My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Welcome to School Committee, Irv and Steve

Rhodes, Rivkin top Amherst election

AMHERST - Irvin E. Rhodes was the big winner in the School Committee race in Tuesday's Annual Town Election, with Steven G. Rivkin finishing second in a three-way race for two seats.

Megan D. Rosa a parent who said she was running to ensure students get the best education they can finished third.

Incumbents Elaine L. Brighty and Sonia Correa Pope did not seek re-election.

Rhodes has been on the Finance Committee and most recently served on the town's Facilitation for Community Choices Committee.

He has taught, been a school librarian, and assistant superintendent at the former Belchertown State School.

"I want to bring all that experience" to the committee, he said. Serving on those financial committees gave him an insight into the financial workings of the town budget and he believes that the overriding issue is the budget.

Rivkin is chairman of the economics department at Amherst College. He specializes in the economics of education.

Rivkin, along with current School Committee member Catherine A. Sanderson, co-founded the Amherst Committee for Excellence in 2007 in an attempt to ensure academic excellence for all children.

As a committee member he wants to ensure that all students are intellectually engaged.

And he also wants "to bring a sense of open debate and discussion (at School Committee meetings) to focus on data and evidence . . . and most of all to focus on the children."

Rhodes Tuesday night credited his committee for helping him win the seat. "I'm ready," he said. "I'm so ready."

School Committee

*Irvin E. Rhodes 1,564
*Steven G. Rivkin 1,240
Megan D. Rosa 890

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Does a School Board Control Curriculum? Yes!

There has been a lot of discussion about what decisions are within the domain of the School Committee -- closing a school, choosing curricula, etc. So, I am devoting this posting to just let readers of this blog understand the power that School Boards actually do have to choose curricula. The Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee voted in January 2008 to eliminate the option for any 9th graders to take biology, and instead to require all 9th graders to take ecology and environmental science. Whether you agree or disagree with this decision, this decision was made and voted on by the Committee -- had a majority voted "no," 9th graders would now be allowed to take biology (and let me be clear -- not a single person on the committee voted to allow interested 9th graders to continue taking biology). This is one example of why who is on the School Committee really matters.

Although Amherst is the only district to my knowledge that has faced controversy for requiring students to take ecology/environmental science, science instruction is certainly part of controversial School Board votes in many districts. You might remember a controversial school board vote in Cobb County, Georgia (a suburb of Atlanta): in 2002, the Cobb County School Board adopted a policy requiring stickers to be placed in biology textbooks which stated, “Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” (This decision was then overturned by the courts). You might also remember a controversial decision by the School Board in Dover, Pennsylvania: this district became the first in the United States to require teaching “intelligent design,” which holds that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by an unspecified higher power. This change was seen as a veiled attempt to require students to learn creationism, a biblical-based view that credits the origin of species to God, or at least to present this view as on the same level as the more scientifically-validated theory of evolution (this decision was also overturned).

Don't worry -- I'm not suggesting that the Amherst-Pelham School Committee push for adding stickers promoting intelligent design on our biology textbooks or providing instruction on "intelligent design." But I am suggesting that School Committees in Amherst and elsewhere have real power to influence what is being taught in our schools. The reality is that schools matter a lot -- even for those who don't have kids in the public schools. Schools consume approximately 2/3rds of the Amherst Town budget ... and the quality of our schools impacts housing values. Amherst residents should therefore take the time to educate themselves on who is running for School Committee seats at each election, and should vote for candidates whose vision best fits what they would like to see in our schools.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Hampshire Gazette Article on School Board Race

Amherst school board race raises interesting issues in tough time
By MARY CAREYStaff Writer

Saturday, March 28, 2009
AMHERST - With only four contests and for relatively low-profile positions at that, Tuesday's townwide election has not attracted as much advance attention as in past years. Yet, the three-way race among Irvin Rhodes, Steve Rivkin and Megan Rosa for two seats on the School Committee comes at a time when the schools are at a painful crossroads. The voters' choices will have a significant impact on the direction the community ultimately takes. All three candidates have been closely involved with the schools but each one would bring a markedly different set of experiences to the post, making for a race with many cross-currents. Neighborhood issues, educational ideology and experience and the candidates' interpretation of the role of the School Committee are a few of them. In addition to having ties to different elementary schools in a town where each of the four schools has a demographic makeup and culture quite distinct from the rest, the candidates have played different educational roles.

Rhodes, 66, has been an elementary school and college teacher, a middle school librarian and assistant superintendent at the former Belchertown State School. He has served on the Finance Committee and is a Town Meeting member. In his campaign, he has stressed that the schools need a long-range plan to close the widening gap between revenues and spending. His grown children attended Crocker Farm Elementary School.

Rivkin, 47, is an Amherst College professor and economist who has written extensively on issues ranging from the effects of poverty and segregation on public education to the significance of class size, teacher turnover and the role of special education in school choice. He has helped with the math program once a week in his daughter's class at Fort River Elementary School.

Rosa, 30, is a product of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School system and has also been closey involved with Mark's Meadow, which her children attend, as co-chairwoman of the Parent Guardian Group as well as a member of the School Governance Council and Diversity Committee. She was a member of the Amherst Schools Organization Committee that examined options for reconfiguring the elementary schools.

The possibility that Amherst might have to close a school, and that it would most likely be Mark's Meadow, has proven to be one of the most emotional issues the district has confronted in some time. The three candidates agree that the option should be on the table if closing Mark's Meadow would save enough money to prevent other painful cuts in the school system. Rhodes and Rosa, however, have not been as adamant as Rivkin has been that the community should begin laying plans now to close it next year. While Rosa has insisted that she is not running for School Committee to advocate keeping Mark's Meadow open, she has expressed concern that some misinformation and unsubstantiated information has found its way into discussions of closing it. Rhodes stresses that closing a school is a wrenching emotional experience for a community and should not be undertaken lightly. He also said he has been dismayed by discussions at which Mark's Meadow principal Nick Yaffe and teachers have been present but were not included.

Of the three candidates, Rivkin has been the most outspoken on the role of the School Committee, some of whose members in recent years have appeared to view as one of its primary missions "to almost knock down any criticism of the schools," he said. With its newest member, Catherine Sanderson, Rivkin founded the Amherst Committee for Excellence, a parent and community group that has advocated for more rigorous evaluation of the school system. Since Sanderson's election to the board last year, several members of the group have attended every School Committee meeting and signaled their support for initiatives she has brought before the board. One of their signature issues has been that some ACE members are not convinced the new ninth grade ecology and ecological science curriculum will prove to be beneficial to students. They have called for a rigorous evaluation of the new course, which Sanderson and Rivkin say is not being done.

Outgoing School Committee member Elaine Brighty, whose last meeting was last week after more than nine years on the board, has repeatedly challenged Sanderson's interpretation of the School Committee's purview, saying it should not be closely involved in curriculum. In recent votes, other School Committee members, with the exception, sometimes, of Kathleen Anderson, have often voted with Brighty, leading Sanderson to say that she has not been effective in bringing about the changes that she promised she would work for in her campaign last year.

Sanderson has not endorsed any of the candidates and has said she could work with any one of them. However, if Rivkin is not elected, she said this week, she will take it as a sign that the public does not approve of the direction in which ACE has tried to take the schools.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Why 'Physics First' May Make Sense for Amherst

Although my oldest child is now in 5th grade, I've spent a lot of time over the last year becoming educated about high school science courses, in part because of my concern over the School Committee's unanimous adoption of the new required 9th grade ecology and environmental science course in January 2008 (making Amherst High the ONLY high school in the country, and likely the world, in which ecology and environmental science are required courses for first-year high school students). And what my reading suggests is that our high school missed a wonderful opportunity to adopt what many leading public and private schools are adopting: the Physics First approach.

What is Physics First? "The Executive Board of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) recognizes that teaching physics to students early in their high school education is an important and useful way to bring physics to a significantly larger number of students than has been customary. This approach—which we call “Physics First”—has the potential to advance more substantially the AAPT’s goal of Physics for All, as well as to lay the foundation for more advanced high school courses in chemistry, biology or physics." In brief, the physics first approach requires all 9th graders to take physics. They then move on to take chemistry at sophomores, and then biology or AP biology as juniors. Students can then, in most districts, take AP physics or AP chemistry (or both) as seniors. This is the model now used in leading Massachusetts schools, including Newton, Brookline, Cambridge, and Deerfield, as well as high schools across the country (Missouri, Maryland, Illinois, Rhode Island, California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, etc.). Here's what a 1999 New York Times article describes about this movement:

What's better about Physics First? Here's what the Newton North High School website describes as the reasons this district adopted a physics first model:
  • Physics is the foundation of all science and is the easiest to observe through experiments with light, sound, motion, electricity and magnetism.
  • Physics deals with phenomena that relate directly to the student's world, making it a course in which students can make predictions, practice data collection and graphing techniques, and start to make scientific sense of their observations (Hickman, 1994). It maximizes the use of students’ personal experience in the everyday world and in their everyday language.
  • Physics gives students the opportunity to apply their mathematical skills to real situations.
  • Physics is the basis for understanding the more abstract concepts introduced in chemistry and biology. Today chemistry students learn about the electrostatic and nuclear forces in atoms, energy transformations that occur in chemical reactions, and gas laws while biology students delve into the biochemical processes in cells. Providing a strong conceptual framework in physics will only help students understand these complex processes (Hickman, 1994).
  • The performance of 9th and 10th grade students taking a conceptual physics course on the NY Regents exam compared favorably to that of 12th grade students mathematical-based course (Hewitt, 1990).
  • The sequence of biology-chemistry-physics for high school science was created in 1894 by a national commission, the Committee of Ten. This was when biology was a descriptive science focused on classification. Those rules no longer apply (Lederman, 1998).
  • More girls and minorities are succeeding in science and pursuing more advanced science courses in schools which start physics in the 9th grade (Cohen, 1999).
  • The science framework and related MCAS will be changing to include subject area courses and exams, one of which is a grade 9/10 conceptual physics course.
  • All students will have had a physics course providing relevance and real world connections to their lives. All students will see physics for what it really is, not a course which is too difficult to take. With this in mind, more students may go on to pursue higher level physics.
Research also shows that students who take physics first do better on the math PSAT, and thus potentially on the math SAT I and SAT II tests (,july04.pdf).

As noted on the Newton website, one of the key benefits of a physics first approach is that this strategy helps increase the percentage of girls and students of color in taking physics, which in turn could increase the percentage of girls and students of color who choose physics as a college major or even a career. Considerable evidence documents that students of color are less likely than white students to take a physics class (, and students of color are very underrepresented in physics at the college level, even at elite schools such as MIT ( Similarly, women are underrepresented in college physics classes and in graduate programs in physics and engineering. In line with this view, a 2006 article in the Yale Daily News ( noted that even at this very elite school, "engineering, physics and mathematics lagged behind many of the humanities departments in attracting women, who tend to flock to fields ranging from art history to English, as well as the "softer" sciences, such as biology and environmental studies.... In the 2005-'06 school year, anthropology, environmental studies, art history and psychology are among the majors in which women are most overrepresented. At the same time, women are underrepresented in many of the physical sciences, including electrical, chemical and mechanical engineering, mathematics and physics." So, our approach to teaching ecology and environmental science is simply exposing girls to precisely those areas of science in which they are already more likely to be interested.

I believe the high school science teachers were right to shake up our required 9th grade science curriculum to increase interest and accessibility to science constructs for all students. But I believe that considerable evidence suggests the best way to accomplish this goal would have been to move Amherst Regional High School to a physics first model -- which would have the added benefit of eliminating tracking (all students in Newton take the same physics course in 9th grade - unlike our divide between "honors" and "college prep" in the 9th grade course) and exposing all students (including girls and students of color) to physics in 9th grade, followed by chemistry in 10th grade, and biology in 11th grade. This approach would increase the rigor of science education in Amherst for all students, and keep options open for all students in terms of college majors and professional careers. I hope that our new superintendent, Dr. Alberto Rodriguez, will take a serious look at the physics first approach now being used in leading high schools, and will consider recommending such an approach in Amherst.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

March 24, 2009, Regional Meeting

Tonight's meeting consisted largely of two topics: the 9th grade science program and the 2010 budget.

The superintendent started by saying that she was coming late to the conversation on the required 9th grade science course, but was committed to doing an evaluation of this course and how well it was working. She is also reaching out to other districts to learn how they evaluate programs, and will bring that information back to our committee. Maria also noted that she believed we should use the "same standards" to evaluate this program that we use to evaluate other classes and programs.

Then, the 9th grade science teachers presented a detailed description of the new required ecology and environmental science courses, and the evaluation that they were conducting. I encourage you to watch this presentation on ACTV to get a full sense of the types of information that was presented, but the data that was presented included the following: information on parents' views about the course, information on how the teachers are grading lab reports, information on areas in which students are having trouble learning some aspects of the material. They have also collected student feedback about the course, but this data was not presented. The science teachers also discussed how they were excited to "modernize" the 9th grade science curriculum, and how it was aligned with state curriculum goals.

The committee then had the opportunity to comment. Andy noted that he was pleased this topic of evaluation of this course was now on the table, and that the committee recognized the need for conducting such evaluation. I then raised several concerns that I had about the nature of the data that was presented. In particular, I noted that what the science teachers described in terms of strategies for grading lab reports and testing student knowledge were clearly effective teaching techniques, but these techniques could be applied to any science discipline, not just ecology/environmental science. I also noted that the key way in which material is learned in science is through comparison to some type of control group -- so, we don't just evaluate "how is this course going" but we really should be evaluating "how is this course going COMPARED to a different course"? The easy example here is that if you are studying cancer treatments, you don't just say "well, chemotherapy seems to be going well," but rather you conduct tests to see if chemotherapy is going better THAN radiation." And it seems pretty ironic that this type of evaluation wasn't being presented since of course this type of evaluation epitomizes the scientific method! I am discouraged that this type of data was not presented, nor does it seem like this is of particular interest (although the Chair of the Science Department, Mary McCarthy, noted that there will be tests of whether the students taking this class do better or worse on MCAS science tests and in higher level science classes, there was no mention whatsoever of the specific details about this type of a real evaluation -- including timeline, who would do this work and how would it be presented, what types of data would lead to a re-thinking of this course, etc.). I also asked a question about the effectiveness of this course for students with differing levels of math preparation -- the students in honors ecology/earth science range tremendously from those who completed algebra in 7th grade to those who are currently in 9th grade algebra -- and I think it would be important to examine how well students with different math backgrounds are doing in this course. Elaine then noted (once again) that the School Committee isn't in charge of evaluation, and thus this was not our job, and also that this decision has already been made, so it was not going to be re-visited. I found these remarks disheartening -- the School Committee voted unanimously last January to adopt this required course, and at the time assured parents that it would be evaluated. So, I guess I'm concerned that the entire School Committee was willing to adopt a course that has never been tried in any other district as a 9th grade required science course AND to simply hope that this course worked without requiring any sort of proof of its effectiveness. Andy then expressed his view that some evaluation should ideally be done, and he encouraged the superintendent to make sure that did occur. Finally, I again expressed my desire for such an evaluation, which would include a comparison. I also expressed my view that if this course was indeed as effective as people believe it is, then surely an evaluation demonstrating its merits would be desirable -- and useful in quieting critics.

So, that is a lot about my views on the science curriculum, and I know there are certainly supporters of this science curriculum. However, for me, the required 9th grade ecology/environmental science course is emblematic of what I find problematic about our Amherst schools for two reasons. First, I do NOT believe that we should be willing to adopt an entirely innovative science course and make it a requirement. This seems like a very, very risky strategy, and I'm just not comfortable with Amherst ignoring what ALL other districts in Massachusetts are teaching (earth science, biology, or physics) in 9th grade and creating its own required introduction to high school science. Second, if we are to adopt an entirely unproven course and make it a requirement, I believe we have a very serious responsibility to conduct a rigorous evaluation of this course on a very specific timeline so that we can figure out whether it is preparing our kids in the best way that it can for future success in science. I'm discouraged that my feeling about the importance of evaluation seems not to be shared by many other members of the School Committee (Andy was the only member who expressed support for such an evaluation).

The next part of the meeting focused on the budget for 2010. Updated information on the cuts lists was not presented, but will be at the April 7th meeting. However, we did learn that Amherst was not one of the districts who received money in the initial round of stimulus aid from the federal government, although we did receive money from IDEA funds (which can be used for special education funding -- about $200,000). Information on stimulus aid for Title 1 money (for low income students) is expected soon. In sum, we haven't received a lot of money from the federal government, and it is not clear that we should reasonably expect much aid to come this way. Andy then pointed out that we could control some aspects of other aid -- such as potential teacher give-backs of raises, an override, or the use of town reserves.

The committee then went into executive session to discuss contract negotiations.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Springfield Republican Article on School Committee Candidates

3 seek Amherst school slots

Sunday, March 22, 2009

AMHERST - The three candidates seeking two School Committee seats all talk passionately about the schools. All have been involved with the schools on myriad levels.

They all want to help the schools get through the budget challenges and thrive. And they are all running for office in the March 31 election.

Irvin E. Rhodes has run for Select Board, been on the Finance Committee and most recently served on the town's Facilitation for Community Choices Committee. He also has taught, been a school librarian, and assistant superintendent at the former Belchertown State School. He said he's making his first School Committee bid because, "I want to bring all that experience" to the committee.

He said working on the finance and facilitation committees "has given me an insight into the financial workings of the town budget." The overriding issue is the budget, he said.

The town has four elementary schools, and this year committee members have discussed the potential closing of Marks Meadow. No decisions have been made, and initially Helen L. Vivian, one of the former interim co-superintendents, recommended against that or any other changes to the configuration of the elementary schools. Some have proposed closing that school as a way to save money.

Rhodes said he doesn't think the school should be closed next year and instead thinks the school closing "needs to be (considered) within a comprehensive plan." Closing that school is not addressing the school budget structural deficit, which would be addressed in a comprehensive plan.

He said the community needs to get involved in creating the plan, and it needs to be ready and implemented in fiscal 2011. That plan needs to set goals and objectives. People want to go for easy solutions. They glom onto something that makes very little sense."

Rhodes said he can work collaboratively and looks forward to doing so with the committee.

Steven G. Rivkin, is the chairman of the economics department at Amherst College and said he wants to see good policy decisions in the schools. His specialty is economics of education.

Rivkin, along with current School Committee member Catherine A. Sanderson, co-founded the Amherst Committee for Excellence in 2007 in an attempt to ensure academic excellence for all children.

As a committee member he wants to ensure that all students are "intellectually engaged." And he also wants "to bring a sense of open debate and discussion to focus on data and evidence ... and most of all to focus on the children."

Rivkin said he believes that given the financial shortfall for fiscal 2010, the committee does need to consider closing Mark's Meadow for the fall. He realizes September is soon, but "we should not rule it out given the crisis."

He said, "We can't get caught up in the budget. The way in which the schools are structured has a huge impact on the quality of education in the schools."

He sees that redistricting is imperative "to eliminate the substantial disparities in the schools."

He said it's unfair that about 66 percent of the students at Crocker Farm are eligible for free lunch while only about 20 percent are eligible at the Wildwood and Fort River schools.

Redistricting the schools would create a balanced student population at all the schools.

As a committee member he said he would "focus on evidence," and he hopes the committee will be a forum where "people can disagree respectfully openly and move forward." With the committee, "there's a tendency to not disagree" or not ask the administration tough questions because the meeting is open.

Megan D. Rosa said she couldn't look at herself in the mirror if she wasn't going to try to help the students.

She said diversity issues are important and like Rivkin she wants to ensure greater diversity and equality among the elementary schools. She, too, would like to see redistricting.

"The bigger piece is the kids ... to do what I can to so each of these kids gets the best education we can give them to get the tools (they need) in life" to either work, or go on to college.

That drive "is so deep in me ... to make a difference in these kids' lives. We can't lose the focus of what these kids need."

She believes it's essential "to keep those core classes, services, making sure we have the core really strong."

Rosa has two children at Marks Meadow but contrary to what some think, "I'm not running to save Marks Meadow," she said. "If the numbers show the best thing is to close Marks Meadow, that's what we would have to do. (But) I don't see it being able to happen this year.

"We have to follow the advice of the administration and principals to make sure the kids have exactly what they need."

She also praised the administration for doing a good job with the budget and "putting the kids first."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

My Idea Regarding Special Education

As I've noted in this blog several times over the last few months, I have heard a TON from people since my election (almost a year ago) about the state of special education in our district. I've heard from parents about the special education their child is (or is not) receiving as well as community members who are concerned about the growing cost of special education. I know a fair amount about some educational issues (I have become pretty educated on different math and science curriculum over the last few years, for example), but I really don't know much about special education, and hence I just don't feel able to reach a conclusion or share my opinion about this topic in my blog. But given the amount of discussion about this topic in our community, I believe we need to better understand how special education is done in Amherst -- so that we can inform School Committee members, parents, and the community about these programs. (There is also a thoughtful posting on the Bridges program by a "guest poster" today on Alison Donta's blog:

Here is my proposal: I would like to suggest that the School Committee appoint a special task force to investigate the state of special education. This group would seek volunteers broadly, and would include parents (including those with kids who are receiving special education services and not), community members with some type of relevant background, teachers, staff, etc., and this group would be charged with creating a report on special education services in our district. In particular, this report would include a review of what we are doing (e.g., what are the goals and objectives of our particular programs), which kids we are serving (e.g., race, gender, free/reduced lunch, ELL, etc.), how kids are identified, the effectiveness of our approach (e.g., success in mainstreaming students, avoiding out of district placements, etc.), and the costs of providing such services (teachers, materials, legal fees, etc.). The group would gather some data, such as surveys from parents and teacher, information on outcomes, information on funding, and comparisons of our approach to those used in other districts. I don't have any idea what such a report would reveal, but I think creating such a committee, and gathering and publicizing such data (obviously with appropriate precautions taken regarding confidentiality) would go a long way towards helping understand what we are doing, and why, and whether there are any changes that should be made.

When Superintendent Candidate David Sklarz came to visit our district, he described a special outside review that was conducted of the Special Education services in West Hartford (you can read this review at: Although this review was expensive to conduct (I believe they paid $50,000 for the entire report, mostly in time for outside consultants to talk to parents/teachers/community members, collect data, and observe programs), he reports that it saved $200,000 a year (clearly a cost-effective use of funds). I don't know if we'd need to spend such a large sum, but it clearly suggests to me that having an outside perspective can be useful. (The Amherst College Psychology Department, for example, is undergoing an external review this spring, in which four professors from other colleges and universities are coming to meet with faculty and students this spring to learn about our curriculum and hopefully make some useful suggestions for us moving forward). This isn't about criticizing the very good things that many teachers and staff members in our schools are doing -- it is about acknowledging that we all need to be vigilant about making sure that what we are doing in all aspects of our schools, including special education, is good for kids (as assessed by empirical evidence, not just anecdote and intuition) AND is a good use of our limited resources (are we getting the most "bang for our buck").

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

More Information on School Committee Candidates

As I've said repeatedly, the election on March 31st is a very important one for the future of the Amherst schools, and I hope that all community members will take the time to become educated about each of the candidates. The League of Women Candidates' Forum took place this evening, and I'm sure will be shown on ACTV regularly over the next 2 weeks. There will also be statements by each of the candidates in the Bulletin this week. In addition, the ACE group (Amherst Committee for Excellence), which School Committee candidate Steve Rivkin and I co-founded in December of 2007, has asked each of the candidates questions to help inform voters (the ACE group does not endorse candidates). Their answers are now posted on the ACE website (, and I encourage you to read these responses to learn the candidates' views about particular challenges currently facing the schools. And just to be clear: as I've said repeatedly, I like and respect all three candidates (Irv Rhodes, Steve Rivkin, Meg Rosa), and as a current member of the School Committee, I am not endorsing any candidate. This is a great opportunity for the voters to choose which candidate(s) they believe best shares their goals for the Amherst schools as well as strategies for achieving these goals.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March 17, 2009, Amherst Meeting

This meeting focused on three topics: a presentation of the School Improvement Plan for Crocker Farm, an update on the 2010 budget, and a motion (more on this later) about closing Marks Meadow school. Maria Geryk also announced that discussions about the math curriculum/textbook are on-going, more data is being gathered to make a decision about whether to adopt Impact 1 for the 6th grade, and that a decision will be made and announced at the May meeting. I'm very glad that she is taking adequate time to really get questions answered and make sure she has all the necessary information before deciding how to proceed -- and as the parent of a 5th grader, I am very eager to hear the outcome of this decision and to learn more about the curriculum for 6th grade math!

First, Mike Morris, principal of Crocker Farm, presented the School Improvement plan for Crocker Farm. I am going to guess that this plan will be soon available on the web, so I'm not going to go through all the details, other than to say that I felt this plan focused on really the three crucial aspects of what our schools should be: curriculum, consistency/high expectations, and community involvement.

Second, Maria Geryk presented a brief update on the 2010 budget. Basically the cuts list for each of the levels looks largely the same, and we hope to have more information in April (as more is learned about state aid/federal money). She also said that she will be reviewing how the cuts at each level (e.g., intervention teachers, instrumental music, computers, etc.) will impact kids in our schools. I believe this information will be presented in April.

Third, I made a motion -- which had been shared previously with the superintendent, all the principals, and all the School Committee members -- that we close Marks Meadow at the end of the next school year (2009-2010). (This motion is pasted at the end of this blog entry.) This motion was seconded by Kathleen Anderson. After the motion, Elaine spoke about some concerns she had about the motion, including timeline, Kathleen spoke about her support for the motion (including the need to not take too long to reach a decision), Sonia spoke about her desire to make sure we could still offer appropriate transportation for all kids to go to the school that best fit their needs (such as by language), and Andy spoke about the need for public comment over the next month prior to an intended April vote. Andy also spoke eloquently about the benefits of having this motion maintain Marks Meadow for the next year (to allow time for transitioning well), provide a real sense of urgency to the regionalization discussions, and allow the new superintendent to arrive NOT having to faced this immediately (which I agree with and this was one of my main goals for proposing it now).

Because of the magnitude of this decision, we did not vote on it tonight, but will take a month to let the public weigh in, and then vote on it at our April meeting (that is the current plan, although of course the School Committee could also decide to take longer to discuss it). I believe more information will be presented soon to the PTOs/PGOs and a community hearing will be set up in early April -- I'll post information on these when it is available on this blog. The key thing for Amherst residents, however, is that the 2 new members of School Committee will now be asked to vote on this motion, potentially at their first meeting. All three candidates were at attendance at tonight's meeting, and have been attending our meetings regularly, so they are all up to speed on this, and other, issues that are coming before us (just as I attended meetings regularly last spring before my election to help create a smooth transition). So, if you have feelings about this motion (pro or con), you have two weeks to ask the three candidates where they stand and how they would vote!

Motion: Close Marks Meadow at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, and re-district to create three elementary schools with proportionate numbers of children on free/reduced lunch for the start of the 2010-2011 school year

We’ve heard a lot over the past few months about the passion the Marks Meadow community has for their school, and it is clear that this is a highly successful school, with a caring principal, dedicated teachers and staff, and involved parents and families. I therefore do not make this motion easily, or lightly. However, after considerable analysis, thought, and discussion, I believe that closing Marks Meadow at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, and redistricting our elementary school population into three schools with proportionate numbers of children on free/reduced lunch for the 2010-2011 school year, is the best decision for all of the children in our community. There are three factors that have led me to make this motion today.

First, the School Committee has gathered extensive data about projected enrollments in our schools. The 2007 New England School Development Council report gives projected enrollments in K to 6 through 2016-2017 that vary from 1368 to 1417. The largest of these numbers is the projection for the upcoming school year, and as was presented to the School Committee at our last meeting, three elementary schools can easily handle the projected enrollment for the upcoming year, and thus for the foreseeable future.

Second, the town of Amherst, and the schools in particular, are facing a real and lasting structural deficit. As detailed last fall by the town-wide FCCC group, this long-term fiscal problem cannot be solved by an override or a one-time fix from the federal government or teachers giving up promised raises. Instead, we need to find ways to achieve lasting and significant cost savings in how we run our schools. Closing Marks Meadow will not, in and of itself, eliminate this structural deficit entirely, but it will get us closer to solving it, which is a step in the right direction. After paying the transition costs in the first year, closing this school would save approximately $700,000 in the second year, largely due to reducing staff positions (which would then lead to even greater savings in every subsequent year because the salary base on which raises are computed annually would be permanently reduced). Although there are other ways of reducing this deficit, such as eliminating instrumental music or intervention support for kids who struggle on the MCAS, I believe these changes would interfere with the fundamental values this community holds for our schools in a way that having three, as compared to four, elementary schools does not.

Third, the 2007 report from the Amherst Schools Organization Committee clearly indicates that we have massive inequity in our elementary schools: Wildwood is the wealthiest school, and Crocker Farm is the poorest, with a spread in terms of kids on free/reduced lunch from 22% to 60%. I believe maintaining four schools with such inequity conflicts with one of the key values of this district--social justice. Although it is conceivable that we could redistrict into our current four schools, all of our children can clearly fit into our other schools, with quite similar class sizes to what we have now, at a cost that is roughly $700,000 a year lower, which makes the plan to move to three schools clearly superior.

I have thought considerably about the pros and cons of closing Marks Meadow and possible timelines for doing so, and I’ve listened to many voices – parents (including many from Marks Meadow), teachers, principals, administrators, and community members. My own feeling is that keeping this school even for this next year is very expensive precisely at a time in which funds are so limited. However, all of my listening to other voices instead leads me to propose that we make the decision to close Marks Meadow now, but allow for one whole year of planning to ensure the smoothest possible transition. This delay, not in making the decision but in implementing the decision, will give the administration time to thoroughly coordinate all aspects of this transition (including moving teachers and staff, planning bus routes, learning more about potential regionalization, considering where 6th graders should be educated, and seeking input from all stakeholders on strategies to help ease the transition). It will also give families time to say goodbye to their current school and to visit and get to know their new school.

Some members of the community have urged the committee to wait for the arrival of the new superintendent before making any major decisions, and I have given this issue of timing considerable thought. Dr. Alberto Rodriguez will arrive this summer needing time to get to know our community, and with many projects and issues on his plate. I believe he deserves a chance to get to know our community and build up support and good will before we ask him to take on the immense and emotional challenge of deciding whether to close a school and redistrict, and the reality is that taking such time, while we watch our structural deficit grow, will result in such extreme budget cuts in the upcoming year or two that we will be forced to make fundamental changes in the nature of the Amherst educational experience. It will also maintain the current inequity in our schools, which I see as highly problematic. I therefore believe that the School Committee should make the difficult decision to close a school and redistrict prior to his arrival so that Dr. Rodriguez can instead focus on factors that directly impact the education of all our kids, such as mentoring new teachers, establishing greater horizontal and vertical alignment in our curriculum, and helping us reach our goal of educating every child, every day.

This decision is an emotional one for me, and for the entire community – parents, teachers, staff, community members, kids. Closing a school with a rich history of exemplary and innovative teaching to a diverse study body is of course heartbreaking for the community. This decision will also mean that many of the children in our community will change schools. As a mother, I realize that two of my children will leave the only school they have ever known, and thus I share in the community’s sense of upheaval on a very personal level. But I believe that an even graver and long-lasting upheaval would result from failing to acknowledge and address the very real financial, educational, and social justice challenges that our schools face today and for the foreseeable future. I therefore ask each person at this table and in this room to weigh all of the pros and cons of this motion, while keeping in mind the educational interest of EVERY Amherst child. In the final analysis, Marks Meadow is a wonderful school for all the same reasons that the other three schools are wonderful: because it is run by a highly skilled and diverse staff offering differentiated instruction and a range of services to a diverse study body. As difficult as it is to accept, reducing the number of schools we operate will allow us to maintain our capacity to educate all Amherst children in this way not only in the short-term, but, more importantly, in the long-term.

How to Evaluate the 9th Grade Science Course

Given the interest among readers on my blog about how to evaluate the new required 9th grade science course, and what seems to be the general support for conducting such an evaluation, I'm posting a memo that Steve Rivkin (School Committee Candidate) and I submitted last fall to the Superintendent, copied to the Chairs of both the Amherst and Regional School Committee chairs. When this memo, which describes how to conduct such an evaluation, was submitted, we offered to meet with the superintendent, high school principal, and/or high school science teachers. I also personally offered to have an Amherst College thesis student conduct the evaluation, under my supervision. We have yet to receive a response from anyone regarding such an evaluation.

To: Alton Sprague
From: Steve Rivkin, Ph.D., and Catherine Sanderson, Ph.D.
Cc: Michael Hussin, Andy Churchill
Re: Review of 9th Grade Science
Date: October 15, 2008

This is a brief note on issues relevant to the review of 9th grade science, and we hope this is helpful. We both conduct program evaluations in our work, and our CVs are attached. We would also be both glad to answer questions or suggestions about conducting such an evaluation at any time, so please be in touch if and when that would be helpful.

Review of 9th grade Science Course Change
A comprehensive and informative evaluation of the change in 9th grade science requires the development of a valid empirical model, which includes consideration of both short-tern and long-term outcomes and the collection of the requisite data. In particular, it is important to produce separate estimates of the effect of the change on students who would have been in honors biology, on students who would have been in honors earth science, and on students who would have been in college prep earth science. In addition, it is important to obtain estimates for specific sub-groups, such as students of color, lower income students, and females. Such an evaluation will help the School Committee, Superintendents, and high school administrators and teachers understand the impact of the new required 9th grade science course on all students (and it is certainly possible that the new course will have a different impact on different students).

We briefly describe an ideal but not feasible evaluation framework as a kind of Holy Grail for evaluation in which all changes in student outcomes can be attributed directly to the change in 9th grade science. We then turn to a feasible approach given the available information and discuss some of the problems that must be addressed given that different kids experienced the two 9th grade science courses at different times. Finally, we describe the data needed for a successful evaluation.

Ideal evaluations: In the ideal evaluation, students would attend high school and go on to post-secondary activities first under the old 9th grade science curriculum and then under the new 9th grade science curriculum. Everything else would be identical, so that any differences in student outcomes potentially including satisfaction with 9th grade science, MCAS performance, number of science courses taken, number of AP science courses taken in various subjects, colleges attended, college majors, performance in science, future occupation and earnings could be directly attributed to the change in 9th grade science.

Of course people only go through high school once, so this “ideal” is not feasible. An alternative, and more feasible, approach that is commonly used in research to make such comparisons would be to randomly assign 9th graders to take either the old or the new science curriculum. Differences in outcomes between the two groups would provide a valid estimate of the effect of changing the 9th grade science curriculum if the randomization is done well. However, in this case such randomization is clearly not appropriate, as the high school would have had to offer two sets of science courses and parental and student efforts to get into the course of their choosing would have compromised the experiment. Most important, this was not done.

Feasible evaluation: The feasible alternative is to compare the cohort of students who attended 9th grade just prior to the change in science curriculum to a cohort of students who attended 9th grade just following the change. Although this approach is similar to the ideal framework, there are a number of potential impediments to a successful evaluation. These include cohort differences in student characteristics (such as interest in science, math background, etc.) as well as other changes (such as in teachers, curriculum, school policies, etc.). One should also acknowledge that the final year under the old curriculum could be less interesting and less well organized than the previous years as teachers understand that is the final year. Moreover, the first year under the new program might have some glitches, though the enthusiasm for the new program might be unusually strong in its first year.

In terms of the implementation of this evaluation, some of these potential impediments cannot be directly addressed and some can be with appropriate steps. On the one hand, changes in school policies, personnel, general interest in science, and other factors can be noted and considered but not directly incorporated in the analysis. For example, it would be important to know whether the different science courses influence the number of students who leave the school either as dropouts or school transfers (e.g., do some students who would have taken honors biology opt out of the high school for private school once it is no longer offered?). On the other hand, differences in student preparation and characteristics can be addressed with information on middle school performance, particularly in eighth grade mathematics, and student demographics.

There are a number of different methods that can be used to estimate the effects of the new curriculum on different groups of students.

Option #1: The state of the art is to use the method of propensity score matching to essentially “match” each student in the pre-change cohort to a student in the post-change cohort on the basis of middle score academic performance, family income, gender, race, ethnicity, and other relevant factors. This method provides a way to correct for cohort differences along a number of dimensions. (This is the approach that Catherine is now using to examine the effectiveness of the Pipeline Program.)

Option #2: An alternative and less technically demanding approach is to classify all students in the post-change cohort by which class they would have taken under the old system. Then students who actually took college prep earth science can be compared with those who would have taken the course, students who actually took honors earth science can be compared with those who would have been in the course, and students who actually took honors biology can be compared with students who would have been in the course. Although some students will be wrongly assigned to a particular group (because we don’t actually know what course they would have taken), one can make a pretty good guess about which course they would have taken based on 8th grade math preparation (given that only students with 8th grade algebra were eligible for the honors biology class).

Either of these methods clearly requires information on middle school academic performance and student demographics in order to mitigate the effects of cohort differences and to allocate students in the post-change group into the various courses they would have taken under the old system. It is our understanding that this type of information on individuals was not collected in the initial round of data collection (with the exception of gender and race). This complicates the evaluation and does rule out certain comparisons that ideally one could have made. However, it is certainly possible to collect information on middle school transcripts (including math class taken in 8th grade), high school transcripts (including 9th grade science course taken) and demographic characteristics for the pre-cohort students that can be used to both create the post-change groups and collect longer-term outcome data for the pre-change cohort.

Data needed: The initial short-term outcomes were measured based on a survey of 9th grade science students (which includes interest in science and future intentions to take science). We agree that these are important questions, and that students should be surveyed on such measures again this year to evaluate the qualitative outcomes of the different science courses. It is also important to collect data on longer-term, and quantitative, outcomes of such courses, and to build such plans into the overall evaluation model. These outcomes should include scores on 10th grade Science MCAS (biology, chemistry), number (and type) of science courses taken, and achievement on standardized tests (e.g., SAT IIs, APs). Of course ideally longer-term outcomes (such as college attended, proficiency in college science courses, and occupation) would be measured, but such outcomes are probably not feasible, nor can such data be collected in a timely enough way for decisions about the current science program to be made.

Friday, March 13, 2009

What Do We Value - Part 2

Given the interest people have in math/science at the high school, I did some more research today (again, using the same 10 districts as comparison points). I looked for three things: what do schools offer as 9th grade science, do schools offer AP chemistry, and do schools offer AP statistics. Here is what I found:

9th Grade Science - the first-year high school course for students varies considerably. Several schools require physics of all 9th graders (Brookline, Cambridge, Newton). Others require or offer biology for all 9th graders (Framingham, Northampton, East Longmeadow, South Hadley). Hatfield and Belchertown require earth science/physical science, and Hadley requires an integrative science course. Amherst is the ONLY district that requires ecology/environmental science.

AP Chemistry - most of these schools offer AP chemistry (Brookline, Cambridge, Newton, Framingham, Northampton, East Longmeadow, South Hadley). Hadley doesn't offer AP chemistry, but offers a second-year, advanced chemistry course for those who have finished the first-year chemistry course. Amherst, Hatfield, and Belchertown are the only three that offer only one chemistry option.

AP Statistics - schools are split on whether this course is offered. Some do offer it (Brookline, Newton, Framingham, Northampton, South Hadley). Others do not (Cambridge, Hadley, Hatfield, Belchertown, East Longmeadow). Amherst also does not offer this course.

In sum, I guess the answer here is who do we consider our best comparison district? Of these 10 schools, Amherst looks exactly like Belchertown and Hatfield across all three of these measures, and looks worse on all three of these measures than Brookline, Newton, Framingham, Northampton, and South Hadley. Given that our kids will be applying to colleges with kids from these other districts, and attending college with kids from these other districts, I believe we should strengthen our math/science offerings and requirements (and create stronger math/science programs in elementary and middle school to prepare students for this type of more challenging work).

UPDATE: In response to a question about this blog, I also looked up data for five top high schools (as based on the US News & World Report List: Belmont, Boston Latin, Newton South, Wayland, Brookline) and five top private high schools (I chose these randomly: Andover, Exteter, Deerfield, Williston, Northfield Mount Herman). The news isn't encouraging.

9th Grade Science - ALL offer core sciences: biology (Boston Latin, Wayland, Andover, Exeter, Deerfield, Williston) or physics (Newton South, Brookline, Northfield Mount Herman).

AP Chemistry - ALL offer AP Chemistry.

AP Statistics - ALL offer AP Statistics.

Again, students from these schools will compete with our high school students to get into college, and will compete with these students in college classes. I asked a faculty member in chemistry at Amherst College about the difference between a student in our intro chem class who had had AP chemistry versus one who had only had a single year of chemistry, and he said, "Night versus day." That isn't encouraging to me. I believe it is time for our district to increase the rigor of our math and science curricular offerings to help ALL our students succeed in their college academic endeavors.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A New Blog with Amherst Education Numbers

For those of you who enjoy seeing/thinking about/discussing various issues regarding the Amherst schools on this blog, please check out the new blog by Amherst resident and parent Alison Donta-Venman at: Alison served on the Facilitation of Community Choices Committee, and is very focused on using data for long-term, strategic planning for both the town and the schools (she's already blogged about special education in the Amherst schools, for example). I'm delighted to have someone else sharing data, presenting numbers, and generating important discussion about town-wide priorities and values.

What Do We Value?

As I've written about repeatedly on this blog, I think the key thing for the School Committee, the Superintendent, and the community to grapple with right now is what do we value in our schools -- and our schools should clearly reflect those values. We've talked a lot about issues of music instruction in the elementary schools and world language in the middle school, so in this blog posting, I'm turning to focus on the high school, and in particular, the high school course offerings that we REQUIRE (which I think is a good way of indicating what we value).

To make this comparison, I chose 10 Massachusetts districts. These included some of our neighboring districts (Northampton, Hadley, Hatfield, Belchertown, Longmeadow, South Hadley), plus the other two MA districts that, like Amherst, are part of the Minority Student Achievement Network (Brookline, Cambridge) and two well-thought of MA districts (Newton, Framingham). Here is what I found:

English - All of these districts, including Amherst, require 4 years.

Math - Amherst requires 2 years (4 trimesters). Belchertown, Hadley, Hatfield, Northampton, South Hadley all require 3 years, as do Newton, Brookline, Cambridge, Framingham. Only Longmeadow requires just 2 years.

Science - Amherst requires 2 years (4 trimesters). Belchertown, Hadley, Hatfield, Northampton, South Hadley all require 3 years, as do Newton, Brookline, Cambridge, and Framingham. Only Longmeadow requires just 2 years.

Social studies - Amherst requires 3 years (6 trimesters), as do Belchertown, Hadley, Hatfield, Northampton, South Hadley, Newton, Brookline, Cambridge, Framingham, and Longmeadow.

World language - Amherst requires none. Belchertown and Hadley require two years, as do Brookline, Cambridge, and Framingham. Newton, Longmeadow, South Hadley, Hatfield, and Northampton also require none.

So, this review suggests that our basic requirements for high school graduation are lower than that of these comparison districts in both math and science, and lower than some other districts for world language. Although many students at Amherst Regional High School can and do voluntarily take more years of math/science/world language, I'm not clear why we are setting lower standards for our students than the standards set in other districts (and surely our students are just as capable of mastering the same material as those in these other districts). In the current system, a student could leave our high school with geometry as the highest level math class completed AND biology as the only core science class completed, and this lack of higher level math and science would shut the door on many college majors. Increasing the rigor of our graduation requirements would help show that our district holds high expectations of ALL students and that we are confident ALL students can master higher level material across disciplines. This strikes me as a valuable way to show our district's commitment to equity and excellence for all.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Regional Meeting, March 10, 2009

Once again, the meeting focused almost entirely on the state of the budget, so that's what I'm going to focus on. The proposed budget looks pretty similar to what we saw two weeks ago, though there are a few changes. To briefly review, here are the proposed cuts at each level:

Tier 1 (best case scenario):

6.5 positions (teachers) are cut in the high school (meaning kids will have 2 study halls a year instead of one) - save $351,000
One assistant principal position is cut in the high school - save $80,000
The preschool/child study center is cut - save $71,819
Some cuts to athletics (reducing some assistant coaching positions, largely) - save $100,000
One assistant principal position is cut in the middle school - save $72,000
One librarian is cut in the middle school - save $54,000
4 teachers are cut (one team) in the middle school - save $216,000
1 world language teacher is cut in the middle school (language/languages to be determined) - save $54,000
1 guidance counselor is cut in the middle school - $54,000

Tier 2 (medium case)

All the cuts in Tier 1, PLUS another 1.8 reduction in MS world language and 3.5 reduction in HS course offerings

Tier 3 (worst case)

All the cuts in Tiers 1 and 2, PLUS another MS team and 3 more HS positions

So, the good news (if one can consider any of this good news) is that it looks like some 7th grade world language will remain, which I do think is a priority for many families, and is in line with district wide commitments to language. I'm glad to see these positions restored. It also seems like the HS staff is doing a very good job of trying to make sure that the cuts in classes are to those traditionally under-enrolled classes (across departments), which seems smart -- I know all cuts are tough, but it seems like some cuts will impact fewer students than others.

We then had a long and pretty interesting discussion on languages to offer, in light of two forms of valuable data that was presented by the Superintendent.

First, the following is the enrollment data by language 7th to 12th grade:

Spanish - 167 MS, 419 HS
French - 145 MS, 306 HS
Latin - 56 MS, 100 HS
Chinese - 43 MS, 79 HS
German - 20 MS, 72 HS
Russian - 17 MS, 19 HS

Second, data on what languages are offered at the MS level in 18 other districts was presented. This data shows that virtually all local and Boston districts offer Spanish and French (including Belchertown, Cambridge, Newton, Longmeadow, Sunderland, Hadley, Easthampton, etc.). A few offer a third language, which is (at least on the data reported) most typically Latin (6 of the 18 districts offer Latin in addition to Spanish and French). A few offer other languages (Chinese in 4 of the districts, Mandarin in two of the districts, German in 2 of the districts, Portugese in 1 district, Italian in 1 district). Only one district of these 18 offers 6 languages at this level (Wellesley).

OK, now here is the dreaded OPINION part of my blog. I am a big fan of world languages, and I think this is a core aspect of our curriculum. I'd like to see language in 7th grade, and I'd frankly like to see it K to 6. But I think it is important that we focus on offering SOME language more than I think it is important that we offer so many languages, and I think cost efficiencies DO matter. We can all say that cost/enrollment isn't the only factor, but really, when you are talking about designing a school budget, it is irresponsible to not consider costs. I haven't run the numbers, but it is pretty easy to see that the per pupil cost is a whole lot more for the kids taking Russian and German than for the kids taking Spanish or French. And on some level, when you are choosing what to cut, I just think that has to be considered. I believe it would be fine to offer 2 or 3 or even 4 languages in the middle school -- six seems to me to be just excessive, and to have other consequences (e.g., maintaining six languages for two years at the MS level likely means other cuts, such as much larger classes). I'd be in favor of allowing kids to choose from a broader set of languages at the HS level, but again, that would depend on numbers and student interests. In sum, and I know I'm not risking the ire of many parents right now, I think teaching language in middle school is TO ME part of the core educational mission of our schools. But I don't think teaching RUSSIAN or GERMAN is part of our core mission.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Why the Phrase "Strategic Planning" Scares Me

I've heard a lot over the last few weeks about the importance of having a "strategic plan" for our schools. Those who have emphasized the importance of having such a plan believe that we shouldn't make any decisions regarding the long-term future of our schools (such as closing a school and redistricting) until we have fully reviewed many different sources of data and reached out to the entire community to get "buy in." They also insist that hasty decisions will have long-term negative consequences for our district, our schools, and our community.

It is hard to oppose "strategic planning." Kind-of like it is hard to oppose most platforms Miss America contestants run on (e.g., anti-child abuse, pro-literacy, pro-environment, etc.). But I've got to say, I think we can actually do serious harm by refusing to make a decision until every possible piece of data is known and every person in the community has been individually consulted. This will be an extremely unpopular thing to say in Amherst, but I believe there is such a thing as too much talking/planning/discussing (if you don't believe this statement, I challenge you to sit through Town Meeting this spring).

I've pushed consistently over the last few months to close Marks Meadow as a way of starting to solve our structural deficit (though in fairness, let me point out that this idea as an effective way to save money was initially brought to me by several Town Meeting members, including parents with kids in the elementary schools, and that I only proposed that we seriously consider it AFTER then-superintendent Helen Vivian announced that she believed we had a major budget problem that would best be solved by pairing the elementary schools ... a "solution" which ended up costing $100,000 a year MORE than our current system). And some parents and community members have strongly resisted the idea of closing a school until we have done a "strategic plan" to make sure that this idea is really a good one. But here is what concerns me -- as we sit around and develop this plan, we are losing $687,000 a year (what it costs to maintain four elementary schools).

But here is the reality: we already have done a HUGE amount of planning. This planning includes:

1. In 2006, the School Committee paid for a report (issued April 2007) by the New England School Development Council (NESDEC) which provided demographic and enrollment projections for our elementary schools. This report CLEARLY states that our projected enrollment in K to 6 through 2016-2017 varies from 1368 to 1417. The largest of these numbers, importantly, is the projection for the upcoming school year. And as was clearly indicated in the report given by Superintendent Maria Geryk at last Tuesday's meeting, three elementary schools can easily handle next year's projected enrollment. So, what do we know? We know we have the ability to educate all projected K to 6 grade students in three buildings at least through 2016-2017 (and that isn't even considering the option of moving 6th grade to the MS, which could always be done if enrollments suddenly increase dramatically).

2. In 2007, the Amherst School Committee put together the Amherst Schools Organization Committee, which included me (in my role as a parent -- prior to my election) as well as School Committee candidate Meg Rosa. This report is available ( and clearly indicates that we have a massive equity problem in our elementary schools (Wildwood is the wealthiest school, and Crocker Farm is the poorest, with a spread in terms of kids on free/reduced lunch from 22 to 60%!). So, what do we know? We know that the schools are massively different from each other, and that these differences almost certainly impact the educational experience.

3. In 2008, a town-wide group (FCCC), which included School Committee candidate Irv Rhodes, met for several months to examine the long-term financial situation in Amherst (and this group presented their findings to community groups and solicited considerable community feedback). Their report ( clearly states that we have a long-term fiscal problem (and one that will NOT be solved simply by an override or a one-time fix from the federal government). So, what do we know? We know we have a long-term problem in that our revenues are smaller than what we spend.

So, I guess I look at these three pieces of data that we do have -- knowledge that our current projected enrollment for the foreseeable future fits fully well into three elementary schools, knowledge that our schools have massive inequity, knowledge that we have an on-going serious structural deficit -- and I come pretty readily to the conclusion that closing Marks Meadow is the right decision ... and hey, this could be seen as the FIRST step in our strategic plan. Sure, we could--and knowing Amherst, we probably will--study this growing budget and equity problem for another 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 years. As School Committee member Elaine Brighty said at the last meeting, she is "delighted we're being so cautious and careful." But I've got to agree with School Committee member Kathleen Anderson, who spoke about the hazards of taking things really, really slowly ... because anyone who pushes for a strategic planning process that delays the decision to close Marks Meadow is actually making a decision to maintain the very real inequities in our schools and a decision to cut other valued programs (such as reducing instrumental music from 3.4 positions to 1.7 positions, and cutting 1.7 intervention teachers and 2 classroom teachers -- these are all only Tier 1 cuts).

I agree that there are other budget issues in our schools that need to be solved, and ideally these issues could be examined in a strategic planning process. But I can't see how delaying a decision on closing Marks Meadow helps solve our budget OR equity crisis -- in fact, it will lead to a GREATER budget crisis because the delay will cost us $687,000! I may well be in the minority on this committee and in this community -- but I guess I'm all for studying a situation (as we've done with the projected enrollments study, and the school organization committee, and the FCCC), and then just making a decision and moving forward ... In sum, I'm a "rip the band-aid off" kind of girl.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

School Committee Candidates

I've had a number of questions regarding the School Committee election -- which will be held on Tuesday, March 31st. Two seats on the Amherst Committee are up (neither Elaine Brighty or Sonia Correa Pope are running again), and there are three candidates for these two seats: Irv Rhodes, Steve Rivkin, and Meg Rosa. The links to each of their campaign websites is below:

Because I will need to work well with whichever candidates are selected, I've decided not to endorse anyone in this race (and I know and personally like all three of these candidates). However, I believe that these candidates have very different backgrounds, experiences, ideas, and strategies for working on the School Committee, and thus I really hope that all voters will take time to learn about each of the candidates as well as attend and/or watch the League of Women Voter's Candidates Forum (Wednesday, March 18th).

I'd pay particular attention to the specifics about what they believe -- all three share a broad view about what they would emphasize (e.g., transparency, data, accountability, communication, equity, excellence), so I believe it is particularly important to ask about what they would do specifically. So, how exactly would they solve this year's budget crisis (close a school, cut music, cut intervention teachers, etc.)? How specifically would they demand accountability, and for what programs/curriculum/ policies? What precisely do they see as the two or three top priorities for the district?

The next year is going to be a critical one for our district, as we face both managing a growing budget crisis that forces us to make very tough choices about what we value in our schools and working with our new superintendent to set clear goals and objectives for our school system. Please educate yourself about all three of these candidates, and vote for the candidate(s) who you believe both shares your views about what our schools should be and the strategies they would use to move the schools in this direction. I can't think of a more critical time to have strong leadership in our School Committee.

Hampshire Gazette Article on Dr. Alberto Rodriguez

Amherst schools pick says he's ready for pressure

AMHERST - Alberto Rodriguez, the Amherst Regional School Committee's pick for superintendent, was amused by some of the questions people asked when he visited district last week.

One was why he would consider leaving Florida for New England.

Rodriguez, who is still in negotiations with the district about financial terms, said he is attracted to Massachusetts because it has historically been a state in the forefront of educational reform.

"It can't all be about weather."

Florida, he said, has gotten bogged down with FCAT, the equivalent of the MCAS educational assessment system in this state. "There's been an overdependence, an overreliance, too much focus on it," Rodriguez said.

Another question is whether he is tough enough for Amherst.

"You guys really have no idea how tough it is down here," he said by telephone from Florida, in response to concerns some parents have raised about whether a principal in the country's fourth-largest school district would be able to navigate the small-town politics of Amherst.

"We play hard, hard, hardball down here," he said of Miami.

Assuming he takes the job, Rodriguez, 48, said people would find he does not shy away from pressure. "I'm going to be tested, and you guys will see that it's not about that," he said. "I have the mettle to take that fire."

In his experience, the best way to assure a community that decisions are being made fairly is to arrive at them transparently in an open process, Rodriguez said.

"The whole concept of unanimity is not a real concept," he said. "You're not going to have, in any community everybody agree with you about everything. You try to do things based on data, reason. You reach out and you listen. Ultimately, you formulate a plan and you move on. If there is a group that does not agree with it, it's their American, God-given right to disagree."

Rodriguez likely would have to address one of the thorniest school issues in recent years, the closing of Mark's Meadow School, a cost-savings option that could be on the table next year, assuming the school is not closed this year. He said he confronted the possibility of closing Edison Senior High School, the oldest high school in Miami, during his tenure as an assistant superintendent. "We held firm against closing the school," and it is still open today, he said.

Another issue Rodriguez sees Amherst facing is aligning curricula across schools and grades more closely than is done now. "It's not that people aren't working extra hard," he said, "but there needs to be some alignment and some vision in that realm."

Close call

The School Committee almost didn't arrive on a decision about a new superintendent at all, Monday.

Three of nine members, initially, said they did not feel confident enough in any three finalists to cast a vote, with two members saying they favored West Hartford Superintendent David Sklarz, leaving the four members who favored Rodriguez one vote short of a majority. But after a five-minute break, a consensus was reached.

Rodriguez will now be the subject of a background check and school officials will visit his district. Barring any unforeseen hitches, he would succeed Jere Hochman, who left last summer for the same position in Westchester County.

Alton Sprague and Helen Vivian had been serving as interim co-superintendents but resigned last week, citing personal reasons. Maria Geryk, who has been the director of student services for the six years, has been appointed by the School Committee to complete their term ending June 30.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

March 2, 2009, Amherst Meeting

I want to start by commending our new Interim Superintendent Maria Geryk for preparing the most thorough and thoughtful data presentation that I've seen in the two years that I've been attending (either as an audience member or a School Committee member) School Committee Meetings. She started this job on Friday, February 27th, and led tonight's meeting in the most clear and organized manner that I've seen this year. I was extremely impressed at how she was able to step into this situation and handle it so well.

This meeting was spent talking about two key issues: updated budget scenarios and potential redistricting scenarios. I believe these documents will all be posted on the website soon, so I'm not going to go through all the numbers (and mostly they are the same anyway). But briefly, here are the major cuts at each level:

Tier 1: These are cuts that would DEFINITELY be made

2 classroom teachers (somewhat larger class sizes in 1 5th grade and 1 6th grade) - $108,000
1.7 instrumental music teachers (probably meaning some type of delay in offering this type of music instruction) - $91,800
1.7 intervention teachers (math, English Language Arts) - $91,800
.80 computer teacher - $47,000

There are other cuts, but those are the ones that likely have the most classroom impact.

Tier 2: These are cuts that might be made (this is the "medium level" scenario)

Science coordinator - $54,000 (this means no science coordinator for K to 6 at all)
Librarian - $54,000 (I believe two schools would then share a librarian)
.70 Instrumental music - $37,800
4.5 intervention teachers - $243,000 (1 ELL, 2 ELA, 1.5 Math/ELA)
Computer teacher - $54,000

There are a few other cuts, but these are the ones with the biggest impact.

Tier 3: These are the cuts that represent the WORST CASE

4 classroom teachers - $216,000
.80 instrumental music - $43,200 (meaning the end of instrumental music)
3 more intervention teachers - $162,000 (1 ELL, 2 ELA)

Again, there are a few other cuts, but these are the key ones.

Next, the committee heard about three redistricting options: keep 4 K to 6 schools and redistrict to achieve equity, close MM and keep 3 K to 6 schools, close MM and keep 3 K to 5 schools (move 6th to the MS). I was very, very impressed with the considerable work that Doug Slaughter has done to create literally two different maps, and we got data on not only what the districts would look like, but also class size information. I am going to hope this stuff is all posted on the ARPS website, so I'm not going to repeat it here, but here are a few "highlights":

If you keep four schools, you can NOT really manage the kids in the four buildings -- because you are always going to run up against the issue of MM being very small. So, this redistricting plan has 13 classrooms being used in MM, whereas there are only 12. It also still involves moving kindergarteners from MM to other schools, which I just think is a really bad idea (why create two transitions in two formative years -- preschool to K, K to 1?). This plan does, however, create schools that range in terms of kids on free/reduced lunch from 31.7% to 35.9%, which is a WHOLE lot better than our current spread (22% to 60%). The class sizes are good in this model (range from 13 to 24). Two things I note: the class sizes in MM are VERY small in this model -- only 13 or 14 kids per class in several grades in this school, which is much smaller than those seen in the other schools. This plan uses 72 classroom teachers -- which, for the record, is 3 MORE classrooms than we now use (meaning an additional $150,000 PLUS per year), and 2 MORE classrooms that we would project using next year without redistricting (meaning an additional $100,000 a year).

If you close MM and have 3 K to 6 schools, you run up against needing 19 classrooms in CF (22 in WW and 22 in FR). Although CF only has 16 classrooms, you'd move the portables, which gives you 18 classrooms, and then you could either have 2 kindergarten classrooms instead of 3 (they have projected 3 to get to the 19 classrooms but several grades in CF have only 2 classrooms needed), OR you could bus those kindergarteners to other schools (like we already do now for kids at MM), OR you could use one of the preschool classrooms (although the principal of CF, Mike Morris, cautioned against this, based on projected needs). This model gets you good equity (range of 29.5% to 35.9%), and class sizes ranging from 17 to 24. This model also uses 62 or 63 classrooms -- which is a TREMENDOUS cost savings (again, this was never acknowledged, but this is where you get the major savings). So, if you pay, on average, a teacher $50,000, in this plan with 3 schools, you save about 8 or 9 teachers a YEAR (which presents close to half a million dollars once you add in benefits). The schools are by no means "over-crowded" in this model -- both FR and WW can have up to 24 classrooms, meaning you aren't even at their maximum.

The third model is the close MM and move 6th grade to the MS. This model works at a practical level (because you've moved basically 200 kids to the MS, so there is more room). This model creates good equity (31.2% to 38.8% free/reduced lunch), and good class sizes (range of 17 to 24). This model uses 62 or 63 teachers (54 for K to 5, and probably 8 or 9 more for 6th grade). So, the money in this model is the same savings as the model with keeping 3 K to 6 schools -- as I've written about before, the cost savings here comes at the regional level -- you can then pay some of the administrative staff in that building from the elementary budget (which might let you keep world language in 7th grade FOR EXAMPLE).

Let me make one thing very clear: at the outset of this presentation, the Superintendent said that she and the principals do NOT recommend making any changes at this time -- they prefer to keep four schools open, not redistrict, and just make the necessary cuts to reach whatever budget scenario that we end up reaching (with the possible caveat that at Tier 3 cuts, anything is on the table) .

OK, so thus far, I've been just giving the facts. This is now the opinion time of my blog, so stop reading if opinions bother you in the blog setting.

First, it is very, very clear to me that we have a long-term structural deficit in our schools. We spend more than we have, and thus EVERY YEAR at this time, we start going through what we can cut, bit by bit by bit. This seems awful for many reasons -- anxiety-provoking for the community, disrupts morale in teachers/adminstrators, wastes time that should be spent focusing on curriculum, etc. This deficit is real, and lasting, and it isn't going away. And it is very, very clear from these numbers that (1) we do NOT need four schools at this time, or in the foreseeable future, and (2) keeping four schools is costing about half a million dollars EACH AND EVERY year. And that isn't just "magical" money that we can find looking under seat cushions, etc. Paying to keep four schools open takes money that we are then NOT able to spend on other things. So, what do you get for half a million? Well, I'd start by adding the FULL instrumental music program (this adds 91,800 at Tier 1), and the two intervention teachers (this adds $91,800 at Tier 1). And then I'd think about adding back some of the other cuts we are experiencing -- guidance counselor at WW, cafeteria paraprofessionals at FR and WW, two classroom teachers, and so on. Basically, you can get a lot of stuff for half a million dollars -- and this is half a million EVERY YEAR.

Second, it is very, very clear to me that we have a massive problem with equity in our schools. It is ridiculous to have schools that range from 22% to 60% on free/reduced lunch. We admit it is a problem (we on the board, those in the administration, and I imagine/hope many in the community). But gosh, it is scary to actually doing something about it -- because families will be upset. And I get this - the redistrict model that closes MM and moves to three schools moves my three kids to CF from FR. We bought our house in the FR district so my kids could go there, and my kids have friends who would NOT travel with them to CF based on where they live, and I co-chaired a giant playground installation TWO YEARS AGO at FR that I assumed my then 3-year-old would get to play on at recess. Sure, it would be upsetting for my kids (including my 5th grader, who would move from FR to CF to MS in the span of three years). But I find it upsetting to look at the maps now and realize how we are creating such massively different elementary schools.

Now, we heard lots of talk about taking time to study this issue, hear community input, get parent buy-in, etc. And I'm going to just come out and say it -- I think it is ridiculous to sit around and study this when we are talking about saving half a million a year at a time of massive budget cuts. By closing MM, and keeping the K to 6 in the three schools (I'm frankly convinced for now that keeping the 6th grade in the elementary schools makes sense for now -- though I remain really, really concerned about what we are going to do for the regional budget to get back 7th grade language and avoid two study halls per year in the HS), we could reduce our ANNUAL structural deficit and we could create equity. How much talking should we do? It is never, ever going to be easy or popular to redistrict -- that's why it hasn't happened since like 1973 (even as things got less and less equitable). And it is never going to be popular to close a school. So, it is always easier for SC members to say let's study this some more, let's see how it goes, let's talk to the community, etc. But while we do all this talking and pondering, we are cutting half a million dollars worth of real services to our kids -- basically reducing the rich instrumental music program by half (and how much of an orchestra/band experience will there by if you can only take music in 6th grade, for example?) and cutting support services for our neediest students (those in need of interventions services) -- and living with a total lack of equity in our elementary schools. I understand that I'm likely alone on the committee in having this view -- again, my wiser colleagues are keeping their mouths shut -- but I believe as an elected official, I have a responsibility to make fiscally responsible decisions and I have a responsibility to look out for our core values. To me, that is creating equity in our schools, maintaining a rich instrumental music (cuts to this program hurt our disadvantaged students the most), and providing appropriate intervention services to those who need them. I just don't see having four elementary schools as a core value (and I know there are MM parents who feel that keeping this school open is essential, and I respect this view -- I'm just saying what I feel). I imagine my fellow board members aren't ready to take what they see as a drastic step, so don't worry -- this is just one lone board member blogging. But to me, this is honestly a really easy choice: save a half a milion dollars a year that we can use to providing core services/programs AND create equity in our schools. I just don't need more time to evaluate this choice.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Superintendent Selection

Tonight featured the long promised vote on the Superintendent selection. So that you don't have to read this whole entry, I'll cut to the chase: Dr. Alberto Rodriguez was selected.

Here's the longer story: on the first round of discussion, Michael Katz, Marianne Jorgenson, Elaine Brighty, Sonia Pope and Kathleen Anderson supported Dr. Rodriguez. Andy Churchill and I supported Dr. David Sklarz. Michael Hussin and Tracy Farnham abstained -- saying they thought we should re-open the search. Then, we took a brief break, and when we came back, Andy, Michael Katz and Michael Hussin had now decided they supported Alberto Rodriguez, meaning there were 7 votes in favor, my vote for Sklarz, and Tracy's abstention. I am posting the statement I read aloud below, for those who don't want to watch the whole thing on TV, but in brief, let me say that I am extremely disappointed in my colleagues on the School Committee -- who clearly were afraid of hiring a strong, experienced leader who frankly would have ruffled some feathers in our district and made some real change (which is why he so clearly had the support of the vast majority of parents in this district). This is apparently NOT what we are looking for ... and instead have chosen a person who is very nice, very likeable, and a good listener -- but one who has NEVER worked in a district other than Miami-Dade (a district about as different from ours as I could imagine) and has NEVER worked as a superintendent (1 year as a "region superintendent" but not the overall superintendent; 1 year as assistant/associate superintendent; 1 year as "assistant superintendent for human resources" -- although his CURRENT job is as a high school principal).

I want to say that I do respect Tracy's decision to abstain -- I do agree that there wasn't a "perfect candidate" and in that sense, she made a good call if she felt that having no one was better than having the wrong choice. And I'm very, very disappointed in Andy's behavior -- I think the decision to vote first for David Sklarz, and THEN for Alberto Rodriguez was a deliberate attempt to please all sides (the parents in the audience actually applauded when he said he supported Sklarz, but then ultimately he gets to be on the winning side and vote for Rodriguez). It strikes me as very similar to a comment he made when we voted for an electronic suggestion box -- he said he was in favor of it, but then concerned about, so he voted against it. This is not the time to play politics -- it is the time to make a decision and hold with your convictions, even if they are unpopular.

The following is the statement I read at the meeting regarding the selection (obviously to no avail):

This is a critical time in the Amherst Regional Public Schools. We are facing massive budget cuts, an urgent need for redistricting our elementary schools, and continuing challenges with reducing our achievement gap. The selection of an experienced and proven superintendent who can lead our district forward during this trying time is essential, and thus I believe we have only one choice: Dr. David Sklarz. He is the only candidate we saw who has extensive experience as a superintendent, a demonstrated ability to help all children succeed, and clear support from the community.

Dr. Sklarz has served as a superintendent in West Hartford for 14 years. The West Hartford district is very similar to our own in many ways, including the percentage of low income students and children of color as well as the presence of demanding and involved parents. He therefore knows what he is getting into and will arrive on July 1st ready to hit the ground running. This is simply not the time or place for hiring a superintendent who will require extensive on-the-job training.

Dr. Sklarz has demonstrated his ability to help all children succeed. A colleague of mine looked up the performance (% meeting No Child Left Behind proficiency level) for 10th grade students in different sub-groups in West Hartford and Connecticut as a whole for each of the MCAS tests (math, science, reading, writing). These subgroups were low income students, ELL students, and students of color (black, Hispanic). Students in West Hartford public high schools are doing substantially better than those in the state of CT as a whole for every sub-group. In some cases, students in these sub-groups in West Hartford are out-performing stage averages by as much as 20 to 25%. In addition, both high schools in West Hartford appear on the Newsweek list of best high schools in the United States, and both appear on the list of Top 35 public high schools in Connecticut.

These qualities are not just recognized by me: almost all of the numerous parents, teachers, and community members who have contacted me over the last few days (by phone, by email, in person) have expressed their strong view that the Amherst schools are in need of precisely the type of leadership Dr. Sklarz provides and have strongly urged me to vote accordingly. They recognize that this is not a time in which we as a community should take a “leap of faith” and select a candidate based on personal likeability, and were inspired by the ideas and vision offered by Dr. Sklarz during his visit to Amherst.

In sum, although I liked and admired aspects of both the other candidates, Dr. Sklarz is the only candidate we saw who has demonstrated through his 18 years as a superintendent that he can create top-notch public schools we’d like to have for all students and is prepared to meet each and every one of the challenges we currently face. Although choosing a strong leader, who may by necessity ruffle some feathers in order to make some much-needed changes in our schools, is scary to some, at this critical time we desperately need a decisive, experienced, and proven superintendent who can provide vision, create curriculum alignment, and demand excellence from students, teachers, and administrators. I therefore urge my fellow School Committee members to join me in voting unanimously for Dr. David Sklarz.