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Sheppard on MGRHS

Professor Steve Sheppard was kind enough to send in a very detailed description of some of the changes that have occured recently at Mt. Greylock Regional High School in response to some of my sceptical comments. I am still somewhat sceptical, though less so than before, but I think that Sheppard deserves great credit for taking the time to educate those of us far away from Williamstown about some of the facts on the ground.

Since I came in 2000:

1. There has been an increase in average class sizes – while this has not been enormous, the high school did have to lay off some teachers last year despite the generous gift from the College and other contributions, and the class sizes have moved up by a student or two, and advisory classes for grades 7 and 8 were eliminated.

2. The AP Biology course has been eliminated – this is a big concern for anyone interested in high quality science education in the school. As you probably know, many College admission departments consider the number of AP courses taken by an applicant as an important factor in admission. While there is some controversy about this, at the very least we can say that the availability of advanced instruction in biology is no longer available to our children.

But even worse than this …

3. All labs have been eliminated from all science courses at Mt. Greylock. I don’t mean some. I mean ALL. This is terrible and puts our students at a real disadvantage if they want to prepare for science education at a high quality College or University. Ordinarily, this would compel the end of AP Chemistry and AP Physics as well as biology, but the Williams College Chemistry and Physics departments, alarmed at this prospect, have arranged to send a van over to the high school every other week or so to pick up the students from AP Physics and AP Chemistry and bring them to the College where they can get a bit of lab experience. This is better than nothing, but hardly compares to two or three times per week in-school labs (which is what I remember when I took high-school chemistry).

From the National Center for Education Statistics, one can download financial statistics on most public school systems in the United States. The local high school is a separate district that serves only grades 7 through 12. I collected information on all the school districts that serve only grades 7 through 12 or 9 through 12, and are located within 100 miles of Williamstown as a comparison group. There are 47 such school districts, including Williamstown’s Mt. Greylock. Of these schools, 31 (63%) had higher expenditures per student than Mt. Greylock. We have a system that is inadequately funded.

If this were a school district in a large city, many of us would simply move out. Even here, we could move to Lenox, which in general has better schools. Such a scattering, however, would be not only bad for us but bad for the College, which works better when faculty live in the community and are available for attending evening lectures, meeting with students for evening study groups, etc.

I can understand the skepticism expressed in your blog about asking the College to underwrite the local schools. I think much of the problem is ultimately due to the failure of the State government to live up to its promises in funding local schools, coupled with the absence of local industry and development that would provide a more robust tax base. Some of this latter problem is perhaps ultimately traceable to the College and its faculty, which crowds out (or opposes) local development that would pay property tax.

One way or the other, however, the College will likely have to be part of the solution to our local problem. If nothing is done and the schools continue to decline, faculty will increasingly refuse to live in Williamstown or increasingly send their children to private schools. Both of these will impose a cost on the College – the first in the form of reduced faculty presence and availability on campus, the second in that the College will have to pay a salary premium to faculty that compensate for the cost of private schools.

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