My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Another School District's Take on Electronic Suggestion Boxes

Since the School Committees aren't meeting for a few weeks over break, I thought I would blog instead about a school-related issue that grabbed some attention this fall -- the issue of whether the Amherst Regional Schools should have an electronic suggestion box on the district website. As you may recall, this issue was discussed at a School Committee meeting on December 2, 2008, and was voted down 4 to 2 (Kathleen Anderson and I voted for it; Andy Churchill, Elaine Brighty, Marianne Jorgensen and Tracy Farnham voted against it; Sonia Pope abstained). This issue was then taken up both officially (the Amherst Bulletin editorial on December 18th was in favor of such a suggestion box) and unofficially (Larry Kelley's Only in the Republic of Amherst blog was also in favor).

As I stated at the meeting, I think the schools need to hear from the community (what we are doing well, what we are not doing well, ideas of things we could do better, etc.), and an eletronic suggestion box is just another way for us to get that information (and this item was on the agenda because two different parents had written to me suggesting it). This seems like a particularly easy decision since there are currently suggestion boxes in all of the schools ... we apparently are fine with suggestions ... we just don't want them electronically?

Anyway, I was amused to then receive an email from a friend with a link to a decision made by a School Committee in another small, New England college town that they should have an electronic suggestion box (that would be Williamstown, MA) -- here's the link:

I was particularly struck by the following comments:

"For many years there has been a real suggestion box physically at the Williamstown library and the Lanesborough Public Library for the Mount Greylock School Committee. I think the days of note cards and written suggestions are now sort of dated by the electronic age, and this was a chance to do it," Mount Greylock Superintendent William D. Travis said Friday.

Travis said having the online box is one more avenue for the school committee to gather information from people who make up the school district.

"I think because we don't draw a large attendance at our monthly meetings, it may in fact be a way to get communication from parents, students and members of the community that we might not be getting," he said.

He said he also sees the online suggestion box as a more efficient way for information to be shared between the Mount Greylock community and the school committee.

So, in Williamstown, the School Committee requests an electronic suggestion box, and the Superintendent is in favor ... because it allows community members to communicate their thoughts and ideas about the schools in an effective way. In Amherst, a majority of the School Committee and the Superintendent were against such a box.

If you are in favor of an electronic suggestion box for our schools, I've got two suggestions:

1. Head in right now to your local school (all of the schools have them) and submit a hand-written suggestion that you'd like an electronic suggestion box.

2. Ask each candidate who runs for School Committee this spring whether they would support such a box (there are two Amherst seats up this spring for re-election, and I believe open seats in Pelham, Shutesbury, and Leverett as well). This seems like a pretty easy issue for candidates to have an opinion on - and it seems like something voters should want to know.

Friday, December 19, 2008

December 16, 2008, Regional Meeting

I'd like to start this posting by thanking the many people who have written me to thank me for my blog entries and/or commented on how they've watched the meetings on TV (and then inevitably noted how sorry for me they feel!). I'm very pleased to know that so many people in our community are paying attention to the work of the school committee during this critical time -- as we face massive budget cuts and the challenge of hiring a new superintendent. During the meetings, I often feel as if I am standing alone (or nearly alone), so it is indeed encouraging to know that at least some people in the community appreciate my efforts (as someone said to me last week, "Every time you take a stand, I think that is exactly the stand I would take."). Someone who wrote me privately said that my work on School Committee reminds her of a recent quote by David Brooks in the New York Times: "Most successful people begin with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so." So, for the record, let me say that I do believe the future for our schools can be better than the present -- there is certainly much that is good in our schools now, but yes, our schools could, and should, be better. But in all honesty, I do NOT have the power to make the future for our schools better entirely on my own -- I need other School Committee members who share my commitment to evidence-based decision-making and a transparent, communicative process. There are two seats open on the Amherst School Committee this spring -- and several more open at the regional level (for residents of Shutesbury, Leverett, Pelham). So, think about good people who are willing to run (feel free to contact me if YOU are considering a run!) ... and please make sure to VOTE for candidates who want a School Committee that is strongly committed to having our schools become a model of excellent public education for all students.

One more thing -- if you'd like to get an email letting you know whenever I've added a new blog entry, send me your email address and I'll add you to my "automatic response" option on my blog (

Now on the summary of this week's meeting: The meeting began with a brief announcement regarding the budget situation for the current year. A parent, Julia Rueschemeyer, asked a question about the district's legal fees, and in particular whether the district is pursuing litigation in special education cases rather than mediation (I've also heard this rumor from parents). She specifically asked if we could get a break-down of what the district spends on legal fees, and how much of that is for special education expenses. I agreed that this seems like important information, and the Superintendent agreed that that information could be provided at the next meeting (by Rob Detweiler).

The meeting than largely focused on the district's affirmative action report, which focused on the percentage of staff of color, effectiveness of hiring staff of color, and reasons why staff of color leave the district. This report is available (I believe it was included with an earlier set of School Committee meeting minutes -- the December 2nd set), so I won't describe all of the different pieces of information included, other than to say that Amherst is apparently 11th of 392 Massachusetts districts in terms of staff of color (and 2nd when you don't include large cities), and that we are clearly taking a number of steps to increase the percentage of teachers of color in our district. For example, the district is hiring a greater percentage of applicants of color than White candidates (for last year, the school district hired 17% of Latino/a applicants, 20% of Asian applicants, and 41% of African American applicants, compared to only 12% of White applicants).

There are certainly people in our community, and indeed on the School Committee, who believe that we should have a greater percentage of staff of color (in part because we have a higher percentage of students of color in the district than staff of color -- 48% students of color versus 19% staff of color). But one of the key issues in trying to have a staff that is as diverse as our students is frankly how many teachers of color there are in Massachusetts -- because if there aren't enough qualified teachers for districts to have a staff/faculty as diverse as their student population, then Amherst is not alone in this struggle. And most importantly, efforts to increase the diversity of our teaching staff should focus more on increasing the percentage of students of color in education schools than simply trying to more effectively recruit existing teachers of color to come to Amherst.

Here's a statement from a report issued by the U Mass - Amherst chancellor, David K. Scott, in 2000: "The dearth of education students of color is a looming problem in teacher preparation. Of 3,500 candidates in the first three administrations of the Massachusetts test, only 2 percent (65 students) declared themselves to be African American, and another 2 percent to be Hispanic American. At a time when Massachusetts is becoming more diverse (25 percent of K-12 students are of color), and when the United States is heading to 50 percent people of color, there is a desperate need for teachers of color to serve as role models." (You can read the whole report at:

The other important topic discussed at this meeting was the superintendent search. There are 20 applicants for the position (it was initially reported as 22, but the final number of completed applications is 20). The School Committee will meet on January 6th (in Executive Session) to choose semi-finalists to interview, and those interviews will take place later in January. Finalists will then be chosen (probably 3 or 4) and brought to town for public forums in February. I strongly encourage everyone who cares about the future of public education in Amherst to attend each of the public forums -- both to provide feedback about the candidates to the School Committee and to show the candidates that parents and community members in Amherst care passionately about having an academically excellent school system (remember, the interviews work both ways -- we are evaluating the candidates, but we are also showing the candidates what this town cares about and expects in their school leaders).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Press Release: Update on School Reorganization Plan

Thanks to all those who have written me -- on this blog and privately -- with their ideas, concerns, and thoughts. I am delighted that the superintendents have chosen to change the process that will be used to plan for a potential reorganization, and that they have decided to consider more than a single plan. Below please read the statement issued by the Superintendents and Chair of the School Committee.


Contact: Helen Vivian, Superintendent Andy Churchill, School Committee Chair
Email: Email:
Telephone: 362-1810 Telephone: 545-0958

School District Outlines Process for Considering Options for Restructuring Elementary Schools

December 16, 2008

No decision has been made yet. The schools are setting up a process for making a decision about how to operate the elementary schools next year, given fiscal challenges and Amherst’s high educational expectations. This process will include careful comparison of alternatives, based on educational, fiscal, and logistical criteria, and with a great deal of community input.

A very serious budget situation. As was announced by the superintendent at the December 9th school committee meeting, the Amherst public schools are facing a very serious situation in terms of the budget. Given the worsening economic climate, the elementary schools are told they must cut as much as $1.2 million from current service levels for next year (the current budget is about $20 million).

The “easy” cuts have already been made. The magnitude of this gap is such that small steps (such as raising fees, cutting school buses, and other commonly suggested steps) will not be sufficient. Over the past few years, with state aid not keeping up with inflation, a number of the “easy” cuts have already been made – including cutting administrators, supplies and field trip support; eliminating library aides; raising fees; and moderate but significant increases in class sizes. The elementary schools thus will need to make more substantial changes in the upcoming year, while seeking to provide the best educational experience possible for all children.

Without efficiencies from reconfiguration, cuts will be deeper, class sizes will be larger. It is important to understand what the impact would be of trying to make cuts of this size to the current configuration of our elementary schools. If we don’t find other ways of doing business more efficiently, we will have to make larger cuts to current services, resulting in dramatically larger class sizes and loss of other elements that make the Amherst schools special, such as literacy teachers, librarians, guidance counselors, instrumental music, art, and computers. Some of these steps are likely to be necessary regardless – a district reconfiguration only gets the schools part of the way there, but without it the cuts to the instructional core will be worse.

One alternative, as was mentioned at the December 9th meeting, is to pair the elementary schools (Crocker Farm-Fort River, Marks Meadow-Wildwood), and to have children attend one of these schools for the early elementary grades, and the other for the later elementary grades. This plan would in fact achieve significant cost savings: preliminary estimates are in the $300,000-400,000 range. This would still leave a sobering amount to cut, but the cuts would not be as bad as the alternative under the current configuration. This option also offers potential educational benefits (e.g., curriculum alignment, grouping options, teacher development) by yielding a larger number of classrooms per grade level in each building.

Reconfiguration has been studied for some time – the schools are not rushing into it. There is understandable concern among many parents and children about such a change, which may seem to many to have come out of nowhere. In fact, the district has been exploring various alternative plans for reorganizing the elementary schools since the 2007-2008 academic year, when the school committee charged an Amherst Schools Organization Committee with analyzing the pros and cons of various configurations, including the current one.

This committee included current principals Ray Sharick and Mike Morris and current school committee members Andy Churchill and Catherine Sanderson, as well as teachers, parents from each elementary school, and then-superintendent Hochman. This committee investigated a number of options, including the pairing model described previously as well as other reconfiguration models. In addition, this committee conducted a thorough review of available literature on school configuration models and their impact on student achievement, curriculum, instruction, transitions, impact on children and families, equity, transportations, and costs. (For the executive summary of this report, see .)

The district also commissioned a study of our current elementary school buildings, their capacity and their suitability for 21st-century educational expectations. This study was completed in 2007 by the New England School Development Council (NESDEC), a private non-profit organization with expertise in school demographics and planning.

These reports and current district data are being incorporated in district decision-making as we confront the fiscal crisis and seek educationally sound options for moving forward.

District principals and superintendents have been meeting to explore options. The principals of the four elementary schools have been meeting regularly and intensively with the superintendents and central office staff to look at the educational and fiscal impacts of various options for dealing with the budget crisis. Two of the principals were on the Amherst Schools Organization Committee and have incorporated their knowledge of that committee’s work into the leadership team’s discussions. The proposal to consider pairing the elementary schools came out of these discussions with the principals.

Based on these discussions, it appears that there are a number of potential benefits – educational, equity, and fiscal – that could come from the pairing model mentioned above. We are now moving to consider this option against others, and to collect extensive public input in that option-weighing process.

Options under discussion include (1) maintaining our current system of four separate K-6 elementary schools in the context of up to $1.2 million in cuts, (2) the pairing of schools as mentioned above, (3) closing Marks Meadow and moving those students to other schools, and (4) providing three K-4 neighborhood schools and one 5-6 intermediate school (another option identified by the Schools Organization Committee).

The process for public input and decision-making. To inform the decision-making process, at the December 9th school committee meeting, the superintendent invited community members, particularly elementary school parents, to join school and district leaders on a study committee to deliberate on the pros and cons (financial and educational) of reconfiguring our elementary schools. Numerous people have responded, from all four elementary schools and the wider Amherst community. The district welcomes additional expressions of interest (see below for contact information).

From this group of volunteers, the superintendents will select a group that represents all schools and stakeholders to work with school and district staff as an initial study committee. This initial study committee will consider what questions, problems, and strengths are associated with each of the potential options, and advise the superintendents on how to move forward. The first meeting of this initial study committee will be in late December. The work of this group will inform the district’s decision-making and provide a foundation for future meetings with stakeholders, including a public hearing to be held by the school committee in January.

Regardless of the choice we make, given the fiscal crisis, the sad news is that without significant unexpected revenues our elementary schools will be changed next year. We have to make the best choice we can about which kind of change is best for our children. We look forward to your input in this process.

To provide input for the initial study committee to consider, to volunteer to participate, or for more information, please send an email to the superintendent at

Friday, December 12, 2008

Elementary School Reorganization

I'm doing a separate blog entry on the very hot topic of the proposed reorganization of the four elementary schools--the number of emails and calls I've received about this indicate tremendous (not surprisingly) interest in this topic, so I believe it merits a separate entry. I also have a number of thoughts on this issue -- as a parent of three to-be-elementary school students next year (K-3-6), any reorganization hits me directly, as a member of the School Reorganization Committee last year (which reviewed several models), and now as a member of the School Committee (meaning I'll likely have to take a vote on this issue in the next few months). Let me say at the outset that I do NOT have a preferred ideal elementary school configuration option -- I believe there are pros and cons to all configuration models, including our current system (which frankly has resulted in four elementary schools that differ in many ways, including class size, presence of world language, and distribution of low income kids). What I believe in is a good process that is used to make all decisions in our district, including this one, and I am hopeful (though honestly not particularly optimistic) that a good process will be used to make this decision.

What's a good process? First, one that is data driven. I want to see numbers--what will class sizes look like? How long will kids spend on the bus? How is the racial and economic class of kids in the different schools? And most importantly, what are the savings? Second, one that involves considerable parent/community/teacher input. I want all stake-holders to feel as if their concerns have been at least heard. I know it is impossible to make a decision that will please everyone ... but I also believe that hearing the community's thoughts is important not just for PR, but because we are likely to hear things from the community that help us reach a more thoughtful decision.

With that being said, I have to admit that the Superintendent's proposal to only consider one option (the pairing of the schools) was rather surprising. I understand that this model would have some significant cost savings (she estimated $300 to $350 thousand). However, the School Reorganization Committee also examined another model that would save some money (maybe more, maybe less): a model with three K to 4 elementary schools, followed by a 5-6 intermediate elementary school that all Amherst kids would attend. In addition, I've raised, and this is in response to many suggestions from community members, that we need to seriously consider the cost savings involved in closing Marks Meadow. The Superintendent has said this isn't feasible, because it would result in over-crowding, but I am not certain this is correct (more on this later). I know that all of these solutions seem problematic -- and they are. But the reality is that we are going to have to cut a huge amount from the elementary school budget this year, and that even our current four schools doing K to 6 in each are going to look very different next year (e.g., huge classes, no music, no field trips, etc.). Thus, I think the best way we can make a decision about which option is the "least bad" is to have a full understanding of the financial and educational costs of each of several models (ideally these would include the two reoganization plans proposed by the School Reorganization Committee, closing Marks Meadow, and making serious budget cuts but keeping our current model).

At the most recent School Committee meeting, information about projected enrollment for next year was presented (for each school and each grade), and I've used that information to run some preliminary estimates (using a calculator to do simple addition and division -- nothing very high tech). This approach is simplistic, in that I'm not considering the districts particular kids are in (by grade), or who these kids are (e.g., who is ELL, special ed, etc.), but I think it could provide a rough idea of the type of numbers we might see in different models.

In the current plan, we would have an estimated 1310 students in K to 6 next year, 70 classrooms in the four schools, and an average class size of 18.7 (with tremendous variation, from 15 to 25 per class). Crocker Farm would have 16 classrooms, with 16.7 kids per classroom, Fort River would have 23 classrooms, with 19.6 students per classroom, Wildwood would have 22 classrooms, with 18.8 students per classroom, and Marks Meadow would have 9 classrooms, with 20.0 students per classroom.

In the proposed pairing plan, we would end up with the following:

9 classes of kindergarten (5 at CR-FR with a class size of 20.8, 4 at MM-WW with a class size of 20.5)
9 classes of 1st grade (5 with an average of 19.4, 4 with an average of 18.8)
9 classes of 2nd grade (4 with an average of 21.3, 5 with an average of 20.6)
9 classes of 3rd grade (5 with an average of 19.8, 4 with an average of 21.3)
7 classes of 4th grade (4 with an average of 24.3, 3 with an average of 24.7)
9 classes of 5th grade (5 with an average of 23.6, 4 with an average of 21)
9 classes of 6th grade (5 with an average of 21.8, 4 with an average of 22.5)

These numbers are based on rough calculations (we could always decide for bigger or smaller class sizes in a given grade, although all of these are below the recommended maximum for each grade), and would give an average class size of 21.6 in FR-CF, and 21.3 in WW-MM. This approach would save 9 classrooms, meaning 9 teacher's salaries (hence the estimated cost savings) -- we would have 61 classes next year in all four schools, compared to the projected 70 if we use all four elementary schools in their current configuration.

I also ran the numbers for the model of 3 K to 4 elementary schools, followed by one 5-6 intermediate school. This model would result in the following (again, based on my rough calculations):

K - 186 kids divided into 9 classrooms (20.67 average)
1 - 172 kids divided into 8 classrooms(21.5 average)
2 - 188 kids divided into 9 classrooms (20.9 average)
3 - 184 kids divided into 8 classrooms (23 average)
4 - 171 kids divided into 8 classrooms (21.4 average)
5 - 202 kids divided into 8 classrooms (25.25 average)
6 - 199 kids divided into 8 classrooms (24.88 average)

This would be a class average of 22.5 overall (21.5 in the K to 4 schools, and 25.1 in the 5th/6th school). This would save an estimated 12 classrooms (more than the savings from the first model potentially, although depending on how the students were divided into the different elementary schools, we might need to have another class at a particular grade in one or more schools) -- this model requires 58 classrooms, compared to 70 in the current system. Again, there are pros and cons of this model, but at least it seems like a viable option to consider.

Finally, I ran the numbers for closing Marks Meadow, meaning those projected 180 kids would be divided into the other three elementary schools. If you eliminate the Marks Meadow classrooms that are intended to be in use next year (9), we are left with 61 classrooms in the other three schools. As you can see in the numbers I ran above for the K to 4, 5-6 model, we have plenty of space for all of those kids using only 58 classrooms (meaning we would have three extra classrooms to use for overly full grades/schools), and with a class average of only 22.5. It is possible that we would need to add extra classes at certain grades in one or more of the schools -- but there is space, if needed, in both Fort River and Wildwood if all four classrooms in a quadrant are used (as was the case in the last decade at both of these schools). In addition, closing Marks Meadow would save not just in terms of eliminating 12 classrooms, but also a principal, librarian, custodians, nurse, etc. So, this model could indeed turn out to be highly costly effective.

I am presenting all of this information because I believe that parents in the community need to understand that there are costs and benefits to all options. Some may prefer the pairing option proposed because it allows for more focused grade-level activities with more classrooms in a given building. Others may prefer to keep siblings in a single K to 6 elementary school, even if they understand that this option will likely be accompanied by large class sizes and the elimination of various "extras" (art, music, field trips, etc.). Still others may prefer the cost savings of closing a school, even if that means more crowded conditions at the other schools. Again, I don't have an opinion about the best option ... because I don't know the exact financial costs and other issues (busing times, demographic make-up of the schools, etc.). But I hope strongly that the Superintendents and School Committee will encourage a full examination of the specific financial and educational and logistical issues involved in each of these options, and create multiple opportunities for parents and teachers and community members to provide input. This is a crucial time for our schools, and the process used to make this very important decision should be objective, data-driven, transparent, and honest.

Amherst Meeting, December 9, 2008

This meeting began with several questions from the audience regarding academics. First, Julia Rueschemeyer asked about whether a decision about adopting the Impact I math books for 6th grade had been reached (following the last Curriculum Day at which such time this discussion was to have occurred). I have been in contact with Mike Hayes about this issue, and thus was able to respond that the decision will be reached in March, following a recommendation from a subcommittee that will be reviewing the options this winter (January to March). I know there is considerable interest in the parent community about this issue, largely from parenst of current middle school students who are delighted to finally have a math textbook, and I do hope that this recommendation will be made. Janet McGowan then asked a question about who approves this decision--and the answer is that the superintendents have the option to approve (or reject) the recommendation made by the subcommittee. Joel Wolfe then asked a question about the plans underway at Fort River to make sure the school is on track to avoid failing to make AYP for a second year (in the language arts). Andy Churchill noted that the School Council at Fort River would be making recommendations about this plan, which was echoed by Principal Ray Sharick, who was at the meeting. Finally, Steve Rivkin asked a question about the cost of the current ELL program in which children are bused out of their neighborhood school based on language. He was assured that this issue was indeed being considered, especially in light of the impending budget cuts.

Superintendent Vivian then noted the seriousness of the budget situation for the upcoming year, and indeed in future years as well. She therefore said that the school leadership wanted to investigate one of the reorganization models discussed by the Reorganization Committee (which included me, Andy Churchill, Ray Sharick, and Crocker Farm principal Mike Morris): the pairing of Marks Meadow-Wildwood and Crocker Farm-Fort River (so that children would go to one school for K to 2 and then other in their pair for 3 to 6). Her plan was to appoint a committee to investigate this model to meet on December 29th and 30th to develop a recommendation, hold public hearings in January, and hold a vote of the School Committee on this proposal at the February 10th meeting.

This proposal was a complete surprise to me, particularly because I was on the committee that looked into these models, and we did not emerge with a particular favorite. In addition, this committee recognized the importance of engaging the community (including parents as well as teachers) prior to making a decision, which clearly has not occurred. Finally, this committee never considered the budget implications of any of these models, which seems like a very important thing to do (Superintendent Vivian suggested this model might save $300,000 to $350,000, which would help somewhat towards the estimated $1,000,000 in cuts we need to make).

Several questions were raised by School Committee members and members of the audience. One of the most important ones was raised by a parent in the audience, who noted that another cost-savings measure would be to close Marks Meadow (an idea that I've now received from several parents, even before this most recent announcement). The Superintendent noted that this was not feasible, given issues of over-crowding already in the elementary schools (but I'm going to return to this issue in a separate blog entry -- so stay tuned!). Another parent noted the possible increased costs of transportation, since presumably two buses would have to go to many houses (of those with kids at the two schools who would now attend the same school) -- or alternatively, kids would have to stay on a bus for a very long time (if buses were to drop off at two different schools). I also raised a question about the balance of low income students in these models -- my rough calculations indicate that Fort River - Crocker Farm would have about 37% kids on free/reduced lunch, compared to 26% in the other pairing.

Regional Meeting, December 2, 2008

This meeting began with a question from Michael Aronson, a parent, who asked about the status of the anonymous parent survey of all special education parents, as was requested at a spring School Committee Meeting. Apparently this survey was never conducted, although Dr. Hochman had expressed enthusiasm for such a survey. There were different views expressed about this idea. I am in favor of such a survey (I believe that surveys provide one important way of gathering information about parents' views about particular programs), as was Kathleen Anderson. Andy Churchill also expressed interest in getting such information, and wondered if it could be part of the report on student services that is scheduled for an upcoming meeting. Superintendent Sprague expressed doubt that such surveys would yield useful information. I do think this is an important suggestion, and I hope that the School Committee will return to this issue in the near future (I've heard more about special education concerns than any other issue since becoming a member of School Committee).

We then heard a presentation on English Language Learners (ELL) by Dr. Marta Guevara, ELL Student Services Adminstrators. The key things I took from this presentation were as follows: we are currently busing (as presumably some cost) children to different elementary schools based on language spoken at home, the correlation of ELL and low income students is very high at Crocker Farm (94%, compared to 37.8% at Wildwood, 64.9% at Fort River, and 61.8% at Marks Meadow), and we are paying tutors (also presumably at some cost) to work individually with students who speak low incidence languages. I raised some questions about these numbers, including the number of children who are bused out of this district (this data will be presented later) and whether the ELL office has the ability to do the evaluation of this program that they would like to do (Dr. Guevara, to her credit, is committed to doing this evaluation, and believes the office can do so this year). Andy Churchill asked about the feasibility of having an ELL program in preschool, which seems like an excellent idea to me (this would be potentially costly, but could be cost-effective if it gets kids ready for full English immersion earlier in elementary school).

Dr. Rosalie Porter, a community member with grandchildren in the Amherst schools, is an expert on ELL (having served as the director of such a program in Newton, MA, for years), and attended the presentation. She commended many things about the Amherst ELL program, but also raised some important issues. These include the benefits of stopping clustering (to better immerse children in English as well as save money in terms of busing), and the benefits of having tutoring in the high school (to help with advanced math and science classes) as opposed to at the lower grades (when it is really not necessary and can even be harmful). These seem like very reasonable proposals, and I hope ones that will be seriously considered by our ELL department.

The next key issue of business was a discussion about a web-based suggestion box. I was in favor of such a box to allow parents, staff, and community members to make suggestions for our schools (and in fact, this idea had been suggested to me by two separate parents in the district over the last month). Kathleen Anderson and Andy Churchill also spoke in favor of such a box. Other School Committee members raised concerns about this idea, including the amount of work it would entail, the negative comments that can emerge electronically, and the lack of an ability to effectively respond to all suggestions. I proposed we vote on whether we would like such a box -- and this vote was 2 in favor (Kathleen and I were these two votes), 4 against (Andy, Elaine Brighty, Tracy Farnham, and Marianne Jorgensen), and 1 abstained (Sonia Correa Pope). Not a surprising vote -- but again, one that I believe is important to have on the record.

Regional Meeting, November 25, 2008

Note: I was on vacation for the week of Thanksgiving, and hence I was not at this meeting. My comments are based on my viewing of the ACTV recording of this event as well as my reading of the minutes of this meeting.

The Superintendent distributed information about the 28 high school students who took the ACT test (all scored above the state average). He also distributed information on the costs of administrators in the Amherst schools (I have not seen this report, so I'm not going to comment on it). He announced that community members who want to tour the schools can do so on December 5th (high school) and December 19th (middle school). There was a discussion about the pool closing (due to its current drain), and information about an opportunity to examine regionalization (so that smaller school districts could become larger one).

The bulk of the meeting was spent reviewing school district policies.

Three issues were noted as ideas for subsequent meetings: special education, electronic email, and human resources.

Amherst Meeting, November 18, 2008

This meeting began with two comments from the audience that touched on issues of academics. First, Steve Rivkin expressed concerns he had heard from parents that the math curriculum report presented a few weeks ago did not allow adequate time for questions. He also raised the issue of whether using "math coaches" was the best use of resources in these tough budget times. Then, Janet McGowan asked whether a decision has been made about the Impact I math books for 6th graders. I noted that this decision has not been made, but would be made by teachers (and ultimately selected by the superintendents).

The School Committee then heard a report on the world language program at Wildwood Elementary School. Briefly, Matt Behnke, Wildwood principal, reported that the program is going well and is exciting for teachers and children. He also noted some scheduling challenges, but he feels those can be resolved.

A number of questions were then raised about this program. I asked questions regarding how teaching Chinese fits in in terms of time to teach other subjects, and whether we would begin teaching world languages in the other elementary schools in the near future (it does seem like Wildwood is having a very different experience than the other 3 elementary schoools). I also expressed a desire for our committee to hear the report on world language, which was done this summer (and includes proposals for having world language expanded into the other schools). Other questions were raised about the budget implications of teaching world language and the benefits from talking to other districts with world language at the elementary school level to get information about managing logistics.

Regional Meeting, November 4, 2008

This meeting began with an update by Superintendent Al Sprague on whether the district does exit surveys when parents choose to leave the district (an idea that I've suggested repeatedly, to no avail). The high school currently does have an exit survey (although I've never seen data from this survey, so I have no idea when/how/who looks at this information), but the other schools do not collect such information. I believe it is essential that we start to understand why some parents might opt out of the public schools -- particularly in this time of increased options for elementary school children with the new Chinese Charter School -- and I very much hope that this district will choose to initiate this type of survey whenever a parent chooses to leave our public schools.

We then heard some new high school course proposals (all were approved), and voted on some policies.

Andy then described the interest some parents and School Committee members had in hearing about the trimester schedule, and its costs and benefits. I am strongly in favor of hearing information on this system, because I've heard concerns from parents and teachers about the problems with this system (including difficult timing for taking some MCAS tests, gaps in world languages, and inadequate amount of time for students to process information in a relatively small number of weeks). As I stated at the meeting, however, I'm not interested in hearing summaries of the overall costs/benefits and/or historical information about how we chose this system--I want to see data on the effects of this system on achievement (AP tests, SAT IIs, MCAS, etc.). Marianne Jorgensen then noted that both she and Elaine Brighty had asked for that information when the trimester system was first implemented--but that no data was ever collected (which seems shocking, but not surprising). It was then suggested that either this issue be turned over to the new "How Are We Doing Subcommittee" or that Michael Katz would prepare a proposal on this issue and bring it to a future meeting.

Finally, we returned to the issue of the retreat. I again noted my objection to such a retreat (I just don't think this is a key thing we need to focus on right now, when there is clearly much actual work to be done), but that I would go if the School Committee voted for it. And so they did -- 6 pro, 2 against (me and Kathleen Anderson). January 24th it will be.

Regional Meeting, October 28, 2008

Tonight's meeting consisted largely of a presentation on curriculum and professional development by Mike Hayes, K to 12 Curriculum Administrator, and Fran Ziperstein, Director of Professional Development and Curriculum. This presentation included information on the current curriculum cycle of revision and evaluation as well as the district's plan for providing professional development and evaluation to teachers. I asked two questions about the presentation: the current state of the social studies review (this review is still in its early stages) and how we compare our own disrict to other districts (this process is not particularly established, meaning we don't have a set of comparison districts by which to evaluate our own curriculum).

Andy Churchill suggested (like he did earlier at the Amherst School Committee Meeting) that we have a "How are We Doing Committee." This sub-committee was established, and will include Andy, Marianne Jorgensen (Shutesbury), Elaine Brighty (Amherst), and me.

We then turned to discuss how items are placed on the agenda for School Committee meetings. This item was added at my request, following persistent frustration that I've experienced throughout my time on the School Committee in terms of getting issues on the agenda (I send ideas to the Chairs and yet these ideas are virtually never placed on the agenda). It was made clear that any members of School Committee can suggest ideas, but that the chair can choose not to put the item on the agenda. However, any member can then request a vote on whether an item could be put on the agenda--if that motion is seconded, a vote will occur. So, watch for some motions and votes in the future!

Amherst Meeting, October 14, 2008

Tonight's meeting consisted largely of an update from each of the elementary school principals, followed by a presentation by Mike Hayes on the K to 6 math program. This presentation is available on the ARPS website: Because this report is available on the website, I won't go through all details of it, but do want to make a few points (from the perspective of a School Committee member, parent of 2 kids -- next year 3! -- in the elementary schools, and a member of the Math Review Committee.

First, I do believe that it is good the district is finally looking at the math curriculum from a K to 12 perspective. This seems very important in terms of making sure all kids are able to move in sequence through the appropriate math topics/courses.

Second, it is clear that the district is at a pretty critical point in terms of math in a number of ways. One issue that was brought up is whether the 6th graders in all schools should be using Impact I (the first year of the sequence of math books now used by 7th and 8th graders). This seems like a very easy decision to me -- particularly because it would help equalize the experience kids have in math prior to the middle school. This decision will be made by a subcommittee of teachers, with a recommendation due later this year (and such an adoption would cost about $25,000). Another issue that was brought up was whether the 8th grade should have the option of a regular algebra class (in the current system, we provide 8th grade honors, which is a very intense class, and a regular 8th grade math class that touches on algebra but only prepares students for algebra in high school). Although this idea was seen as too close to tracking (by Mike Hayes), it seems to me that our two classes are in fact tracks -- we just have opted for the highest and lowest options of tracks, and not a middle choice. I would imagine that a stronger elementary schoool math curriculum (which could include Impact I for all 6th graders) could potentially lead us to be able to offer two tracks at the middle and high level instead, which seems preferable.

The presentation was very long, and hence several parents had questions that were not able to be answered. These questions were given to Mike Hayes, and their answers are now posted on the district website. These questions included one by Steve Rivkin on what the district is doing to support kids who are struggling in math, as well as one by Caroline Goutte on what the arguments would be against using Impact 1 for all 6th graders. I do think it is unfortunate that the presentation of the math topic (one of great interest to many parents) was presented the same night as the principals' updates, which led to a very long evening -- and hence a lack of an ability to have a real discussion and get community questions answered.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Regional Meeting, October 7, 2008

Once again, this meeting started with thoughtful public comment from Steve Rivkin, who expressed concern about the brevity of the trimester report (now available on the district homepage) as well as the incomplete nature of the 9th grade science evaluation (also available on the district homepage).  He expressed the view that if this district is really committed to data analysis and program evaluation, we need to be doing a more careful and thorough job.  School Committee member Elaine Brighty expressed the view that it is not the responsibility of the School Committee to conduct such reviews, or to insist that such reviews are done. Steve then noted that he thought this was really unfortunate, given that the School Committee ultimately hires and monitors the  Superintendent, and that one of the key jobs of the Superintendent is to make sure that programs and curricula in the district are working well -- thus, it seems as if the School Committee should in fact have an interest in and ability to oversee such evaluation work.  I then echoed that point, noting that when all nine members of the School Committee voted unanimously for the new 9th grade science program in January, they assured concerned members of the public that of course a thorough review of this program would occur, and yet the review as it stands now, is incomplete and will make it impossible to tell whether this new program is working (and this review only occurred because following my election to School Committee, I insisted that an evaluation was done).  

School Committee Chair Michael Hussin then expressed frustration with these comments, noting that it would be impossible to evaluate a program that has not yet occurred (given that the new 9th grade course is only in its first few weeks) and that of course such an evaluation would be done.  I raised my hand to explain that one could not actually evaluate this new course without having good baseline data - meaning how 9th graders in biology versus earth science (the two courses previously offered to 9th graders) experienced those courses in particular — so that we could then see whether students experience the new ecology/ environmental science course as better, the same as, or worse than biology and earth sciences. This is the crucial issue that must be examined, and the report in its current form does not allow one to do this. However, Michael Hussin noted that as Chair, it is his prerogative to move the discussion along, and he chose not to call on me.

The meeting then focused on a review of the MCAS data for the district, a report on the tragic bus accident, and some voting on policies. We postponed a discussion on the "How are We Doing Committee." The last portion of the meeting focused on a retreat of the School Committee. As I've noted before, I'm not in favor of such a retreat, if the public will not be able to see the discussion during the retreat (which is what the other committee members have requested). However, the retreat will happen, and it will be private.

Regional Meeting, September 23, 2008

This meeting focused largely on the superintendent search process (and more on this soon).  The only real discussion that focused on academics was a result of the public comment section.  Steve Rivkin asked a question about the 9th grade science review, and in particular expressed concern about the nature of that review.  (I've read this review, and it is available on the district homepage -- and unfortunately the review fails to really examine the key question, which is to characterize the experience of 9th graders in honors biology versus earth science so that we have a good baseline with which to assess the new required ecology/environmental science course.)  The Superintendent and School Committee Chair suggested all questions on this be referred to Mark Jackson, the high school principal.  This advice frankly seems very surprising to me, given that it was the School Committee vote that brought this new required course -- and at the time, each member of the committee assured the public that this course would be evaluated.  Again, it just seems like the high school principal should not be tasked with creating empirical evaluations, and I was surprised at the total lack of interest/support on the part of the School Committee for conducting a thorough evaluation.  

We then heard an update on the district website and received information on the district MCAS scores.  The bulk of the meeting (nearly two hours) focused on the superintendent search process, and in particular crafting an ad and a brochure for this position.  The committee basically agreed on some text for both of these, and the ad will be submitted to Education Week by early October (with a deadline of mid-December).  Hiring a new superintendent who is truly committed to academic excellence for all students is obviously the most important thing the School Committee will do this year, and I'm very hopeful that we can find someone great.  It will be very important to have parent/community input on this process later this year, when we bring candidates to town for public visits -- please keep that in mind!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Future of Amherst

As one who cares passionately about the future of Amherst, and in particular the quality of public education available for all kids in Amherst, I want to encourage all followers of this Blog to attend one of the very informative presentations made by the Community Choices committee, an outstanding non-partisan committee charged with educating the public about the current budget situation in Amherst, presenting alternative budget scenarios for each area of our budget, and soliciting public feedback with the ultimate goal of making recommendations to the Finance Committee and Town Meeting. They have put together an excellent presentation, and are very eager to get public feedback about our priorities for this town — you can see the presentation at many forums around town (dates/times/locations on their website) OR at their website ( You can also submit your feedback on line by going to this website — which is a great way of making YOUR voice heard. Getting lots of feedback from lots of voices is really crucial, so please take some time over the next month (they want the feedback by early November) to learn about the choices and complete the quick and easy on-line survey.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Amherst Meeting, September 9 2008

I want to start with two brief updates based on comments I've received from my past blog entries. First, the report from Glenda Cresto (the middle school principal) that I refer to in an earlier blog is now posted on the middle school website (or will be soon). I had so many requests for that report that I thought it would be easier for all interested parents to just be able to get it on the school website, and I'm delighted that Ms. Cresto and the Superintendents have made that happen. Second, I have received a number of comments about how a retreat of the Amherst Regional School Committee seems like not a particularly good use of time -- and of course I agree with this sentiment. But my favorite comment came from a friend, who pointed out the following:

Can you imagine the Zoning Board of Appeals or the Community Preservation Act Committee or the Conservation Commission going on retreat because they had disagreements? Of course they have disagreements--they are supposed to! This is how democracy works. Is it because education has been a historically female profession that people think that "getting along" and doing things by consensus is paramount? The School Committee is a government body not a gang of office staff charged with product development.

That pretty much sums it up for me ... I'd like to spend more time working on specific strategies for creating the best education system we can for our kids, and less time (or honestly, no time) working on discussing how we get along as a group.   But based on the vote at the last meeting, a retreat is indeed supposed to happen.

Now, on to the meeting ... which was, encouragingly, one of the best meetings I'd say we've had. The following issues related to academics were discussed:

1. Andy Churchill described his view of the "growing pains" of the current school committee. The most important point about this statement was that he believed we should set "a tone of inquiry based on data," which of course is something I whole-heartedly endorse. I very much appreciate his leadership on this (and more on this topic was discussed later in the meeting).

2. Steve Rivkin asked three questions about math in the district -- what types of support are provided for kids who need it (and how effective is that support), would the elementary schools adopt, for 6th graders, the Level 1 version of the new math textbooks that are being used in 7th and 8th grade (as levels 2 and 3), and what evidence is there about the effectiveness of the K to 5 math curriculum. As a member of the Math Curriculum Review Committee, I found these questions very useful, and am glad to see them raised. The Superintendent suggested we ask for a report on math in the district at the next meeting, which I think would be very useful.

3. We then discussed, as part of new business, an idea Andy shared from Jere Hochman, which is to form a "How're We Doing?" subcommittee. This subcommittee would look at identifying data to examine (e.g., school climate surveys, exit surveys, assessment data), identifying a set of benchmark districts with which to compare common data sets, and establishing the capacity to collect these data and produce an annual report. I think this is a great idea, and I'm delighted that the committee voted unanimously to move forward on forming this committee. I commented that I hoped such data could also include teachers' views (e.g., how are they supported, do they have adequate time/training/mentoring/resources, etc.), information on how the administrative structure of the Amherst schools is similar (or not) to other districts of our size and complexity (e.g., do we have too many administrators? too few? a comparison with other districts should be useful), and that the results of such an evaluation process should be clearly conveyed to the community (e.g., potential opportunities for the parents/community members/staff members to participate on the committee, reports of the committee available on line, etc.). The Superintendents will prepare a recommendation for how such a committee might be formed (e.g., should it include community members, teachers, administrators, etc.) at the next meeting. As Andy wrote in his proposal, this proposal should help us move to "a data-driven inquiry and improvement model." And I think this would be a good step for our district -- let's examine what works well, and what could work better, and then let's develop strategies for improving what could work better.  

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Superintendent Search Forums

The search firm who will help find our new superintendent will hold three open forums for parents/community members. These forums will take place as follows:

Monday, September 15th, 6:30 to 7:15 pm in the high school library
Tuesday, September 16th, 11 am to noon at Jones Library
Tuesday, September 16th, 7 to 8 pm in the high school library

Please come and share your views about the strengths/weaknesses of our district and the characteristics we want in a new superintendent.

September 2, 2008 Regional Meeting

I'm assuming that by the time anyone is reading this post, you will already have a sense of how this meeting went (based on the newspaper coverage) ... and for those who have already contacted me expressing support/encouragement, thanks much! Unfortunately this meeting was not videotaped by ACTV, and hence there will not be television coverage to watch, so I'll do my best to provide the "highlights."

First, the meeting started with the Chair, Michael Hussein, describing various policies for how School Committee meetings would run. This information focused largely on the need to sometimes cut debate/questions from the audience/School Committee members, given that there is a set agenda (determined by the School Committee chair and the Superintendent). I asked a number of questions about this information, which were as follows:

1. Would it be possible to distribute answers to questions from the audience at a later time? Understandably people sometimes ask questions that need to be investigated, and hence answers aren't always forthcoming at that exact meeting, but the policy thus far has been to respond to THAT PERSON only with the answer -- and I've found that often one person asks a question that many other people have. Thus, I'd like to see a policy by which answers are posted in a public way (perhaps in future School Committee Meeting minutes or on line). No one on the committee responded to this suggestion.

2. Would it be possible for us to create ways of eliciting feedback from the public about things we are discussing in another way, such as through a public forum? I often feel like I need more information from other parents/community members/teachers before making a decision, and our current system really doesn't provide much opportunity for this. Again, no one on the committee responded to this suggestion.

3. Are there topics that we welcome additional public comment on and others that we do not? I am very struck by the fact that this School Committee devoted much of three meetings (and portions of other meetings) to the debate about the cafeteria workers ... and yet topics on academics and curricula seem to be very limited in terms of public comment. This seems ironic and unfortunate. Again, no one on the committee responded to this suggestion.

4. Would it be possible for community members/parents/teachers to add topics to the School Committee agenda? I did receive an answer to this one -- I was told that board members CAN suggest topics, so if anyone has a topic they'd like me to bring up, please let me know and I'll try to add it to the agenda.

Second, two parents in the audience brought up questions. Steve Rivkin asked about the trimester report, and when that report would be available. He particularly noted that he hoped that report included information about learning outcomes, given that he has learned that some students go as long as 9 months without their world language (although my understanding is that the trimester evaluation included no information about learning outcomes). I believe that the Executive Summary is supposed to be posted soon, and I'll let everyone know when that happens. Alysa Braverman asked about middle school math placement, and the system that is being used to give parents information about the placement test. I believe that the superintendents are looking into answers about this, and we are hopeful that the new middle school principal is going to work to further clarify this system (which seems to have been very confusing to many parents for a long time).

Next, the Chair turned to a set of 9 School Committee guidelines that were created by the interim co-superintendents based on their past experience working with School Committees (these guidelines had been sent to School Committee members earlier in the week). I found these guidelines very helpful, and in particular, I liked the following two guidelines:

3. Establish ways to go deeper into governance or debatable issues and gather more information by 1) forming ad hoc or sub-committees; 2) holding public forums; and/or 3) reviewing before approving School Improvement Plans. The give and take needs a "brokering" strategy that clarifies without polarizing.

6. Ask for school committee majority vote/consensus on requests for producing new reports, data, initiatives, actions from administrators/teachers/staff. The Feds, State, DESE, and other agencies have us overloaded.

I noted that since my arrival on the School Committee (April 1, 2008), I had never seen either of these two approaches used by our School Committee, and that I would find this approach very helpful. In particular, I'd like to see us form ad hoc or sub-committees to study areas of concern, hold public forums to get parent/teacher/community feedback on certain topics, and vote on whether we want new reports/data. I would find each of these approaches very helpful, in part because I arrived on the School Committee with particular goals, but have found it very difficult to make progress on any of these. As many who have attended School Committee meetings (or watched them on TV) have noted to me, I often make suggestions, and these suggestions are completely ignored by the other members of the School Committee. At the last meeting, for example, I asked for a report on the trimester system (following the presentation by Mark Jackson), and another member of School Committee said, "That isn't what the School Committee wants, Catherine" -- as if she was able to determine on her own what the other members wanted (and that is was obviously only me who would want such a report). I certainly understand that my goals may not be shared by other School Committee members, but I think it would be appropriate for all members of the board to openly vote on whether they do or do not want a particular report or data, form a sub-committee, etc. I intend to ask for such votes in the future, because this does seem like the right approach.

At this point in the meeting, things became somewhat heated ... as you probably gathered from newspaper reports of the meeting. Given that this part really didn't focus on academics, I'm not going to go into detail about what occurred, other than to say it focused largely on how boards should work together, whether consensus should be the primary goal, and appropriate strategies for change. Let's just say that there were differences of opinion stated emotionally.

We also discussed whether we should attend a retreat to work on "how we operate as a board." I am not in favor of such a retreat, because I frankly think there is a limited amount of time/energy we all have to devote as volunteers to School Committed work, and I'd rather see us focus our time/energy on actually doing things (not talking about how we do things). So, if we are going to spend a morning together, I'd prefer for us to use that time creating a list of comparison districts we could evaluate ourselves against, creating an approach for evaluating our current curricula/policies, and/or reviewing what information we'd like on our district web page. I also think the public should have a right to see how we discuss any topics, including how we work together to make decisions, and the rule for a retreat is apparently that no press/public is allowed. So, a vote was taken, and I lost -- 1 to 8. A retreat will happen in private to discuss how we operate as a board.

Finally, we had a brief discussion about a new policy on "Evaluation of Instructional Programs." This policy will create a system by which all programs/curricula are evaluated on a regular basis, which should include measures of student achievement, comparison to other benchmark districts, and a public distribution of the results of the evaluation. This policy will be further discussed (and voted on) at a later meeting.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

August 16, 2008 Regional Meeting

This meeting largely focused on a report of the high school, presented by Principal Mark Jackson. This report focused largely on providing an overview of the current high school framework, and included information on the following topics related to academic achievement: reducing class size, providing better information exchange between faculty and parents, and a greater emphasis on school-wide writing expectations. The report also included a brief summary of the trimester evaluation committee, and specifically that this committee has been unable to achieve consensus and thus that the trimester system will continue.

As a School Committee member, I had a number of questions about this report and about the high school (most of my issues were ones that parents and teachers had brought to my attention). The following questions were asked (in most cases by me) and received the following responses:

1. Could I get a copy of the trimester evaluation committee report, and could that report be placed on the web for interested families/community members? Although this seems like a pretty reasonable question (given that this committee spent 18 months working on evaluating the trimester system), it is not clear to me that a report even exists (I'm doing this entry over a week past the meeting because I was waiting to see a report). I was also surprised that the committee did not examine any data related to learning outcomes (e.g., do kids learn world languages or math better in a trimester versus a semester system?) nor did the committee examine any data related to other districts (e.g., what system is used in high achieving districts in Massachusetts?) nor did the committee examine budget implications of different systems (e.g., is it more or less cost-effective to have students change schedules three times a year versus twice). I don't have a stake in whether our school system uses a trimester versus a semester system, but I do have a stake in whether our district uses a rigorous, thoughtful, and thorough process to evaluate our school programs and policies -- and I don't see this trimester evaluation as an example of such a process. Other members of the School Committee did not seem to share my concerns.

2. Andy Churchill asked a question about the plan for evaluating the new 9th grade science program (this question was sent to me and to Andy by a parent who could not attend the meeting). Apparently a survey was given to all high school students about their science class, and information on their experience will be used to evaluate the new program (although the specific timing and procedures used to measure "success" versus "failure" were not noted). Some data on science classes taken may also be collected, but again, it was quite clear that there is no real plan for evaluating this program. I see the absence of a real evaluation plan for an unprecedented required science program as a real problem, and as very emblematic of our school system's tendency to just rely on gut instinct and intuition to make decisions, as opposed to a careful and thorough evaluation of empirical evidence. But the lack of an evaluation plan is frankly the fault of the School Committee, which approved the new science program without requiring an evaluation of any sort, and not the fault of Mark Jackson. I hope that the School Committee and/or superintendents will develop a real plan for evaluating this new program -- but I'm not hopeful (I've pushed considerably for such an evaluation and have virtually no support).

3. I asked whether the high school underclass awards assembly would continue this year (it was cancelled last year). I was pleased to see that Mark Jackson has made the decision to continue this assembly (which many parents felt was helpful in celebrating achievement and accomplishments from many children).

4. I asked a question about the effectiveness of different approaches to conducting honors work in high school classes. Some high school classes include only students who are interested in doing honors-level work, and this work is then taught during classtime and also given as homework. Other high school classes include mostly students who are doing college preparation (regular, non-honors) work, and then a few students who have the option of doing additional work outside of class as a way of getting honors. I've now heard from several families that some teachers are not very supportive of students who want to do honors work in these classes (perhaps because this requires additional work for teachers), and thus some students feel discouraged about doing honors. I was glad to hear that the high school is planning on investigating these different approaches to earning honors work, and I hope that he will return to the School Committee with a report on his findings later this year.

5. I asked a question about the results of the high school climate survey that was sent home with parents with report cards in June (and parents were told the results would be posted on line). Mark Jackson reported that many surveys have been received, but that results have not yet been tabulated. He hopes that the survey results will be posted this fall sometime.

At this point, I was told by the Chair (Michael Hussin) that my time for questions was up, and hence I was not allowed to ask my final question, which was as follows: Is the high school considering adding two AP classes that are commonly found in MSAN districts (AP Statistics, AP Chemsitry)? If I am able to get an answer to this question at a later point, I'll be glad to update my blog with the answer!

August 5, 2008 Regional Meeting

The bulk of the School Committee action in May and June focused on hiring an interim superintendent, and hence I haven't updated my blog in some time. But now the year is starting again, and this will be a crucial one for the future of the Amherst schools -- with four new principals plus a search for a new superintendent -- and hence I will be blogging regularly after each meeting.

I was on vacation and hence missed the August 5th Regional Meeting -- thus, my entry will reflect the minutes from this meeting, newspaper reports of this meeting, and information I learned from friends who attended the meeting.

First, I was delighted to learn that many parents had attended the meeting and had asked important questions (the School Committee clearly needs to be more responsive to parent/community concerns than they have been at times, and having people attend meetings and ask questions is an important step in the right direction). These questions included concerns about learning about middle school teams prior to the first day of school (which is understandably very anxiety-provoking for kids) and information on math placement procedures used in the middle school. I am delighted to report that Glenda Cresto, the new principal of the middle school, has already tackled each of these issues -- she has sent information home to each family on middle school team assignment and has produced a memo for the School Committee and interested parents on the math placement procedures. (Side note: This type of responsiveness and follow through on the part of a principal who has been on the job for less than two months is impressive -- and I've received several very positive emails from parents already). The math placement issue is one that the district still needs to work on more -- as part of my work on the Math Curriculum Review Committee, I'll try to help with providing more clarity on procedures (and making sure that families all have appropriate information). I was, however, very disturbed to learn that a fellow member of the School Committee said the following: "These are not new (parent) comments ... The math placement has never been clear in my 11 years on this committee. I'm very concerned that it has not been dealt with." I believe that if there is a problem like this in the schools for 11 years, then the School Committee hasn't been doing their job -- this seems like a ridiculously long period of time for such a situation to continue.

Second, the co-superintendents (Al Sprague and Helen Vivian) provided a good update on their transition activities, including their entry plan and work on curriculum guides). Two other issues were raised by Marianne Jorgensen (acting as Chair of the Committee in Michael Hussin's absence) that I see as very important -- an update on the trimester schedule used in the high school (this will be presented at the next meeting) and an update on the website upgrade (this work seems to be on-going, but hopefully can happen soon).

Third, Glenda Cresto presented a report on the middle school. In particular, I think two very important issues were raised in this report.

1. This report included information on the Middle School climate survey, which was sent to all parents in June. The report revealed that only half of parent respondents thinks the school seeks their opinion on important issues and less than half think their children are given challenging homework. I don't see either of these findings as surprising, but I'm delighted that the new principal has created an action plan to try to address them.

2. This report included information on the number of kids (8) who left the Amherst schools for the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School in South Hadley -- which Glenda Cresto thought was a lot (I agree -- especially because many kids who apply aren't accepted, so this probably underestimates the true interest/demand). As I've said before, I'd like the schools to start formally tracking the number of kids who opt out of the public schools at each grade, and where these kids go, and why. Using some type of exit survey when families request their records to be sent elsewhere would be very informative for the district -- if the public schools aren't meeting the needs of all kids, we need to know that, and we need to know why.

Those were the highlights of this meeting -- and my big take from this meeting is how glad we should all be to have Glenda Cresto on board!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Thoughts on the Achievement Gap

Throughout my campaign for School Committee (and before that, in my work as co-founder of ACE), people have accused me (and/or ACE) of being racist, and have assumed that I'm trying to move the schools to meet only the needs of white (or wealthy, or white and wealthy) kids. And I am continually amazed that for so many people in this educated and liberal town, speaking about academic excellence seems to be speaking ONLY about white, wealthy kids. So, let me say on the record, that I think ALL kids benefit from schools that emphasize academic challenge and rigor. (As expressed eloquently by a person of color who called me after last week's Hampshire Gazette article came out, "academic excellence does not have a color or an economic class.").

I also believe that my emphasis on evaluating what we are doing and examining what other districts are doing can be extremely useful in closing the achievement gap that exists in the Amherst schools. In particular, we should look to other districts, like Amherst, that are a part of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN -- there's a link on my blog to their home page). The Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) is a group of multiracial, suburban-urban school districts across that country (with student populations between approximately 3,000 and 30,000, and typically with a history of high academic achievement and some connections to major research universities) that have come together to study achievement gaps that exist in their districts.

One of the things I like best about MSAN is their focus on research -- here's a quote from their website:

The Minority Student Achievement Network conducts collaborative research that informs school practices, engages in and evaluates evidence-based instructional interventions, and provides learning opportunities for teachers. The ultimate goal of the research is to increase our knowledge of the processes that contribute to the achievement gap in order to inform policies and practices that will enhance the academic performance of African American and Latino/a students.

We believe that in order to reach these goals a comprehensive approach is necessary. Therefore, we combine research, instructional interventions, and learning opportunities for teachers into an integrated approach. We believe that students will excel when academic rigor and high expectations are combined with caring, supportive school environments that include positive family involvement. Therefore, our research focuses on improving teaching and learning (particularly in mathematics, science, and literacy), building stronger relationships between teachers and students, and enhancing parents' educational participation.

Only two of these districts (other than Amherst) are in Massachusetts (Brookline and Cambridge). However, the level of academic challenge provided in these others districts is clearly greater than that provided in our district (at least at the high school level). For example, both Brookline and Cambridge require an identical set of THREE years of high school science courses: physics for all 9th graders, chemistry for all 10th graders, and biology for all 11th graders. In contrast, Amherst Regional High School requires ecology/environmental science for all 9th graders and then only one other science course (likely biology or chemistry), for a total of TWO years of science. Thus, students in Brookline and Cambridge, regardless of race/class/gender, all graduate having had physics, chemistry, and biology in high school. Students at Amherst High can now graduate having had a class in only ONE of these three core sciences. These schools also both offer AP Chemistry, a class that is an important gateway class to studying chemistry in college (and an important class for aspiring doctors), whereas Amherst Regional High School does not offer this class.

A final note -- although as noted in my first post, I was criticized during the School Committee meeting for suggesting we compare ourselves to Brookline, a recent report by the Boston Black Parents Alliance on reducing the math achievement gap stated the following: "An example of a school district with a seemingly urgent approach to closing their achievement gap is the Brookline School District. District leaders and school level leaders have identified closing the achievement gap as a top priority of the district and, most importantly, they have developed and outlined a specific action plan for closing the gap." This plan (which can be seen at: includes extensive exploration of data to determine their progress in closing the achievement gap as well as looking to other districts for programs that have worked to reduce the achievement gap. And once again, I hope other members of the School Committee will join me in pushing the district to analyze the effectiveness of our programs and compare what we are doing with what other districts are doing across all areas of our curriculum and for all our students.

Friday, May 2, 2008

April 29, 2008 Regional Meeting

First, Superintendent Jere Hochman announced that a committee is working on selecting math textbooks for 6th to 8th graders. I asked whether parents were included in this committee, but was told that parents were not part of this committee (only teachers). I also asked whether the committee was gathering information on books used by high achieving districts in Massachusetts, and was told that they were not (although this information might eventually be used). I've written a textbook, and I know that the level of book can vary considerably -- I had hoped that at a minimum, the textbook selection committee would have gathered information on the books used by public schools in high achieving Massachusetts districts (what are these? See links on my website to the Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report lists of public high schools). Perhaps these books won't work for Amherst for some reason, but at least having this information seems like a good idea (and I'm going to continue to push for this).

Second, we discussed a new "enrichment policy" -- here's the exact wording:

The Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools, the Amherst Public Schools, and the Pelham Elementary School are committed to providing educational programs and support to meet the needs of all children. Programs should support each child's growth and development by providing him/her with an appropriately challenging educational program. The School Districts will utilize a model for enrichment and enhancement of students' experiences in the educational program in order to meet the needs, interests, and talents of students. The schools and staff will have high academic expectations for every students, will actively encourage achievement, and will encourage students to become independent learns and critical thinkers.

Apparently this policy used to be the "gifted and talented policy," which describes a different sort of a program (that is, a pull out program in which just some kids could receive this additional support). The new enrichment policy is designed to be able to offer extra challenge to kids who need it but in a more flexible way (that is, it is not identifying only SOME kids who need enrichment). I'm delighted with this policy and think it could make a real difference for ALL kids. I was quite surprised, however, that when Superintendent Hochman was describing this policy, Kathleen Anderson (another School Committee member from Amherst) turned to me and said "This is the program for the rich white kids." It strikes me as extremely offensive (and entirely inaccurate) to assume that poor and/or kids of color couldn't benefit from enrichment.

Third, we discussed the district's "goals of instructional program". Many of these are very good -- and place a heavy emphasis on academic achievement, including:

1. To challenge all students to achieve academically at an internationally competitive level ...,
6. To employ best practices of differentiated instruction to ensure that every student is learning, and
7. To maximize each student's achievement directed by district curriculum standards and objective or, as agreed upon,
individualized goals.

I particularly liked #5: "To utilize appropriate, effective, research-based practices and innovative course plans, units of study, lesson plans, pedagogy and assessment practices." However, I ended up abstaining on the vote on these goals (all other members voted in favor) because I'm just not convinced that the district truly intends to follow through on this fifth goal -- I see little evidence of the use of research-based practices or assessment, although I hope this is changing.

One more note from this meeting: I was very concerned by Kathleen Anderson's question to me (following my request that the School Committee begin to consider the policies and programs that are used in other districts) "Why don't you move to Brookline?" After I looked at her blankly, believing that I must have misheard the comment, she repeated it. At this point, I stopped the meeting and asked Elaine Brighty to request that Kathleen stop muttering comments to me. I'm still pondering how best to react to this comment (and specifically whether to have it stated for the record at the next meeting), but it strikes me both as very inappropriate and very unfortunate (does she really mean to imply that a School Committee member who wants to see what high achieving districts are doing should leave Amherst?). Amherst has to find its own way and choose programs that work best for our kids, and I don't believe our goal should be to "become Brookline" (or any district). But that doesn't mean we can't, and shouldn't, learn from what other school districts are doing and at least consider implementing some of the policies and programs that have worked well in other places. When there are districts who are succeeding in some way (e.g., raising achievement levels in traditionally underperforming subgroups, increasing math/science/writing proficiency, and so on), we should clearly try to learn what these districts are doing, and I intend to continue to push for this type of research.