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, February 3, 2009

Amherst School Committee, February 3, 2009

This was a very brief meeting just to clarify the options that the School Committee would like numbers on (from the Superintendent's office) to review at our next meeting on February 10th. Specifically, we requested three things:

1. A prioritized list of program changes, cuts, and additions that would occur for the budget with both the 2% increase recommended by the Finance Committee AND the "worst case" scenario.

2. Fiscal savings, personnel cuts, and classroom impact for each of the following FOUR options:

--Pairing K-2/3-6 (FR-CF, MM-WW)
--Three K to 4 schools, WW as a 5/6 school
--Closing MM and redistributing those kids to the other three schools (K to 6)
--Closing MM and redistrbuting those kids to the other schools (K to 5) AND moving the 6th graders to the MS

This last option is something that apparently would help relieve concerns about overcrowding in the other schools if we simply close MM, and also could have some pedagogical benefits for 6th graders (perhaps introduction to World Language, greater family involvement with the MS if it goes to a 3-year school). As the parent of a 5th grader, this plan would clearly impact me personally (especially with that 7 am bus pick up), but I am very glad that our administrative staff has worked to really explore a range of options at this critical budget time.

3. An initial estimate of the time, financial, and other costs of reconfiguring the district for each of these plans (e.g., how/when could redistricting occur, would much time/cost to move teachers/books/furniture, how to move the portables, etc.).

My understanding is that the School Committee will have these numbers on Friday, so that we can review the figures over the weekend in preparation for our meeting on Tuesday. The Tuesday meeting will also be held in a larger forum -- potentially the MS auditorium (stay tuned for announcements on this). I believe there will then also be time for parents/community members to share thoughts on these plans on the 10th, but also in some parent group forums at the elementary schools in late February/early March. It sounds like we will need to vote on a plan sometime between mid-March and early April (to prepare a budget for Town Meeting), so that should give us at least a month, maybe more, to get community input and gather additional data (e.g., redistricting models), before taking a vote on the budget.


Anonymous said...

I can see that the options 3 and 4 might sound different than what has been discussed. You have said, if I remember correctly, and I have said it too, that MM students, if it were to close, would LIKELY go as a cohort/group to WW. That makes sense geographically. But it sounds like options 3 and 4 as posted here would redistribute those MM kids to ANY of the other three schools.

Could you offer any clarification that might allay further worry among MM families?

As I understood it, a crucial part of considering closing MM was that it would be combined with an effort to redistrict but that this would still maintain some degree of student proximity to their school. This seems possible given the district map.


Sue Cairn said...

That sure was a short meeting....I was barely in the door when it ended. But, I was pleased to see that there are a number of options under consideration, and that budget numbers were promised for all. Do you know if the general public will have access to the numbers on Friday when School Committee receives them, or do we need to wait until Tuesday? It also seems like there will be just enough time before the vote is taken to have facilitated community dialogues, which are crucial. I appreciate the transparency your blog has given to this process.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Hi, Abbie and Sue:

1. I haven't heard any specific plans about how MM families (under plans 3 and 4) would be redistricted ... but I do imagine that every effort would be made to keep the MM community together (and yes, mostly likely in WW). That is information (a redistricting plan) that I think we should have in March sometime. And yes, I think given the map, most (all?) MM families would go to WW.

2. My understanding is that the SC members will have the numbers early, and that the public will see them on Tuesday. I had asked for the numbers by Friday, because I frankly want to review them prior to the meeting, in case I have questions that I would like to raise prior to the formal presentation. So, it seems like one more week to wait -- and then yes, about a month for public discussion/comment, etc.

Anonymous said...

How does the vote on the budget, time line work out with the School Committee election time? Are the people currently on the Committee, going to be voting on this or will this happen after the election?

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the incorrect punctuation on that one!! That's what happens when you don't proof read!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

We don't officially know when the vote will occur ... there is an Amherst meeting on March 17th, which I think is a decent bet in terms of timing. The next Amherst meeting (these occur only monthly) is April 14th, which is pretty late to get a budget to Town Meeting. I'm also hearing we need an answer by mid- to late March because staff need to be able to plan (e.g., if we aren't going to have instrumental music, those teachers need to know; if we are going to move the 6th grade to the MS, that impacts space/classrooms in that school, etc.). The election is March 31st -- a vote after that point seems pretty late to me. So, my best bet is that the vote will occur in March, before the next election (this is, just to be clear, MY OPINION -- it is possible that an April vote could occur, but I think that is unlikely).

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Catherine, thanks to you and the rest of the Elementary School Committee for making the data needs perfectly clear to the Superintendents and including a firm deadline. Having reliable data will make the discussion and ultimate decision much more directed. I am also glad to see the option of moving the sixth grade to ARMS included in there. It seems like another educationally-sound option that would also offer more flexibility in our elementary schools and add something to ARMS.

Look forward to learning all the details on February 10th...good idea on the auditorium!

annfmcl said...

I'm curious--is there a sense that there's enough room for the 6th graders at the middle school? Especially given the idea of regionalizing the schools with other area towns. I'm not saying I'm against the idea, but I would just like to know if it's even feasible. --Ann McLaughlin

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Hi, Ann,

My understanding is that there is indeed room at the MS - if teachers share classrooms (meaning that we can't have classrooms sit empty -- teachers would go into their classroom to teach, and then another teacher would have that classroom in the next period). District staff have already run these numbers before it was proposed last night.

Two other things would help:

1. Moving the 2 MM portables (which were designed for 6th grade use anyway) to the MS adds two more classrooms.

2. We are only talking about 200 kids from the Amherst schools -- NOT the Leverett/Shutesbury/Pelham kids. It is my understanding that those towns like their current situation, and aren't particularly interested in having their kids move to the MS after 5th (of course, this could change if regionalization pressures continue, but that's my understanding as of now).

Anonymous said...

If our sixth graders moved to the MS would they have the opportunity to take part in more advanced classed for math, etc?
Is this something that could occur by next Sept. or is it more probable later on?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Again, I don't have full information on how this plan would work, so I can't answer whether kids would have opportunities to do more advanced math specifically (and, as a member of the Math Curriculum Council, I remain hopeful that we are going to have all 6th graders using the Impact 1 textbook next year -- regardless of whether they are in their separate elementary schools OR the middle school -- which leads into the Impact 2 and 3 textbooks now used in 7th and 8th grade). But I do think it would be possible to offer world language in 6th grade if they were in this building, so it might at least give all kids a chance to start language a year earlier (again, this is my OPINION, and I don't know if the numbers have been run on whether teacher time would allow this).

Anonymous said...

The conversation about moving the 6the grade to the middle school seems to assume the 6th grade teachers would be enthusiastic about the idea, or it doesn't include note of the impact of any lack of enthusiasm. I've talked to many of them about the proposal, over several years, and have not sensed enthusiasm, just the opposite. It seems they chose to teach in an elementary school so they could teach the whole child the whole day, as opposed to teaching a single subject to rotating groups.

I also haven't sense much enthusiasm among parents for the idea. The parents of 11 year olds in the hill towns are apparently not alone.

An educationally-sound idea? Certainly open to debate. A sound idea in a social-emotional sense for many 11 year olds? Absolutely open to debate.

P.S. About the new math textbook the middle school would like
the 6th grade to use. It seems, looking at some data (MCAS scores),
that most elementary schools in the system are doing a good, or great, job using the textbook they have now. Given the drastic cuts anticipated in our schools next year, is our money best spent on another new math program (I believe this is the 3rd or 4th new one in the past 10/12 years)?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Hi, Anonymous,

I'm not a 6th grade teacher, so I can't speak for them ... and I imagine we will hear from them (or the principals will hear from them) soon. But just to clarify two points:

1. My understanding of the proposal is that 6th grade would be taught in the same way it is now -- the 6th grade teachers WOULD teach the child the whole day (except for gym, PE, etc., and possibly world language). The plan as I understand it would NOT be for the 6th graders to follow the rotating teachers/be on a team model that we have for the 7th and 8th graders. So, that might make at least some 6th grade teachers/parents feel better?

2. In terms of the textbook -- there is a curriculum (Investigations) that we have for K to 5 right now (this curriculum only goes K to 5). The MS adopted a curriculum (including a textbook) last year called Impact, which has three years (because in most schools, 6th grade IS in the MS). So, the MS is now using Impact 2 and Impact 3 (for 7th and 8th graders), but there is some sentiment that it might be better for our kids to get the WHOLE series (starting with Impact 1 in 6th grade, which should lead to more kids completing algebra by 8th grade). As you may know, the 6th graders currently don't have a textbook, and I've heard great enthusiasm from 7th and 8th grade parents and teachers about the Impact series. So, in my opinion, that would be $25,000 (that is the sum total needed to buy books for all 6th graders -- which is a one time expense since the books would be used year to year by different kids) that is very well spent.

I'm the mother of a 5th grader, so this plan would certainly impact my family -- and I look forward to hearing more about this plan on Tuesday so that we can all understand better why this may or may not make sense for us to do at this time (educationally as well as fiscally).

Anonymous said...

I know of several 6th grade teachers who do have textbooks in their rooms, bought by the system during the last decade. They also have Connected Math handbooks,that the Middle School wanted them to buy several years ago, sitting on their shelves. Are you sure the purchase of the Impact series will be a one-time expense that will last for more than a few years?
History says it won't.

lise said...

Just a comment on the educational soundness of 6th graders in the MS.....I believe most middle schools in the US have gone to three years (either 6-8 or 7-9) unless the school is part of a campus with either a high school (7-9) or elementary school (k-8). I cannot cite the data sources, but my understanding is that two years is considered difficult because children are always either transitioning in or transitioning out. There is not sufficient time for them to get settled in the school. Three year MS is a change that has been suggested in the past by ARMS teachers and administrators for educational reasons, regardless of the budget impact. If it saves money too, it sounds like a win-win to me...

Anonymous said...

I have a 5th grader in Ft. Fiver and my child has NEVER had a math textbook for the past 4 years he has been there. Clearly, the schools are not equal by any measures. I think it would be wonderful to move the 6th graders to the middle school. The elementary math program that my child has experienced is quite watered down. Being part of the middle school, might create more challenging academic opportunities for these students, and provide a math textbook in line with the new Impact math program that the district has already committed to.

I also believe, as Lise says, that most school districts have a 3 grade middle school. Having had older children go through ARMS, I think moving the 6th graders to the middle school could benefit the whole school.

I also think it would be wonderful for these students to begin a world language in 6th grade. Frankly, I would have preferred it if they began it in kindergarten!

If moving the 6th graders to ARMS helps the overall school district budget and frees up some much needed space in the elmentary schools, I think it is a great idea.

Anonymous said...

In terms of looking ahead and strategic planning, it's important to get a sense of the financial shortfalls ahead. Every year for the past 5 years, there have been cuts to the elementary schools. (As we know level-funding is just another form of cuts.)

What has the shortfall been each of the past 5 years? Realizing, of course, that each year the Town is funding is an elementary school program that is less strong than year before. (In other words, the budget for 2008-07 had cuts from a 2007-06 budget which had cuts from the previous year and so on. )

Whatever these cuts average out to we should assume at least this number as a yearly shortfall in the years ahead -- and this should inform the decision the school board makes this year. We can't lurch from budget crisis to budget crisis -- pretending the crisis is an unexpected event or hoping for a windfall.

Anonymous said...

FR 5th grade parent:

Teachers "having" a textbook and "using" a textbook are two different things. Maybe those teachers did have, but not use.

If they didn't "have", you would have to ask your teachers/former principal why that happened.

If they did have, but didn't use, you would have to ask them why not.

Sue Cairn said...

To the FR 5th grader at Ft. River has a textbook (Mr. Cantillo's class). In her class they are using Investigations. They mostly use it at school, although she also has brought it home for homework assignments.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about how it would work to have 6th graders from Amherst schools go to the Middle School and begin Foreign Language and then, a year later, be grouped in 7th grade with students from Pelham, Leverett,and Shutesbury who haven't had that experience. Would 7th and 8th grade Foreign Language classes then be segregated by where you live?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Assorted responses:

1. There are two reasons to have Impact 1 for 6th graders: first, it would be an advantage for the 7th grade teachers to KNOW what all 6th graders in Amherst come in knowing (as these posts already indicate, some classes in some schools have books, some classes in some schools don't). Impact 1 is also designed specifically to lead into Impact 2 (7th grade) and Impact 3 (8th grade), which means it should help kids in the MS do better in math. Second, having a standard textbook helps kids who don't have parents who can help them -- it means the information is available at home, which doesn't occur when the homework is just a sheet of paper, with no background, etc. So, I'm a fan of all the 6th graders having a math book ... and I think that would be good regardless of whether they are in the MS or in the elementary schools.

2. In terms of the issue of world language -- we are close to having a situation now with kids coming into the MS with different levels of language -- Pelham is offering Spanish, and Wildwood is offering Chinese (meaning the WW 7th graders would presumably be with 8th graders for Chinese). So, I can imagine it being somewhat tricky to work out how the lanaguages work with the kids from different towns being at different levels already. Definitely that would be a good question for the SC and the MS leadership to ponder.

3. I'm the mother of a 5th grader, and I can definitely see advantages to having him in the MS next year. I have definitely heard from MS parents that there just into enough "buy in" because arrive and get ready to leave -- so I think it might be helpful to have kids there for three years in terms of having a broader commitment from parents.

4. I agree with the anonymous comment about all the thinks that have been cut ... and I'm going to see if we can create a list that details those cuts (and the pretty on-going deficit). I also think having a long-term plan seems key -- especially since we know already that the increases in charter school tuition are going to triple from what they are right now (so we can already tell that the budget situation is going to get worse in the next year or two, NOT better). It would be very good to get in a place in which we weren't always in crisis.

Anonymous said...

I'm the parent of a 5th grader who has already had children go through the MS. I would be thrilled if 6th grade was moved there for the reasons you stated and many, many more.

an Old-Timer said...

Just wanted to add my two cents to this discussion even though both of my children have long since graduated from ARHS...

Two things:
1. The year that the current Junior High opened (1969) it was actually a 4-year school (6th-9th grade) and I was a part of that very first 6th grade class. It was both scary & wonderful and, looking back through the lens of time I see it leaning more towards the wonderful end of the spectrum for many, many reasons. With the
9th grade class now at the high school and space not being an issue at the ARMS, I see it as being a potentially perfect solution for the district if MM does indeed end up being closed down (a school that I also attended & for which I have fond memories)

2. For those who insist on continuing to "shoot the messenger" on this blog (and in the newspapers) I say this: take one step backward from your entrenched positions, adjust the lens on your glasses and try to see just how fortunate you are to have a School Committe member who is willing to put in the time & effort - as A VOLUNTEER - to keep YOU informed of what's going on within the schools AND to spend her OWN TIME answering each & every one of your emails (as well as having many impromptu discussions, I'm sure, at Stop & Shop, Rao's, and wherever else you may see her). She didn't CREATE this current fiscal situation w/in the schools - she merely had the guts to step forward, raise her hand & say "Maybe I can help." That's much, much more than any one of us can say from the safety of the sidelines.

Trust me when I tell you that she is THE EXCEPTION when it comes to her willingness to put herself out there to each of you, to provide transparency re: teh inner workings of the School Committee, and to just plain CARE about the future of the Amherst Schools. Disagree with her opinions, challenge her assumptions but do NOT attack her willingness to maintain this very important public dialogue about our public schools!

Many of you forget what the alternative looks like - closed doors, private discussions, zero communication, etc. I have seen DOZENS of school committe members come & go over the years here in Amherst and, trust me, this woman is a keeper. Keep up the good work Catherine & please keep these updates coming (despite the rocks being lobbed from the sidelines by the naysayers) - the education of our children is much too important to settle for anything less! Thank you for providing this forum...

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Dear "Old Timer" -- Thank you much for the vote of confidence ... which was very touching. I agree with you that information and transparency has too often been rare, and I am just trying to do my part to get information out there to the community and share my views about how best to solve this very real fiscal crisis. So, don't worry -- I'm going to keep blogging (even while ducking some rocks)!

Anonymous said...

"Three year MS is a change that has been suggested in the past by ARMS teachers and administrators ". Exactly! Notice that the people who work directly every day with 6th graders (their teachers, principals, guidance counselors, etc.) are not among the group recommending the change.

Anonymous said...

Just curious if there are ANY other districts in MA that have 6th grade in elementary school?(I am not asking about the K-8 schools though) As far as I can tell, they are all moving to MS either 5th or 6th grade. As far as I am concerned, 6th grade being in elementary, is far too old. They are physically beyond that stage. There are a lot of them (not mine) that are already "dating". The maturity level is not good to expose to the younger kids. Personally, I feel the 5/6 model would be best. It lets the kids grow up but only so far. They are not exposed to the more mature kids in 7th and 8th. They can still be kids, but be older kids.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

I haven't examined all districts (I think there are 391!) in Massachusetts in terms of configuration of the Middle Schools ... but as part of my work on the "How Are We Doing Subcommittee" within the School Committee, we've created a list of comparison districts in Massachusetts and nationside (about 12 to 15 districts that are roughly similar to Amherst in terms of student achievement and demographics). I checked the five in Massachusetts just now to answer your question at least on these five:

Northampton, Longmeadow, Newton, and Framingham all have K to 5 schools. Brookline is the one exception -- they have K to 8 schools. However, we can't do K to 8 because the MS isn't equipped for kids as young as 5 (toilet size, etc.!) and that wouldn't work with our regional agreement, so that isn't an option (which has been suggested to me). So, I don't know of any other districts in MA that have our K to 6 model --but definitely K to 6 is not the "norm" (in MA or elsewhere).

Anonymous said...

Before we decide to model ourselves after other MS in the state and the ways in whcih they group grades, we should probably do some careful research about their other practices. For instance, do they offer 6 world languages? Do they use ability grouping? What do they do with 6th graders who are capable of handling math curriculum beyond their grade level?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

This is a good point, Anonymous! I am hopeful that we will have some pretty good idea of what plans may or may not make sense after the numbers are presented on Tuesday ... which then might tell us whether we want to move forward with contemplating moving the 6th grade (I did just check and noticed that all three superintendent candidates come from districts in which the 6th grade is in the middle school). If we do decide to move forward with this plan, I think the MS leadership will be thinking extensively about what makes sense for the 6th grades (e.g., math, world language, etc.). I'm certainly glad to investigate what other districts are doing, if this is the direction that seems to make sense.

Anonymous said...

Maybe, without realizing it, you captured part of the problem with regard to moving the 6th grade to the MS. You said, "I think the MS leadership will be thinking extensively about what makes sense for the 6th grades."
Has anybody asked the people who work each day with 6th graders what makes sense to them? Why is it the domain of the MS to determine what makes sense for students that have never been under their care? Even if a mechanism is created for input by staff who now work with 6th graders, what assurances are there that when all is said and done it will have mattered?