In Pittsfield, School Innovation Struggles to Survive Budget Cuts

Apr 4, 2019

Stefne Ricci, a senior at Pittsfield High School, says low teacher salary means she loses teachers nearly every year.
Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR

Teacher salaries make up a big chunk of school budgets in New Hampshire. Pittsfield has never been able to offer high salaries, but with creative projects in the past few years, it’s attracted good teachers and high praise. With recent state cuts, though, many say that’s become impossible to sustain.

 

  Read series, "Adequate: How a State Decides The Value of Public Education"

                                             'Pittsfield Was Finding A New Identity'

Louie Houle, 65, has lived in Pittsfield his whole life. He raised his kids in the house his family has owned for four generations. He went to elementary school in a stately brick building on Main Street that now serves as the Town Hall.

“To me, Pittsfield is the center of the universe,” he says, sitting in a room adorned with bicentennial posters that looks out over the sparkling Suncook River.

 

Houle says Pittsfield has changed a lot since its days as a bustling mill town. Around 50 percent of its students are on free and reduced lunch, and the property values are far below the state average.

Houle has worked hard to keep the town afloat. He’s on so many committees and projects here that some joke he’s the unofficial mayor. One of his major accomplishments was working with the school district and Pittsfield Listens, a local nonprofit to get a grant of over $2 million from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation seven years ago. The goal was ambitious: redesign education in Pittsfield.

Louie Houle, President of the Pittsfield Chamber of Commerce, in front of the Pittsfield Town Hall.
Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR

An Era of Student-Centered Learning

“The entire community pulled together to work on this grant,” Houle remembers. “We spent summers going over how we would like to design the school - it was just a wonderful thing going on.”

Jenny Wellington came to Pittsfield to teach high school English in 2011, when the grant was revving up.

“They were doing exactly what I wanted to be doing in my classroom,” she said. “Which is giving the power back to my students.”

She had just gotten her Master's at UNH, and before that had taught for six years in New York City. Wellington could have gotten higher pay at a wealthier district, but she chose Pittsfield, because of what the school calls student-centered learning.

"Pittsfield was finding a new identity, with student-centered learning at the heart of it." — Jenny Wellington

Every Monday, her students would come in talking about the zombie TV show, “The Walking Dead” they’d seen over the weekend.

“I was like, ‘Let’s just do a unit about why we are so crazy obsessed with zombies!’” she remembers. “We analyzed stories about zombies, they made videos - that freedom for a teacher is not in every school, where you can design your curriculum to meet your students’ needs.”

To make up for the lack of electives, the school became one of the first in New Hampshire to hire someone to help students get credit for activities outside of school, called “extended learning opportunities,” or ELO’s.

Some of Wellington’s students studied sign language and built a greenhouse; another learned to splice genes at UNH; another studied religion with a rabbi, a minister, and an imam.

Louie Houle followed this closely, and he remembers a difference, even at parent teacher conferences. “Parents no longer went to school to hear the teacher talk about the student; the student stood up to talk about himself.”

 

Pittsfield Superintendent John Freeman says the district tracked these developments - and found that attendance at parent-teacher conferences shot up from about 10 percent to 90 percent. More students starting participating in extracurriculars. And more got accepted to college. Test scores did not improve significantly, and teacher pay remained low.

But there was a sense of promise.

“Pittsfield was finding a new identity,” Wellington says. “With student-centered learning at the heart of it.”

Pittsfield, once called the "Gem of the Suncook Valley," has around 4,100 residents.
Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR

Visitors came from all over the United States, Europe, and Asia to learn from Pittsfield’s schools.

 

“Things were just super rolling along,” Houle recalls, “And then we started to get less funding.”

An Era of Increased Cuts

Pittsfield has always struggled with funding. But in 2016, halfway through all these big changes, the state started cutting a type of aid to schools called stabilization grants. In Pittsfield, this meant $87,000 less each year.

Wellington says that’s when it hit her: this transformation of the schools was fragile without strong state support.

“As money from the stabilization grant kept getting taken away, you could feel the tension from students - like what teacher’s going to be cut?” she says. “You could feel it with teachers - like is my job going to be cut?”

Houle, who serves on the town’s budget committee, remembers getting school budgets with minuses beside nearly every line item.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

Last year, the district cut the woodshop teacher, the ELO coordinator, and its last foreign language teacher.

“Our French and Spanish teacher is now Rosetta Stone,” says Houle. “It is just so wrong.”

“It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever had to do in a job,” says Superintendent Freeman, “To essentially take apart something that we built up.”

Stefne Ricci was a sophomore when the cuts began.

She and her family live in a rented apartment down the street from the Town Hall. Her room is packed with instruments - a keyboard, ukulele, clarinet, trombone, and saxophone she bought with a grant.

Stefne loves music and English. She’s planning to go to college to become an English teacher, like her one of her favorites, Jenny Wellington.

Pittsfield's emphasis on student leadership and her relationship with teachers have been more important to her than any textbook.

“We have these absolutely amazing teachers who are so good with the students,” she says. “They’re so good at actually teaching. But then they leave - and they get replaced. Their replacement might be good or they might not be and you don’t know what you’re going to get, so it’s a huge loss.”

Credit Graphics by Sara Plourde/NHPR

Wellington noticed this loss too. After six years, she says, she was the only one left of the teachers who had started when she did. Most left for better pay in nearby districts.

The disparity in teacher pay is a challenge for poor districts across New Hampshire. In Pittsfield, the average teacher salary is around $40,000. Just 15 miles away in Concord, it’s over $73,000.

Jenny Wellington says student-centered learning at Pittsfield helped her students explore their interests and possible careers.
Credit Sarah Gibson / NHPR

Wellington held out, because she loved how Pittsfield was doing education. But last spring, she also decided to leave.

Since then, she’s taught online courses and worked with Pittsfield Listens. She’s thinking of getting a PhD in Education. When she broke the news to Stefne and her other students, she told them how much she had learned from them, and that she wanted to improve other schools.

“Explaining that to them was really important so they didn’t feel like I was abandoning them or leaving them for a higher-paying job,” she said.

Stefne was sad when Wellington, her favorite teacher, left, but she’s making the best of it. She’s taking a class at the Concord Regional Technical School in Concord, learning the ukulele, and organizing forums on education and social justice with Pittsfield Youth In It Together, a project of Pittsfield Listens.

She says her friends who wants to take AP or foreign language classes now have to take those online, but the school iPads no longer work, and many can’t afford their own computers, or internet at home. It's a series of lost opportunities:

 

"If you're poor, you're continually losing opportunities."

She says people in bigger towns just don’t get what it’s like to be in Pittsfield and want more for yourself.

“They’re like - ‘You’re small you don’t need as much. You don’t need all these different opportunities,’ when in reality, we do. We have students who want those activities, who want to branch out more.”

Stefne says when she thinks about her life, and what she wants to accomplish, it’s not just to become a teacher. It’s to fight for education funding reform and do what Pittsfield tried: to transform what education means for students and their families.

 

But she says this transformation - it doesn’t happen easily, and it doesn’t happen for free.