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.

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.


Ted Trobaugh said...


Thanks for the very detailed post.

As you point out, it is vital that the process be transparent and unhurried. Time must be given to receive and process input from the constituencies involved.

There are at least three points that indicate a poor process is currently underway:

1) The fact that the superintendts have offered only one plan clearly indicates a strong bias. If the goal were truly community invovlement, then more proposals would have been shared.

2) The fact that the superintendents proposed that a committee meet on Dec 29 and 30 -- in the middle of winter break and with only a two week lead time -- gives the impression that the proposal is being pushed through before the community has a chance to discuss it.

3) Such a major restructuring of the schools is really beyond the province of an interim-superintendent. It is a major overhaul that should only be undertaken by a superintendent who has gone through a full hiring process and who has a long-term commitment to the position.

I am hopeful that you will do all you can to slow down the process, to see that the proposed Dec 29-30 meetings are rescheduled to a date in Jan, and to open up the discussion to more options.


Ted Trobaugh

Sue Cairn said...

Thanks for running the numbers...very helpful to get an overview of the scenarios. I am assuming the numbers you gave for the current scenario are based on this year's budget. Can you give us some estimates (i.e. class size, reduced arts, etc) based on the projected budget if we keep the four K-6 schools?

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Thank you for providing at least some of the numbers that are really necessary in order to make an informed decision. I agree with Ted that the superintendents really do seem to be pushing one proposal by not even mentioning the work that your previous reorganization committee has reported on (

I encourage the School Committee to pressure school officials to provide you with ALL the data necessary before you vote on such an important issue. Costs of increased busing for each plan? Time spent on the bus under each plan? Number of children affected by each plan? Exact class sizes under each plan? Status of stand-alone programs such as Building Blocks under each plan? Cost savings of eliminating things such as art, music, or field trips?

The School Committee needs data in order to make an informed decision and the public needs data in order to understand the reasoning process behind the ultimate decision.

Thank you for trying to get at least some of the information out to us. I greatly appreciate it!

Anonymous said...

It's amazing how the idea of closing Mark's Meadow is the one that you decide to support and publicize because you do not have a vested interest there. Anyone who is a parent there knows there is a separate, identifiable and significant community there. You and the school committee are willing to shepherd our children like sheep because you are not promoting the idea of eliminating the principal and staff where your children feel at home. It is interesting to see that the School committee obviously does not want real parental and community involvement because there is no way they would schedule a meeting as important as this one during a holiday week when many people travel. This bias is clear when you look at how many Mark's Meadow families are affiliated with the University of Massachusetts and will be away during these meeting times.


A Mark's Meadow Parent

Anonymous said...

I would agree that closing Marks Meadow would be too traumatizing to many families just for the sake of saving some money. I would like to understand how much money are we going to save with each proposition?

There are too many factors here that need to be considered and I believe more voices need to be heard.
Can there be a meeting between schools to discuss what can be proposed to the superintendent that is decided between many people and not just one side of the view?

In addition I agree that having a meeting on Dec 29 and 30 is diffiult for many families due to the holiday. Can families attend through phone conference. If not can we create a petition to have the date changed?

Sin said...

Thank you so much for creating this blog and offering those numbers. I respect the opinion of the person advocating for not closing Marks Meadow, however I would be interested in observing other communities that are using this model before making an opinion either way about closing MM.

I have to express that I feel positive about grouping children based on grades and not mostly by where they live. As a graduate of the Amherst school system, I have never supported the current model where families are encouraged to enroll their children to a school based on their ethnicity. I'm not sure how many folks are aware but families in different districts are offered free transportation to a school outside their district depending on if they are of Chinese, Cambodian or Hispanic descent. I've had the opinion that the current system promotes a private school system in a public school where the children who are SPED or of lower socioeconomic groups are more likely to "the short end of the stick." If you want an equal education system, the composition of class rooms should be randomly selected.

I've heard a lot of positive reviews of our neighbors, the Belchertown school system, where they have been applying this model for sometime. Grades K-2 are located in one school and 3-6 are in another location.

Moreover, in response to any parent who wants to keep their children together, this puts a stronger emphasis for the interest of parents with multiple children. If you have the suggested model, you are putting the needs of the group ahead of any interest group.

Janet McGowan said...

Thanks Catherine for all your information and to the parents who posted their thoughtful comments. It's clear that we all need more information before any decision is made (and also clear that any decision will impose on some kids, families and school communities more than others.) We need to hear more from the Superintendents, committee that examined options, school committee members, teachers, principals, parents and kids about the different options and their consequences. We need to look at hard data and listen to experiences and perspectives -- before any decision is made. Let's talk together as a community.

Abbie said...

Thanks Catherine for being a voice of reason.

I am appalled that folks that have been "studying the situations" for years come up with such an insufficient solution to a problem of huge magnitude! I am sorry but a savings of 300-400k won't nearly come close to closing the budget gap this year, let alone next year. If folks think this year is bad, you are going to be in shock next year.

To the Marks Meadow parent, I have searched my heart to see if I might feel the same way if Wildwood were to close and my kid had to go to a different school. I honestly wouldn't as long as my kid would get the same kind of education as other kids in the system. Remember we are all in this dire situation together, all kids will have to face sacrifices in terms of larger classes, maybe no music, etc. Lets stop thinking "ME" and start thinking "EVERYONE".

If the savings in closing Marks Meadow are as great as I suspect then I see no alternative to closing the school and I applaud Catherine for raising the issue.