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Brayton School Managing Influx of Extra Grades
By Phyllis McGuire, Special to iBerkshires
05:32PM / Sunday, November 14, 2010
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Brayton is handling the influx of sixth- and seventh-graders from the closed Conte School. A report due early next year will outline options for dealing with the now closed middle school.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A report due early in the new year may herald changes for some of the city's school buildings. Until then, the elementary schools, including Brayton, are in their second year of handling two extra grades.

When Silvio O. Conte Middle School was shuttered in 2009, the other four public schools had to absorb its pupils. Eighth-graders were sent to Drury High School, and sixth- and seventh-graders were assigned to the appropriate elementary schools.
 
More changes may be in store for all or some of the schools, depending largely on the outcome of recommendations through the Massachusetts School Building Authority to determine the viability of such options as adding on to an existing school, building a new school or, more unlikely, renovating the aged Conte Middle School. The feasibility study is expected to be completed in four months, when the results will be reviewed by the School Committee and brought to public meetings.
 
In this the second term since Conte was closed, Drury High School has 586 students, including 122 eighth-graders; Greylock Elementary School has 247 students, including 24 sixth-graders and 32 seventh-graders; Sullivan Elementary School has 256 students, including 36 sixth-graders and 27 seventh-graders. At Brayton Elementary School, the newest and largest of the elementary schools, there are 45 sixth-graders and 38 seventh-graders among 468 students.
 
Unlike other schools in North Adams, Brayton has prekindergarten, and this year added its fourth pre-K class. "We don't want to forget the youngest children," said Sarah Madden, who was named principal in August. "And we are managing quite well [with the addition of the sixth and seventh grades]."
 
But any further increase in the number of students would present a problem, she said. "We are full up now. Every corner is being used." Even the compact conference room outside the principal's office serves multiple purposes, including as work space for small groups and for dealing with behavioral problems.
 
Besides four pre-K classes, Brayton has three kindergarten classes, three first-grade classes and second-grade classes; two classes for each of Grades 2 through 7. "We have smaller classes in the lower grades as those children are more needy," Madden explained.
 
Marie McCarron, a fourth-grade teacher who has been at Brayton 11 years, said when the school served only pre-K through fifth grade, there were actually more classes than now. Thus, there were classrooms available for the new sixth and seventh grades.
 
"We keep the older students on a different floor than those in the lower grades," Madden said. As for interaction between the younger and older students, Madden said the older students have been helpful. For instance, the seventh-graders walked with the youngest pupils during the first of the year's traditional schoolwide outdoor walks.
 
Brayton also houses the Castles program, which is designed for children who are communication challenged or within the autism spectrum. 

"Castles was developed about nine years ago at Greylock Elementary School," said Elizabeth Ferris, a Castles teacher. Several years later it was moved to Brayton, where it evolved into three levels: Castles 1 for pre-K, Castles 2 for kindergarten through second; and Castles 3 for third through seventh.
 
Castle teachers draw up an individual education plan, or IEP, for each child. Some children in the program remain in a Castles classroom for the entire school day while others spend some time in traditional classrooms. According to a pupil's needs, a teacher's assistance would accompany them wherever they go. "We have a very strong team working with the students," said Ferris.
 
Ferris, 29, has been working with special-needs children since her college days. "When I was a college student, I worked at the Sunshine Camp," she said, referring to the city's longtime summer program. "I fell in love with the children."

Since becoming a Castles teacher, Ferris always has been able to connect with her pupils, she said. "They are all different, have individual personalities, but they all need structure. You have to be open and willing to understand their situation. They respond to that. You have to build their trust and earn it."
 
Ferris has found that helping these children to develop academically and socially is a lot of hard work and calls for patience. "Not a year goes by that I'm not proud of their progress," she said.

Madden wants to get to know all of Brayton's students by name before December. "I already know half of them," she said recently. Though she feels that, in her position, she needs to be firm, she would like the students to feel free to come to her with their problems. "My door is open." 
 
Bullying is not a problem at Brayton, Madden said. "We won't tolerate it. If there's bullying, we haven't done our job."
 
As part of their jobs, teachers at Brayton start every school day with a meeting with their students.

"We gather in a circle and greet each other," said McCarron, "and I tell them what we are going to do that day. Then the students are encouraged to bring up any problems. If a child says someone is calling him or her names, we don't say 'forget it' or 'don't pay attention.' We discuss it. We want them to know they can come to us and feel safe. For some of them, school is the only risk-free zone they have. We let them know we may have to go to someone else for a solution to their problem."
 
Madden mentioned that students come to them with "a lot of baggage." McCarron chimed in, saying, "When they come into the classroom and you give them a smile, it may be enough to get them through the day."
 
Long after the school day ends, Madden can be found working in her office. "I'm here until 8 o'clock," she said, so "More Time," is included on her wish list along with Brayton  becoming a community school with services for families; bringing in a dentist; having a therapy dog; and providing outdoor activities for older students. The younger children have a new playground, but there's not even a basketball hoop for older students. 

"I will do whatever it takes," Madden said, "to fulfill the children's academic, emotional and behavorial needs."
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