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The Birth of a Spartan Nation: The Origins and History of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District

Michael Domer, Maroon Tribune Reporter
July 28, 2011
Filed under Berkshires & Beyond

In decades prior to 1967 the Williams School for Stockbridge and West Stockbridge students and the Searles School for Great Barrington students existed independently as rival neighbors. Each town clung to a strong sense of pride that was energetically represented in their small-town high schools. In both districts perceptions of the counterpart were colored by stereotypes held by students and parents alike. Ironically, the very proximity and similarity of the two towns seemed to promote disparagement and pigeonholing.Today the towns of Great Barrington, Stockbridge, and West Stockbridge are bound together around a common school district and a close-knit school community. While many take this district and the accompanying sense of regional unity for granted, both were improbable transformations achieved through decades of development and change. The Berkshire Hills Regional School District was founded through the unification of the Williams School in Stockbridge and the Searles School in Great Barrington in 1967, and it endured several obstacles and long-term growth to become the institution that we have today.

But with the advent of the 1960s this tale of two cities – or Hamlets – was about to change. The baby boom generation was sweeping an influx of new students into the school systems and the little old schools were fast becoming inadequate. Already Stockbridge had plans to erect a new school on the field below the Naumkeag Estate above town. Great Barrington was also exploring the idea of building a bigger and better school near the old one. Yet, as both towns were planning independent futures, an exciting, more efficient new solution was also in the works.

Near the end of the 1950s the Southern Berkshire school district was founded as the first regional school district in the state. The 1960s also saw the Mt. Greylock school district and the Wahconah school district become regional districts. While regionalization seemed the best way for Stockbridge and Great Barrington to move forward as well, neither town was ready to give up its independence and individualistic pride. A local politician named George Domas started a push for regionalization by applying political pressure. Domas told the towns that their schools would not receive state funding unless they combined in a regional district. A committee was formed and finally, after rigorous campaigning at town meetings and through the local media, the money spoke the loudest and the towns agreed to come together in a new district.

Once the agreement was made in 1965, the districts merged under one administration, but a new facility was still needed to accommodate the growing student populations and to validate the unification. A site was chosen on the grounds of a former fox farm in the shadow of the dramatic landmark, Monument Mountain. Construction was completed – after a series of delays – by early 1968 and in April, students and teachers moved in. Compared to the smaller, older schools, the brand new building seemed quite grandiose. Some locals even took to calling the new high school, “The Palace on the Hill.”

The pioneer senior class of 1968 made the move for the last two months of their high school careers and the transition was remarkably smooth as former rivals suddenly became classmates. Inevitably, tensions persisted on some levels as parents proved less open to the change than students (parents at soccer games could be heard assessing the ratio of Great Barrington kids to Stockbridge kids on the starting roster, and criticizing the coach for any hint of favoritism). At this time the new high school also adopted the Spartan as their mascot after it was chosen from a pile of submitted ideas.

With the new school and district finally up and running and students and parents slowly beginning to adjust, leadership in the district had an important responsibility to create a strong and sustaining foundation for future generations. The first principal, who guided Monument through the transition and that first fledgling year, was George Lane. Through the 1970s Lane would serve as superintendent of the new district with Joseph Wood as the high school principal. Together they worked to establish a strong culture and community that lives on today.

In later years the district would grow and expand even more with the addition of Richmond to the district and the launching of “school choice” (a policy that allowed students outside of the district to attend Monument) helped maintain enrollment levels. The unique make-up of Monument allowed the school to be more than just a traditional high school, preserving a very student-oriented environment. Since their early years, the school and district have only extended the opportunities that they offer to students. As the sum of strong individual parts united on a firm foundation, the Berkshire Hills Regional School District has become a vibrant and robust learning environment.

Comments

One Response to “The Birth of a Spartan Nation: The Origins and History of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District”

  1. Wendy (Nielson) Beckman on September 26th, 2011 8:33 AM

    Great article! My mother, Jessica Nielson, was George Lane’s secretary for a while. I used to love being one of the first people to find out if school was being cancelled: Mr. Lane called my mother around 4 in the morning and then Mom would tell me.

    As an alumna (1976) of MMRHS, I can attest to the “frictions” that existed but were overcome. West Stockbridge kids joined us in Stockbridge at Plain School for their last years of grade school. Then we all trotted off to Searles for junior high before going to Monument Mountain for high school.

    It was worth the journey: I have fantastic memories of the school, its faculty and administration, and my classmates. I hope the people who walk the halls today feel as blessed.

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