a lot of factors involved with this; it is a crisis point.”

A crisis that has forced the college to reach several difficult decisions, ranging from layoffs — several, effective April 19, were announced last month involving employees in the Admissions and Advancement offices — to the size and nature of the incoming class.

Indeed, due to the school’s precarious financial situation — and perhaps in anticipation of the governor’s press for greater safeguards against another Mount Ida-like closing, Hampshire has decided to admit only those students who accepted the school’s offer to enroll via early admission and those who accepted Hampshire’s offer to enroll last year but chose to take a gap year and matriculate in the fall of 2019.

Nelson explained why, again, in her most recent update to the Hampshire community, posted on the school’s website, writing that “our projected deficit is so great as we look out over the next few years, we couldn’t ethically admit a full class because we weren’t confident we could teach them through to graduation. Not only would we leave those students stranded — without the potential for the undergraduate degree they were promised when they accepted Hampshire — we would also be at risk of going on probation with our accreditors.”

Hampshire College is just one of many smaller independent schools

Hampshire College is just one of many smaller independent schools challenged by shrinking high-school graduating classes and escalating competition for those students.

While reaching those decisions, leaders at the college have also been working toward a workable solution, a partnership of some kind that will enable the school to maintain its mission and character.

Ongoing work to reach that goal has been rewarding on some levels, but quite difficult on all others because of the very public nature of this exercise, said Nelson, adding that her first eight months on the job have obviously been challenging personally.

She said the campus community never really got to know her before she was essentially forced into crisis management.

And now, the already-tenuous situation has been compounded by negativism, criticism (Nelson has reportedly been threatened with a vote of no confidence from the faculty), and rumors.

“There’s a lot of chaos and false narratives out there,” she explained. “So I’ve been working really hard both in print and in many assemblies and meetings to get accurate information out. This is a world with lots of false narratives and conspiracy theories; we heard another one yesterday — they’re really creative and interesting. I don’t know how people think them up.”

Textbook Case?

As she talked about the ongoing process of finding a partnership and some kind of future for Hampshire College, Nelson said she’s received a number of phone calls offering suggestions, support, and forms of encouragement as she goes about her work in a very public way.

One such call was from a representative of the Mellon Foundation.

“He said he’s never seen a college do this in a transparent way like we are,” she said. “He’s right, and when you’re doing it in real time, and transparently, it’s going to be clunky; it’s not like you’ve got every detail worked out and figured out right at the very beginning. We’re doing the figuring out in a public way and engaging with the community and our alums and the broader community and the higher-ed community as we do this.

“It’s a very different way to do it, and no one has ever done it; it is a very Hampshire way,” she went on. “But that makes it really hard, and I can see why every other president who has been in this place has not done this in an open way. I understand it.”

Miriam Nelson

Miriam Nelson says Hampshire College is determining the next stage in its history in real time, which means the process will be “clunky.”

Elaborating, she said there are no textbooks that show schools and their leaders how to navigate a situation like this, and thus she’s relying heavily on her board (in the past, it met every quarter; now it meets every week), the faculty, students, and other college presidents as she goes about trying to find a workable solution.

And there are some to be found, said Brittingham, adding that several effective partnerships have been forged in recent years that have enabled both private and public schools to remain open.

Perhaps the most noted recent example is Wheelock and Boston University, although it came about before matters reached a crisis level.

“Wheelock looked ahead and felt that, while they were OK at that moment, given the trends, given their resources, and given their mission, over time, they were going to be increasingly challenged,” she explained. “So they decided that sooner, rather than later, they should look for a partner, which turned out to be Boston University, which Wheelock essentially merged into.

“That’s seen as a good arrangement, it was handled well, and they were able to preserve the name of the founder in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University,” she went on. “They were able to transition a large number of faculty and staff to Boston University, it was geographically close … it’s been a smooth transition.”

Another partnership that fits that description is the one between two small public colleges in Vermont — Johnson State College and Lyndon State College.

“They had compatible missions — one of them was more liberal-arts-oriented, and the other was more focused on career programs — so they merged and became Northern Vermont University,” she said, adding that the merger allows them to share central services and thus gain efficiencies in overall administration.

Whether Hampshire can find such an effective working arrangement remains to be seen, but Nelson takes a positive, yet realistic outlook.

“I continue to be optimistic because Hampshire is an exceptional place with a great reputation,” she said. “But it’s not easy facing layoffs and things like that. But I believe this year, 2019, will be the toughest year, and then things will get better.”

Charting a New Course

Time will tell whether this projection comes to pass.

The decision not to admit a full class for the fall of 2019 is seen by some as a perhaps fateful step, one that will make it that much harder to put the college on firmer financial ground moving forward.

But Nelson, as noted, is optimistic that the ‘Hampshire way’ will yield what could become a model for other schools to follow in the years and decades to come, as the higher-education landscape continues to evolve.

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

Education

Closing the Gap

Amanda Gould

Amanda Gould says the grant awarded to Bay Path University will fund a collaborative effort to help improve the digital fluency of the workforce.

When people talk about an ‘IT gap,’ Amanda Gould says, the appropriate response might be, ‘which one?’

Indeed, there’s the gap that seems to getting most of the attention these days, the one that involves the huge gender disparity in the IT workforce, with the vast majority of those well-paying jobs going to men, said Gould, chief administrative officer for the American Women’s College at Bay Path University, one of the institutions working to do something about this through its expanding Cybersecurity and IT degree programs.

But there’s another gap, she said, and this one involves the workforce and its digital fluency — or lack thereof. In short, too many people lack the necessary skills to thrive in the modern workplace, especially in IT-related roles, and the need to devise solutions for changing this equation is becoming critical.

For this reason, the nonprofit Strada Education Network committed $8 million to what it calls the ‘innovative solutions in education-to-employment’ competition, a name that speaks volumes about its mission.

And Bay Path emerged as one of the winners in this competition, garnering $1.58 million for a three-year project appropriately called “Closing the Gaps: Building Pathways for Women in a Technology-driven Workforce” (note ‘gaps’ in the plural).

This will be a collaborative effort, said Gould, adding that work is already underway with a number of partners, including the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, Pas the Torch for Women, Springfield Technical Community College, the UMass Donohue Institute, and others.

“Thinking about IT being in and of itself a discipline is, in my view, becoming obsolete.”

This work, said Gould, “involves extensive employer research and engagement, and building capacity of the American Women’s College to scale enrollment of adult women and prepare them with core cybersecurity and information-technology competencies that meet the needs of employers, support them as they move to degree completion, and assist them to successfully transition to careers in cybersecurity and IT-related employment.”

The key word in that sentence is ‘core,’ she said, because such competencies are now needed to succeed in jobs across virtually all sectors, not just IT and cybersecurity, and, as noted, many individuals simply don’t have them, and thus doors to some opportunities remain closed.

Opening them is the purpose of the of the Strada Education Network program, said Gould, adding that it will address a large problem that is obvious, yet often overlooked.

“What we’re not doing well overall when we think about our workforce is recognizing that technology is becoming increasingly more important in any role in any industry,” she explained. “Thinking about IT being in and of itself a discipline is, in my view, becoming obsolete; technology is a part of any organization running, and we should be less focused on training people to live in a silo or column that prepares them to fulfill very specific functions, and instead be training our women across all our majors to be thoughtful about how technology may impact their future roles in the workforce and how to be more engaged with ways technology helps them perform the aspirations they have in a variety of careers.”

Patricia Crosby, executive director of the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board, agreed. She said her agency and other workforce-related partners will play a key role in this initiative — specifically bringing business leaders and those in the education sector together in the same room to discuss how curriculum can and should be structured to vastly improve the odds of student success and make what has been a fairly closed field much more open.

“The IT field has not been an open field to newcomers, diverse workers, and female workers,” said Crosby. “The Bay Path program is attempting to remedy some of that and make the pathways clearer.”

Overall, the nearly $1.6 million grant will be put toward a variety of uses, said Gould, who listed everything from career coaching to scholarships; from curriculum development to putting students in situations where they’re getting hands-on training in their chosen field. And all of them are pieces to the puzzle when comes to not only entering the workforce, but succeeding in a career.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the ‘closing the gaps’ initiative and why it is so critical when it comes to today’s workforce.

Keys to Success

Smashing Bay Path’s program down to a few key swing thoughts, Gould said it basically involves determining which IT skills are most needed in the workplace, which ones are missing in a large number of applicants and employees, and how to effectively provide those skills.

And while it’s easy to state the problem and this three-year project’s goals, devising solutions won’t be quite so easy because the problems are systemic and fairly deep-rooted.

Patricia Crosby

Patricia Crosby says the grant awarded to Bay Path University will help create clearer, better pathways into an IT field that historically has not been open to women, newcomers, and diverse workers.

“As higher-education institutions,” Gould explained, “we haven’t kept up with our education and our curriculum to make sure that, as students are leaving with a psychology degree or a communications degree or nursing degree, we are building in exposure to these tool sets and these skills. By being more theoretical in our education, we’ve almost created the gaps.

“I really think we’re at a moment in time when we need to be more thoughtful about integrating technology for all students,” she went on, adding that, if those in higher ed created the gaps, it’s now incumbent upon them to close them.

Elaborating, she noted that cybersecurity, while still a specific discipline and course of study, is also part of myriad job descriptions today — for those helping with social-media campaigns to those handling customer records — and thus cyber should be part of occupational training.

This is a relatively new mindset, she acknowledged, one that involves a close partnership between the business community and those in higher education.

To put it in perspective, she cited some research conducted by Strada and Gallup regarding the relevancy of educational programs.

“When they were interviewing higher-ed administrators about how prepared they thought their students were for the workforce, a majority of them said ‘they’re very prepared,’” she noted. “But when they interviewed employers, a very small percentage of them thought the students were truly prepared to enter the workforce. There’s an enormous disconnect.”

A commitment to closing it explains why the Strada network is giving $8 million to seven winners of its competition, and also explains why partners like the EDC and the MassHire facilities will play such a critical role in this endeavor.

They will help connect those with the project to industry groups and specific companies with the goal of not only determining the skill sets they need in their employees, but placing students in situations where they gain valuable hands-on experience.

These experiences can include job shadowing, interviewing someone in a particular role, project-based coursework, or actual internships, said Gould.

“There are a variety of ways we can get our students connected with employers,” she said, adding that such connections are vital to understanding the field, comprehending the role IT plays in it, and, ultimately, gaining employment within that sector.

“In an ideal scenario, our students are off and working,” she went on. “It would be better if they were working in a field they see as their career rather than in a job where they’re working to offset expenses. If there are ways to get students into the workplace before graduation, we want to nurture those entry points.”

Crosby agreed.

“In an ideal scenario, our students are off and working. It would be better if they were working in a field they see as their career rather than in a job where they’re working to offset expenses.”

“In this field [IT], more than any other, as much as any credentials or degrees, employers are looking for experience,” she said. “There’s a gap between the people who are learning it and the people who are getting the jobs because the people who get the jobs already have experience. There’s a bridge that has to be crossed between any education and training program and the workplace.

Sound Bytes

As she talked about the Bay Path program and how to measure its success, Gould said there will be a number of ways to do that.

These include everything from the level of dialogue between the business community and those in education — something that needs to be improved — to the actual placement rates of graduates in not only the IT and cyber fields, but others as well.

In short, the mission is to close the gaps, as in the plural. There are several of them, and they are large, but through a broad collaborative effort, those involved in this initiative believe they can begin to close those gaps and connect individuals to not only jobs but careers.

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

Education

Reservoir of Talent

Ware High School graduates

Ware High School graduates, from left, Felicity Dineen, Jordan Trzpit, Valentina Towne, Joe Gagnon, Morgan Orszulak, and Seth Bourdeau with Michael Moran (right), president of Baystate Health’s Eastern Region, which helped fund tuition and textbooks for the students’ EMT training at Holyoke Community College’s satellite in Ware.

 

 

Seth Bordeau had no plans to become a paramedic, but a chance elective at Ware High School last year — “Introduction to Fire Science,” taught by Ware Fire Department Deputy Chief Edward Wloch — led him down an unexpected path.

“I was less than enthusiastic, but slightly interested in the fire-science class,” Bordeau said. “But after every class, I found myself more and more excited for the next. The subject of emergency services was fascinating, and as the year-long course was coming to an end and graduation grew closer, I knew I’d miss this class the most. I also knew that I wanted to pursue this career.”

Fortunately, the elective led to an opportunity to take an EMT class at the Holyoke Community College satellite located at the Education to Employment (E2E) site on Main Street in Ware. He and fellow Ware High students who finished the high-school elective are now contemplating a career in fire science and emergency medicine. Baystate Wing Hospital Corp., one of the E2E’s local business partners, provided a matching grant that covered half the tuition and textbooks for the EMT course for each of the students.

“When we took a step back and took a broader look, we realized there was a hole in the region — there really weren’t any institutions of higher learning past high school, very little if any public transportation, and a lack of resources for people looking for jobs and employers looking for qualified workers.”

“I signed up for the EMT course almost immediately and didn’t think twice about my decision,” said Bordeau. “The EMT course ran from June to August, the whole summer, and looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted the summer to be any different. I have completed the practical exam and passed, and I am now onto taking my written exam. Once that is completed, I’ve been offered a position as an EMT for the town of West Brookfield. I hope to further my career by looking into paramedic school.”

This career pipeline between Ware High School and HCC’s satellite in Ware is just one example of how E2E — initially forged as a partnership between the Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp. (QVCDC) and HCC — is building connections between higher education, local businesses, economic-development leaders, and the community to meet workforce needs, said Jeff Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at HCC.

“From an academic point of view, they’re really looking to provide hands-on training activities for students who maybe aren’t sure what they want to do, or aren’t as book-motivated as some students might be. The hands-on training is giving them experience in an actual occupation,” said Hayden, noting that Ware High School added a criminal-justice elective to its roster of project-based, career-focused learning in 2018, and will introduce a certified nursing assistant (CNA) course in the fall of 2019.

Those efforts are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to E2E programming, which features a range of resources for employers looking for talent and individuals seeking jobs (and the skills needed to procure them), and even a transportation service, the Quaboag Connector, that helps people access these services across these lightly populated towns in West-Central Mass.

“E2E is really a unique and innovative facility to help meet the needs of folks in our rural, former mill-town communities,” said Sheila Cuddy, executive director of the QVCDC. Several years ago, she explained, her organization was looking at strategic planning in the 15 communities it serves.

Jeff Hayden said HCC meets a need in Ware and surrounding towns

Jeff Hayden said HCC meets a need in Ware and surrounding towns for students who might be burdened by a long commute to the nearest college campus.

“We had been meeting with educators and small-business people and larger employers about the disconnect in our unemployment rates in this region, which tend to be 1% to 2% above the state average,” Cuddy told BusinessWest. “At the same time, we had employers who had difficulty hiring qualified workers. When we took a step back and took a broader look, we realized there was a hole in the region — there really weren’t any institutions of higher learning past high school, very little if any public transportation, and a lack of resources for people looking for jobs and employers looking for qualified workers.”

After HCC came on board as the QVCDC’s higher-ed partner in E2E, Country Bank stepped up with class-A office space in downtown Ware it no longer needed, and a mix of business funders (including Monson Savings Bank), grants, and tax credits began to take shape. “Since then, it has mushroomed,” Cuddy said.

For this issue’s focus on education, BusinessWest takes a look at how Education to Employment has brought new levels of collaboration and creativity to bear on the persistent problem of matching job seekers with jobs — often jobs, as in Bordeau’s case, they had no idea they’d want.

Key Connections

In one sense, Hayden noted, the E2E center was created to provide a place where individuals could connect with the college, because a 45-minute commute could be an obstacle — in both time and money — to enrolling in college. “So if you had a place where you could get information, resources, and a study place, with technology there, that might be advantageous.”

Indeed, the roughly 3,000-square-foot center located at 79 Main St. in Ware includes two classrooms, as well as private study areas and office space. Computer workstations are available for community members interested in enrolling in credit classes at HCC as online students. Meanwhile, the center has offered non-credit classes in hospitality and culinary arts, manufacturing, and health careers. Staffers are also on hand to help people with résumé writing, job-interview and application advice, and soft skills that all employers seek.

“They might need help with a résumé, or they might need additional classes, either for college credit or workforce-training classes to get certification for a new job. Or there might be questions about how to apply for financial aid,” Cuddy said.

“We have several computers and robust broadband service,” she added. “It really has become what we envisioned it to be — an education-to-employment center. We’ve had several ServSafe classes to help people step into the hospitality industry, which also helps local restaurants. We did some training with the Mass. Gaming Commission to prepare for casino jobs. We’ve also done manufacturing training with MassHire folks from the Franklin-Hampshire region.”

In addition, local employers have come to E2E looking for skilled workers, and sometimes matches are made through job fairs, she said. “We also have a local veterans’ group that meets there once a month. It really has become a vibrant and vital community resource and a respectful place for people to come to learn.”

Hayden agreed, citing efforts like a business-led program aimed at instilling workforce training and soft skills in the 16-to-24 age group. “They’ve also done programs at the QVCDC where they help people save money to start businesses. They do computer classes, literacy classes, financial-literacy classes, and we’ve done some of that stuff as well out there. It has become very active.”

It’s all supplemented by the Quaboag Connector, a mini-bus system that brings people back and forth between Palmer, Ware, and the other Quaboag communities for jobs, classes, and other things, Hayden noted. “That’s been extremely effective. Oftentimes, we think of the poverty in the urban core of Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee, and we don’t necessarily think of the rural or suburban poor, especially in the communities out east, where the challenges of transportation, day care, and elder care are the same as in urban communities. Getting to work on time is a challenge without buses and vans to make it work.”

Baystate Health’s Eastern Region, which includes Baystate Wing Hospital and Baystate Mary Lane, is one of the Quaboag Connector’s partners, providing $90,000 in funding to the transportation initiative.

“The consequences of the lack of transportation and unemployment elevate the importance to invest in these local initiatives. Both provide good options for our young people,” said Mike Moran, Baystate’s Eastern Region president. “Baystate Health is strongly committed to the many communities in our region and will continue to work with our community partners to focus and grow programs and initiatives that promote wellness, education, and workforce development.” 

Natural Fit

Surveying the growing roster of programs run through E2E, Hayden said the partnerships forged among higher education, the business community, and other groups, all of whom are seeking similar outcomes when it comes to building a vibrant workforce, have come together naturally and organically.

E2E offices

Country Bank donated space on Main Street in Ware to the QVCDC for the E2E offices.

“It doesn’t feel forced at all; it feels like people really want to work together to make something happen,” he told BusinessWest. “The challenge is always financial resources. None of us singly have enough resources to make it work, and even jointly, it would be difficult to make some of these initiatives work, but we’ve all been working together to find those resources.”

The needs remain significant, Cuddy added.

“We have a number of manufacturers, small and large, based in our region that are facing the challenge of a workforce that’s aging out. I know a company with more than 100 employees, and within five years, 50% of those employees will be approaching retirement age. I know everyone is having difficulty finding people who are certified to be CNAs, especially as the population ages, and other healthcare careers are having the same issues — the aging of the existing workforce and training newer folks needed to take up these careers.”

That’s why Education to Employment makes sense, and is needed, she went on.

“These community partnerships really speak to Western Mass., whether it be out of necessity or creativity or a general spirit of neighborliness. Especially in the smaller communities, there’s a recognition that all of us working together accomplish a whole lot more than we could individually.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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Education

More Than a Head Start

Architects rendering of the $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield.

Architects rendering of the $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield.

The new $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield is focused on education, obviously, but parental involvement and workforce development are key focal points within its broad mission.

Mary Walachy calls it “Head Start on steroids.”

It’s a term she has called upon often, actually, when speaking to individuals and groups about Educare, an innovative model for high-quality early education that’s coming to Springfield next year — only the 24th such center in the country, in fact.

“You have to work with a Head Start partner. That’s a requirement in every Educare site across the country,” said Walachy, executive director of the Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation, one of the lead partners in the effort to launch the local Educare school. “The base program meets the Head Start national requirements. But then there’s a layer of extensive higher quality. Instead of two adult teachers in the classroom, there needs to be three. Instead of a six-hour day, there needs to be eight or 10. There are higher ratios of family liaisons to families.”

Then there are the elements that Educare centers have really honed in on nationwide: Parental involvement and workforce development — and the many ways those two concepts work together.

“The research is clear — if kids get a good start, if they have a quality preschool, if they arrive at school really ready to be successful and with the skills and language development they need, they can really be quite successful,” Walachy said. “However, at the same time, it’s extremely important they go home to a strong family. One is still good, but both together are a home run.”

The takeaway? Early-education programs must engage parents in their children’s learning, which is a central tenet to Educare. But the second reality is that families often need assistance in other ways — particularly Head Start-eligible families, who tend to be in the lower economic tier.

“We must assist them to begin the trajectory toward financial security,” Walachy said, and Holyoke Chicopee Springfield (HCS) Head Start has long done this by recruiting and training parents, in a collaborative effort with Holyoke Community College, to become classroom assistants, who often move up to become teachers. In fact, some 40% to 50% of teachers in HCS Head Start are former Head Start mothers.

“So they already have a model, but after we get up and running, we want to put that on a bit of a steroid as well,” she noted. That means working with the Federal Reserve’s Working Cities program, in partnership with the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., to steer Head Start and Educare families onto a pathway to better employment opportunities. “It’s getting on a trajectory for employment and then, we hope, financial security and success for themselves and their families.”

“The research is clear — if kids get a good start, if they have a quality preschool, if they arrive at school really ready to be successful and with the skills and language development they need, they can really be quite successful. However, at the same time, it’s extremely important they go home to a strong family. One is still good, but both together are a home run.”

She noted that early education evolved decades ago as a workforce-support program, offering child care so families could go to work or go to school. “We’ve shifted in some ways — people started saying, ‘wait a minute, this isn’t just child care, this is education. We are really putting them on a pathway.’ But now we’ve got to circle back and do both. Head Start was always an anti-poverty program. More recently, it’s really started focusing on employment and financial security for families.”

By making that dual commitment to parent engagement and workforce training, she noted, the organizations supporting the Educare project in Springfield are making a commitment to economic development that lifts families — and, by extension, communities. And that makes this much more than a school.

Alone in Massachusetts

The 24th Educare school in the U.S. will be the only one in Massachusetts, and only the second in New England, when it opens next fall at 100 Hickory St., adjacent to Brookings School, on land provided by Springfield College.

The $14 million project was designed by RDg Planning & Design and is being built by Western Builders, with project management by O’Connell Development Group.

Mary Walachy

Mary Walachy says that while it’s important to educate young children, it’s equally important that they go home to strong families.

Educare started with one school in Chicago and has evolved into a national learning network of schools serving thousands of children across the country. An early-education model designed to help narrow the achievement gap for children living in poverty, Educare Springfield is being funded locally by a variety of local, state, and national sources including the Davis Foundation, the Gage Olmstead Fund and Albert Steiger Memorial Fund at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the MassMutual Foundation, Berkshire Bank, MassDevelopment, the MassWorks Infrastructure Program at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Florence Bank, Capital One Commercial Banking, and the Early Education and Out of School Time Capital Grant Fund through the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care in collaboration with the Community Economic Development Assistance Corp. and its affiliate, the Children’s Investment Fund. A number of anonymous donors have also contributed significant funding.

Educare Springfield will offer a full-day, full-year program for up to 141 children from birth to age 5, under licensure by the Department of Early Education and Care. The center will also serve as a resource in the early-education community for training and providing professional development for future teachers, social workers, evaluation, and research.

Just from the education perspective, the local need is certainly there. Three years ago, the Springfield Public Schools Kindergarten Reading Assessment scores revealed that preschool children from the Six Corners and Old Hill neighborhoods scored the lowest among city neighborhoods for kindergarten reading readiness, at 1.1% and 3%, respectively. On a broader city scale, the fall 2017 scores showed that only 7% of all city children met all five benchmarks of kindergarten reading readiness.

Research, as Walachy noted, has proven time and again that kids who aren’t kindergarten-ready are at great risk of falling further behind their peers, and these same children, if they’re not reading proficiently by the end of third grade, are significantly less likely to graduate high school, attend college, or find employment that earns them a living wage.

Breaking that cycle means engaging children and their parents — and it’s an effort that could make a multi-generational impact.

Come Together

That potential is certainly gratifying for Walachy and the other partners.

“I think we’re really fortunate that Springfield got this opportunity to bring in this nationally recognized, quality early-childhood program,” she said, adding that the Davis Foundation has been involved from the start. “There has to be a philanthropic lead partner in order to begin to explore Educare because it does require fundraising, and if you don’t have somebody already at the table, it makes it really hard to get anybody else to join the table.”

The board of Educare Springfield, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, will hold Head Start accountable for executing the expanded Educare model. Educare Springfield is also tackling enhanced programs, fundraising, and policy and advocacy work associated with the model. A $7 million endowment is also being developed, to be administered by the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, revenue from which will support operating costs.

“We did not want to develop a building that we could then not pay to operate,” Walachy noted, adding that Head Start’s federal dollars will play a significant role as well. “We want to develop a program kids in Springfield deserve. They deserve the best, and we think this is one of the best, and one this community can support.

“No one argues that kids should have a good experience, and that they begin learning at birth,” she went on. “But nothing good is cheap. And I will tell you that Educare isn’t cheap. But it sends a policy message that you’ve got to pay for good programs if you want good outcomes.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]