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, 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!