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Education chief gets into class projects; Mitchell Chester making school rounds.

Byline: Lynne Klaft

LEOMINSTER - Mitchell D. Chester, state commissioner of education, continued to make the rounds of the state's school systems, stopping at Northwest Elementary and Leominster High School yesterday morning before traveling to Crocker Elementary and Fitchburg High in the afternoon.

Before meeting with students, teachers and parents for roundtable discussions at Leominster High, Mr. Chester visited an English class discussing the Holocaust, watched biology students dissect frogs in a laboratory, saw vocational education students working on house construction projects and observed a culinary arts class learning the correct way to break eggs and make breakfast.

Mr. Chester asked

Danielle McAuliffe's ninth-grade English class what they thought needed improving in their school.

Air conditioning, a new school building and books were suggested.

When student Lucas Tocci was asked what he meant by books, he replied: "Well, I can show you my algebra book; it's not in very good shape."

Superintendent of Schools Nadine Binkley assured the students the school would be getting new books in the fall.

"I'm trying to get around to all the schools in the state and I am interested in what you can tell me," Mr. Chester said to nine Leominster High students who met with him.

"Tell me what you like about your school; any suggestions for me; comments about MCAS (testing) - is it hard or easy?" Mr. Chester asked.

The students told the commissioner they thought MCAS testing was nerve-racking and strenuous, that they liked the small learning structure of freshman and sophomore years, mentioned scheduling of class conflicts, that the lunch program was offering healthier foods, they were concerned about limited elective options, and gender biases that existed in the vocational and engineering classes.

One girl in the automotive vocational classes said there were too few female students in her classes because "a lot of girls think they can't do it, because there are so many boys in the courses."

Mr. Chester agreed with her, saying he could never understand why men dominate the technology and engineering fields.

"What about peer pressure, do you get pressured to try drugs, sex, things you are not comfortable doing?" Mr. Chester said.

The students said they generally did not feel that kind of pressure and just "hung out" with students who were their friends, those groups changing over the years.

Parents and teachers spent time with the commissioner, asking him his position on re-evaluating MCAS testing as an educational tool, telling him schools have been unfairly labeled as "underperforming."

They also proposed fine arts curriculums be mandated in all schools, and noted difficulties in finding qualified teachers in physics and chemistry, making the latest in technology available to all students to prepare them for college, and upgrading the high school building.

"I have a strong sense that this is a district on the move, finding new ways to overcome any low points with the help of the whole community," Mr. Chester said.

"I sense a positive energy and commitment, and it was very helpful to hear from you all. I will be taking these lessons back to Boston, keeping them in mind when I make decisions."

Mr. Chester, a native of Connecticut, started his career as an elementary school classroom teacher, served as the senior assessment associate for the Connecticut Department of Education and later the executive director of accountability and assessment for the Philadelphia public schools.

Before being appointed last month, he served as second in command in the Ohio state education system as senior associate state superintendent for Ohio public schools.

Mr. Chester was sworn in by Gov. Deval L. Patrick May 19 as the state's 23rd commissioner of education, replacing David P. Driscoll, who retired in August.

ART: PHOTO

PHOTOG: ALEX WITKOWICZ

CUTLINE: Mitchell D. Chester, state commissioner of education, discusses frog dissection with biology students Rob Kurzanski and Cara Dellachiaie at Leominster High School yesterday.
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jun 14, 2008
Words:644
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