Finding Gateways to progress: Partnerships, schools called keys to tapping cities’ potential

By Alana Melanson
Sentinel & Enterprise

FITCHBURG — Collaboration and making education work from birth through college are going to be the keys to success in Gateway Cities such as Fitchburg and Leominster, local education officials said Wednesday.

At a Gateway Cities Education Vision Forum hosted by MassINC at Fitchburg High School, local public school and higher-education officials, as well as representatives from some community partners, gathered to discuss ongoing education initiatives and the future of communitywide learning systems in the Gateway Cities.

Ben Forman, executive director of the Gateway Cities Innovation Institute and research director of MassINC, said Gateway Cities and their residents are critical to the future success of the state, because together they hold a quarter of all kindergarten through 12th-grade students, and a third of all students under age 5.

“When you look at our future economy, 70 percent of all jobs will require post-secondary training, but only 22 percent of Gateway City kids are getting a post-secondary degree,” he said. “So unless we fix that, it’s going to have real implications for the state’s future.”

While Gateway Cities often are perceived as having less-than-stellar school systems, Forman said these cities are where the most innovative work in education is happening in the state. He said these cities often have many assets that can be overlooked, such as colleges and universities that provide dual enrollment for students, public transit and linguistic and cultural diversity.

Mayor Lisa Wong said the Gateway Cities Education Vision requires community partners across a wide variety of sectors to collaborate with educational institutions of all levels to ensure children start with a proper education from a young age.

“Right now, we can never fully implement that vision if we continue to work in silos,” she said.

Fitchburg State University President Robert Antonucci agreed.

“What we’re learning today is that we cannot operate independently any longer. We need to operate cooperatively,” he said.

He pointed to a strong partnership with local schools and with Mount Wachusett Community College, and asked all present to commit to “enhance the lives of each and every student that we serve in all of our schools.”

“Students represent, demographically, 25 percent of our present, but they represent 100 percent of our future,” said MWCC President Daniel Asquino. “It’s all of our responsibility to make sure that our students are career-ready, are college-ready and are civically ready.”

He said the college’s Division of Access and Transition, which includes a number of programs that prepare students of all levels for the future, was born out of the need to break down the separate K-12 and higher-education cultures and work together to improve the quality of life for students. While it was questioned at first, the model has become so successful that others are now replicating it, Asquino said.

Leominster Superintendent of Schools James Jolicoeur discussed partnering with community organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club and the SHINE Initiative to take care of students’ social and emotional needs so that they can come to school ready to learn, as well as allowing Leominster High School and Center for Technical Education Innovation students opportunities to access each other’s resources.

Laura Howick, education director at the Fitchburg Art Museum, spoke of partnering with school districts to provide cultural opportunities for children and with the city and the Twin Cities Community Development Corp. to boost the creative economy and spur economic development.

FHS Principal Jeremy Roche spoke about the school’s efforts to meet students where they are and target resources to help students at all levels succeed, from the School Within a School program, designed to support incoming freshmen most at-risk of dropping out, to the Honors Academy, which challenges students ready to perform above grade level, and includes a compact with FSU.

Dan Hanneken, principal of McKay Arts Academy, the city’s only prekindergarten through eighth grade Innovation School, located on the Fitchburg State University campus, spoke about the autonomies granted to the school under Innovation status and how students and staff are benefiting from site-based management and various collaborations with community partners.