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 (


Anonymous said...

Good Morning Catherine,
I whole heartedly agree that such a survey is not only a wonderful idea, but a much needed move to ensure that our children continue to receive the best education they deserve. The hesitancy from all others in allowing this to go through leaves one to wonder why? I must admit it seems like just another example of a misuse of authority that results in students' disadvantage! Why wouldn't an administration, who is supposedly devoted to 'every child, every day', want to take the time to complete such a survey that can only benefit our kids???

Anonymous said...

Yet another "why do today what we can put off until tomorrow" moment.

Anonymous said...

Unortunately, the reality is that many surveys like the one proposed are ineffective because the majority of people will not respond to it, so you only get feedback from the people that are always the most vocal and involved anyway. I do believe that it would be a good idea if there is a way to get a bigger response rate from parents.

Anonymous said...

I'm scared that my opinions could be attached to me by using my own name and so I chose to post anonymously even though it makes me complicit with other people who accept a society in which freedom of speech is watered down. Yes I'm an Amherst bill of rights person but not when it involves the risk of consequence for taking responsibility for my own assertions.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Thanks, Catherine, for providing details here about the survey ideas.

I am very pleased that the superintendent is providing a way for staff to offer comments on budget priorities without feeling like they're criticizing their peers. Of course even with the clever name SurveyMonkey, it isn't the kind of survey the motion asked for associated with a Middle School survey, it's simply a "directed" suggestion box -- which is exactly what is needed in this case. It's also great to have a "directed" suggestion box designed for staff, rather than staff being directed to the suggestion box designed for the public.

While I agree that a Middle School survey is a wonderful *idea* for all the reasons listed, we also know it's all in how it's done. As commented above, significant response rates are always a challenge. And of course Catherine and Steve in their roles as college faculty are well aware of the complexities of survey design.

A useful survey of the Middle School program in the broad sense described by the motion* is quite beyond the capacity of our school system to develop and/or administer and/or effectively use the results.

*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.I'm not saying we shouldn't do something because it's difficult to do well. I am saying it's simply beyond our capacity to do, period, this spring or at any time. I base this belief on some of the surveys our schools have done fairly recently: lunch program, school improvement plan priorities, climate (yes, social climate:-) involving UMass faculty, other individual school surveys -- including one of middle school parents about a year ago. Despite all efforts in design and participation, how useful have those results been in our decision making process? Based on my five years on the School Committee -- not at all.

Even if you reject my premise that it's not possible to do a useful survey of the nature the motion describes, consider the timing: in 2009-2010 we'll be facing the challenge of an uneasy community living in an economy that isn't yet improving and isn't expected to for some time, staffing changes based on this year's budget cuts, program changes based on this year's budget cuts, a new superintendent, a revised superintendent evaluation process, three school committees formed almost entirely of people new to serving on school committees and in fact to serving in any capacity in municipal government, renewed focus on effective teacher evaluation, the majority of building principals entering only their third year in Amherst schools, and a wide-ranging special education program evaluation that has to be developed and undertaken (not just a standard visit from an outside group to perform a "routine" evaluation). It's going to be incredibly difficult to get all that done while we focus on every child, every day.

For anyone out there that worries that the school committee needs to be able to quote results from a survey in order to make change, stop worrying. I have no doubt that our current Amherst school committee members have an excellent grasp of the wide variety of concerns our community holds (even before anyone started blogs:-) When a proposed change is good, it doesn't need (always questionable) survey results to back it up; conversely, if change proponents can't muster a majority of votes, no amount of (always questionable) survey results will change the equation.

Irv Rhodes said...

Irv Rhodes
I believe that Amherst Schools need an evaluation policy that evaluates all schools every year, so that we can begin to develop a year to year data base. Each year school improvement plans are called for, there is no reason that we can not have a policy that all of these school improvement plans have an evaluation component that covers a broad range of educational outcomes. Focusing upon one school misses the broad policy implication of this idea.

Anonymous said...

Are we to be concerned with the dismissal of anything posted on these blogs which reflect realities (some very negative) about Building Blocks and special education administrators mistreating students and parents alike? It is so transparent for the director of this program, now our superintendent, to make this declaration!! Very worrisome...

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 6:48 - thank you for your posting ... and yes, I agree that this would be a very easy way for the school administration and School Committee to demonstrate an interest in actually getting feedback from the community. I hope you'll convey your support of this idea via email or at the meeting on May 12th at which time this motion will be voted on.

Anonymous 9:03 - agreed ... and of course, several people on the committee who are not in favor of this survey do not have kids in the schools ... which I think means it is much easier to take a long-term perspective, than those of us who are living with current concerns that impact our kids every day.

Anonymous 9:59 - I agree that response rate is crucial. That is one of the reasons why I had hoped there would be support for doing it SOON, because at the end of the year, people are just busier. My intention was to have it sent to ALL parents, and to have it available on email. I'd be glad for any suggestions you have about increasing the response rate, because yes, this is crucial. Nonetheless, I think even doing the survey would show the community that the School Committee actually CARES about getting parent and student and teacher/staff feedback! That could be a powerful message for our community to hear.

Anonymous 10:31 - I'm not sure how to respond to your point ... sorry.

Alisa - I am glad that you can see the benefits of conducting a survey, and although I know the quick answer to anything I raise at School Committee in terms of change is (a) we don't have the staff, and (b) we don't have the money, and (c) we don't have time, I just don't think this is true. I found 10 middle school surveys on line today that are currently in use. These are free to use if we use Survey Monkey, and cheap still if we use paper surveys. We could COLLECT the data, and then not even examine it until we had time to do so -- but if we don't even collect it, we can't possibly have the answers. I volunteered to have an Amherst College student enter the survey data and compile responses. Again, this is not something highly tricky or involved -- it would be easy to do IF people actually wanted the information. And I for one would find these results very valuable -- sure, I hear things from my friends, but I know, as a researcher, that that information is biased in many ways. A survey lets me hear from a lot of parents, and thus provides a different sort of information. You may not have found that type of information valuable when you were on School Committee, but to me, I don't know what changes to recommend UNLESS I hear from the community about what those changes might be. And it is somewhat ironic to me that the Superintendent and all School Committee members are supposed to go to FIVE meetings to hear community feedback about closing Marks Meadow and redistricting ... but we don't see any need to hear parent concerns about our middle school? I guess I'm not understanding the resistance at all to gaining information.

Irv - I agree whole-heartedly with your view. And I'd be glad to modify my motion to extend to the high school and elementary schools as well so that we can start gathering that information. Will I then have your support on May 12th with this motion?

Anonymous 7:38 - I think the superintendent is right to not respond to comments on blogs about the schools. I think you can imagine situations in which complaints are made that are false, and that having the staff chase down inaccurate leads could be a big waste of time. I also understand that there may be real and legitimate concerns. Here is my recommendation -- she didn't say she wouldn't investigate anonymous complaints ... she said she wouldn't investigate anonymous complaints on BLOGS. I'd write an anonymous letter, and/or send an anonymous email to the superintendent and School Committee (which you can do by setting up a "hotmail" account or whatever). That seems like a good way to communicate information that could be important, and I imagine those avenues might lead to greater success.

Rick said...

I just wanted to point out that the ARMS Family School Partnership did a survey in spring 2008 and ARHS did one also, as written up at the ARHS Parent Center website (see link to survey in that post).

Probably those are not perfectly done surveys but I think it’s pretty cool they just did them on their own. I applaud Mark Jackson* and the ARMS Family School Partnership for doing these. And anyhow it is not rocket science to document what people think needs improving, and then stick it into an improvement plan and do it.

* Mark Jackson is a gem; better hang on to him.

It would probably good if it was formalized across all schools, so go for it. What Irv said is the way to go.

But I think the common sense approach is not just to do some big cumbersome survey every year that takes forever, and possibly gets forgotten about, but rather to constantly do many, many, many incremental improvements over time based on “real time” feedback in the moment (remember “suggestion box”).

We should always be thinking “what got improved today?”. It can be a tiny thing, but if you get into the mode of improving one small thing every day (or every week, whatever) it’s a good thing, instead of waiting endlessly for survey results.

I’m not against the survey idea, I just am saying don’t wait for it – which I think is more or less what Alisa was saying.

Finally if ARPS doesn’t have the manpower to do the school-wide survey, I bet we could round up a bunch of parents to do it. ARPS could form an ARPS/parent subcommittee that could create and do the surveys (approved by SC etc.). We’d need money for mailing and printing (probably $5k max) – assuming it’s not all done online - but that’s about it.

Anonymous said...

If you do not understand the 'resistance to gaining information' than why isn't the information that has been gathered here and on amherstbythenumbers, although in a dim light, with regard to BB being looked into?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Rick - I agree with you that doing surveys is a good idea, and they don't have to be cumbersome! In fact, I looked on line yesterday and found 10 surveys (all 1 or 2 pages, some on line, other paper) that are currently in use by middle schools. Any of these surveys could be modified quite easily for use in Amherst to include questions of particular interest to the middle school principals, the superintendents (Maria and/or Alberto Rodriguez), School Committee members, etc. Again, I don't think asking for surveys of how parents/teachers/staff/kids feel about a school is a bad idea, nor do I think it has to be cumbersome. My point in raising it was that by talking about it now (in April) we could get a sense from the superintendent, principal, and School Committee members the types of questions people want answered, and we could give it out in May, NOT June (the surveys done last year by both the MS and HS had very low response rates, I believe because they were both sent AFTER school ended -- I still am glad that these surveys were done, but do believe that response rate is important and will be greater if you do it earlier in the semester). In terms of whether you need to "wait" for survey results, I kind of disagree with this. There are some parents who feel more comfortable sharing their views -- so, maybe the SC and Superintendent hear largely from parents who dislike something ... but the reality is, MOST think that thing is great! Doing a survey helps you figure out if concerns reflect a general sense of what is going on in the school, instead of just paying attention to loud voices. Remember, of the 9 members of the SC, many do not have kids in the schools at all -- so they especially may not be hearing from parents since I think parents often contact those they know. Finally, I agree that there are plenty of people who would work on sending out and even compiling survey results -- if there is willingness by the SC and superintendent, it could easily happen this spring -- and I hope it does (and sure, I'd love for it to happen at ALL schools).

Anonymous 9:21 - if a survey was given to all parents/staff, that would include BB parents/staff, which would then allow us to collect data on such concerns. This seems like a great way to hear those concerns as well, right?

Anonymous said...

Regarding the response rate, maybe it would improve if we knew something would actually be done with the information. I have kids in both MS and HS and reponded to the trimester survey. I would love to know the outcome of the parental responses.

Anonymous said...

An overall survey of the entire school system may be an excellent route to reveal the misconducts in the BB program. But, do you honestly believe that the wrongdoings in the past, which have been specifically outlined, will ever be dealt with? If the very idea of a 'survey' which is sounding more like a passive response to this abuse than anything else, stops this program from its continuance in restraining children in padded closets than perhaps some true good has come from these anonymous blogs and I thank you for that Catherine.

Rick said...


The way to make this happen fast is to just have an offline group just do it and present it to the SC and say: “we’ll do it, here’s the survey, approve it or change it”.

I’ll help organize that if you want. If you already know of good starting point survey(s) maybe we could put on Google docs to collaborate on.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rick - Wow, thanks for the offer! Here is the list of 10 surveys now being used in middle schools that I found via google:

Wake Forest, NC –

Gooding Middle School -

Jordan Middle School -

Peacock Parent Survey –

Parkway Central Middle School Parent Survey –

Carrollton Middle School –

Chimacum Middle School -

Hill Classical Middle School –

San Juan Unified School District –

AAK Middle School –

I'd be fine with any of these -- want to take a pass at drafting one? I think it would be important to include specific subject areas (e.g., math, science, world language, etc.) instead of just "academics" but other than that, I really don't care. And I think it would be great if you could organize this! Maybe you'd want to talk to the high school parent group to see if they want one designed for their school, too? The surveys I pulled are all for MS, but I'd imagine they could work for each (with perhaps some questions tailored to each school specfically)?

Thank you so much, Rick!

Rick said...

OK will do.

Kate Troast said...

The ARHS School Council is planning to survey the high school parent/guardians this spring. If you have questions that you would like considered for the survey please send them to the ARHS Parent Center
Our comments/suggestions are due by Monday, May 4.

Rick said...

Hmmm… since the ARHS School Council is doing a survey again this year, I wonder if the ARMS School Council is doing one, and if both of them are, I’m not sure it’s smart to duplicate their efforts, and anyhow that is kind of the “right” place to do it – School Councils.

So I am thinking that rather than run off and do something separate, that the SC (or anyone) could suggest to the ARMS School Council (via Principal Cresto) that they do a survey. Then if either ARHS School Council or ARMS School Council needs manpower, parents can help their efforts.

Plus what starts to be cool is that there will be 2 years (or more?) of similar surveys to begin to look at to see what is trending where: 2 years (or more?) of ARHS School Council surveys and 1 year of ARMS School Council survey which can be compared with the survey the ARMS Family School Partnerships did last year.