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.
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.