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.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Facing the Reality

I've heard a lot from many people over the last few weeks about whether this is the time to make major changes in our school district -- can we really, in the midst of interim-superintendents (who of course have now departed), an election for new School Committee members, and a massive budget crisis, make such big and important decisions -- closing a school, redistricting, moving the 6th grade to the Middle School, and so on. And in all honesty, I'm really torn about this. On the one hand, in an ideal world, it would be great to have a new superintendent leading us through a long strategic planning process -- in which we spend 2 or 3 years reviewing various pros and cons (fiscal, educational) of all options, getting community feedback on each of the various decisions, and then ultimately choosing how we best want to go. On the other hand, I see us facing a huge crisis in our schools RIGHT NOW -- we do have, in the best case scenario, an $800,000 budget gap at the elementary school level and a $1.4 million gap in the regional school level. And therefore choosing to NOT do something because this is an uncertain time in the leadership of our schools is actually choosing to DO something else. Maybe that "something else" feels less scary than closing a school/redistricting/moving the 6th grade -- because the reality is, we are going to have to do SOMETHING to close the budget gap (and counting on Obama/an override to save us is silly and irresponsible).

So, what are the "something else" options we are choosing to do if we are not willing to take a bold step?

  • One option is to cut the "optionals" in our district, such as instrumental music at the elementary school level (that saves about $200,000) and world language in middle school (that saves about $200,000). Does that feel like the right way to go?
  • Another option is to have giant class sizes. As I read in today's paper, Northampton -- facing a 3.1 million gap (somewhat greater than our combined 2.2 million gap) is planning on cutting 48 teachers (23 teachers across all four elementary schools, 11 at JFK Middle School and 14 at Northampton High School), which will result in class sizes even in the elementary school level between 37 and 44 students. We could certainly achieve significant cost savings by agreeing to have classes get this large. Does that feel like the right way to go?
  • Another option is to reduce support for elementary school kids who are struggling in some way -- intervention teachers who help with math/reading, English language learners (ELL), etc. Tier 1 elementary cuts save close to $200,000 by cutting this support, and Tier 2 elementary cuts save over $250,000 by cutting this support. Does that feel like the right way to go?

As I stare down the next four Tuesday nights -- certain to face emotional parents/teachers/community members who plead for us to save their preferred program (instrumental music in elementary school, Marks Meadow, 7th grade language, Russian and German in the high school, and so) -- I have one and only one request: Tell us what you want us to CUT in order to save your program. I'm totally willing and able to hear those requests -- but I really don't want to hear requests that don't recognize that reality.

Everyone who reads this blog knows the choices I'd make to save my preferred programs:

  • close Marks Meadow and use the $400,000 we save to fund instrumental music ($200,000), K to 6 world language ($100,000) and two intervention teachers ($100,000);
  • move 6th grade to the MS and the $100,000 or so we save to fund 7th grade language for all students (AND potentially maintain a full-time MS librarian).

And it is fine if these aren't your preferences -- and I'd truly like to know if these ARE or are NOT how you'd like me to vote. I just want everyone to recognize that encouraging the school leadership to delay making a decision about doing something drastic in this time of uncertainty in and of itself leads to doing something drastic -- it is just something drastic in a DIFFERENT way. That reality can't be ignored. Because I see eliminating instrumental music in elementary school as drastic, and I see having giant class sizes in all schools as drastic, and I see having no world language until 8th grade as drastic.

As this week's Editorial in the Amherst Bulletin notes, "Perhaps the folks who say that there's too much focus on money don't have the same financial worries that most Americans do. For many, making do with less is a stark reality. It's really no different for the schools. This is not about the vision of School Committee members. It's about making tough decisions in the face of hard times. Accepting that reality will not make the discussions any easier, but it will keep them properly focused." I couldn't have said it any better myself.

And one more thing, another column in the Bulletin this week by the "Amherst Center" proposed creating a School Committee blog, in which all members of the public could thereby communicate with the entire School Committee electronically: "What if the entire School Committee could have its own online blog, where all of the members could post topics for discussion and discuss them together, along with any interested members of the community? It would introduce a new level of exchange into the board deliberation process. And it would enable the community to chime in without having to make the meetings in person." I obviously think this is a great idea (nice job, Amherst Center!) -- but given that I imagine it will take some time for the School Committee to set up such a blog, I hereby allow, and in fact encourage, all School Committee members to chime in on this pre-existing blog whenever they would like using their own names, so that members of the public can have the opportunity to exchange views with the entire School Committee. I have no idea if other members of the School Committee currently read my blog, so feel free to express your support for this idea (of creating a separate School Committee blog and/or having them post on my blog) to other members of the School Committee directly at:


Gavin Andresen said...

I want music and small neighborhood schools. And I want smaller K-3 classes.

I'd pay for all of that by increasing class sizes for grades 4-12 (with much larger class sizes at the high school-- which would mean shifting money from the Regional to the Amherst budget) and dumping salary increases for advanced teacher certifications.

Why: because, from the research I've seen, class size seems to matter most in the early grades and the benefits carry through even if those students go into larger classes in higher grades. And there's no correlation between teacher certification and student performance (as far as I can see, great teachers are born, not made).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...


Thanks for the thoughts. I agree (as you know) about music. I also agree about the importance of small class size early, and the difficulties of predicting teacher success (there was a great New Yorker piece about this:

Three questions/issues:

1. Small neighborhood schools means what? Four schools as we currently have? Three schools but larger? Three schools but smaller because we lose the 6th grade? What is "small" and what is "large", given that we have about 1300 K to 6 kids each year.

2. Subsidizing Amherst FROM Regional is MUCH harder than the reverse ... because the Region includes $$ from Shutesbury/Leverett/Pelham, and they aren't so into subsidizing our elementary experience. But we could certainly increase class sizes in 7 to 12 (and then save the study halls? German/Russian?) -- although remember, some of those class sizes are already pretty large (and I'd imagine at a certain point, some types of teaching gets really hard -- world language and lab science comes to mind, as does any class in which teachers are trying to provide serious feedback on writing). We could also have a policy in which the SC tries to keep K to 3 classes small (under 20?), but is willing to have 4th to 6th grade classes large (25 to 30)? That switch would be within the elementary budget, and hence isn't hard to do.

3. Not sure if the SC can switch the way we have given raises for certain certifications right now -- I imagine that is a union contract issue. But I can check, and I do agree with your point and the lack of evidence that these are what we should be paying for (a point the New Yorker article makes well).

Anonymous said...

I want to close Marks Meadows and save instrumental music.

I want to cut the new teachers for Bridges and save the middle school world language program.

I want to cut the tech ed electives at the high school to preserve core academics (including world languages) and the athletic program.

Most of all, I want to see funding for special ed reduced. If it is state mandated, pay for it. If it is not, consider it an extra.

Why: because these cuts/preservations would serve the majority of our kids rather than small segments of our population.

Anonymous said...

There is no time to delay taking major action. It would be great if we had strong leadership from the superintendent(s), but we didn't have that anyway. We can not wait for the new superintendent to be on board. Now we need strong leadership and bold steps from the School Committee to do what's best for the MAJORITY of students in the school system.

I support:
1. Keeping class sizes as small as possible, and retaining instrumental music at the earliest levels. There is plenty of research to support both of these approaches. The elementary teachers I have seen seem to have trouble handling class sizes much larger than 21. Beyond 24-25 students, the majority of what goes on seems to be dealing with classroom management issues, and not learning.

2. Keeping world languages and possibly expanding it to younger grades. This may mean cutting languages that don't have high enrollments. As much as I hate to say this, we need to be able to serve/educate the MOST children with the resources we actually have. This would include discontinuing funding Chinese instruction at WW, the only elementary school that has it.

3. I oppose asking teachers to forgo their salary raises. Teaching is a tough job and I think the time that this would take and the resentment this would harbor, would do a disservice to the students.

If achieving these things means closing Marks Meadow, moving 6th graders to the middle school and merging the elementary schools to K-2 and 3-5 schools (with or without further redistricting), then now is the time to do these things.

I have a current 5th grader, and I fully support his moving to the middle school, which from what Catherine has said in her blog, may benefit the middle school, while saving money for the elementary schools.

Anonymous said...

As a baby boomer who regularly sat in public junior high and high school classes in Northampton that were at or close to 30 students, I think that we've become too demanding about smaller class size. BUT the huge numbers you mentioned now coming to those Northampton schools should be unacceptable here, and avoided at all costs. And, since you asked, in my opinion,the elementary music program would have to go (my daughter is an alum)IF it meant classes that large.

That being said, I agree with the sense of Gavin's post, BUT I would advocate increasing class sizes moderately a little later, say, at 6th grade.

I don't see an alternative to closing Mark's Meadow, but I recognize the sadness about that.

Rich Morse

Gavin Andresen said...

Responding to "how big is too big":

I think our three big elementary schools are too big-- I know it ain't gonna happen, but I think the perfect size for a school would be 30-40 kids per grade.

Then you start with 2 or 3 classes at the K-3 level (keep class sizes under 15), and switch to 1 or 2 at 4-6 level. In my ideal world, we'd have 5-6 smaller neighborhood schools (and fewer buses, more happy, walking, healthy kids...)

And as for "subsidizing" regional versus Amherst: Theoretically, Town Meeting could decide to cut the Regional budget and raise the Amherst school budget (they're voted on separately). I think that would never happen without the school committee recommending it, and I'm sure there are internal politics that would probably keep it from happening.

But I think it makes sense to spend more per-pupil on K-3 students than high school students (last I checked, the opposite was true). The entire school system will work better if students get a really good, solid start on their school careers.

Anonymous said...

Abbie says,

I think MM should close. There are so many logical reasons why that have been discussed before. If closing MM means saving about $650,000/year (after the first year) then to keep it open means that we shell out about $3,600 more for each MM kid each year than those attending the other schools!! If the number of MM kids can be accommodated at the other elementary schools then all the other arguments are emotional ones (to me).

I am not a fan of the Chinese program and would be happy to see it go (but maybe its just the teachers). All the feedback we get from our daughter is how strict they are "Chinese kids are sooo much better behaved." "Arms must stay at your sides at all times." It seems more about the conformist strict culture than the language...

Spanish, I would like but not at the expense of the "core". I would love to see that kids can move ahead if they are ready instead of being kept in the herd. It will kill the joy of learning. But this is what seems to be happening, in our experience.

I would much rather keep classes small (~20 for K-3, ~25 4-up) then have instrument/music. Class size affects ALL kids but music only affects some kids (less than half?).

I was shocked by the small numbers in some of the languages (i.e. Russian). What do these teachers do, in addition to their two-to-three classes a week?! I don't see why those classes with such small numbers should be continued. Really pretty indefensible except to those 20 (and there families)...

Alison said...

My wish for all our schools, and our kids, is to bring the focus back to core academics, with an acknowledgement that this is the 21st century and "core academics" should now include things like world language and computer instruction.

At the elementary level, given the enrollment projections for our district, I would close Marks Meadows to preserve instrumental music for all interested kids, and math and science coaches. I would love to see a world language added to the elementary schools but do not support the funding of a world language for one school only (i.e. Wildwood Chinese).

For our elementary schools, I would also eliminate the early release Wednesday, gaining our children over 60 additional instructional hours PER SCHOOL YEAR. If our elementary teachers have raised the issue that instrumental music takes away from classroom instruction time, this should take care of it.

For our middle and high schools, I would like to see us begin to focus on college preparation as a priority, as that is what the vast majority of our graduates go on to do. Even if a graduate does not go on to college, the skills learned in college preparatory classes will also serve as good basis for employment, military service, etc. We cannot afford to cut our middle school language program and expect our students to be prepared to do AP-level language in high school. We also cannot afford to force our young teenagers into study halls each trimester.

At our High School, we offer a bewildering array of (admittedly very interesting) electives, yet our students cannot sign up for more than one particular core subject (i.e. science, language)at the same time and they are also required to sign up for two study halls per year. For the price of some of these electives, could we instead hire more teachers in the core subject areas?

I also think that the education of our "regular education" students is being sacrificed at the altar of special education. I realize that there are state mandates but like Anonymous 4:28PM, I wonder how much is actually REQUIRED by law. Before eliminating world languages, please take a good, long, hard look at whether or not we need the additional Bridges teachers/para. The rate of growth for the special ed budget vastly surpasses the rate of growth of the regular education bugdet for fewer than 20% of our student population. This, I believe, is the next big crisis for our school districts.

Mary Zyskowski said...

If it takes moving the 6th graders to the middle school to save seventh grade language, I'm all for it. The Chinese Charter School is enrolling 6th graders for the fall where they’ll teach Chinese for 25% of the day. I can only imagine this will be an option for some families if 7th grade language is cut. I also believe Amherst schools should be thinking not only about enrollment levels for languages (most of the kids are in Spanish and French) but which languages will be valuable for them in our global economy. I'm all for making K-6 language happen!

Keep elementary music by closing Mark's Meadow. There will eventually cease to be a music program at ARMS and ARHS if music is eliminated. On a personal level, I know that as a parent of a kid who isn't into sports, orchestra is her opportunity to have a team experience. Also, Amherst is among the few towns in Western, MA that still has a music program and it serves many, many children. If Amherst gets rid of the music program it's going to hurt the kids who can't afford to pay the cost of private orchestras or chamber groups, let alone lessons. These kids may never have the opportunity to have music in their lives which we know is beneficial on numerous levels.

Anonymous said...

My votes are for: closing MM, moving 6th graders to MS, cutting travel budget line item for all schools and administrators (note, this is not the funding for field trips which I understand are usually funded by fund raising anyway) tightening special ed spending to the required. I have mixed feelings on the enrollment issue for h.s. classes.

longer term: re-examine Amherst's policy on social promotion, I've often wondered if we could reduce some of the IEP's (and thus cost) that are intiated at MS or HS level if children did repeat grades.

cathy eden said...

I am fully in favor of preserving small class sizes & instrumental music for the elementary schools, and world lang for MS. And if the reality of keeping those means we must consolidate into 3 elementary schools and move 6th grade to MS - we should do it. It seems irresponsible to delay this decision. Thank you Catherine for calling for the data and "sticking your neck out". This is not an easy place to do that. I just hope that we can all pull together and make this tough choice in the best interests of our children and our town.

Joe said...

Apologies if redistricting has already been extensively discussed on this blog, but in my opinion we should redistrict the elementary schools in any budget scenario and the School Committee should adopt a policy of reviewing and possibly redistricting the elementary schools every five years. Yes, this could mean that a student moves once while they are in elementary, but regular review is critical and should reduce the magnitude of the number of students that might be moved.

Catherine, in your “preferred” program bullets you suggest we would save $500,000 if we “closed MM; 3 K-5 schools; 6th grade to Middle School”. However, according to the information distributed at the School Committee meeting this scenario would save “$310K in Year 1 minus space rental”. What is the difference between your numbers and those distributed? Do you expect we could rent the space for 190K? or might you be looking at the 575K savings in year 2 and not worried about the difference in Year 1? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

You appear ready to move the 6th grade to the MS, yet there are so many unanswered questions about that proposal.

There has been much open, detailed, inclusive public conversation about the pros and cons of the proposals to close MM and to cut instrumental music. The same can not be said for the proposal to move the 6th grade.

You and a few contributors to this site have spoken of some hoped for positive results "for the Middle School", e.g. - increased parent involvement, fundraising, etc.
However, there has been no conversation at all about what's to be lost by 6th graders, their parents, and teachers if a move was to happen, and there is much to be lost. So much of the conversation to date about moving the 6th grade seems to focus on using the move to improve (hopefully) or bail out the MS, not to help 6th graders.

At one point on this site you mentioned something about you having an understanding that 6th graders would remain with their teachers all day if moved to the MS. I think you said that was part of the planning. Over the past two weeks I've talked to numerous parents and teachers of
6th graders and have been unable to learn the identity of a single person involved in this planning.
There is a frightening lack of transparency here. I'm afraid something is going to happen TO
6th graders, their parents, and teachers, not WITH them.

I believe the proposal to move 6th grade should be put on hold until it has had the same level of inclusive and throrough ananlysis as the proposals to close MM and cut instrumental music.

In the meantime, to save that 100 thousand, why not consider adding 2 students to the class lists of each 5th and 6th grade teacher in the system in September. That should save 2 teaching positions, thus 100 thousand. I believe if you asked 6th grade teachers if they would rather have two additional students in their rooms next year rather than move to the MS they would jump at the suggestion.

I would also support a sliding fee system for instrumental music. It's a wonderful program, with life-changing results for many children. I believe many parents would be willing to pay a reasonable amount for the 25/30 small group lessons and 25/30 large group practices their children attend each year.

Anonymous said...

I think some people will be in for a shock when they hear what the current Administration (across the board) have to say about closing Mark's Meadow and the current budget issues on Tuesday night. I would ask each and everyone one of you to go and talk to your Elementary School Principal and ask them how they have reached their decisions about the appropriate actions to take. You will then know the opinions of the people who have to run these schools everyday, who work with the teachers, staff, children and other Administrators. These are not people looking from the outside in, or SC members who see reports and numbers, etc. These are the people working day to day, in our schools making sure these kids get the best education we can offer.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 1:02PM, what do you mean?! Please elaborate.

And please remember that three of these principals have been in their current positions for less than a YEAR and two of them have been in our system for less than a year! Also keep in mind that if we close MM, one of those three will lose their job, as Mr. Yaffee has seniority. This may affect their objectivity.

Abbie said...


I have been following the issues pretty closely and I don't understand what is the rationale for moving 6th grade to MS. It seems not to save money and even costs more (was it $160K to rent space).

Perhaps you could provide us with the rationale. I have to agree with Anonymous at 12:11 that, in comparison to closing MM, the pros and cons of moving 6th grade to the MS haven't been fully articulated.

Could you please explain it to us?


Catherine A. Sanderson said...

OK, here I am again. Let me start by saying one REALLY important thing: at yesterday's Four Town's Meeting, the Amherst Finance Committee said that realistically, we all need to be looking at Tier 3 cuts -- the financial picture is NOT good, and that may well be where we are (although hopefully some stimulus money will move us to Tier 2, or POSSIBLY Tier 1). I am just saying this so that we all have a sense of the realities -- the haggling over Tier 1 cut options may well become moot.

Now, my responses:

Anonymous 4:28 - you raise good points. I agree with you on music and world language. I am trying to get more information on the Bridges program. I am working on separate blog posts on both special ed funding and the HS electives -- later this week or next -- so I am not going to respond specifically to those, but yes, those are things that should be carefully examined.

Anonymous 6:25: I think we are in basic agreement -- action is needed! I also think that language in only ONE school is inappropriate, and my understanding this won't continue.

Rich: I think we are also in basic agreement -- seems like there must be a tipping point in elementary school in which we go to smaller class size versus music ... is that at 25 kids? 30 kids? 35 kids?

Gavin: I'm not even going to touch starting a movement to build two more elementary schools! I think the issue of per pupil costs is interesting -- I'll try to get data on that. I think one issue is that HS teachers need specialization in their area, and that may lead to higher salaries (e.g., they have to have a degree in Science, Math, whatever, unlike elementary school teachers), which could lead to higher salaries (I'll try to check on this). The complicated thing about elementary versus region is that our region budget is made up not just of Amherst, but the other towns as well (by a proportion/percentage) -- so, if we move money from region to elementary, we then lose more money because the other towns would pay less as well. And again, at least right now, the region is MUCH worse than the elementary in terms of cuts.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More responses:

Abbie: I can't imagine the world language experience should be like you are describing -- so, maybe we need to evaluate what we ARE doing and see how it is going -- I think many families like the idea of (well-taught) world language. The issue of kids being kept in the "herd" is one I hear a lot ... I think this takes teachers and principals who are truly committed to differentiating instruction. I bet that happens some, but not as often as we'd like. In terms of low enrollment languages -- I want to get more numbers on this. A friend told me that the Russian/German HS teachers just go to the MS to teach a class a day, and that these teachers would otherwise just sit in a study hall. So, if that is true, then we really aren't spending extra money, and I am less concerned. As I wrote in an earlier post, I think the class size/music tipping point is interesting. But the other issue is that practically, music costs 3 to 4 teachers ($172,000). So, that would mean reducing ONE teacher per building, and that means ONE grade per school would have larger (or smaller) classes. That is just to say that it is not a straight "get rid of music, have smaller class sizes in all 7 grades at all three/four schools." Make sense?

Alison: I agree with much of what you said -- and am going to do separate blog posts on special education and HS electives soon (so won't comment here). I think the Wednesday early dismissal is in the teachers' contract -- don't know that we can mess with that, but it is a very interesting idea! I also agree that we just can't do language at ONE school (and I'd still like to see it at all schools).

Mary: I agree about K to 6 world language (and Spanish/Chinese seem like good choices, yes?), and about the importance of music (especially for families that otherwise couldn't afford it).

Anonymous 7:11: I have no idea what the travel budgets are ... can you elaborate? I'll try to look into this. I am also going to do a separate blog post on special education soon (and sure, social promotion could be a piece of this).

Cathy Eden: I think we are in complete agreement -- and thanks for the "neck sticking out" support! It isn't always easy, but it sure feels like the right thing to do.

Joe: I fully agree that redistricting HAS to occur -- I am hopeful we will get some potential plans on Tuesday night. I think we do, however, need to wait for a decision about MM before we redistrict. Otherwise you could have kids moving three times in 3 years (e.g., a Fort River kid could move to MM with redistricting, then move to WW if MM closed). I also think we should have a SC policy in which we evaluate redistricting every 7 or 8 years -- I think 5 is too small, just because with 7 year elementary schools, you could end up moving a kid twice! So, 7 or 8 means that at most, we are moving kids ONCE in their elementary school experience. I will propose this as a policy at a SC meeting.

And I'm going to respond to your very good 6th grade question in a new response!

Anonymous said...

Yes, many other towns and cities in the Commonwealth have 6-8 Middle Schools. How many of them made the switch to that configuration in just a few months with little time to carefully plan the change?
Here's an idea for the new Superintendent. Organize a committee of people who work with 5th through 8th grade students (classroom teachers, SPED teachers, counselors, Music/Arts staff, etc.). Make sure they are representative of all perspectives on the possible change. Create a meaningful process through which they can collect and consider the goals and concerns of parents. Have them very carefully craft a proposal for changing our Middle School to a 6-8 model. Charge them with creating a proposal that entices parents to welcome the change and encourages the 5th through 8th grade teachers to want to be a part of it.
Include in the proposal such items as:
6th graders will continue to be instructed by a single teacher for all academic subjects, and here's how that will work. Or...6th grade instruction will now be departmentalized, and here's how that will work.
6th graders who demonstrate a readiness for acceleration in math will have that opportunity, and here's how that will work. Or...they won't have that opportunity and here's why.
The Middle School English, Science, and Social Studies curriculum will be coordinated across all 3 grades, and here's what it will look like. Or... the 6th grade curriculum will remain the same. It won't be coordinated with the 7th/8th grade and here's why.
6th graders who have grown up seeing that year offering opportunities to play significant roles in musical performances will continue to have that opportunity, and here's how that will work. Or...they will be included in large ensembles with older students and here's what the size and scope of those offerings will look like.
5th graders will now become the group making the transition to Middle School. Here's how it will work, and here are the new responsibilities we want 5th grade teachers to take on.
Given the space constraints in the Middle School, we will have 7th and 8th grade teachers sharing classrooms. Here's how the nitty-gritty details associated with storage of teaching materials, bulletin board displays, etc. will work for them.
I could go on, and would be happy to once a new Superintendent organizes such a committee.

Gavin Andresen said...

Thanks again for all your hard work, Catherine! And, just for the record, I agree with the priorities you've stated in the past-- lets make sure we help the kids who need the most help first, and do the things that benefit the largest number of kids. And lets make sure what we've done is actually effective!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

I'm back:

Joe: In terms of my suggested cost savings, the SC projected a first year savings of 310,000 minus space rental. HOWEVER, that includes an estimate of $140,000 for moving the modulars, and based on what the enrollment is for next year in the MS (WAY below what it was some years earlier when it was for 7th, 8th, and 9th), I don't think we need to move the modulars. So, I'd say it is probably much closer to $450,000 that we save. In addition, the space rental is apparently very little -- like $20,000 a year (and that may even be high).

Anonymous 12:18: You raise good points. As I said in my initial post, we ideally would have much more conversation before acting, and yes, that would include more discussion about whether/when/how to move the 6th grade. But here's the reality -- if you do NOT move them, you can't help the MS with that money! And again, that means we have to cut more at the MS/HS level. The other cost savings (instrumental music, closing MM) just help the elementary schools. So, we could talk about whether to move the 6th grade, but again, I think many (?) families would rather have their 6th grader move AND know that child could have world language in 7th (I'm a mother of a 5th grader and this is like a no brainer to me). I think that we need a lot of time for discussion if we were planning something really radical -- having a Chinese immersion school, having full-year school, etc. I don't see moving 6th grade to the MS as radical at all -- since it is the NORM in Massachusetts (and I can't imagine how our 6th graders are fundamentally really different from those in Northampton, Longmeadow, etc.). Also, here is why the 6th graders would be in just homerooms: that is how our 6th grade teachers teach. It just wouldn't be feasible to all of sudden make all 6th grade teachers choose a subject to teach (e.g., math, science, English, etc.) -- so that part of the discussion is just pretty straight-forward. It is the same teachers teaching the same stuff -- just in a different physical location. Also, I think (and Dr. Jere Hochman thought) that it would be GOOD for our 6th graders to experience and get used to a new building BEFORE they have to get used to changing classrooms/teachers. This is a tangible benefit.

Two other things you note: it isn't as easy as adding two extra kids to each classroom in 5th/6th, because those kids are in different districts. We could get rid of a 5th/6th teacher in each building -- but that raises class size from 20 to 25 or whatever. But I think that is ALSO a good idea!

We aren't allowed to charge for music (or anything) that occurs during the school day. So, fees aren't an option to save music.

Anonymous 1:02: I think people will also be in for a shock when they realize we are talking Tier 3 cuts. And I've heard from teachers/administrators that our schools will be unrecognizable if we go to this level (even Level 2). I hope the principals have some great ideas to balance the budget ... but I also think that it is the job of the SC to make sure that resources are spent wisely. Remember, the principals proposed cutting instrumental music -- and that isn't something that the community has really liked. The SC members are the ONLY way for the community to express their preferences -- so, we listen to the recommendations from the principals/superintendent, but ultimately, it is our choice about how to vote.

Anonymous 1:12: I think you make an excellent point -- again, it is hard to imagine four elementary principals rallying around the idea of firing one of them, right? Again, this is why the SC has to actually make the decision.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

And still more:

Abbie: The 6th grade move does NOT help the elementary school budget -- as you point out, it COSTS more (saves $310 - space rental versus $406 in the first year; then annually $575 versus $671). So, there is NO rationale for the elementary schools and their budget (with the possible issue that the schools may be somewhat crowded if we close MM -- but if we move the 6th grade, they will be virtually identical to what they are now in terms of numbers -- this isn't a big thing for me, but it is for some people). The real advantage of moving the 6th grade is for the REGIONAL budget -- that difference that we don't save at the elementary level (let's say it is $100,000) is basically transferred to the Regional budget, which then means we can bring some things back at the Regional level -- such as 7th grade world language. The deal is that the Regional budget is in WORSE shape than the Amherst budget, and with only 2 schools, you just don't have a lot of creative options ... it is basically cutting teacher/programs/classes. Does that help clarify?

Anonymous 5:47: Again, I love this idea and I love this process. But are you willing to have no 7th grade language next year so we can do it this way? That is a serious question -- and hey, my current 5th grader would benefit from staying in his school for a year while this thorough and thoughtful process occurred. But I also have to be able to look parents of current 6th graders in the eye and tell them that we are going to study this for a year (again, study doing what VIRTUALLY ALL DISTRICTS NOW DO) so that we can make a great decision for other kids -- and that I'm really sorry their own child doesn't get language in 7th grade and won't be able to take AP language in high school. That feels hard to me. But again, I do agree with the IDEA of the process you describe, and I hope that the new superintendent takes this model for ALL major decisions.

Gavin: Fully agreed -- make decisions that benefit the most kids, the kids who need it the most, and let's check to see if what we are doing is working. That should be a motto for the SC and the Superintendent to use in making all decisions, frankly. Thanks for the thanks.

Anonymous said...

From Anonymous 5:47 -

Thank you, Catherine, for being the only SC member who affords me the opportunity to communicate in this way. I choose to remain anonymous because I'd prefer people think more about what is being said than who is saying it.

Regarding the move of 6th graders, I guess what I'm trying to say is best captured by the words of Poor Richard, "Haste makes waste."

Ed said...

Not so random thoughts:

First, it likely is quite possible to have the ARSD subsidize the Amherst school district -- all you have to do is have a "give-back" to the other three towns relative to their contribution percentage. So (to keep the numbers simple) lets say you want to take $100K from the middle/high school budget and use it for K-6, and that Amherst pays 75% of the ARSD budget. Amherst gets $75K for its elementary schools and the other towns get $25K for their elementary schools. This is nothing but a shell game as each town pays the same, but just in a different combination.

Second, I suggest one look more at staff-student radio and less at class size. Do we even know the current staff:student ratio -- with all the paras and the rest, how many paid adults do we have in the classroom?

Third, perhaps it is time to start reviewing SPED status every couple of years. UMass (dealing with adults and not rapidly developing children) requires students to re-qualify every three years or so and if that is legal (UM is a public institution) then it would likely be legal for ARSD to do the same.

Fourth, is there any effort being made to address SPED as the most cost effective manner?

Fifth, while most other districts in the state have the 6th grade in the middle school (and some the 5th) has there been any inquiry to those districts as to if they would do it again *today* knowing what they have learned?

Sixth - and this will get people going - to what extent (a) is SPED the "result of poor educational outcome", eduspeak for poor teaching and (b) to what extent is a SPED classification used to pawn a child off onto someone else?

Anonymous said...

You should understand that most of the SPED programs are designed to "graduate" the kids. They go in with solid plans as to what they can be taught, and each year they are looked at again, an updated accordingly. With a complete re-evaluation every 3 years. These programs are not designed to keep the kids out of regular classrooms for long periods of time. The ultimate goal is to have the children back in the classrooms, with there peers, in the shortest amount of time possible.

I truly do not believe that this is something teachers do to pawn off these kids to other teachers. Most teachers in this town are truly dedicated to their kids and their jobs. To even imply that they don't want to take care of certain kids, is really awful.

Finally, the SPED teachers we have the privilege of having in our schools, are truly amazing teachers!! We are extremely lucky to have so many knowledgeable, interested, dedicated, concerned, helpful, caring teachers working with these kids!!!

When anyone talks about these kids that have IEP's as being anything less than the average students, is just awful!!! What if that were your child? What if your child couldn't communicate with other kids, in there own peer group, what if they have ADHD and can't control their energy, what if your child had the hardest time learning how to read or do math. That doesn't even touch on more extremes, such as Autism. Any one of us can have a child that needs some extra help to learn how to learn. It doesn't matter what background you come from. You could be "poor" and have an extremely gifted child. There is nothing that says any one "type" of person can't have a child with certain disabilities. Needing an IEP is NOT something to be used against ANY child. It is disgraceful that people are even on here talking about this, like these kids have done something wrong. They haven't. Maybe there are parental issues that come into play in some situations, but you can not say that is the case across the board. You also can't go on to say that these kids, who may need services when they are younger, can't graduate near or at the top of their class either.

None of this is to say anything negative about the higher achiever kids. Those kids need to be challenged as well. I do understand that. The chances of them graduating are much higher than kids with disabilities though.

Anonymous said...

I am sure there are most of the facts in this blog somewhere, but I was hoping to have them in one place, that is a little easier to access.

1)Is there an exact number of kids in the MS taking specific languages, how many in each language? How much does each language end up costing us?

2)How many children are taking instruments at the Elementary level?

3)Is there any form of accountability with how the Chinese language is going at WW? Do we have access to that information? If no to either of these, do you know if and when this information will become available?

4)How much is spent on SPED programs each year at the elementary level? At the MS level? At the HS level? Does this number fluctuate much each year, or stay fairly consistant?

5)It seems like there are certain SPED programs taught at each elementary school. Can you explain which are taught where and what each one is for?

6)Can you find out why Art was taken out of the 7th grade, please?

7)There is more talk again about class and school size. Can you please explain the basic rule of thumb used for determining what makes a large/small class and school?

8)I am a fan of redistricting. I understand you are too. Can you please explain how you think the new lines should be drawn? I am wanting to know this answer, separate from any potential school closing. I believe it needs to be done, but solely based on equity and not whether or not a school closes. (even though if we were to close a school, it will be done then anyways. It should not be done prior to closing a school)

I am not sure how the School Committee works, so I am wondering if you have been able to talk to the other members about these issues outside of the School Committee meetings? It seems like there is not much actually accomplished at the meetings, in public. Looks like a lot of things are brought up, asked about and then set aside to the next meeting. I have not been to or seen many, but that is the impression I have gotten so far.

Thank you for giving us a public place to ask these questions.

Emily said...

Just want to second the question about early dismissal Wednesdays. Without knowing the context for this practice (how common is it in Massachusetts? It doesn't seem to be the case in Boston), it sounds totally bizarre to me--and a waste of precious classroom time. And thanks again, Catherine. This forum is an invaluable resource for parents.

Pam Rietkerk said...

Kudos to this week's "Amherst Corner" column. What a great idea to have a School Committee Blog devoted to discussing ideas with the community and expanding the board deliberation process! I think your invitation to the other Committee members is a generous one and I would love to see them participate.

Given the level of thoughtful and intellegent exchange on this blog it is really a miss that other members haven't already chimed in. Clearly there isn't time at the actual meetings for the kind of back and forth that occurs here.

I too would prefer to preserve instrumental music in the elementary schools and foreign language in the middle school. To lose these programs would be such a disservice to all our children. To do this I support the closing of MM, and what about a system of paying for bus service for those who can? Does Noho already do this?

I think Dr. Sklarz had some other inventive ideas about how to save money. I appreciated his fresh ideas of how to cut a budget while retaining core academics (which I agree with a previous writer do include music and language).

Thank you Catherine, for taking so much of your time confront these issues openly. You've done far more than stick your neck out with your hopes of making the Amherst Schools the best they can be.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me, again:

Anonymous 5:47: I agree that haste makes waste -- and I'm a big fan of process/communication (hence this blog). But I also think this town has a tendency to mull things over for a LONG time and try to create solutions that every single person likes ... and that can also create waste! So, we keep studying the redistricting issue ... and as we study it, things get less equitable. I just think it is as bad to rush a decision as to stall a decision -- again, I fully admit I'm Type A and impatient!

Ed: Good point about the subsidy of region to elementary -- the issue for this year anyway is that the region is much worse budget-wise, so at least for now, that isn't going to be a good solution.
I'm writing on SPED in a new post later this week, so I'm going to pass on those questions. I like the idea of looking at staff/student ratios -- will try to get these numbers and post. In terms of 6th grade, I've read a lot of research on school organization (from being on the school reorganization committee last year), and there really isn't much good data ... except that transitions are hard, and there is less buy in for two-year schools. The other model that is "hot" is the K to 8 school ... but that really can't work with our physical buildings/region issue, etc. I'm still saying 6 to 8 is the right way to go for Amherst.

Anonymous 8:55: Your post is basically to Ed ... but thanks for your thoughts, and again, I know there is MUCH interest in special ed, and I'm trying to get myself more educated on this. I just don't know as much as I should, and I don't want to comment until I'm more informed.

Anonymous 9:21: Good questions -- some of which I can even answer.

1. In the MS, 167 kids take Spanish, 145 take French, 56 take Latin, 43 take Chinese, 20 take German, and 17 take Russian. I don't have the HS numbers. I'm not sure how much each language costs us -- but good question and I'll try to find out. I imagine we are paying about the same in total for most languages, but then not "per student" (e.g., we don't pay teachers based on enrollment). I am going to take a guess and say that some of the low enrollment MS languages aren't as expensive as they appear because the HS teacher teaches them -- so the cost savings would really be from stopping that language also at the HS level.

2. I've heard 515 kids take part in music ... that is kids grades 3 to 6 at all four elementary schools.

3. Like most things in the Amherst schools, evaluation is NOT the norm. I have pushed for it, and I don't feel a lot of support on the current committee for this (it is seen as questioning the education professionals). If you care about accountability, I'd seriously ask such questions of all three SC candidates BEFORE the election on March 31st.

4 and 5. I'm doing a special blog on special education soon -- will get whatever numbers I can then.

6. I have just heard that art went a few years ago ... I will assume it was budget cuts, will try to find out more and yes, would LOVE to see that back.

7. Most research (again, the research isn't always GOOD) points to around 400 in size as a "good size" for an elementary school. Which is what all of our schools would basically be if we closed MM and moved 6th grade to the MS. Class size data is really hard to find -- I'll try to do a separate blog post on that -- but most research suggests that quality of teacher matters A LOT more than class size. In other words, you'd rather have your kid in a large class with a rock star teacher than a small class with a less good teacher. But small classes probably do matter more early than later, and the rule of thumb in the Amherst Schools has been to aim for smaller class sizes in the early years (22/23 in K to 2, 23/25 in 3 and 4, 24/27 in 5 and 6).

8. I am a big fan of redistricting, and I think it should divide Amherst into three roughly equal size (Crocker being somewhat smaller than the other two) zones, each within 10% of the district average of 32% kids on free/reduced lunch (whereas now they vary from 22% to 54%). I know my kids might move -- and that's fine. This is what is morally right to do for all the kids.

And final question -- NO, we can not talk outside of meetings -- that's a violation of open meeting law. So, the interactions you see are all that occur -- and yes, I agree that not a lot gets done, and perhaps you can tell that I'm frustrated by that? This is why we really need active, vigorous debate during the meetings we do have so that we can really get some things accomplished -- and frankly we can then all be held accountable. As you can see, the other SC members are all a lot smarter than I am -- no one has any idea where they stand on the budget issues, so no one hates them//criticizes them in public, etc.!

Emily: I will look into the Wednesday issue ... it does seem somewhat unusual, and it certainly means our kids are in class less. And thanks for the thanks -- I think this dialogue has frankly been very helpful for me (I'm learning a lot from many voices now), and I hope others. I certainly hear from teachers/principals/parents/community members that this is being read.

Anonymous said...

One follow-up question for the Chinese language. (I'm sure I will come up with others but right now this is the one popping into my head)

So if there is NO accountability, how are we supposed to know if this program is a success and should even be considered to be continued and put into the 2/3 other schools?

From your response, how do we go about finding out who the candidates are and information about them? Do you have any preferences? I think you have worked with one in the past right?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Wow ... over 200 people have read this today!

Pam: I share your enthusiasm for the brilliant idea shared by the Amherst Center -- and look forward to hearing from other School Committee members soon! I agree that instrumental language and world language are really important, and yes, Dr. Sklarz had some very creative ideas (e.g., lightbulbs, moving school offices to town hall, etc.). The bus thing was discussed at the meeting last week -- apparently we have to bus kids for free who live 1 1/2 miles away, and since some of the closer ones would just walk, it would save like -- $1,000 a year! And thanks for the neck-sticking-out-support ... and for being willing to still be seen with me in public.

Anonymous: Well, I wish we had an evaluation of the Chinese language program - and it would be REALLY easy to do one (e.g., at a minimum, do a survey of teachers/parents/kids at WW to see what they like/don't, and compare MCAS scores pre-/post- the program). I'd be glad to do this evaluation myself (it really wouldn't be hard) ... but again, I'd need support from other members of the SC for this type of evaluation, and that has not been forth-coming. I do not know of any evaluation that has been done, and yes, that's too bad.

In terms of the other candidates - there are three candidates: Irv Rhodes, Steve Rivkin, Meg Rosa. All are working on campaign websites that will be up soon, and I'm sure we'll read about all of them in the paper soon and at the League of Women Voters' forum. I am not endorsing anyone since I will need to be able to work effectively with the two who are voted in -- and I know and like all three personally. But I strongly encourage you, and others, to think about the questions you have for SC candidates and to ask those questions of each of them -- on their websites, at the forum, etc. This is a VERY important SC election, and I think it is important that voters select the candidate(s) who they feel best share their own vision of what the schools should be and how to get there. I'm going to do a separate blog post giving brief information about each of the candidates when all their websites are up -- again, I'm a big fan of INFORMATION.

Anonymous said...

More from Anonymous 7:11 a.m. (3/1)

travel line item budgets: I tried and found, a few years ago before an override vote, that it was not possible for a mere citizen to easily access how much the schools spend for staff and employee travel. I'm hopeful you have better access. I originally asked because we had to raise money for each and every field trip our children went on, yet I heard about California conferences etc...

Administrators going to conferences, out of town meetings etc are not the most cost effective way to access information and gain new knowledge. It should be that only travel REQUIRED for legal obligations (e.g. superintendant must go to Boston to meet with MA dept of ed or governor's office)

But sending coordinators of the various types to go out to meetings and/or conferences is not feasible. And it is not at all measureable to see how much of that information even gets to the teachers and impacts the classroom.

Thank you.

Alison said...

To Anonymous March 1, 10:48PM:
While waiting for candidate web sites to be up, I can point you to some other relevant work of two candidates.

Steve Rivkin was one of the founders of the Amherst Committee on Excellence. You can learn more about his work at:

Irv Rhodes was recently on the Facilitation of Community Choices Committee, charged with making recommnedations for a fiscally-sound five-year budget plan. Information on his work can be found at

I believe they both have the experience to do a great job on the School Committee.

Anonymous said...

So let me see if I understand this correctly. We have a new Chinese language program at Wildwood but no evaluation of said program to see how well it is working. And no interest by the SC to do an evaluation because that would imply that we do not trust the teaching ability of the teachers providing the instructtion. Do I have it right?

Isn't the SC remotely interested in what is being taught, how it is being taught and the outcome of the instruction? Are they teaching Chinese language or indoctrinating strict principles of Chinese culture in the class? I was horrified to read that the children were taught that Chinese children were much better behaved and that each child in the class was instructed to stand with their arms at their sides. Did this strike anyone else as odd? And a reason for evaluating the rogram?

I am equally shocked at the lack of interest by the SC in an eval of the program. They don't want to eval because it would show that they don't trust the teachers and the professionals in the schools?? How silly is that? As the saying goes - Trust but verify!

Perhaps the point will soon be moot as there will no longer be enough money to continue the Chinese language instruction. But I find the concept that the SC does not havea any interest in doing an eval of a new program in our schools because it would show a lack of trust just plain unacceptable.

Anonymous said...

So I would still like an answer to this question:

So if there is NO accountability, how are we supposed to know if this program is a success and should even be considered to be continued and put into the 2/3 other schools?

Jan Kelly said...

I would like to write as a parent of a special ed student not to lobby that sped should be a total sacred cow but to share some insight. I will try not to be too emotional or angry....My son is a SPED student in 4th grade who is pulled from the classroom about 60% of the time (something he HATES!) as he can not read. He was adopted internationallly and due to poor conditions the first year of his life has some learning issues that will be with him forever. If you had a conversation with him you would never guess as he is among the deepest thinkers I know. He is however reading two grade levels below but I would say he is a huge success story as we were told at age five he might never read. Having said that we spend thousands of dollars each year for outside tutoring and he works harder each night on homework than any of his regular ed peers. In the summer he hears all his neighbor friends out playing while he sits and works with a tutor for two hours at least three times a week. Can we afford this tutoring, no but we can not afford to give up on him either. Paying for both of our kids instrumental music would be a drop in the bucket compared to this....and yes he plays the trombone so music also benefits sped kids. He also is among the most popular boys in his grade at school and a serious and successful athlete. If we were to as one anonymous person suggested stop "social promotion" he would no longer be with his peers whcih would be a loss not only for my son but for his friends. Social and athletic interactions is where he gets his self esteem. He is not a severe special ed/social kid but cries himself to sleep often wondering why school is so hard for him.

Enough of my personal story. SPED students must have revaluation testing every three years (hours of testing) and a meeting each year with the team to determine level of service and rewriting of the IEP. Everyone should look at the No Child Left Behind law and the MASS DOE to see what is required. I have gone to budget meetings every year since I moved to Amherst three years ago(where was everyone else two years ago when Catherine and I were among the 15 or so at the Crocker library hearing about the budget cuts that year?)and it is clearly outlined that we have saved significant money by servicing the more severe SPED kids than my boy by keeping them in district rather than having to pay for specialized schools which can be 40,000+ per kid. I know this was outlined in last years budget very clearly. Unless the federal regs are to change this would continue to be the case and if services did not serve each child in that population there would be more requests for out of school private placements. I know of a case in my previous district where the case was made to have a SPED kid (language based not severe) placed at Landmark School for the tune of 50,000 and the school district pays for it. AMherst has bent backward to prevent this....I would love to have a boarding school experience in the future if Amherst wants to pay for it!

My boy is not a social problem however some SPED kids are.....if these kids were to be put back in the classroom where they were over their heads it would be even more disruptive than what already happens in clasrooms (last year my daughter's 5th grade class was mostly behavior maganement due to some of the kids who were not SPED per se but huge discipline issues)

I could go on and on but only ask that you not only look at the numbers but at what needs to happen. If we look to cut a teacher would that mean thousands more in out of district placements?I also do not think that you really want severe SPED students in the mainsteam classes either for their sake or the sake of your children.

I am all for evaluation and do believe that SPED programs should be looked at in terms of meeting goals, quality of teachers as well but it is not as cut and dry as numbers alone. By closing MM and having three elementary schools possibly the SPED break out groups could be larger thus eliminating a few teachers. (My son currently has around six in his group of foruth graders....increasing that number would be fesible if there were more kids in the grade needing the same services)
As a former Minnesotan I listen to Garrison Keilor often and he speaks of Lake Wobegan where "the children are above average" From time to time I feel like people in Amherst feel that way....We need to make certain all children are served. It does seem that the loudest parentss are those interested in the top level services.

Again I am a guidance counselor by trade and a private college counselor so I understand the importance of challenging top students as well.

Please look at SPED services but do so with your eyes open in terms of what is needed for these children to succeed and for what small changes might cost down the road.

These are difficult times and cuts are real and need to be made. We may all have to dig down and supplement what is done in the classroom by working with our kids outside the classroom. I know I spend about two hours a day with each of my children helping with homework and doing supplemental work.

Catherine I do thank you for this blog and for all the time you put into this work for the benefit of all our students. We all need to think about what is best for all students not just our own and I hope my writing is seen as a voice for SPED families not a lobby for my own son who would be horrified to know I shared his story and signed my name (I do think everyone should sign their name.....)

Abbie said...

Regarding the Chinese program:

Catherine did her best to push for an evaluation of the Chinese program when it was discussed at a SC mtg (was that last spring?).

I thought the meeting was shockingly cursory. Catherine seemed to be only only SC member interested in the concept of determining whether the program was helping kids or hurting them (remember while they are learning Chinese they are NOT learning something else).

I thought that at the end of the meeting the director of the program (sorry I have forgotten her name) was going to apply for 5 year grant to extend the program. Did she apply? Was it not funded? My personal view was if its free then I'd go along until the time we have enough data to assess its value but now its not free I see no benefit to keeping it. Especially as we have the Chinese charter school (I am not a fan of charter schools, by the way).

BTW: the Online NYT had letters discussing the benefits of small class size. I assume these were in response to an earlier article, which I did not see.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More responses from the blogger:

Anonymous 7:11: I believe that the travel budget has been MASSIVELY cut -- so I doubt this is how we are spending much $$ at all now (this may be a change). But this should be reflected in the bugdet we see next week at the Regional Meeting, and frankly, that information SHOULD be available to the public. I'll try to check into that line particularly, however, and thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Alison: Thanks for sending that information on those two candidates. I will repeat my strong statement from yesterday -- everyone should really make a very informed decision about who to support. Take the time to get familiar with each of the candidates, and really question what they want the SC to do. Then, vote for the person/people who best sees the job of the SC as you do!

Anonymous 7:02: Ummm, I share your feelings -- but in all honesty, I've seen ZERO interest from anyone else on the SC in doing serious evaluation of anything -- the new 9th grade required science curriculum, the Chinese program, 7th grade math extensions, the trimester system, etc. And when I push for evaluation (or members of the public push for this), we are accused of being divisive, not trusting teachers, trying to micro-manage, etc. Again, my actual job is to do research -- so I'm a firm believer that we should be critically and carefully evaluating our programs, because frankly, we do need to know what is working and what is not (and that includes what is working/not for which kids) ... but I am decidedly in the minority (alone) on this view on the current SC as anyone who watches our meetings can tell you. Again, if you care about evaluation, think carefully about your vote on March 31st!

Anonymous 7:06: I agree that it seems odd to add something to the other schools without proof that it works. However, the proposal to add it to other schools was developed by a group that worked this summer on world language that included Head of World Languages at the HS, Sean Smith. This group (teachers, administrators, professionals outside this district) recommended this model of introducing language in all schools -- and it would be largely GRANT funded, meaning it would be only $100,000 for all schools to do K to 6 world language. I think this seems like something we should try, but of course have a built in evaluation as part of it.

Jan: Thank you for your wise words on the importance of good special education -- and for using your name! You raise many good and thought-provoking points, and I appreciate hearing the views from someone who is so directly effected by what is going on in this program. And I agree that closing MM could result in some costs savings for Special Ed because of having larger groupings of kids/teachers. Thanks again for sharing.

Abbie: Thanks for recognizing my push (ALONE) for evaluation. I believe the grant COULD be re-newed, but ONLY if we expanded the language to the other schools (which then costs $100,000). I think this has been totally off the table in the current budget crfisis, which I think is a shame. I'm hopeful that this program will be discussed at tomorrow's elementary school meeting. And yes, the NYT had an article about small class sizes -- I'll try to post it sometime this week. It was interesting, but largely anecdotal (on both sides of the issue, frankly).

Abbie said...

About world languages-

What I recall from that school board meeting is that these Fed government grants only fund "strategic" languages. If I remember they were Chinese, Turkish, Arabic and Russian to be added. Unless you are taking about some other grant program, lets be open about the languages included and what that then means for the MS and HS language programs. Do families and kids want to learn these particular languages? I hope I am not being xenophobic but when most folks think foreign (now "world") language in school they typically think "Spanish, French, German, Latin?". Maybe these are good languages to learn, but I don't know. Would students then change to another language in MS and HS, or would these languages be added to those upper programs?

Lots to think about...But NOT this year!!

Ed said...

When I was doing my student teaching the department sent me to represent them at an IEP meeting. They figured that I basically would say the same thing any one of them would, and the student teacher would get away with saying it...

There was this 10th grader, a nice enough young man, who "had a problem distinguishing between fantasy and reality." And thus the proposal was to train him to be a trailer-truck driver. I asked if this was really wise as the trucks legally could weigh 100,000 lbs, often weighed almost twice that, and it might not be a rewarding outcome to him because the consequences of the reality being ignored for the fantasy (such as the small car fetched up in the back axle of his truck) might tend to have disturbing consequences to his self esteem.

I have a lot more understanding and sympathy for SPED issues than most realize. But there are some very real limits and we need to recognize this. Four things:

First, life is not fair. If I spend a day on the beach I literally will wind up in the hospital - life is not fair. Some people have to work much harder to do that which comes quickly to another, life is not fair.

History is full of people whom we would now ghettoize to the SPED graveyard -- people who worked their way through their disabilities and then used those coping skills to do great things. Einstein, Edison and many others.

Second, issues of impulse control are considered acceptable with a SPED designation. This helps no one, particularly not the child. To want to do things that one can't is human, to affirm such as a legitimate need is literally handicapping a child.

My favorite - in the secondary grades - is OBD, "Oppositional Behavior Disorder", aka "Oppositional Defiance Disorder." It is couched in gentler terms, but essentially the child has the inability to comply with the rules of society. Fine, I say, the child can't have a drivers' license.

"Oh, no, that's different" we're told. B*****. Ability to comply with social norms like stopping for red lights and driving to the right of the yellow line are important public safety concerns and why we make such a fuss about drunk drives...

The ability to avoid the urge to floor the pedal and drive 100 miles down the road is the exact same ability to sit down and shut up in class. This is an oversimplification but self control is self control.

Third, a college diploma, let alone a high school diploma, is nothing but a piece of paper. The far more important thing is what (if anything) you actually learned. If parents - everywhere - truly knew the problems that their children encounter in college because of this "they will graduate" attitude in K-12, well torches and pitchforks come to mind...

UMass has either 20 or 40 sections of remedial math each semester (I forget which) and this is a place with moderately high admissions standards. I don't know about Amherst & Smith, but Harvard literally hires tutors to essentially teach that which should have been taught in K-12.

And then go talk to anyone over the age of 60 about the high school graduates they are hiring -- senior citizens are sought-after employees because they actually know stuff...

Fourth, this implied (or explicitly stated) threat of demanding the more expensive outplacement needs to be ended. It is happening statewide and it, along with the larger SPED laws, are issues that you ought to be asking your legislators to address.

This all is going to end one of two ways. Either we are going to have to reign in SPED, or we eventually will have some lawyer argue that being gifted is also a disability and hence *EVERYONE* is SPED and convince a court of that.

What we really have right now is educational apartied. We have one group who receive a more expensive education than the majority and that is, by definition, apartied....

Anonymous said...

Thank you Catherine for continuing to push for evaluations of the things you mentioned. I support you whole-heartedly in your attempts. I hope other SC members are reading this blog and see that you have alot of support for your efforts. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Your comment about the numbers of students in 3 schools, if MM closes and 6th grade moves, being almost identical to what they are now makes me wonder. Does that mean the present level of support staffing (SPED, counselors, OT,Speech, etc.) will need to remain the same at each school?
Does the plan to move the 6th grade include money for adding support staff at the MS to deal with the many needs of that group?

One other question you may be able to answer. Is it true that 6th grade teachers who move to the MS
will lose their seniority, because they will now be employed by a different school committee?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

I'm racing so this is just a quick response to Anonymous 2:04 pm: It is totally, factually inaccurate that any 6th grade teachers would lose seniority. Even if the 6th grade moves to the MS, they are still employed by the Amherst School district - and overseen by the Amherst SC. Just because they are in a different building is irrelevant -- the fact that they are still employed by the Amherst Public Schools (NOT Region) is what allows the transfer of money to the MS building -- it does NOT change their employment in any way (although they would, presumably, have to teach on the MS schedule, meaning different start/end times and no Wednesday afternoon early dismissal). But where did you hear this rumor?!?

Marcy Sala said...

A few connected points and questions related to some of what has been said above:

1) Just because "virtually every other district" has 6-8 grade groupings doesn't mean it's what's best for kids or that it is a transition that could be easily accomplished. Isn't it true that "virtually every other district" has gotten rid of instrumental music in the elementary grades as well? I don't think we would necessarily conclude that that reality, in and of itself, is a validation for our own consideration of eradicating instrumental music. I think moving 6th graders to the middle school without more thorough study and planning would be a mistake, especially for the relatively small amount of savings it would generate in the short term. It would be a huge upheaval that should be carefully thought out.

2) You report estimates related to the savings that would be generated with moving 6th grade to the middle school--savings that would move money from the elementary to the regional budget. These savings, it appears, would all come from Amherst tax dollars, and yet would provide benefit to the entire region. Is there a way to balance this out with money kicked in from the other towns in the region (presumably to save world languages) and, if so, could some of the Amherst savings (whatever was proportionally above the regional "kick in") then stay in the elementary schools in order to help preserve music or other priorities at risk of being cut?

3) Isn't there a rainy day fund that exists for the regional schools (similar to the town's reserve fund)? Is it possible to dip into that fund to get us over a specifically targeted hump while we study the 6-8 grade grouping idea? This would potentially enable world languages to continue for a year while the issue is given thorough consideration.

4) I appreciate the process of values clarification taking place on this blog. How we choose to spend our dollars, especially when they are at a premium, really is (or should be) a reflection of our values as a school district. The information you're providing is forcing an acknowledgement that there are real trade offs in the decisions we make. In choosing to fund one thing, we are also, in fact, choosing not to spend those dollars elsewhere. It is helpful to the process (and hopefully the inevitable outcome) to be cognizant of that fact.

5) I agree that a wider school committee forum for the kind of information and idea exchange taking place here could be a good thing, and might have the effect of making committee meetings more efficient. I wouldn't necessarily expect the kind of point by point addressing of each question or comment that you're providing here (not sure how you're managing that, to tell you the truth) but the issues raised through comments could certainly inform and help focus the SC agenda planning and debate.

Anonymous said...

I assumed that 6th grade teachers in all those other MS around the state were considered Middle School teachers and not elementary teachers, and that Middle Schools were considered part of the secondary system. Am I mistaken? This is the first I've heard about the part of the plan you refer to as it pertains to Amherst 6th grade teachers. I wonder if they are all clear about it.

Anonymous said...

I have heard over and over again about how people don't want 6th graders in the middle school. Frankly, I was shocked to come here and find that 6th graders are still in the elementary schools!!! 6th graders are far more developed than people on here are giving them credit for. They would be best in the MS, even if they are separated into their own corner like the 7th graders used to be.

Also if the 6th graders were to move to the MS, it would only be Amherst kids (until the time that regionalization comes up) so they would still be the elementary budget. 6th grade teachers are not taught to be elementary teachers, they are taught to be upper elementary/middle school teachers. You will have a hard time find lots of districts where the 6th grade is still in elementary. In fact 5th grade is becoming more and more popular to move to MS recently.

Anonymous said...

To answer about Wednesday afternoons. Many years ago, the elementary school day needed to be lengthened (about 15-20 minutes) so that busses would have time to take Junior High and High School students home, and get back on time for elementary dismissal. Rather than negotiate to pay teachers for that extra time, Wednesday was shortened the equivalent of a lengthened M-T-Th-F. In other words, their work week was the same length before and after this change. Elementary teachers will not give Wednesday afternoons up for that reason alone, but it is also the only extended planning time elementary teachers have. Their contracted daily prep period (usually 40-50 minutes) is often taken away by meetings.

Anonymous said...

Being taught to be an upper elementary teacher and being certified by the state to be a middle school teacher are two very different things. Many veteran elementary teachers are certified to teach K-6.

Anonymous said...

The meeting tonight was insane. Glad you stood up for what you believe in!

Anonymous said...

I am a sixth grade parent at WW, and I am still reeling from the fact that my daughter's sixth grade music class (classroom music, not instrumental music) was cut from the curriculum so that Chinese could be inserted. She also participates in instrumental music and LOVES it. It is not fair to these sixth graders to remove vocal music from the many parents out there know that if your sixth grader is not in instrumental music, there is NO music for him/her. The music teacher wasn't even told until the third week in September. The sixth graders are not happy, and neither am I. Here is another way that the schools are not equal in what they offer our children.

pamb9 said...

When I moved to Amherst in 1970 I was placed in the junior high building along with many others. There were 4 6th grade and 2 5th grade classrooms. We were on our own schedule but were able to take advantage of all that the school had to offer, like the pool and TV studio. The junior high was 7-9 grades at that time with 9th graders travelling back and forth for some classes. I loved the flexibility. Why are we so rigid and afraid to consider other options? Doing things the way we always have has its benefits but drawbacks as well. Let's flex our creative muscles a bit, and we might be pleasantly rewarded.

Anonymous said...

Wow Anonymous 10:10 I had no idea they cut classroom music time to add Chinese. I was thinking they lost class time and thought that was bad. That is definitely rough on the kids not taking instruments. That is a creative time of day for the kids and is the benefit of taking Chinese greater than the benefit of music?

Anonymous said...

Here's my comments on various proposals:
1. Close Mark's Meadows; it would be wonderful to keep it but unrealistic.
2. Eliminate the elementary instrumental music program and institute a before or after music program that is fee based with sliding scale based on income eligibility. Lots of kids may be in this program but pulling kids in and out of classrooms at various times during the day doesn't make sense. I am not opposed to music I think it does have clear benefits for kids but this can happen before or after school. Perhaps there could be an orchestra period during regular class hours.
3. Make cuts in the positions for intervention teachers and utilize the remaining teachers as consultants (coaches) rather than direct teaching. Provide some additional professional development money for training gen educ teachers to work with kids who have diverse abilities (While I would like to be totally supportive of teachers I don't see evidence that our elementary teachers generally, there are exceptions, effectively deal with ability diversity whether we mean "gifted" or "struggling".)
4. Don't move the 6th graders at this point. I'm not totally opposed to the idea but at this time there are too many unanswered questions.
5. Eliminate world languages at the elementary level (Chinese at Wildwood). Elementary students are unlikely to learn a second language when taught as a separate subject 3 times a week. Retain world languages for 7th graders but reduce the number of languages--choice would be great but its not feasible.
6. By all means review the SPED budgets but consider that much of this is driven by federal mandates (including the administrative aspects which are burdensome). I think it is important to consider how we implement special education services--is our model which heavily relies on pull-out and one-on-ones the most effective model for educating anyone?

Anonymous said...

If we are voting, then here are my thoughts - and thanks, Catherine, for giving us a place to voice our thoughts!

1) Cut MM as it is going to happen eventually anyways.

2) Keep instrumental music in the elementary schools. I would not otherwise have my kid play an instrument (via private lessons) - so this is a great way to introduce music to a kid who sees it as a social experience (analogous to kids who join a sports team because their friends play).

3) Limit the number of world languages. When I was a kid, you took Spanish 1-4, and only upon passing Spanish 4, were you allowed to take French. After French 4, you had the option to take Italian. Are the kids these days allowed to switch back and forth between different languages or is there an sense of commitment once you pick a language? Is there a minimal level of proficiency that one is supposed to obtain? How many 'levels' of each language are offered? I guess what I really want to know is: what is the point of the world language program? Is it to teach the brain to think/learn differently (in which case a few languages offered will be enough), or is it to actually give kids skills for a potential career (foreign diplomat, etc)?

4) And most importantly, I would like the emphasis to be a focus on the basics of education for the majority of the students (regular ed) - does anyone seriously think the kids in the elementary school are getting a decent math education?! I think the Amherst schools are exceptional at teaching reading/writing - but I think that math is really seen as a second class citizen to everything else in school. I feel that a scary percentage of the kids at my kids' elementary school do not know their basic math facts (addition/subtraction/multiplication and division). I hope it is different at your elementary school.

Alison said...

I agree about the math curriculum at the elementary school!! I had to teach my now-sixth grader the multiplication tables at home and my eighth grader (who is in algebra) sometimes still gets hung up on basic math concepts (like multiplication) although the instruction in algebra seems to be excellent.

Anonymous said...

I think part of the problem with the elementary schools' math program is that they seem averse to using plain old-fashion rote learning. They want the children to "discover" math concepts using manipulatives, which is not an entirely bad concept. But this discovery method can only take a child so far. There comes a time when the child just has to bite the bullet and memorize the multiplication tables. And unfortunately, the best way to do this is by spending the time and effort to studying the tables over and over again with much out-loud recitation to cement the numbers. The school system does not encourage or promote this type of learning. This is not something new in the elementary school system. My three children went through the Amherst schools (they are now 30, 28 and 25). And I taught them the multiplication tables at home. It was not taught in an effective manner in the schools when they were in the Amherst elementary school system.

Something absolutely must be done to beef up the math curriculum in the elementary schools. This is the back-bone of a childs' math education. How do we expect them to be successful learning higher level math concepts without a solid foundation in basic math facts?

Anonymous said...

I don't think closing Marks Meadow is a good idea.
Also, I think we need to wait until we have someone in charge before we make any major decisions. Cut across the schools if we have to. Neither you or the other school committee members are in charge of making these decisions for our schools so DON"T

Anonymous said...

I think closing Marks Meadow is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Eventually, we are going to need that building as the district grows. It's a foolish idea to close that school. Let's just deal with the cuts across the schools. By the way, I don't think you can really refer to the potential class sizes as "Giant" with accuracy.

Anonymous said...

This might be the wrong place for this comment, but no other town officials have a convenient way of hearing these kinds of questions.

How many delinquent taxpayers does Amherst have? Is this a sizable chunk of money? Are their names published in the newspaper, as happens in other towns?

Anonymous said...

What is this reality we are facing?
Could it be the reality that Amherst is an elite town, run mostly by elite residents who make decisions to please the higher class? Could it be the reality that the money needed to run the schools is really there, and has been all along, just sitting in the pockets of white collared, suits?
I don't get the fact that an elementary school, a high performing elementary school, is being considered to close instead of cutting administrative positions (most of which have been newly created.) Or at least stop hiring new administrators to oversee the old ones...

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Finally getting around to my comments:

Abbie - yes, the grant was for those targeted languages, but my understanding is that it is also used to pilot introducing K to 6 language. So, we could continue receiving grant support for Chinese, but also then pick up paying for teachers of another language (Spanish is what was proposed by the world language group that met last summer). I believe those two languages were chosen because they represent languages that we see with some frequency in the kids in our schools (more so than Turkish/French).

Ed - good points ... SPED stuff is really tricky, and I'm still trying to educate myself about this.

Anonymous 10:56: Thanks for the support -- much appreciated!

Anonymous 2:04: The administrative team is looking closely at the numbers/type of support staff needed at each of the schools IF MM were to close, so I can't answer this question, but I do know people are looking into it. It is possible that we'd need fewer, because we could more economically use the same people if more kids were together from a given background (e.g., the language clustering is somewhat easier with three buildings versus four). I am certain that IF the 6th grade moved to the MS there would be appropriate support staff devoted to these students.

Marcy: Thanks for the thoughtful questions! In terms of the 6th grade move, I agree that it is unlikely to happen this year, and that it is complicated. However, I continue to hear from people who I think would know (e.g., superintendents!) that a 2-year school is a BAD idea, and I guess I find that highly believable. The issue of the elementary budget kicking in to help the region is tricky also -- in part because MOST of the kids in the MS are from Amherst (e.g., 200 of the 270 or so). But I don't think they'd be likely to help out UNLESS they also were bringing their 6th graders over (which I also think is a good idea, but again, one that will take some time for them to ponder). I do NOT know about a "rainy day" fund, but that is a great hope -- and if there is one, it seems like saving 7th grade language would be an entirely appropriate use of such funds! I will look into this ASAP. Thanks for your very kind words about the ability of this blog to help people clarify values/priorities/tradeoffs. I really appreciate it -- and frankly, writing/blogging about all this has helped me clarify my own priorities for what I see in our schools. I have asked the Regional Chair to put the idea of an "all SC blog" on the agenda -- and yes, I'd love to see this type of interchange among all board members with the community!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Once again, trying to catch up:

Anonymous 3:38 - I actually have no idea how 6th grade teachers are classifed (as elementary or middle school). But I've heard from people in our adminstration that you COULD move the 6th grade to the MS, so I guess whatever certification they have is OK!

Anonymous 5:41 - I too have heard from people who are surprised that the 6th grade is not in the MS (as it is in many communities). This is NOT a revolutionary idea!

Anonymous 6:37 - thanks for answering the Wedndesday afternoon question!

Anonymous 7:11 - thanks for answering the teacher certification question.

Anonymous 9:47 - thanks for the support!

Anonymous 10:10 - I had no idea that music was cut at WW to make room for Chinese ... is that just in 6th grade, or all grades? This is important to know and I will try to get more information about how/why this decision was made.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

PamB - thanks for those comments about drawbacks of no change! It is good to remember that the MS used to hold three grades ... seems very reasonable for it to hold 3 grades again!

Anonymous 11:10 - I agree (as you know) with closing MM. I have heard from parents and music teachers that a before/after school music program that is fee-based would draw few kids -- the incentive would then just be for parents who can afford to do so to pay for music lessons on their own. So, we could go this way (and it would save a lot of money), but many feel it would be the end of music in the Amherst elementary schools. Cuts in intervention teachers will happen -- even at Tier 1. But I am not sure how we will then be able to adequately help kids who are struggling on MCAS? I think your idea is to have professional development for regular teachers to differentiate more during the classroom day, but I think this is very hard to do when kids are in need of extra work to even get to the proficient level. I think we won't be moving the 6th graders right now ... but gosh, I feel bad about the world language situation in the MS. I believe all world language will be eliminated for next year, which I think is too bad. And I agree that a prioity should be to retain world languages for 7th graders but have fewer choices (maybe 2 or 3 or 4, not 6?). And yes, I agree that we need to consider the SPED budget and what is the most cost effective approach (and how well is what we are doing now working?).