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, April 28, 2009

Regional Meeting, April 28, 2009

This meeting took place immediately after the Amherst meeting ... leading to a 3 1/2 hour meeting.

The meeting started with several announcements by the superintendent, including an update on the district's monitoring of the swine flu epidemic, notification that website would provide updated budget information, notification that principals and other administrators had been told they would not receive more than a 2% raise, and a notification that the new assistant superintendent position had been posted (and that this position replaces two current administrative positions). Two more additional things to point out: first, parents who are interested in serving on the search committee for the new assistant superintendent should contact Maria Geryk ( -- two parents will be selected (one elementary, one regional); second, the superintendent announced that the administration will not respond to anonymous allegations posted on blogs, but is very willing to respond to particular questions/concerns raised by parents/teachers/community members. So, I encourage people with such questions/concerns to approach Maria directly to share such information.

We then turned to discuss the budget issue, and there was a pretty long discussion about whether the Regional School Committee should vote a Tier 1 budget -- which is complex because the other towns have voted (or intend to vote) a budget at this level, yet it seems clear that Amherst can't really afford to do so. I think we will get more information on where the budget is within the next few weeks, and if it turns out that Amherst can't afford a Tier 1 budget we will have the option of moving to a new budget level.

The Regional budget cuts proposed are as follows:

Tier 1 cuts

6.20 teaching positions at the HS (which maintains class sizes of between 24 and 28)
an assistant principal at the HS
$100,000 in athletic fees/cuts
elimination of the preschool at the HS
an assistant principal at the MS
3.0 teaching positions at the MS (the elimination of an 8th grade team, leading to class sizes of 17 in 7th, and 24 in 8th)
3 other MS positions (a Math Plus teacher, an exploratory/integrated study position, an SE position)

(Again, most of these are the same that we've seen before -- with the exception of the MS team in 8th grade).

Tier 2 cuts

All of the Tier 1 cuts, plus the elimination of both the librarian and a guidance counselor at the MS, and 3.30 more teaching positions at the HS (which would be very problematic in terms of kids getting into the classes they prefer, particularly in 11th/12th grade).

Tier 3 cuts

All of the Tier 1 and 2 cuts, PLUS the loss of another (7th grade) team at the MS and another 5.0 positions at the HS.

The superintendent recommended that we not go beyond Tier 1 cuts -- that anything further than these cuts would have a very negative impact on the educational experience of our 7th to 12th graders.

We then turned to new business, and I made a motion (which Steve Rivkin seconded), which was as follows:

This is a critical time for the Amherst schools as we prepare to welcome our new superintendent, manage a growing budget crisis, and contemplate regionalization. A number of parents have expressed concerns about the education provided in the middle school, and I believe it is essential that the school administration engage in a rigorous review of how well our middle school is succeeding in our district's mission to meet the needs of "every child, every day." This is not, for the record, a new area of concern within our community, and thus I want to specifically note that I appreciate the leadership the new middle school principal, Glenda Cresto, has brought to this school since last summer -- this motion is by no means a criticism of her leadership, competence, or commitment to excellence. I therefore propose that the school administration conduct a comprehensive and anonymous survey of all stakeholders in the middle school, including teachers, staff, parents, and students. This survey should include specific questions regarding each course of study within the middle school (math, social studies, english, world language, science, etc.), including satisfaction with the level of intellectual engagement and challenge, provision of appropriate amounts of feedback on written assignments, and creation of a warm and supportive environment. Results of this survey could be shared with Dr. Rodriguez on his arrival to help inform him about both strengths and areas of concern within our middle school. Given that we have less than 8 weeks remaining in our school year, and it is unlikely that stakeholders will have adequate amounts of time/energy to devote to such a survey in the last week or two of school, I propose that a survey be administered in mid to late May, with the results to be compiled in June. I hope my fellow Regional School Committe members will join me in supporting this motion.

We had a fair amount of discussion about this motion, with Irv, Andy, Marianne, Tracy, and Michael Katz raising serious concerns about my proposal for various reasons. These reasons included the lack of time remaining in this school year, the inability of our staff to conduct such a survey, and the problem with focusing entirely on the MS. The preference generally expressed was to consider this survey as a goal for next year. Steve spoke strongly in favor of this motion, and made the point that the survey would have to be done in a spring (in order to get information from parents/kids who had experience for a whole year in the MS) and hence delaying meant we lost a whole year in which actual kids could benefit from such results. He also noted that conducting such a survey is not hard, and that many districts do this regularly, and that he and I had attempted to get this on the agenda -- without any success -- for over a year. Andy then suggested tabling the motion for two weeks, during which time I could gather sample surveys and Maria could discuss the feasibility of doing a survey with her staff. Steve and I voted against tabling the motion, largely because I am concerned that waiting two weeks to move on this deprives us of valuable time -- and feel pretty confident that two weeks from now the committee will ultimately vote down doing a survey. But we lost this vote, 2 to 5, with the other five members present voting to table this motion for two weeks. The good news is that at least we will discuss doing this survey in two weeks -- and again, I am hopeful that my fellow committee members will agree that this survey could provide our new superintendent with valuable information. If you agree that this survey should be done this spring -- before the end of the school year -- please feel free to convey these thoughts to the superintendent ( and/or the school committee (

Amherst Meeting, April 28, 2009

This meeting was called entirely to vote on the Amherst budget, so this was the only item on the agenda. The latest round of proposed cuts is as follows:

Tier 1 cuts

One classroom teacher
One guidance counselor (WW)
One custodian
Assistant principals move to school year (from full-year) positions
Instrumental teachers - .75 reduction
Cafeteria paras - WW and FR

(None of those are particular new -- the instrumental music cut would mean some type of delay in the start of instrumental music, and the classroom teacher would be an upper grade)

Tier 2 cuts

All of the Tier 1 cuts, PLUS:
Instructional technology (computer) teacher
One classroom teacher
2.70 intervention teachers (ELA, math)
Specialist teachers (art/music/PE) - 80% time for all staff in these positions
Instrumental music - .50

(Instrumental music would have a one-year delay, so that strings would start in 4th grade instead of 3rd and band would start in 5th grade instead of 4th; it is unclear what the cuts to specialist positions would mean yet -- since these are new cuts on the table -- but these are cuts that are being made on top of other cuts just two years ago, meaning a pretty sizeable reduction in cuts to these areas).

Tier 3 cuts

Most of the cuts here are those we've seen before -- homework clubs and late buses disappear, 3 more teachers (to be determined) are cut, another 1.10 in instrumental music goes, as does the Science Coordinator and 2 more intervention teachers.

The superintendent recommended voting a Tier 2 budget, based on her best guess of where we might end up in terms of state aid, which we did. However, it was also noted that we were voting a budget, NOT voting on specific lines in the budget, and that we would like to see further clarification of the impact of the cuts (particularly the newly-announced cuts, such as to the specials) on children in all of the schools on a day-to-day basis.

Steve Rivkin noted his regret that the cuts were made to specials, which provided important ways for children to achieve and experience new activities (PE, art, music), and wondered about cutting intervention support instead (particularly "math coaches" and other intervention teachers who largely work with teachers, NOT students). He also asked whether closing Marks Meadow should be on the table for THIS year, if our budget is indeed at a Tier 3 or even Tier 4 level (a scary but distinct possibility). Maria noted that this was something that would need to be seriously considered IF we were forced by the town to go below Tier 2.

I expressed my concern about the process in which we see each budget 5 or 6 times, and each times there are new and different cuts -- which seems like not the best way to craft a budget (and one that leads to a lot of hysteria among parents, kids, teachers, and staff). It was noted by the superintendent, and others, that this had been a very unusual year, given the change in administration as well as the very dismal economic climate. I do hope that we can return to this issue of the budget process next year with our new superintendent, and that we can craft a process that includes more involvement from all stakeholders (parents, teachers, staff) EARLY in the process as opposed to late in the process in which people are reacting to proposed cuts (and in a sense, lobbying for particular positions).

Maria also noted that a survey was being distributed tomorrow to teachers and staff (anonymously) to gather feedback about different types of cuts they believed could be made with relatively minimal impact on children's experience in the schools. This was an idea sent by a parent to the School Committee today, and I hope this survey reveals valuable information on where cuts might be best made.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why I'm in Favor of the New Assistant Superintendent Position

I' ve already had a number of questions about the new Assistant Superintendent position -- which of course is totally fair and expected, particularly given tight budget times and some community concern about the number of administrative positions in our district -- so I am doing this posting to try to help explain this position, including why I am strongly in favor of it.

First, although this is a new position, in that we will hire a new person, the funding for this position is NOT new. This job was basically filled until last year by Wendy Kohler, who retired last summer, and has been filled this year by creating two other positions. If you look at the Amherst organizational chart ( you will see these two positions: Director of Professional Development, Evaluation, and Curriculum (Fran Ziperstein), and Curriculum Administrator (Mike Hayes). Both of these positions are being cut for this new position -- Fran Ziperstein is retiring, and Mike Hayes will return to teach math next year at the middle school. So, although the title of the position is new, and a new person will be hired, this position actually represents a reduction in the number of administrators compared to this year.

In addition, I think this new position will help the district really make strides in some extremely important ways, including increasing horizontal and vertical alignment in our curriculum (an issue noted as a problem in our district by many), increasing our ability to perform serious evaluation (again, a problem noted by many -- even if there is interest in conducting evaluation, we often don't have the capacity to do so), and increasing our ability to make data-driven decisions (again, something I'm entirely in favor of). As you can see in the job description which I've posted below, this person will focus on professional development, data analysis, curriculum, and grant-writing, and I believe will make a serious contribution to overall education in the Amherst public schools (and potentially help us bring in some grant funding, which would help some with our current budget crisis). In sum, this seems like money very well spent to me.

Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, Amherst, Massachusetts

Job Description
The Amherst Pelham Regional School District is currently seeking candidates for an Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction. The Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction will provide inspiration, leadership, guidance, and direction for the administrative and instructional staff in order to achieve and maintain the highest standards of excellence consistent with the individual needs of all students.


• Valid Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education certification as Assistant Superintendent/Superintendent and/or Director/Supervisor, or proof of eligibility.

• Successful leadership experience in standards-based curriculum development, differentiated instruction, and effective school research.

• Demonstrated ability to plan, implement, and evaluate professional development.

• Demonstrated ability to work collaboratively with school department personnel.

• Demonstrated competency in providing workshops in one or more instructional areas.

• Proven competence in utilizing multiple assessment tools and data analysis methodology regarding student performance data to aid decision making in planning/revising/refining curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

• Experience as a teacher within a public school setting.

• Masters Degree or higher in Public School/Educational Administration from an accredited college or university.

• Assists the Superintendent substantially and effectively in providing leadership in developing, achieving, and maintaining the best educational programs for the Amherst Regional School District.

• Collaborates with the Superintendent to ensure progress towards the attainment of the mission and goals of the Amherst Regional School District.

• Assists principals to improve curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Ensures collaboration, cooperation in order to maximize high academic achievement for all learners and excellence in teaching.

• Assures alignment and articulation of PreK-12 curriculum with the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks by working collaboratively with the established committees, building principals, coordinators, and department heads.

• In collaboration with the Superintendent provides system-wide leadership for curriculum, instruction, assessment and professional development. Oversees the systematic renewal and continuous improvement of programs, instruction, and assessment.

• Develops and manages the budget for new program adoption, curriculum leadership and professional development.

• Establishes and directs PreK-12 district-wide benchmark testing programs and facilitates the implementation of the state’s MCAS testing program. Analyzes results and ensures that results are considered in the revision of curriculum, instruction, and programs.

• Writes and/or coordinates all federal, state, and private grants related to teaching and learning.

• Coordinates the district’s mentor and new teacher orientation programs.

• Coordinates kindergarten registration.

• Coordinates and recommends all home education requests.

• Attends appropriate School Committee meetings and prepares studies and reports as requested by the Superintendent.

• Performs all other duties assigned by the Superintendent and/or School Committees.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Community Presentation on the Proposal to Close Mark’s Meadow - April 23, 2009

As noted in my blog posting on last week's meeting of the Amherst School Committee, the superintendent's office has now prepared an extensive Community Presentation Proposal to educate the community about the implications of closing Marks Meadow (this is the presentation that will be given at each of the elementary schools next week, and at a community forum in early May). I've pasted most of the proposal here for ease for those who regularly check out my blog and might want to share comments (I've also bolded a few heading/lines for emphasis, since the document is long - those were MY additions!). However, I did NOT include the appendix (which presents two very preliminary redistricting proposals) or the figures (which I couldn't successfully paste in this posting) or the feedback form (nor will I be considering comments on my blog to be "official feedback" for use by the committee in making a decision). But the rest is here -- and you can see the official version (including the figures and redistricting proposals, etc.) on line at: Regardless of your feelings about the motion I made in March to close Mark's Meadow at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, which has led to this presentation, I think you can see that the administrative team, including Maria Geryk, Kathy Mazur, Rob Detweiler, and Doug Slaughter, have worked extremely hard to prepare a thorough and detailed presentation regarding the impact of my motion, and I am very hopeful that this information will help members of the community understand the very hard choices the School Committee is trying to make to preserve the Amherst educational experience during very critical financial times. I'd also encourage all parents, teachers/staff, and community members to come hear the presentation by interim superintendent Maria Geryk -- and ask questions and give feedback -- at any of the following times and locations:
  • Monday, April 27 at 5:00 p.m.: Marks Meadow PGO/MM Community (MM auditorium)

  • Wednesday, April 29th at 12:00 Noon: Wildwood PGO/Wildwood Community (WW location TBA)

  • Wednesday, April 29th at 5:00 p.m.: Fort River PGO/FR Community (FR library)

  • Thursday, April 30th at 5:00 p.m.: Crocker Farm PGO/CF Community (CF library)

  • Tuesday, May 5th at 7:00 p.m.: Community-Wide Forum (Middle School auditorium) .

The State of Our Schools – Enrollment and Economics

We currently educate 1327 children (K to 6) in four elementary schools. The schools range in size from 194 (Mark’s Meadow) to 462 (Fort River). The present enrollment reflects a decrease of approximately 300 students over the ten-year period since 1999. Fifteen years ago, there were approximately 1800 students in the elementary district. For FY10 and FY11, projections estimate elementary enrollment at between 1300 and 1310 students, possibly increasing by 50 students by FY14. Since we are facing serious, multi-year economic and funding issues, consideration has been given to closing an elementary school, and a motion was made at the March 17, 2009 Amherst School Committee meeting to close Mark’s Meadow School no later than June 30, 2010. This motion is scheduled for a vote at the May 19, 2009 School Committee meeting, giving us one year to plan if the motion is approved. Under normal circumstances, which include level funding and stable enrollments, district leaders would not necessarily consider closing a school. Economic circumstances combined with declining district enrollment, have led to the current motion to close Mark’s Meadow School.

Factors to Consider:
· Capacity - Our current buildings, including Mark’s Meadow, have a capacity of 78 classrooms, 19 (not including preschool) at Crocker Farm, 24 at Fort River, 12 at Mark’s Meadow (including the modulars), and 23 at Wildwood. Sixty-nine are presently in use as K-6 classroom space. Our current four-school configuration varies significantly in enrollment and number of classrooms.

· Equity – The schools vary considerably in terms of the percent of children enrolled in the free/reduced price lunch program. At Wildwood, 23% of the children receive free/reduced lunch, compared to 55% of those at Crocker Farm (and 29% at Fort River and 38% at Mark’s Meadow). The number of students receiving free/reduced lunch at Crocker Farm increased by 9 percent for FY09 over FY08 and increased by 17% over the past five years. Over the same period of time – five years – the percentage of students at the other three schools participating in the free/reduced lunch program remained fairly stable, with fluctuations of -4% to +5%. When considering these statistics, it is important to note that the pre-school enrollment at Crocker Farm is not included; this is a district program which serves all eligible students in Amherst.

· Class Sizes – Given our current and anticipated student population, operating four K-6 schools causes class sizes to vary significantly both within and across schools. For example, in the current fifth grade, Crocker Farm has a class of 15, whereas Fort River has a class of 25. Similarly, in the fourth grade, Mark’s Meadow has a class of 25, whereas Fort River has a class of 18.

· Operating Efficiency - As noted above, the current classroom configuration does not provide class-size flexibility, which means we use more classrooms and hire more teachers than we would need to if we could more efficiently distribute our students. With a three-school model, we could distribute the same number of students across 64 classrooms instead of 69 without going beyond current classroom class-size maximum targets. We would have fewer fifteen-student classes because we anticipate having enough students in each school to reduce this type of under enrollment. Because of the historical limit of 10 classrooms, coupled with its traditional kindergarten enrollment of 20 – 25 students, Mark’s Meadow has not been able to accommodate all of the kindergarteners assigned to its geographic area in a single classroom, so “overflow” kindergarteners have been bused to other schools. In subsequent years, those students may return to Mark’s Meadow or may choose to remain at the school to which they were originally assigned. In addition, our current organizational model requires four sets of support staff teams (principal, secretary, nurse, librarian, custodian, etc.). The district has endeavored to hire full-time staff to support the population at Mark’s Meadow, even though the building capacity and enrollment might not warrant such staffing. This has been done to attract and maintain staff over time and to foster a sense of community within the school. Presently, and for many years, Mark’s Meadow utilized all 10 classrooms. Based on projections for FY10, just nine Mark’s Meadow classrooms are needed for the existing and incoming student population.

The State of Our Schools – The Funding Gap

The Facilitation of the Community Choices Committee (FCCC) report from the fall of 2008 concluded that Amherst faces a serious and growing budget gap between projected revenues and the cost of providing the current level of municipal, school, and library services. If State aid remains constant, the budget shortfall is approximately $2.66 million in FY2010, rising to $10.2 million in FY2014. If State aid decreases by 15% next year, as it has in previous economic downturns, then the budget gap will be approximately $5.2 million in FY2010. The full report can be found at the following web address:

Unfortunately, even the grim scenario demonstrated above is better than our present reality. Current expectations are that Amherst faces a $6.3 million dollar gap for next year – FY10 – which is almost $1 million dollars worse than the chart above indicates – with an increasing gap in years beyond FY10.

The FCCC report notes that the budget gap for the next five years is of such magnitude that substantial cutbacks and restructuring will be required. Because personnel costs accounted for 86% of Amherst’s spending in fiscal year 2009 (and about 80% of school costs), finding a way to limit the growth in personnel-related costs to a sustainable rate is therefore essential to the overall fiscal stability of the town. The FCCC suggested four methods: a) continuing to make savings on employee health insurance plan design, b) restricting future COLAs, c) reducing staffing, and d) implementing some combination of the previous three. Although the school district will work on both (a) and (b), it is also clear that significant staff reductions will also be necessary in order to limit growth in personnel-related costs to a sustainable rate. In sum, the structural deficit between what we receive from the town (based on taxes and state aid) and what it costs to run our schools is an on-going problem, meaning that we are and will continue to be choosing which programs and services to cut.

A Proposal: Moving to Three Schools

The school committee is currently considering a proposal to address a portion of the immediate and systemic budget problems by closing an elementary school (Mark’s Meadow) and redistricting all elementary children into the remaining three schools. In addition to remediating some of the budgetary issues, this proposal will also address the systemic issue of socioeconomic inequity amongst the schools. This is a challenging endeavor, both in practical and emotional terms. Among the four schools, Mark’s Meadow is the only possible candidate for closure because it is the smallest by eleven classrooms. Mark’s Meadow is also the oldest of the four schools, is not owned by the town, and has higher administrative costs per student than the other three schools, due to its size. Mark’s Meadow is also a successful school, long serving our North Amherst neighborhoods and families from the campus of the University of Massachusetts campus. However difficult it may be, financial constraints and enrollments have forced us to consider closing Mark’s Meadow as an option.

If it is decided by the Amherst School Committee to close Mark’s Meadow School, district administration will immediately work on a detailed plan for this major restructuring, establishing multiple, single-purpose teams to address the following:

· Redistricting – A concrete plan will be developed with consultants to establish new school zones within the next few months. School administrators have run preliminary numbers on this proposed change, and have developed two sample redistricting proposals, which are attached at the end of this report.

· Student Support – District and school leaders will create a plan to support the educational and emotional needs of students making school transitions.

· Staff Support – A district plan will be developed to redesign building staffing to minimize disruption to students making transitions and to thoughtfully reassign Mark’s Meadow staff.

· Moving – A staged, year-long plan for relocation of educational materials, furniture and fixtures to other district locations will be developed and implemented.

In 2007, a demographics study of our schools and their capacity was conducted by NESDEC. While NESDEC does not take a position on local redistricting efforts, their report findings will help guide our process moving forward. Projections are also done annually at the district level, and the NESDEC projections are consistent with what the district projects. However, our enrollments and enrollment projections indicate that educating all K-6 elementary students in a three-building model is feasible for FY11 and beyond and is within the capacity of the schools.

If the motion to close Mark’s Meadow School for FY11 passes, the district will work with consultants to ensure we are moving forward constructively and that we are not overlooking any factors that must be considered. This consultant will analyze and finalize our preliminary work on redistricting to ensure we are doing this work in an educationally sound and equitable manner. The two preliminary plans in the Appendix demonstrate options for redistricting within the parameters established by the motion.

· Equity – The proportion of children receiving free/reduced lunch would be decidedly more balanced amongst the schools. The schools percentage of students on free/reduced lunch would range from 33.8% to 35.7%. This is a significantly smaller gap (1.9% among schools) than our current system (32%). Why balance for equity? Quoting from the Amherst Schools Organization Report from 2008, “The ASOC looked at research on impact of concentrations of poverty on school effectiveness .… majority low-income schools face disproportionate challenges in generating student achievement was seen as compelling.” The Committee noted this issue of equity has relevance for our community in many ways, including the challenges that this type of economic disparity creates when children from such schools are joined together in the middle school for Grade 7. The full report of the ASOC can be found at:

· Class numbers and sizes –Moving to three elementary schools would result in a need for fewer classrooms (because of the efficiencies involved in dividing students across three schools instead of four). We would need an estimated 63 or 64 classrooms rather than the 69 we are using in FY09. Originally we planned on needing 69 classrooms for FY10, however, there are 2 classrooms on the anticipated cut list.

· Financial savings – Moving from four to three schools would result in an initial estimated savings of $532,000 and a reduction in the rate of growth of the budget in subsequent years, thus reducing the slope of the Level Services Expenditures line. These savings would be achieved as follows:

o Reduction in district classrooms from 67 (FY10) to 64 (FY11) $162,000
o Reduction of principal and 2 secretaries $170,000
o 2.5 custodians $55,000
o 1.0 ELL teacher $54,000
o 1.0 Special Education teacher $54,000
o 1.0 Intervention teacher $54,000
o 1.13 paraprofessionals $15,000
o 1.0 LPN $35,000
o 1.0 librarian $54,000
o 1.0 IA paraprofessional $20,000

Total Reductions $673,000

Initial Costs
o Annual transportation increase (an ongoing expense) $16,000
o Moving and packing (a one-time expense) $70,000
o Prep day for all teachers (a one-time expense) $55,000
Total Costs $141,000

Thus, the estimated net Year 1 savings is: $532,000

Notes: There may be further savings achieved by the ability to more efficiently deliver services to Special Education students, English Language Learner students, and others. The estimate above is conservative; there may be an additional savings of $100,000 to $200,000. At this time no determination has been made about the status of the two modular classrooms currently placed at Mark’s Meadow School. Moving of the modulars is estimated to cost $140,000. We project that we will be able to contain all our classrooms within Crocker Farm, Fort River and Wildwood Schools without use of the modulars. If it is decided that the modulars must be moved, the net Year 1 savings will be reduced to approximately $392,000. Consideration may also be given to selling the modulars. Further, if regionalization occurs and if grade six moves to the middle school in a few years, the three remaining schools will have adequate classroom space to contain the K-5 enrollment.

The State of Our Schools – No Change to Current Structure

The choice is not between four schools as we know them and an unknown three-school model. The choice is between four schools with greatly diminished program quality and three schools that preserve $532,000 in educational program offerings through greater efficiencies ($673,000 after the first year.)

For FY10, the Town of Amherst faces severe reductions in State Aid. Distributing a proportion of State Aid cuts as proposed in the Governor’s budget would require the schools to cut $1.7M. Distributing a proportion of even deeper State Aid cuts as proposed by the House Ways and Means Committee would require the schools to cut $2.1M. Town officials and the Budget Coordinating Group (BCG) are working to identify solutions to the budget gap. Meanwhile, the district is proposing cuts of $1.1M, which includes Central Office and school-based cuts in each of the four schools. These cuts include significant administrative reductions, a decrease of 2 classrooms, cuts to intervention, aesthetics (art, music, physical education), instrumental music, clerical, paraprofessional and custodial staff. These cuts are drastic for our district - still, they do not meet the level of cuts indicated as necessary by the Town of Amherst.

The Amherst Finance Committee recognizes the value to Amherst of the schools’ reducing operating costs by such a reorganization; however, it also recognizes the difficulty of making a change of this magnitude – closing a school - by Fall 2009. The Finance Committee has therefore indicated that it may be willing to recommend to Town Meeting to “fill in” the gap between proposed FY10 elementary cuts and the amount considered affordable by the Town by the use of Reserve Funds, if the School Committee has provided a substantial, sustainable organizational change for FY11. This would enable the district to avoid the additional cuts that would otherwise be necessary for FY10, while providing an appropriate amount of implementation time to make sure the reorganization is done as thoughtfully as possible.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Does Size Matter?

We've had a lot of discussion about issues of "size" at School Committee meetings this year -- school size (largely focused on whether eliminating Marks Meadow, the small of our elementary schools, is a bad pedagogical idea) and class size (largely focused on how many kids we should try to target per class in the middle school and high school). Thus, during this week of school vacation, and hence no School Committee to report on, I thought I would do a blog posting on both of these issues of size.

First, in terms of issues of an ideal school size, it is hard to draw very conclusive findings. There are many studies, but the findings are very hard to interpret because children are (obviously) not randomly assigned to attend a small or large school. And because large schools tend to be located in urban areas, and small schools tend to be located in rural areas, any differences between outcomes seen in large/urban schools and those in small/rural schools could be due to location and/or type of student instead of size of school. This is the classic research issue of determining whether a study shows causation -- meaning whether size of school CAUSED the difference in achievement -- or correlation -- meaning whether two variables are associated, but it isn't clear whether one variable (such as school size) CAUSED the other variable (such as ACHIEVEMENT).

Most research on school size acknowledges, however, that school districts need to consider cost efficiencies in making decisions about school size. Thus, recommendations tend to focus on the balance of having small schools and the cost-efficiencies inherent in large ones. The most common conclusion I've read describes schools of 300-500 as “moderately” sized, and those that “balance economies of size with the negative effects of large schools." ( Similarly, the 2005 Master Plan for the District of Columbia (http://www, gives a "recommended elementary school size of between 300 and 500 students." This plan also notes that "One way schools have continued to operate with lower enrollments has been to eliminate educational offerings; for example, elementary schools have cut staff for art, music, physical education and libraries." In other words, schools that drop below this 300 number are often forced to cut other offerings to pay for their small size. Sound familiar?

I find this research encouraging -- because if Marks Meadow is closed, we'll have 1300 students to educate in 3 buildings, which should mean 3 schools of between 300 and 500 in each (closer to 300 in Crocker Farm, and closer to 500 in Fort River and Wildwood). Sounds like a good way to balance the importance of small learning communities with the realities of always scarce school budgets.

Second, in terms of class size, there is quite a lot of research on this issue (and thanks for my fellow Amherst blogger Gavin Andresen ( for sending along a lot of good information on this topic. This research suggests that small class sizes can be beneficial, especially in the early years (see AND for good reviews). In particular, this research suggests that:

  • Smaller classes in the early grades (K-3) can boost student academic achievement

  • A class size of no more than 18 students per teacher is required to produce the greatest benefits;

  • A program spanning grades K-3 will produce more benefits than a program that reaches students in only one or two of the primary grades;

  • Minority and low-income students show even greater gains when placed in small classes in the primary grades.

In sum, the research on class size suggests that class size should be very low in kindergarten and first grade (ideally 13 to 17 in a class), and that class sizes of this level are especially beneficial for low income and minority students. However, there is less evidence supporting the positive effects of class size reduction in 4th through 12th grades. Thus, I believe the schools (including the Superintendent and the School Committee) should consider decreasing our class size averages at the very youngest grades (certainly K and 1st grade, and ideally 2nd and 3rd grade as well), and then increasing the class size average targets 5th through 12th. This seems like a good way of allocating limited resources (teachers, classrooms) in a way that is in line with current research findings about when you "get the most bang for your buck" in terms of class size.

So, one question becomes how do you pay for so many teachers (to allow for small classes)? The answer in part would be to increase class sizes in the later grades (which of course is easier to implement in a K to 12 district than in the Amherst district in which the elementary K to 5 budget is separate from the regional 7 to 12 budget). However, there is another possibility: the research I've read suggests one way is to move intervention teachers to regular classroom teachers: "Extra teachers in a school who do not have regular class assignments are costly and may not have the same positive impact on achievement as shrinking class size." ( This raises a very important point for me -- should we be reducing support staff in our schools (e.g., intervention teachers) and increasing the number of class room teachers? We currently have 11 intervention teachers in the four elementary schools. That would mean we could gain 2 to 4 classroom teachers at each of the schools if we were to move intervention teachers to classroom teachers -- and that could mean an extra class at 2 or 3 or even 4 grade levels in a building (which would have a dramatic increase on class size for all the kids at that grade in a given building). I don't know the costs of doing this (e.g., are there kids who particularly need pull out intervention support), but this idea of reallocating staff to different roles in a building strikes me as one that should at least be seriously considered.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Tier 3 Choice: 4 Schools or 3 Schools

Given that by all estimates, we appear to be looking at Tier 3, a number of people -- parents AND teachers -- have contacted me to say why are we not now looking seriously at closing Marks Meadow at the end of this calendar year. And in fact, when the superintendent recommended (on March 3rd) not closing Marks Meadow at the end of this year, she even said that was her recommendation IF we were at Tier 1 or Tier 2, but that if we were at Tier 3, "all bets are off." So, we do appear to be at Tier 3 ... which means I think we need to take a VERY serious look at whether Marks Meadow should stay open next year. Let's look at what the options are.

The estimate is that closing Marks Meadow would save $700,000 a year -- but "only" $406,000 in the first year (although significantly more IF you don't move the portables at the cost of $140,000). So, let's say we are at Tier 3 (which all indications suggest is accurate), and we have a choice of having four schools next year (our current system) or having three schools next year (if Marks Meadow closes). Here is what we lose, as suggested by our superintendent at the March 3rd Amherst Meeting, if we keep four schools at Tier 3:

  • 6 classroom teachers (somewhat larger class sizes in the upper grades at probably all schools, because I assume these six would basically come from losing a teacher or two in the 4th through 6th grades across the district) - $324,000
  • 3.2 instrumental music teachers (the loss of ALL instrumental music) - $172,800
  • 9.2 intervention teachers (math, English Language Arts, ELL) - $496,800
  • 1.8 computer teachers - $101,000
  • 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)
These cuts total $1,202,600.

What could we gain by closing Marks Meadow THIS YEAR (and thus have an extra $406,000 -- which is a conservative estimate, because you do NOT have to move the portables)? Here's how I'd use this money:
  • First, I'd save instrumental music -- this is a rich part of the Amherst curriculum, and it is an important feeder to the MS and HS music programs, and it is a way for us to realize our social justice mission (because wealthier kids can pay for private lessons, but disadvantaged kids can't) -- that costs $172,800.
  • Second, I'd save the science coordinator -- that costs $54,000 (and we do so little science K to 6 that not having that person seems like a really costly choice).
  • Third, I'd save 3.5 intervention teachers (who work with kids who are having trouble on the MCAS in english and math and who work with ELL students) -- that costs $189,000 (3.5 X $54,000).
That leaves $6,200, meaning I've basically spent the savings (although again, if we don't move the portables, we could in fact have another $140,000 to spend - meaning we could add back another intervention teacher or two, or have smaller class sizes, or get back a librarian, etc.).

So, this is how I'd allocate the money --others may have different priorities, and those priorities may well include differences in managing the money between three schools (e.g., maybe going immediately to save classroom teachers and reducing class size instead of saving instrumental music and intervention teachers), OR between four schools (e.g., saying that keeping Marks Meadow open for next year is worth losing all instrumental music and increasing some class sizes). Those are choices we all may see and rank differently, and that's fine. But let's be clear -- there is a finite amount of money, so making one choice (e.g., having four schools) inherently does mean we are not able to make a different choice (e.g., having instrumental music). All I'm doing is telling you the choices that I'd make.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009



We are looking forward to the arrival of our new Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Alberto Rodriguez on July 1, and we are pleased that contract negotiations with him are settled. Dr. Rodriguez’s FY10 salary will be $158,000.

The School Committee is aware that the superintendent's salary is a matter of great interest and potential controversy, particularly in tight budget times. Unfortunately, we cannot wish away the laws of supply and demand and ignore the realities of the labor market. This is a challenging time in which to hire a superintendent. The pool is limited, and there are many districts seeking leadership – over 50 in Massachusetts alone this year. And our district, while having many positive attributes, also offers challenges that many others do not. All of this means that it’s a “seller’s market” – it’s more difficult and more costly than it used to be to hire a superintendent for our schools, and for most others.

It does not make sense to compare former superintendent Hochman’s FY08 salary to the one negotiated with Dr. Rodriguez two years later – especially since Dr. Hochman did not accept raises during two of the five years he worked in Amherst. While this was a nice gesture, and this is in no way a criticism of Dr. Hochman, it did mean that we faced some “sticker shock” when we went back out into the open market for superintendents. Dr. Hochman was making $135,000 when he left – but he left for a position paying $262,000.

We are actually three distinct districts. In addition to our regional middle and high school district, our superintendent also manages two other, separate districts: Amherst elementary schools and Pelham. So that's three school committees, three budgets to prepare, three accounting systems (fifty eight district employees have their pay divided among two or three separate paychecks because they work for two or three of the districts), four town meetings, and so on. Regional districts take more work, so it is not unusual for their superintendent salaries to be higher: e.g., Acton-Boxboro $175,000, Hamilton-Wenham $175,000, Hampden-Wilbraham $148,000, Hampshire Regional $150,000, Mendon-Upton $151,000, Pentucket $171,000, Whitman-Hanson $158,000. Our academic peer districts pay even more: Brookline pays $198,000, Newton pays $248,000.

When the Committee first met with the search consultant, Jacqueline Roy, she informed us that based on the market, our district needed to plan for a salary of at least $150,000. This amount was reflected in our initial FY10 budget documentation, apportioned as follows: 50% Region, 47% Amherst, 3% Pelham.

In addition to the base salary, an additional benefits package is given to 80% of Massachusetts superintendents (according to MA Superintendents’ Association data); Dr. Rodriguez will have a housing and a travel allowance totaling $15,000, allowances that are not provided beyond FY11. This is about the same dollar amount that Dr. Hochman received in additional benefits, and is significantly lower than packages paid by many other high-achieving districts.

Are we happy about paying this amount of money for a superintendent? No. Are we convinced, based on the pay scales in comparable districts and the specific challenges offered by ours, that this is a fair salary in the current labor market? Yes.

Our district needs leadership to move forward. By all reports from those who have worked with him, Dr. Rodriguez has the skills and temperament to provide it. He will have a great deal of work to do and high expectations to meet when he arrives, and the school committee will work with him to ensure that our schools are continuously improving and in sync with community expectations. We hope the community will join us in welcoming Dr. Rodriguez and working for his – and hence the districts’ – success going forward.

Michael Hussin, Chair, Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee

Andy Churchill, Chair, Amherst School Committee

Kathryn Mazur, HR Director, Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Amherst Meeting, April 14, 2009

Tonight was a long and very productive meeting -- the first Amherst meeting with our new School Committee members Irv and Steve. Here is my best summary:

1. We held elections for officers (because it was the first meeting with the new board). I nominated Andy for chair, Steve seconded it, and he was unanimously elected. Andy then nominated me for vice-chair, Steve seconded, then Kathleen nominated Irv, who seconded his own nomination. We voted, and I won -- with votes from me, Andy, and Steve.

2. We had public comment - this largely consisted of Marks Meadow parents discussing the school and the reasons to keep it open. There was also a preview of the new "Amherstopoly" game (created jointly by the elementary school PGOs and on sale now!) and a plea to maintain the Cambodian culture class afterschool at Fort River.

3. We then turned to the superintendent's update, which included mention of several awards/prizes/plays by various Amherst kids, generous community donations to AEF, and an upcoming announcement of the selection of the 6th grade math curriculum (she's leaning towards Impact 1 -- the first book in the three-book series, and Impact 2 and 3 are now used in 7th and 8th -- but will make a decision soon about whether to go with this book versus our current curriculum, which is a combination of CMP and Scott Foresman; she hopes to announce the decision on April 28th).

4. Rob Detweiler then presented a very depressing budget update ... which basically says that (a) the economy is even worse than anticipated, and (b) the economic stimulus money from the federal government isn't going to come through for this year. The reality is, that means we are very likely at Level 3 budgets -- and potentially something even worse than Level 3. This is very, very depressing news, as you can imagine. The governor's budget is released tomorrow (April 15th), which will tell more, but no one is expecting that the news will be good.

The committee then discussed this news a bit -- in particular, I asked whether this poor economic climate was likely to be very brief (answer was no -- we should anticipate a recession at least for a few years) and whether the level of impact on our schools at Level 3 would merit closing Marks Meadow at the end of this year (answer was pretty uncertain ... I think we will know more in 2 weeks). Andy then noted that the chairs of various town departments are meeting this Friday to work on creating a 3-year plan to meet the expected budget short-falls based on projected revenues.

5. We then heard an update from interim superintendent Maria Geryk on the planned forums regarding my motion to close Marks Meadow and redistrict into three equitable schools. She is preparing the following information: current and projected enrollments, class sizes under a three-school model, percentage of kids in various groups under a three-school model (e.g., on free/reduced lunch, of color, limited English proficient, special ed, etc.), number of students impacted, and financial implications. She also will prepare answers to "frequently asked questions" (so send those to her: The School Committee and principals will see a draft of the presentation later this week, and it should be posted on the web early next week (more than a week before the first presentations). There will also be opportunities at each of the forums to provide feedback about the plan.

I will again encourage everyone to attend one of the forums (it doesn't matter which one you go to -- they will all present the same information): Monday, April 27th, 5 pm (Marks Meadow); Wednesday, April 29th, noon (Wildwood); Wednesday, April 29th, 5 pm (Fort River); Thursday, April 30th, 5 pm (Crocker Farm); Tuesday, May 5th, 7 pm (Middle School auditorium). Again, you can also look at the information on the web and provide feedback to School Committee members based on that information.

We then had a long discussion about the types of information committee members wanted to have included in the presentation. Irv was interested in having a line by line budget for all the schools (and/or per pupil costs by each school), but that information is not readily available (it is not how the budget office currently keeps track of expenditures), nor did other committee members share his interest in having this information. I expressed my interest in having information on not just how the schools would look like if Marks Meadow CLOSED, but also how all the schools would look if we continued to have four schools (because again, we'd still have to cut staff -- meaning class sizes would increase and other things would be cut, such as instrumental music). The vote on whether to close Marks Meadow at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, and to redistrict into three equitable schools, will take place at the May 19th Amherst School Committee meeting.

6. We then turned to a few lingering issues, including school committee goals (to be discussed at a future meeting), subcommittee assignments (to be discussed at a future meeting), calendar review (we will meet in two weeks from 6:30 to 7:30 for the budget review), and items for upcoming agendas. Irv then expressed his view that he'd like more input in terms of issues that appear on the agenda. I echoed this view, and expressed the belief that we could perhaps spend 10 minutes or so at the end of meetings discussing items for future meetings, and to make sure items that the board cared about were included in subsequent agendas. Andy agreed that this made sense. Steve noted that he'd like on a future meeting agenda the topic of teacher evaluation pre-tenure. I noted that I'd like on a future meeting agenda the topic of when School Committee meetings are scheduled (since both Steve and I have conflicts on the first and third Tuesday of each month for Amherst College Faculty Meetings -- which are required). And then we adjorned.

It was a long meeting (we got out at 9:30), but I feel it was a very productive meeting, and Andy did a great job facilitating a number of tricky conversations/ issues. Interim superintendent Maria Geryk continues to do a very thorough and responsive job in preparing for leading her portion of the meetings. It does feel like an important and exciting time for the Amherst schools, and I'm really pleased with our present leadership and direction.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Public Forums Set Regarding Potential Redistricting of Amherst Public Schools

At their March 17th meeting, the Amherst School Committee made a motion to close Marks Meadow Elementary School at the end of the 2009-2010 school year and redistrict to create three elementary schools with proportionate numbers of children on free/reduced lunch for the start of the 2010-2011 school year. The following public meetings are scheduled to provide the community with opportunities to hear more about the educational and budgetary impact of redistricting, as well as to ask questions and provide feedback:
  • Wednesday, April 29th at 12:00 Noon: Wildwood PGO/Wildwood Community (location TBA)
  • Wednesday, April 29th at 5:00 p.m.: Fort River PGO/FR Community (location TBA)
  • Thursday, April 30th at 5:00 p.m.: Crocker Farm PGO/CF Community (CF library)
  • To be determined: Marks Meadow PGO/MM Community date is still being finalized. It will be posted ASAP.
  • Tuesday, May 5th at 7:00 p.m.: Community-Wide Forum (Middle School auditorium)

The Amherst School Committee plans to take a vote on the redistricting motion at their regular meeting on Tuesday, May 19th. Redistricting is not an agenda topic for the regular School Committee meeting on Tuesday, April 14th.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

April 7, 2009 Regional Meeting

This was our first meeting with our newest School Committee members, Irv Rhodes and Steve Rivkin, and I thought it was one of our best meetings. First, we heard public comments from a few parents -- these included a question about the superintendent's salary (apparently this information will be released in just about a week), and expression of support for world language.

We then turned to the superintendent's update. This included information on several awards won by Amherst student groups, as well as the announcement that she is planning to use some of the IDEA federal stimulus money to hire an outside consultant to review our special education program. She distributed a one page sheet describing this evaluation, which states that this independent analysis will "provide an in-depth analysis and summary of the program's strengths and areas for improvement" and that this evaluation will include interviews/surveys to parents, staff, and administrators, as well as review of existing data (test results, demographics, etc.) and specialized programs. This evaluation will occur next year. I think this is a wonderful step by our interim superintendent, Maria Geryk, to provide information about our special education services, and I commend her willingness to engage in such an evaluation. I look forward to hearing more about this process over the next few weeks and months.

Next, we heard a food services report -- there is a long memo on this provided by Rob Detweiler, which will be included, I believe, with the minutes of this meeting, so I'm not going to go through all the details. The short version is that the food service contract continues to run a deficit (although somewhat less of a deficit than in past years), and that five food services workers have been let go (although these were all newly hired workers). Several members of the audience had questions/concerns about Whitson's (practices, payment of health insurance, etc.), which are going to be looked into and reported on by Rob.

We then turned -- once again -- to the fiscal year 2010 budget. This budget was not that much different from those we have seen previously, so I'm just going to touch on four main topics that I think will be salient for parents. First, IDEA federal stimulus money is going to pick up part of the payment for the Bridges program, which is pretty expensive in terms of the overall MS budget (so that is good news). Second, the middle school will have 3 teams in 7th grade (about 18 kids in a class), and 2 1/2 teams in 8th grade (about 20 kids in a class), and all 6 world languages will be retained at both the 7th and 8th grade levels (although Russian 1 and 2 and German 1 and 2 will be taught simultaneously in a class). I'm delighted that we are going to be able to continue to offer such a range of languages -- and to continue with world language instruction in 7th grade. Third, the position of middle school librarian has been cut (more on this later). Fourth, the high school will see a reduction in 6.2 teachers, which cover a range of areas (english, math, science, world language, business, health, technology, art, etc.), meaning that low enrollment classes won't be taught. Unfortunately this reduction also means that kids will spend 2 of their 15 periods in study hall next year -- or 13% of their high school day, which seems unfortunate.

The School Committee then raised a number of questions about these cuts, including whether it would be possible to eliminate some of these cuts by increasing class sizes (which are now around 22 in the high school, and 18 to 20 in the middle school), and how the functions of the MS librarian would now be covered. I believe more information and more discussion on both of these topics will be forthcoming in the weeks/months/year ahead.

Finally, we turned to School Committee planning, and three topics were proposed by members. I raised the idea of discussing an evaluation of the middle school. I continue to hear concerns from parents about the middle school, including level of rigor/expectations in the classes, and it strikes me as a very important time for us to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the MS (e.g., with the arrival of a new superintendent, discussions about regionalization, and the potential for moving 6th grade to the MS). I believe the new principal, Glenda Cresto, has been working very hard and cares deeply about this school and the students, and I'm hopeful that such an evaluation could be very helpful to her (and to her assistant principal, and to the new superintendent) in determining steps for moving the MS forward in particular ways. Second, Steve Rivkin raised the issue of evaluation of new teachers prior to tenure, and his belief that we need to have policies that set the bar high for new teachers and make sure that we are taking tenure decisions very seriously. Third, Irv Rhodes expressed the desire to make sure that we set particular goals for our new superintendent so that he understands how he will be evaluated during his first year. These ideas both strike me as very important, and I'm hopeful that current Regional Chair, Michael Hussin, will make sure these items are on a School Committee agenda in the near future.

At the end of the meeting, Michael Hussin announced that he was not running for re-election in Pelham, and that this would be his last meeting. We will therefore elect a new School Committee chair at our first meeting in May (after which new members from Leverett and Pelham have joined the board -- the Shutesbury member doesn't arrive until July 1st, which might be late to select a new chair).

Friday, April 3, 2009

Powerhouse School District Reaches Beyond the Elite

Here's an interesting article from the New York Times -- published February 5, 2009. I like the emphasis on both exposing all kids to research early on (7th grade!) and also increasing access to AP classes for all kids. I believe kids rise to the challenge when adults around them believe in them, set high expectations, and provide the support needed to succeed. The Port Washington approach sounds like a great success.

By Ruby Washington/The New York Times

PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y. — Six at a time, the seventh graders sprinted across the gymnasium floor in patent-leather flats, furry Ugg boots, clunky heels, sweat socks or bare feet. Their classmates timed them, carefully recording each fraction of a second.

Original research can be fun, teachers say, especially when it involves activity.
For the students, it was a science project studying the effects of footwear on speed. But for educators in this town on the North Shore of Long Island, it was part of a higher-stakes experiment: giving students with solid but not stellar grades access to the best academic and extracurricular programs.

After decades of grooming a handful of high school students in an exclusive research class to succeed in the elite national Intel Science Talent Search, school administrators this year, for the first time, required every seventh grader to do original research.

With similar goals in mind, the district has added honor societies in English, art and music — for a total of seven — to recognize students whose overall grades may keep them out of the National Honor Society. Since 2003, it has expanded its menu of Advanced Placement courses to 25 subjects and opened them to students who previously would not have qualified. And it instituted a policy prohibiting students from being cut from the orchestra, band and most sports, adding “junior varsity 2” teams to accommodate extra players.

Like many high-performing suburban school districts nationwide, Port Washington had heard complaints about the lack of attention to what is often called the great middle — students sandwiched between the overachievers who break records and win coveted prizes and the underachievers whose performance is monitored closely by federal and state testing mandates.

The district’s unusual focus on these average students in recent years has pleased many but has also drawn criticism that A.P. classes have become less rigorous, students have been coddled, and music groups and sports teams saddled with marginal players.

Students in A.P. classes say that some teachers, now required to accept students who did not pass a qualifying exam or get a teacher’s recommendation, have been known to weed out the weak with heavy reading loads, daily pop quizzes, and zeros on biology labs.

Joe Barrett, 17, a senior, said his United States history teacher went to the opposite extreme in the 2007-8 school year, presenting “elaborate PowerPoints with music videos to keep people interested.”

“At the beginning of the year, it was funny, but then it just got tiresome because there wasn’t a lot of content,” complained Joe, who earned the top score of 5 on the A.P. exam in the class last May. “I definitely could have learned more and faster. I felt like we skipped a lot of history.”

Jenny Park, 16, a junior who plays violin in the orchestra, said the inclusion philosophy went too far by rotating students, based on seniority, in the coveted first chair position. The first chair, designating the best performer in orchestral sections, is traditionally decided by audition. (In the violin section, the lead performer is also the concertmaster.)

“It’s not fair because I know I practice the most,” she said. “I take it so seriously and it could have helped my college application to say I was concertmistress since sophomore year.”

Despite such complaints, Linda Reyes Weil, a mother of three who is co-president of the high school’s Home and School Association, said the district was doing a better job by serving a broader population. “As parents, we all talk about the middle because we worry about the middle students getting lost in the shuffle,” she explained. “We all want that thing of beauty — a really nice transcript that will stand out in college admissions.”

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s School of Education, said that increasing access to advanced classes and extracurricular activities could “reduce the dog-eat-dog competition” in a school. While educators have long been reluctant to tinker with a system that worked for their best students, she said, college admissions have grown more competitive and the middle has become harder to ignore.

Decades after wars over tracking students by academic ability from year to year, this new push is meant to give average performers entree into what had been for so-called stars.

Saratoga High School, in California’s Silicon Valley, has, since 2005, allowed students with at least a C-minus average — “virtually anybody who wishes,” as the principal, Jeff Anderson, put it — to take honors or A.P. classes in English, social studies and science, abolishing the previous policy of requiring at least a B-plus average and a teacher recommendation.

At Palos Verdes Peninsula High School in Rolling Hills Estates, south of Los Angeles, school officials adapted a college-prep program, developed for high-achieving students in poor urban schools, into a course for more than 200 middle-level students; it offers SAT preparation and other help to increase their attendance at four-year colleges.

In the Chicago suburbs, the Glenbard Township school district last spring adopted a policy forbidding the elimination of freshmen from sports teams, reasoning that participation would help all students with the academic and social transition to its four high schools.

“There’s been such a focus on the high-high and the low-low that the parents of children in the middle are feeling like ‘our kids need attention, too,’ ” Professor Pope explained. “And what they want is what the top kids are doing.”

“But you do have to be careful,” she cautioned, “since some overzealous parents will push their children to take many A.P. classes when they really can’t handle that.”

Port Washington, a prosperous waterfront town, has long attracted top students with extras like its three-year research program preparing students for the Intel competition. The program accepts 30 of the approximately 400 freshmen each year and has produced 44 Intel semifinalists since 2003, including three announced last month. Starting in third grade, students with I.Q.’s of 130 or higher, among other criteria, are selected for the gifted and talented program.

“Nobody comes around and says, ‘You’re doing great with the middle kids,’ ” said Geoffrey N. Gordon, the superintendent. “They don’t get the Intel awards and they don’t go to the Ivy League schools. It’s not glamorous, which is why you don’t see more schools doing it.”

Still, in the last few years district officials have broadened their approach to push up the students at the bottom and the middle of the achievement ladder and allow the top to rise naturally.

At the start of this school year, 574 high school students — just under half the enrollment in grades 10, 11 and 12 — signed up for A.P. classes, up from about 250 in 2002. Of those, about 200 failed to qualify by passing a test or receiving a teacher’s recommendation, and about 40 of those students had to sign a waiver saying they would complete all the work and maintain a B average. Sixty-five students — including 24 who had to sign the waivers — subsequently dropped to lower-level courses.

Melis Emre, 17, a senior in the research program, said that allowing students to take A.P. classes when they do not meet the qualifications teaches an unrealistic lesson. “You have to learn how to deal with a situation not working out in your favor,” she said. “If you don’t get a job, you can’t sign a piece of paper and then come hang out in the office Monday to Friday.”

But district officials say that their efforts have improved the quality of education for everyone. Even as the number of A.P. exams taken by Port Washington students nearly doubled, to 1,134 last year from 603 in 2002, the average overall score climbed to 3.30 from 3.04.

At the same time, the percentage of students accepted to four-year colleges during that period also rose, to 82 percent from 74 percent, according to district records.

Dylan Snyder, 16, a junior who took A.P. European history last year, said he was happy to get a C-plus in such a hard class — until he realized that everyone around him was getting B-pluses. But he did not drop down.

“I like to work to learn because the payoff is better,” he said. “I would have felt bad if I had gotten kicked out because of my grades. I would have felt A.P. is not for me, ever.” Dylan has a B average in A.P. United States history this year, and plans to take A.P. courses next fall in government, physics and computer science.

At the middle school, the entire seventh grade is taking part in the science of sports project to fulfill the new research requirement. The students are creating a database of their individual running times, first in sneakers and then in alternate footwear, and evaluating how variables like height, gender, birth date and shoe type affect speed. They will present their findings in a research paper or PowerPoint presentation.

“I learned that I move faster without my shoes,” said Jermaine Brown, 13. “This is really fun, and it’s better than sitting in class.”

David Katz, the science teacher who came up with the running experiment, said that when he first asked students if they wanted to do original scientific research, 2 of 23 raised their hands. When they found out the research would involve sports, they all jumped up.

“They think research is more work, more papers,” he said. “But if you teach them in a way they can relate to, they grow to love it.”