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.

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).


Anonymous said...

Good news. Thank you.

I did not know tenure could be part of an employment agreement for our public school teachers and I find it surprising. Do you know if there is some language posted describing how and when the evaluation is done, what the criteria are, and who participates? More generally, how how does it restrict employment decisions after it is granted and how many Amherst teachers have attained the status? Is it available only to teachers or to administrators and coaches too? I suspect these answers will come out as the issue is researched which is why I'm asking.

Janet said...

I am deeply disturbed by the recently proposed cut of the Middle School librarian. This cut puts a burden on middle school students not borne by any others in Amherst. It will deprive middle school students of critically needed help in research and use of the library. The library is used by 550 middle school students. Every child, college-bound or not, needs library skills, to learn about the world through books and computer research and to find a great book to read.

Why are we treating our Middle Schools differently -- again? Already, unlike any other grade in Amherst K to 12, 7th graders have no art class. Now the 7th and 8th graders will have no librarian.

No other school in Amherst is facing the loss of its librarian – the only teacher who serves every single child in a school building. What can the justification for this cut be? Do 7th and 8th graders need a librarian less?

The goal we have been told is to protect the core. If librarians and art teachers are not the core, why are there librarians and art teachers at the other schools?

You can keep asking questions like these, like I have, and get no explanations. No one could explain the thinking behind this cut beyond the fact that cuts must be made. Last night, the Superintendent said cutting the librarian’s position has been under discussion for months, but could not relate the discussion around it. Last night several school committee members said that the budget and cuts reflected the community’s desires, i.e. the middle school foreign language program was kept largely intact because parents spoke out in support of it. Other school committee members said administrators made the cuts and their only role was to listen to proposed cuts and determine the final amount of the budget.

Is this really how School Committees view their role and how cuts are made and restored? If so, parents, please email the Superintendent and please come to the next Regional School Committee meeting on April 28th at 7 p.m. and let's get our librarian back.

To get a sense of what’s happening to the Middle School, it’s useful to look at the High School where there are no comparably deep cuts. Instead, the high school is cutting teachers who teach under-enrolled classes. Average class sizes do not increase. The school librarian is retained and each grade can take art classes. Twelve art classes are offered. No foreign language is cut. The high school students do face the burden of an extra study hall but it seems that raising class sizes could eliminate this problem, since having a larger class seems better than no class at all.

Clearly, the core – and more – of the high school program remains protected. The website for the High School list 12 different Art classes, 8 Business Education classes, 20 Tech Ed class, 19 Performing Arts classes, 10 Computer Classes and 7 Family & Consumer Science classes – 76 elective courses. In addition, the website lists about 85 courses in the Science, Math, English and Social Studies.

Can the Middle School librarian be saved by some changes at the High School? While the current proposal will eliminate a number of under-enrolled courses at the High School, does it eliminate all under-enrolled courses? If small class sizes do not affect academic outcomes, as research shows, then class sizes should be increased for all grades. Could increasing class sizes to students throughout the regional school system save the middle school librarian? Could it restore 7th grade art?

It is clear from the proposed Middle School cuts is that there isn’t much left to cut from this school’s budget. The current proposal harms its academic program and students’ ability to use the library and research subjects. Can we say this is true of the high school – with its over 160 course offerings?

There needs to be more fairness and consistency across our school system. If every elementary school and the high school has and needs a librarian, the middle school must have one too. If library services must be cut, the pain of that cut must be shared across the grades. The high school and middle school should share, proportionately, a librarian. The same should be true for art. If students in Amherst aren’t being treated equally, why is this so?

Anonymous said...

Where is the sense is offering 6 different languages, but not having a librarian in the middle school? The librarian serves ALL of the children in a school, whereas retaining Russian (for example) helps only those few students who enroll.

This is an extremely poor prioritization to make, and it shows once again that the Amherst school system does not sufficiently value its core mission.

I hope that you, Catherine, and the other members of the School Committee, will find a way to retain the librarian.

Anonymous said...

For more information on why we should keep the middle school librarian:

Information Seeker said...

I think people need to understand the real question here. Do you want languages in the 7th grade, or do you want a librarian? There is no wiggle room to cut. They have a serious budget shortfall, far beyond what the elementary budget is. These are the choices they have to make. It is one or the other. they listened to everyone who wanted to save languages. They have had the librarian cut on the budget for months now and no one has really made a big deal about that. People made a big deal about languages, so they listened. Now we are where we are now. This is serious. There are no easy answers here. We can't have everything we want. So please decide what is MOST important to you and let the administration know what that is.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Information Seeker: Personally, I have been very vocal about what I think we should prioritize for our budget. Core academics. Period. Including, since this is the 21st century, at least some choice for world language instruction (I can be convinced that we don't need six choices). I would prefer to see the cuts come out of the extensive elective offerings at the high school (listed above by Janet) in order to preserve core academics in both the middle and high schools. I also think that if our elementary kids can routinely sit in classes of 25 students (my children's experience at Fort River), that is not an unreasonable expectation for middle and high school students either.

Anonymous said...

Excellent points Alison. Many of the electives are more of a luxury, or could be taken through LSSE. My child loved taking some of them but they sure were not essential for life skills or college. And they really should be able to have larger numbers in many of the core courses.

Anonymous said...


I share your outrage at not having 7th grade art instruction. I wonder how many top flight middle schools can say the same?

Your list of High School electives is a little misleading however. For instance when you say that there are 12 art classes at ARHS you are actually refering to the diversity of offerings, not to the actual classes available for enrollment. Some courses are offered once a year while some (more popular & prerequisite courses) are offered many more times. This year there were rougly 40+ art classes total while next year there will be 30. A 25% reduction for 1400 students means that many students who want to take art will not be able to. That means that not only will the 7th grade have no art but that 9th and 10th grade (low on the elective pecking order) will have very limited access.

I also am disturbed by comments from people who want to pile all resources into so called 'core' classes. Turning a school into a math-science boot camp does not serve the needs of our children. Narrow focus on what colleges require for admission pays no regard to actual children - it seems crass to me, like they are investments rather than holistic, thinking, feeling people. Look at the nation's top high schools, public and private, and you will not find one that has gutted music, visual, and performing arts. It is shortsighted and wrong. It is a slippery slope that will lead to substandard schools.

Anonymous said...

Well, we now have our schools "teaching to the test" (MCAS, that is), and soon we'll have a curriculum designed around the admission requirements of certain colleges/universities. Speaking of slippery slopes? Yet, many higher ed institutions are now not requiring SAT's. The more enlightened ones, that is. Could it be that our timing is off and we are out of touch?

Anonymous said...

"Many of the electives are more of a luxury, or could be taken through LSSE. "

If we cut electives out of the public schools with the thought that children can take them through LSSE we are denying many low income children the opportunity to take these classes. Also, there would be some chidren in town for whom just getting to a LSSE class would be difficult if not impossible.

The public schools should be a place where all children can receive a free well-rounded education that is easily accessible. LSSE is neither free nor as easily accessible as the public schools.

Anonymous said...

During the SC meeting the camera man made an "out of the box" suggestion about hiring UMASS students at a low rate that would be subsidized by work study grants. I saw administrators immediately say to each other that they can't. I'm sure there is a reason, but do you know why? The only thing I can think of is union contracts.

amherstmom said...

Catherine. You failed to mention that in Maria's opening statements she announced Amherst Education Foundation is contributing $20,000 to the Amherst Area schools. $5500 to ARHS, $3500 ARMS, $10000 to Amherst elementary schools and Pelham elementary. Just thought it was worth the mention that in these tough fiscal times we have community members contributing to the public schools. All the best to you and those who work hard for our Amherst kids. Tracy Hightower

Bev said...

Is the SC aware that the DOE evaluates special ed programs on a regular basis and writes a report and makes recommendations for improvement? I believe this is done free of charge. Has the SC ever seen these DOE reports? Has the Sped Administration ever made these reports public? How does one view these reports? They must be posted somewhere. Does the SC know how Amherst Sped has responded to the last several DOE evaluations, which were all unsatisfactory? What is the consequence to the school if it receives a poor report? What happens if the school sped administration does not comply to the DOE's recommendations? Who represents disabled students on this SC? If the Amherst sped administration disregarded recommendations made by the DOE, why should we think that they will implement improvements suggested by a private evaluator? And why is Ms. Geryk in charge of choosing the independent evaluator? Clearly that is a conflict of interest, isn't it? If the principal of a school was failing in his or her duties would he or she be allowed to choose the independent evaluator who would review their performance?
I submit that Ms. Geryk already knows what is wrong with her sped
administration. I believe that her idea for a non-DOE eval is a way of buying time so that she and other administrators in the dept do not have to answer any questions now regarding the morass of special ed law violations that plague her office, including civil rights violations, educational rights violations, employment violations, harassment violations, and the many complaints that parents have made to the Dept. of Social Services regarding the mistreatment of students with disabilities. This has all come about because there is no transparency nor accountability in the sped administration. They monitor themselves and only release information that does not reflect badly on themselves. It seems to me that the sped administration operates on its own without having to abide by the same moral, legal and ethical principles as the rest of the school district. For example, did you know that some parents of disabled students cannot go to the principal of their child's school for assistance with a problem because the principal does not represent the student? A sped administrator steps into that role if they want to, and the problem ends up hidden away in Ms. Geryk's office. I am in no way including sped teachers or sped service
providers when I speak of the sped administration. Their hands are tied because sped administrators tell them what their students need even if the teacher or therapist strongly disagrees. In many of these cases, the administrator has spent very little time with the student, whereas the teacher knows the student well. In conclusion, when I hear people talk about how good Amherst schools are, they are generally talking about regular education, not sped. When I hear SC members insist that they want the best for ALL children, I don't think that they are including disabled students in their statement. And it sounds so admirable of Ms. Geryk to tell us that she will include parental responses in her proposed eval. This could have been done by her office years ago, for the price of paper and postage. Why now?

Anonymous said...

I would like access to these DOE evaluations but as a layperson I do not know how or where to get hold of these.
As a sped educator within this system and a sped parent I am outraged at the ways this system literally shoves its disabled students (under rugs) into different buildings, cold confined areas within the "regular" public school buildings, closed off rooms, albeit some behind glass doors--what a spectacle for the "regular" students to marvel at..etc.
To be able to choose and hire an outside evaluator(ion) is absolutely unbelievable. A further confirmation of just what a tyranny this system has turned into!

Alison Donta-Venman said...

It does make sense that periodic review would be done by the Commonwealth of all districts. Does anyone have a link to any of these DOE reports on special education in Amherst? Since I raised the issue of the proportional amount of money being spent on special education and wondered if those high costs were justified by good student outcomes in special ed on my blog (Amherst By The Numbers), I was surprised at the number of parents of students in special ed and special ed teachers who wrote in with negative comments about the system in Amherst. Including one parent who asked to post what is a powerful Guest Blog. If there have been systematic reviews of these programs, I hope the School Committee has made an immediate request for them.

Anonymous said...

The special ed system in Amhherst has been broken for many many years. It was broken when my children were in the Amherst schools (my youngest is now 25), it was broken even before my kids were in the schools and it is still broken. Some of the things I have been reading on this blog and on Alison's blog are complaints I heard when my children were in school and are some of the same complaints that I also had (I am a former SPED parent). It is time to fix the system!!! Enough is enough!

Anonymous said...

Has anyone had any luck locating the DOE reviews of special education?
I tried to go to the special education parent advisory committee website to see if they had them and I could not access it because my computer did not have a special "plug-in." I tried to download it but I got a threat advisory notice saying that the plug-in installer was not from a secure site, so I stopped. I have followed many, many links from in order to get info about all kinds of school topics but I have never seen a site that required a special plug-in. I hate to say it, but is this some sort of discriminatory step against families of kids in special education? I'm sure that it is the law that school districts maintain a sped-parent organization because that is the group who provides the legally required IEP training for parents once a year. Somebody on the school committee help me please, I'm beginning to think the whole darn school district is going somewhere in a hand basket.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Anon 5:52PM: In response to one of my blog postings, a parent sent me a link to the DOE reports on-line. I have not yet had time to read them but notice that Amherst-Pelham was last reviewed in 2006-2007 which is fairly recently. I hope you have no trouble downloading them.

Anonymous said...

I haven't looked at the DOE reports but having said that, I wanted to advise people to read it with the understanding of the goal of the report. Is the goal of the report to determine whether Amherst meets state standards or is it to actually rate how well each and every section of the program is doing? If it's just the first (to make sure we meet state standards) - then it won't be that useful in determining whether we are spending our money efficiently on the SPED programs. If it's the second - well, good, that will answer our question then.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:52 said, "is this some sort of discriminatory step against families of kids in special education?"
Yes, only the non-sped families in Amherst are allowed to have the plug in. You're silly.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I am silly but I don't mean to be. My child is having difficulty in school and someone told me to go to a sped parent group meeting to get help but I cannot access the page. There is no phone number or a person to call. I did not mean to accuse anyone of intentionally blocking the site but why does it need a plugin and other sites at do not? If I offended anybody please accept my apologies. Does anyone know when the next meeting is or who I can call? Thank you

Anonymous said...
on the right is a list of numbers for the contacts at each school.