A small school success story

Richmond Consolidated sees big changes with improved arts, tech and foreign languages

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PHOTOS | A look at Richmond Consolidated

RICHMOND — It might be called the Little School That Could.

As many public schools countywide cope with declining enrollments and budget squeezes, the pre K-8 Richmond Consolidated School has seen a dramatic turnaround over the past five years.

Not only has it gained students, but it is also becoming a majority-resident school for the first time in many years.

Principal Monica Zanin, who arrived in 2012, recalled "the negativity I heard about the school and its future."

She fought back against talk of a potential downsizing or even shutdown — "that was not going to happen; it became my mission to prevent it. It was personal for me, this is my career, my passion."

What followed was a reboot of the academic program, enhancing the school's reputation, emphasizing science and the arts and touting achievements that even included a widely praised cafeteria.

High standardized test scores yielding a coveted Level 1 rating from the state gets students in the door, Zanin acknowledged. "But then families say that 'Everyone is so welcoming, friendly and kind; we love what you have to offer.' "

"We educate the whole child, we know our kids extremely well," she noted. "We value the arts, technology and the other specialties we offer for student growth, as much as we value math, science and English Language Arts."

Crediting her teachers and support staff as "phenomenal," the principal declared that "they take pride in this building and in every child."

The result: A surge in local enrollment as young families flock to town, drawn by the school. No longer forced to rely as much on out-of-town students, Richmond Consolidated is now closed to nonresident school choice from first through eighth grade.

Total enrollment has expanded from 149 in the 2013-14 school year to 179 projected for 2017-18. Five years ago, 58 percent were nonresident students; the prediction for next fall is 47 percent.

This year, school choice students account for 53 percent of enrollment — 38 percent from Pittsfield and 15 percent from West Stockbridge, Stockbridge, Lee, Lenox, Williamstown, Dalton and Becket, Zanin said. There are also several "tuitioned-in" students from Hancock and nearby New York state.

New families have enrolled 22 students in first grade and beyond, with more in kindergarten and pre-K.

"Those are families who have moved into town, mostly for the school," Zanin said.

"Richmond's school is a wonderful, nurturing community," said Superintendent Peter Dillon. He oversees the Berkshire Hills Regional School District as well as the Shaker Mountain School Union 70 (Richmond, Hancock and New Ashford) under a first-in-the-state, two-year shared-services agreement that began last July.

"The school has maintained continued academic excellence over the past several years at a level that has not been matched by any other school in the county as measured by standardized test scores," Dillon said. "More importantly, the school community cares deeply about robust learning opportunities. We value arts, music, our strong sense of community and really engaging work. The staff and families are really supportive — and the food is great."

"As schools go, so go their communities," he said. "The town has done a nice job of supporting and investing in the school, reaping the benefits from people who see that the community is attractive and move in."

Kelly Tinsley, a native of the Berkshires, recently moved to Richmond from Georgia with her husband, Jeriahmi, and their three children.

"Richmond's Level 1 status for high performing schools was important," she said, "but what really stood out was the atmosphere of mutual respect, kindness and individual growth. The diverse opportunities in art, music, technology, foreign languages and after-school programs were second to none. The school has exceeded our expectations."

Julia and Henry Curletti, who both grew up in Great Barrington, returned to Richmond last summer after living in the Boston area for the past decade.

They have a son, 6, in first grade and a daughter, 3, who will be in kindergarten in two years. Her husband works for the National Park Service at Saratoga (N.Y.) National Historical Park and commutes there several days a week.

"We wanted to be near family, and Richmond was perfect because of the school," she said. "We love it It's small, the arts program is excellent, the food is out of this world; you'd never expect that from a public school. Our son is in French class and the creative arts program, and even has two recesses every day."

Another recent arrival is Julia Sabourin, formerly director of administrative services for Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi, but now the fourth-grade teacher in Richmond.

"We moved for the school and the community," she said. "It's a tiny school but meets everyone's needs." Sabourin also praised Richmond's "small-town feel, it has shockingly more affordable houses than we expected. We were really surprised to find that a lot of young families are relocating here."

Sabourin called the town "a perfect combination, a hidden gem that we didn't know existed. It's the best-kept secret in the Berkshires."

Her daughter will be entering pre-K in two years.

"The foundation of everything we do here is based on social emotional learning, on the students feeling really cared about," Zanin, the principal, said. "We work on our core values, C.A.R.E.S.; cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy and self-control."

A C.A.R.E.S. class focuses on problem-solving skills and conflict resolution, she said. "Children learn when they feel comfortable and in a loving, caring environment. That's one of our strengths."

Town officials have welcomed the school's role as a magnet for stemming population decline. The latest town census counted 1,475 residents, on par with the 2010 U.S. census.

"We're very encouraged by the recent increase in young families coming to Richmond," said Selectman Neal Pilson. "The school is a great attraction. We're aggressively soliciting young parents to move here, we're in the process of marketing our town."

The efforts include an enhanced town website, a video about the town and the school, and direct outreach to real estate brokers.

"We're not sitting back," Pilson said. "For the first time, this town is pushing itself into the competitive area of Berkshire County to get young people to move here, and not to Pittsfield or Lenox."

He noted that a committee of young parents is being formed to reflect the interests of recent arrivals and to help attract even more new residents with school-age children.

"We're filling our classes with resident students, which is the healthiest thing we can do," Pilson said.

The supposed high price of entry into town is a misperception, he suggested. "There are more modestly priced homes than most people understand. A lot of those homes are turning over as older people 'age out.' "

School Committee member Andrea Harrington hopes other schools in the county also increase their enrollments as "a huge selling point for people from New York City or Boston to come here." Harrington, a Richmond native who attended the local school but later moved to Miami, noted that "we moved back here so our kids could come to the school."

When Zanin arrived as principal five years ago after working as a teacher, guidance counselor and administrator in the Pittsfield schools, she recalled, there was a drive to increase out-of-town enrollment, complete with open houses. Next fall marks the first time since school choice began that all of the first through eighth grades will be closed to new nonresidents.

High academic standards remain a magnet. Based on the state's standardized tests, 60 percent of the eighth-graders scored proficient or advanced in science and technology compared to 41 percent statewide.

"Science has been a focus for us for the past two years," Zanin said. "That doesn't mean you forget everything else. But by putting our efforts and collaboration into science, we see those results, because we weren't there a couple of years ago."

Arts and music are not short-changed, she said. "Music is valued just as much as science; we have a phenomenal art teacher and we have a separate creative arts program."

"Knowing how much time we have in the day, we're not giving up those important special areas to accommodate more academics," Zanin noted, despite pressure from the state to raise test scores. "Here, we're not willing to pull any of those areas from our kids."

Pilson cited "universal support in the town for the school. We'll spend more time talking about the $5,000 cemetery item than the $3.2 million school budget, which is a little more than 50 percent of the total town budget. I can't recall criticism or issues raised with school spending during the 20 years that I've been attending the annual town meeting."

"The school is perceived as the heartbeat of our town," he said. "Townspeople are very protective of the school and we're encouraged by the increase in the school-age population. We're leveling off the declining school population, a huge achievement. The future of the school has never been brighter."

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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