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.
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.