Lenox, Ma – Massachusetts' Senate President Therese Murray was in Lenox this past Friday to look at Hillcrest Educational Center's residential treatment program for at-risk youths. WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief Charlie Deitz reports the program remains viable in spite of major reductions in state support.
The Hillcrest Residential program works with students that have been pulled out of their homes as a result of abuse and behavioral problems. Senator Murray was accompanied by Senator Ben Downing as they sat in a round table setting to discuss politics and education with some of the students currently enrolled at Hillcrest. The four students were handpicked by staff, some of them being A students, some achieving what's called mastery level, or serving on the student council. Three of the students come from the New York City area, and one hails from Hartford. The students were allowed to ask the politicians questions about their work, one student asked Senator Murray how the state was faring through the recession .
"next 18 months will be a challenge,unemployment will rise up a little" said Murray.
Senator Downing asked the group how they feel about President Obama and the job he's doing. Seventeen year old Hartford native Taquana says she's still waiting for the change "people losing jobs,kids without food".
The students also asked how politicians can get their colleagues to gain consensus on legislation, Senator Downing compared it to student council,
"There's 40 senators we need 21 to support them and make the case to them"
After the discussion, Taquana, who has achieved mastery through the program and is soon to be sent back home, says she's glad they had a chance to talk with the elected officials, "understand where we're coming from,nobody really listens to us".
The visit was also a chance for Hillcrest to make the case to the senators that special education funding is important. Scott Haskell is the program director for the Lenox location, he says they have cut down the average tenancy from 3 years to about a year and a half for two reasons "the economy and the system is working with getting kids back in the community and reunited with family".
Haskell says the average student costs about 175 thousand dollars a year for room, board, education and support services. Currently the state funds programs like these through a fund called the circuit breaker, which lost 7 million dollars, or about 5 percent of its budget just last month due to budget cuts. Senator Murray says the visit helped her to see where the money is going, "Unless you know what the programs do, then you don't know the impacts".
Murray says the visit worked for her, "Very refreshing to see kids who have been abused accomplish so much".
The legislators didn't put anything on the table, but said the senate is looking at education reform this week on beacon hill, and they now have 4 more stories to take back with them.