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 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.


Ed said...

If I am not mistaken, "Manderin" is the proper name for "Chinese" - so it is four not two and two.

I agree with you on the Spanish & French option....

Alison Donta-Venman said...

A few other key aspects of the currently-proposed budget that I think are also worth mentioning. First, the elimination of one team for the rising 8th grade, resulting in class sizes of 24-31. Secondly, the addition of $128,000 to the Bridges Program which serves very few students. The language program is, understandably, getting a lot of attention (and I agree with you that we need to offer SOME language option to our seventh graders), but these two items are also key to understanding what the priorities of our district are and what our middle school experience will look like next year.

Julia said...

I appreciate that anyone who wants to keep certain programs needs to offer cut suggestions. Here are my two:
1. Cut computer for middle school. For 7th grade, this is a full time position. 7th graders have already had 7 years of computer in elementary school--enough to learn powerpoint, excel, wordprocessing, information gathering and to learn about internet safety. If there are some kids who haven't had that, those needs can be addressed on a much smaller basis.

2. The team size for next year's eighth grade middle school is proposed to be between around 30. My proposal is that for the 120 kids on those two teams, the 8th grade teachers teach 5 classes instead of 4. If this inequity between middle school teachers (teaching 4 sections) and other teachers (teaching 5 sections) is eliminated, there could be 24 kids in a class for next year's eighth grade without costing the school district any more money.

German and Russian for 7th and 8th grade hardly cost the school district--my understanding is that the cost is about $12,000 per class. We need to look at the larger numbers to keep these costs in perspective--ie the team structure as a whole.

Jonathan O'Keeffe said...

Curious about the cost savings from eliminating languages. If we eliminate, say, the German program, those kids are going to be taking other languages (presumably they're not just going to drop out of the language program altogether). So if we replace a German teacher with (say) another Spanish teacher, where's the net savings? Is it cheaper to teach Spanish than to teach German?

I can potentially see some administrative savings in developing the curricula for the languages to be cut, but I'm guessing that that is relatively small.

And if you can eliminate a program like German without hiring another Spanish teacher, then there are definitely net cost savings, but then you're talking about squeezing more kids into the existing major-language classrooms, which is bound to have an educational impact that needs to be considered.

Cathy C said...

Previously I have criticized the SC meetings, citing frustration at the pace, lack of information and direction. So it is only fair that I now compliment last night’s meeting as productive. Maria Geryk, Mark Jackson and Glenda Cresto’s presentations were more what I had expected 2 weeks ago; at least they said something and answered questions to the best of their abilities. The genuine attitude of administration seemed to be that they are looking at all suggestions and options – a quick way to diffuse anyone’s arguments.

I was very pleased to see the 7th grade get back some language, interestingly renamed “Elective World Language”. I am captivated to see how those numbers play out.

I was NOT happy to see the defensive reaction to a parent who suggested looking at other non-core subjects like computers. (What was that about being open to all ideas and reviewing all suggestions?) Although a good computer course might be worthy of the time and money in the 21st century, I’d be generous to say the current course is redundant entertainment. Right now in the trimester system, the 7th & 8th graders each take 3 “exploratory courses” -computer applications, technology education, health, drama, art & WRR (Reading, Writing, Researching). For next year, the middle school exploratories are computer, technology, art and drama – so are we going to a semester system or offering another study hall? These are NOT electives, but rather something we have on the required curriculum. I can see the value of these courses, but making some of these electives would empower students to make choices about what they study and give teachers a class of people who actually want to be there. Mandatory classes are “easier” to fill, but I’m not confident that we are selecting the best classes for each individual student.

Many school systems have a minimum class size. (My high school wouldn’t run a class without 12, but really wanted 15 students – and this was ages ago.) Decide what number makes economic and educational sense and have a policy.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a key item to figure out is exactly how many spanish, french, german, russian, latin and chinese teachers are on payroll, and whether any or all are shared amongst the highschool, middleschool and Wildwood (for the chinese teacher(s)). For example, we might find out that ONE teacher is teaching two languages. Or that there are a variety of part-time positions, and thus these teachers are paid JUST to teach the language class (and not monitor study halls or lunch room). Maybe that information is already publicized somewhere.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. My responses:

Ed - The Manderin/Chinese distinction was listed on our handout ... not sure what to make of this.

Alison - I don't feel that I know enough about the Bridges program to comment -- yes, it is a lot of money for a small number of kids, and yes, we should examine how/why the resources are allocated that way. But I'm not convinced that we don't need this level of service enough that I can definitely state it should be cut (given that I do not know what is state-mandated and I don't know how many of these kids would then require out-of-district placement). The class sizes in 8th grade aren't ideal (24 to 31), although my 5th grader now has 26, I believe in his class ... and I certainly would RATHER have large class sizes than no language, yes? That actually seemed to me to be the right call on behalf of the principal and superintendent.

Julia - OK, I'm seeing computer as less essential. Not our core! I think this is a good place to push. I'm lost on the 4 versus 5 classes taught for MS ... not having a MS student. Can you clarify? I also wonder if this is a union issue? In terms of German/Russian -- I think the issue has to be how much money it is, and actually how much money it is per child ... if we are spending $12,000 for German, and then $12,000 for Russian, that's half a teacher right there, yes? Perhaps it would be better to have those students in French/Spanish/Latin/Chinese and then have smaller 8th grade classes, yes? Again, I'm in favor of allowing current 7th graders to continue for one more year with their language, but I think we need to take a long-term perspective on how many languages we can realistically keep offering to pretty small numbers.

Jonathan -- good point ... and definitely I'd imagine a German teacher and a Spanish teacher cost the same, so yes, cutting German to hire an additional Spanish teacher wouldn't make sense. But I believe we are just not using LIMITED resources efficiently. Let't take what happens in the first year of language (largely this is 7th graders). We have 96 in Spanish 1 this year, so this could divide pretty easily into 4 classes of about 24. Similarly, we have 61 in French 1, so this is probably 3 classes of about 20. We have 28 in Latin 1, so I am betting that is probably one Latin class, and we have 25 in Chinese 1, so that is likely one Chinese class. Then we have 10 in German 1 and 12 in Russian 1 ... those are SMALL classes. If we didn't offer those languages, those 22 kids could fit in the other languages offered (we'd just have slightly larger class sizes in the other languages). I also wonder if we could push to have greater alignment with the HS schedule ... I asked last night about whether 7th and 8th graders could take Russian and German at the HS -- if they were just in a regular class with 9th graders, it seems like that wouldn't be any extra money at all. Although the schedule doesn't work now to allow this, it seems like this might be a good idea for the future to maximize this type of sharing between two buildings that really are in close proximity.

Spelling Police said...

It's Mandarin.

JWolfe said...

Pedant alert: I don't speak any Asian languages, but I do know that "Mandarin" is not the proper name for "Chinese." Chinese refers to a family of languages spoken in China, some of which are unintelligible to speakers of others. Mandarin is the mostly widely spoken by a long shot, but telling a Cantonese speaker that Cantonese is not a Chinese language is really problematic. Again, I don't know much about Asia, but I'm pretty sure we should try to be a little more exact.

JWolfe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JWolfe said...

I have a question about Computer classes.

Are they programming classes? How do they compare to our HS Math and Science offerings in terms of rigor?

I really have no idea what they classes entail.

Anonymous said...

Do you have any information about MS students taking classes at the HS? I have heard people talk about it in the past, but do not know why it isn't being talked about with the languages.

Anonymous said...

course outlines would be a good thing to have posted on arps especially if it is a candidate fo elimination.

Julia R. said...

Here's the curriculum for 7th grade computer (full time teacher): play Sim City 4, learn to work with Excel files (already learned in elementary school), and learn to set up a web page using MicroSoft Front Page. There is no programming. I don't understand how this is a core anything.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Me, again:

Cathy C - agree that the meeting was better than many, and that the superintendent and principals did GREAT. I agree that we need to carefully look at what we electives we are offering ... particularly if we are reducing world languages and/or increasing class sizes. And I also agree that we should have (in the MS and HS) minimum class sizes ... the reality is that for every class we are offering to 7 or 10 students, that means we are either spending more money (hiring another teacher we don't need) OR overloading another class (I hear from HS parents that some classes are quite small, but others are really large). I'd be interested in hearing a discussion about such a policy for the MS and HS courses, and yes, that seems like a good way to reduce what we are offering (particularly during tight budget years).

Anonymous 10:20 - that sounds like very useful information, and I do NOT believe it is posted elsewhere. I'll see if we can get this for the next meeting (March 24th).

Spelling Police - My bad.

Joel W. - OK, good to note. Remember, I'm just copying off of the answers I was given at the meeting! And good question re. computers.

Anonymous 3:03 - I asked about the MS kids taking HS classes, and was told the schedule makes this very hard. This seems like potential a cost-saving solution, so I hope the principals will see if this might work, at least for the low enrollment languages. Obviously Russian and German are much cheaper if the MS kids can just go to the HS to take them.

Anonymous 3:13 - can you say more what you mean? It is somewhat hard as a parent with only elementary kids to judge something from a course outline. I think data on enrollment might be more useful to see how interested students are in a given topic? Or am I missing your point?

Julia - depressing answer re. computers. Yes, this sounds like something that at least should be considered. But is this REQUIRED, or do students CHOOSE it? And if they choose it, that means they like it? Maybe we need some course enrollments on the electives?

Julia R. said...

Computer class is required for all 7th graders. Health and "tech ed" are also required. Each class lasts a trimester. My understanding is that the health class is already being cut in Ms. Cresto's latest budget.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Julia - thanks. And what is required for 8th?

Alison Donta-Venman said...

As the parent of a rising seventh grader and current eighth graders, I think I can answer that one. Next year, the MS will have computers and tech ed as "exploratory" courses in the seventh grade and art and drama in the eighth grade. This is down from the six exploratory classes offered at this point--health, computers, and tech ed in seventh grade and art, drama, and WR2 (writing, reading, research) in eighth grade. Actually, now that I think about it, since each course was a trimester long in the past, I wonder what they are going to do to fill in that third trimester each year...not another study hall I hope.

Anonymous said...

I think that having health class is more important than computers in 7th grade. Why? Our kids have already had computer instruction all the way through 6th grade. They are not going to have health again until 10th. They are missing out on important information at the beginning of their teen years, and at a time they are making some risky choices.
Yes my kids enjoyed the middle school computer class. It was FUN and EASY! But not exactly needed.

Joe said...

Opinion #1: The Middle School is the weak link in Amherst’s educational system. I’m not saying it is horrible, but compared to the elementary schools and the high school it is the underachiever. Again, this is just one opinion of a parent of an 8th grader. I have heard other parents speak passionately about the elementary schools and the high school, but I have yet to speak with a parent of a current or recent middle school student that speaks highly of the educational experience of their child in middle school. It is wrong to suggest that by making ANY budget cuts we could improve the quality of education at the middle school. However, I think we should recognize that certain budget cuts, more than others, would further degrade the quality of education.

Before making any cuts in the middle school budget, I think we need to take a step back and look at the stated goals of the middle school and assess how well the current course curriculum is fulfilling the goals.

I’m not going to list all of the middle schools goals in this blog, but they are described on page three of the Middle School’s Program of Studies, which is available on the school’s website. Generally speaking, I think the goals are worthy and are appropriately focused on the areas of intellectual, personal, humanistic and civic development.

Opinion #2: Reducing/cutting the world languages will have a greater negative impact on the quality of the education at the middle school compared to other cuts that could be made, but don’t appear to have been seriously considered.

In order to support opinion #2, you should know that the Program of Studies for the middle school describes the course offerings as follows:

“Required courses are English, Math, Social Studies, PE and Health. In addition, all students may take Exploratory Courses in Computers and Production Technology. Electives include several World Languages and Music Performance.” (This is actually for the seventh grade, the only difference for the eighth grade is that instead of Health, WR2 is a required course and the Exploratory courses are Art and Drama.)

There are a few points of confusion with this official description. The reference that students MAY take Exploratory courses seems to suggest students have a choice, but I don’t believe this is actually the case. If these courses are required they should be categorized with the other “required” courses. If students MAY or MAY NOT take these courses then it would seem to be an “elective”. Clearly the difference between “required” and “elective” seems to suggest a different level of importance or suggested contribution to the school goals. Every course should be classified as one or the other, not somewhere in between. Since the official Program of studies uses the word “MAY”, I suggest the “Exploratory Courses”, to avoid confusion, should be classified as “electives”. For those that would suggest this is a typo or a misinterpretation, and they would suggest that the Exploratory courses should be considered “required”, I would be very interested to hear the logic behind your classification.

Obviously any budget cuts that impact the curriculum should be assed versus the schools educational goals. You would expect any budget cuts would focus on the “electives”. So if I compare the full list of “electives” (including the Exploratory Courses) and match them individually with the stated goals of the school, World Languages (yes, all of them) are at the top of the list of the “electives” for the greatest match across the areas of intellectual, personal, humanistic and civic development. I leave the ranking for the remaining electives (Music Performance, Computers, Production Technology, Art or Drama) for a different discussion.

For example, for those that would suggest that the “Computer Applications” course in seventh grade is critical, please review what is taught in the class compared to each of the World Languages and compare it against the schools stated goals. Yes, learning Excel and PowerPoint are helpful, but is learning to design web pages or play SIMS for two weeks a better match with the school’s goals than learning, not only to speak a different language, but understanding different cultures?

If middle school is intended to be the preparation for high school and beyond (college or not), I think studying World Languages is a better preparation than any of the other electives.

So if we believe in the stated goals of the middle school it seems obvious the School Committee should request the staff revisit their budget decisions and cut one of the other electives and not further impair the quality of education at the middle school.

Anonymous said...

I have a question about the finances behind intensive needs kids. Are they all covered by the state or does the school supplement intensive needs? I haven't looked at the proposed budget so I don't know if there is a line item (or several) for intensive needs.

Amherst is well known as a district that takes good care of intensive needs kids - so much so that families move here just for their intensive needs kids.

Is the school budget breaking even or spending more money (or making money) per intensive needs kid?

I am not trying to make any point about whether the district should or should not encourage more intensive needs enrollment - I am just curious about how it works.

Someone else mentioned (in a different blog posting) that one nurse may be enough for the district. I doubt that, as Wildwood gets all the elementary-age intensive needs kids, and thus the school really needs a full-time nurse to be on hand. I imagine that the situation is similar at the middle school and high school (that a full time nurse is needed).

Becky said...

The district does receive some State Aid for Special Needs Programming as well is eligible for Circuit Breaker funding if costs rise at an exceptional rate. If you review's education section, you will see that all of Amherst's percentages of students and special education spending is fairly average.

I am a parent of 3, including 1 with Autism. The programs in this town are amazing compared to most. Amherst has done a fabulous job of educating SPED students in house, which is key in keeping costs in check.

I know there are cuts coming to Special Ed. I accept that the savings have to come from somewhere and that regular education should not be forced to absorb it all. There must be willing shared sacrifice if we are to avoid having anger and an "us against them" mentality that would only serve to bring down the school system as a whole. I will work with my son myself to make up any loss of services because, in the end, it is my responsibility to do right by him.

Anonymous said...

I am deeply disturbed by the cutting of one team of teachers in the middle school -- and the 8th graders faciing class sizes of 25 to 31 kids. After talking about not cutting at the core of the program, that core was cut for one group of children. The middle school is based on an educational model of having students stay with the same teachers and kids for 2 years and developing strong relationships within the team. But one team of 7th graders will be denied that experience next year -- and placed in much larger classes.

And apparently keeping small class sizes of 20 to 22 students is a core value of the high school. Isn't this a core value of the middle school too? Why wouldn't it apply to them also?

The goal we are told is to protect the core. Aren't 4 teachers teaching the core curriculum of math, english, social studies and science the core? If they aren't what is the core? And why are some kids left to bear a harsher burden of cuts when others don't? And if you are cutting entire teams of core subject teachers this year what are you cutting next year?

Catherine, trading a team of core teachers off to save part of world languages may seem reasonable to you,but ask the kids and their parents of what they think -- not just in a blog but by contacting them.

Anonymous said...

I am deeply disturbed by the cutting of one team of teachers in the middle school -- and the 8th graders facing class sizes of 25 to 31 kids. After talking about not cutting at the core of the program, that core was cut for one group of children. The middle school is based on an educational model of having students stay with the same teachers and kids for 2 years and developing strong relationships within their team. But one team of 7th graders will be denied that experience next year -- and placed in much larger classes with the other 8th graders.

And apparently keeping small class sizes of 20 to 22 students is a core value of the high school. Isn't this a core value of the middle school too? Why wouldn't it apply to them also?

The goal we are told is to protect the core. Aren't 4 teachers teaching the core curriculum of math, english, social studies and science the core? If they aren't what is the core? And why are some kids left to bear a harsher burden of cuts when others don't? And if you are cutting entire teams of core subject teachers this year what are you cutting next year?

Catherine, trading a team of core teachers off to save part of world languages may seem reasonable to you,but ask the kids and their parents of what they think -- not just in a blog but by contacting them.