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.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why We Need Data

The single most frustrating thing to me (and you might think this would be a hard call) about my experience with the Amherst schools is what I see as a total reluctance, and indeed almost opposition, to looking at DATA. If you even mention wanting data, you get accused of all sorts of evil things -- being elitist, having a PhD, working at a wealthy institution, living in Amherst Woods, caring only about numbers, and teacher-bashing. But in all seriousness, we can see many, many examples of times in which relying on anecdote and intuition is really problematic.

One of my favorite examples comes from of the hallmarks of the Bush presidency -- a focus on abstinence-based sex education as the best approach to preventing teenage pregnancy (here is a case in which most people agree that unwanted teenage pregnancy is a good thing to prevent, but people disagree with how we go about this prevention). Under Bush's leadership, the federal government provided states with considerable sums in order to teach youth about abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage (many states ended up turning down the funds because they prohibited comprehensive sex education). But when research examined the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs, it revealed that participants had just as many sexual partners as nonparticipants and had sex at the same median age as nonparticipants ( As stated by Dr. Ned Calonge, Colorado's chief medical officer, "To show no benefit compared to nothing. That was striking. These are tax dollars that are going for no useful purpose, and it would not be responsible for us to take those dollars."

Here's another example from a book called Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management (by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton). (And for those who are watching for my elitism, let me be upfront -- these authors teach at Stanford University, where I went to college).

"Almost any decision you make about any sort of intervention can be evidence-based in the sense that you can try to access what research literature and evaluation literature demonstrate about this. It’s a way of thinking more scientifically and systematically. An individual doctor can’t tell if Vioxx causes heart problems because one person’s practice isn’t big enough to determine that evidence. It’s similar if you’re one manager thinking about making a merger decision, or implementing ERP [enterprise resource planning], or putting in incentive-based pay; a good manager will look at larger evidence in terms of informing the decision.

The way a good doctor or a good manager works—we call it the attitude of wisdom—is to act with knowledge while doubting what you know. So if a patient goes to a doctor, you hope the doctor would do two things: first look at the literature and make the best decision given what’s available. Then actually track the progress of the treatment and see what unexpected side effects you’re having and what things are working."

OK, so I think we can pretty easily imagine the parallels to what we do in the Amherst schools here. First, asking one intervention teacher how effective he/she is at improving outcomes is just not a large enough sample to provide evidence of such effectiveness, nor is spending a day at the middle school observing classes, nor is visiting a small school for a day to see the beneficial outcomes. You get evidence by gathering data from multiple sources as reported in the literature (and there is a lot of literature on issues in education, although some of it is flawed in various ways), not through personal anecdote and intuition on the part of a very small number of people in one school system, and then you make the best decision you can based on that evidence. Second, you actually track the progress of the treatment and see what things are working and what things aren't (e.g., how is the new 9th grade science program working; what is the impact of having a trimester versus a semester system; how well is the "extensions" model of differentiating math instruction in 7th grade working; how well do our programs for underperforming kids help them ). Then, you either drop things that aren't working (and you can have clear and public criteria for what "working" means) or you modify them to see if they do work (and again, you are clear and transparent about what is and is not working and what will be done to improve outcomes).

OK, the key question for me is how do you get organizations (or, in this case, a school district) to start using evidence-based decision-making? This is what Pfeffer and Sutton say: "Encourage people to be noisy and nosy—it promotes wisdom." Here's a real world example described in their book: "Researchers in one study examined 194 patient care failures by nurses, everything from problems caused by broken equipment to drug treatment errors. This work revealed that those nurses whom doctors and administrators saw as most talented unwittingly caused the same mistakes to happen over and over. These “ideal” nurses quietly adjust to inadequate materials without complaint, silently correct others’ mistakes without confronting error-makers, create the impression that they never fail, and find ways to quietly do the job without questioning flawed practices. These nurses get sterling evaluations, but their silence and ability to disguise and work around problems undermine organizational learning."

This finding, and hundreds of others from research studies, led to the development of a model they describe as "The talents of wisdom: People who sustain organizational learning". Here are the types of people they believe are most beneficial to such a process:
  • Noisy complainers - Repair problems right away and then let every relevant person know that the system failed
  • Noisy troublemakers - Always point out others' mistakes, but do so to help them and the system learn, not to point fingers
  • Mindful error-makers - Tell managers and peers about their own mistakes, so that others can avoid making them too. When others spot their errors, they communicate that learning—not making the best impression—is their goal
  • Disruptive questioners - Won't leave well enough alone. They constantly ask why things are done the way they are done. Is there a better way of doing things?
"All of these characteristics help people act on what they know, and keep improving their own skills, peers’ skills, and organizational practices and procedures. The crux is, if you want better performance instead of the illusion of it, you and your people must tell everyone about problems you’ve fixed, point out others’ errors so all can learn, admit your own errors, and never stop questioning what is done and how to do it better. These actions can annoy doctors and administrators—or any other authority figure—who prefer quiet and compliant underlings, but if we want organizations that do as much good and as little harm as possible, these talents are essential."

I think this book (which I strongly recommend to those interested in thinking more about evidence-based decision-making in general) makes two key points that are relevant to the current state of our schools. First, it is really important to examine what people are doing and the outcomes of their behavior (meaning, it is not "nurse-bashing" to examine causes of patient care errors). Second, disruptive questioners (and I think I fit the bill pretty well here) are actually beneficial in terms of leading to better performance, instead of just the illusion of it (and I bet a lot of these disruptive questioners are seen as bullies). For a long time, people who raised any questions or concerns about the Amherst schools were seen as disruptive, divisive, only caring about their kids, elitist, and so on. But the reality is, our schools, like other organizations, really benefit from this type of an open dialogue, in which we are carefully considering what we are doing, and communicating this careful consideration broadly, not simply assuring everyone that the schools are great and that their kids will be OK.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Amherst preparing for worst

Springfield Republican article
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

AMHERST - Unless there's some kind of money magic between now and Thursday, the Finance Committee will likely have to recommend that Town Meeting approve "a worst case" scenario fiscal 2010 budget, bearing nearly $4 million in cuts from a town-wide, level-services budget of $66.6 million.

With reductions in state aid, it looks as if the committee has no choice but to vote on the worse-case budget, said Brian D. Morton, chairman of the Finance Committee. He called it a "a sickening vote." The committee is slated to meet Thursday night in Town Hall at 7 p.m.

While the Statehouse voted to use $205 million from a sales tax increase for unrestricted local aid, the Senate last week restored only $35 million in local aid. Finance Director/Treasurer John P. Musante said the difference is huge for the town. The House budget restored $2 million for Amherst. The Senate version of the budget would restore just $257,000.

The Senate did approve a local option for municipalities to tax restaurant meals and motel rooms. But even if Town Meeting voted to adopt the local tax, it could take months for the town to be able to put in play, Morton said.

The town could, however, use reserves to cover some of that, Morton said.

The Finance Committee does not want to use reserves to fill a structural deficit but could recommend the use to cover high costs that would be addressed in future years such as the closing of the Marks Meadow Elementary School which the School Committee agreed to do last week.

There are initial moving costs that would cut the savings.

The Finance Committee has told school officials it would allow the use of reserves for upcoming fiscal year with the school closing, which eventually is expected to save more than $600,000.

Morton said the Finance Committee is expected to discuss using about $1.2 million in reserves toward the $3.8 million cut town-wide. The rest would have to come from drastic cuts, Morton said. He said there is no proposal to ask voters for a Proposition 2½ override this year. That could come next year.

"This is the year for cutting and restructuring," Musante said.

Musante said there's an 83 percent reduction in tax support for the Amherst Leisure Services and Supplemental Education.

The budget includes three fewer positions in the Police Department with the town looking for grant funding to cover those salaries instead.

Select Board members have also said they would not propose restoring money for the closing of the War Memorial Pool this summer among the many cuts in services and programs.

Town Meeting will begin deliberating on the budget June 15.

Town, UMass at stalemate over elementary school payments

Hampshire Gazette article
By NICK GRABBEStaff Writer

Tuesday, May 26, 2009
AMHERST - The agreement to close Mark's Meadow Elementary School in 2010 has raised a thorny financial issue between Amherst and the University of Massachusetts. The question is: Who should pay the costs when the children of graduate students who live in UMass-owned, tax-exempt housing attend Amherst's public schools? There are 52 such children, and the total cost of educating them is estimated at $675,000 to $725,000 a year. Town officials have maintained for many years that UMass should pay some of these costs instead of taxpayers. UMass has countered that it provides the Mark's Meadow building at no cost to the Amherst public schools. Now that Mark's Meadow is going to close, some town officials say it's time for UMass to reimburse these costs, while campus officials say this is not a standard practice around the country.

The town-gown "strategic partnership agreement" signed in 2007 links the two issues. It says that Amherst "will continue to provide, as required by statute, educational services to all K- through 12-aged children residing in tax-exempt university housing." In the next sentence, it says that UMass will allow one of its buildings to be used as an elementary school. Then it says that if Mark's Meadow closes, all parties "will negotiate a new agreement in which the university may reimburse the town for a portion of the net costs of educating students living in university tax-exempt housing."

Town Manager Larry Shaffer said last week that UMass should start reimbursing the town for some of these costs when Mark's Meadow closes at the end of the 2009-2010 school year and not wait for the scheduled renewal of the agreement in 2012. The net costs would be less than $675,000 to $725,000 because a portion of those expenses already comes from state aid, he said.

"The town and the university are each other's best friends," Shaffer said. "We will have a conversation with them about this."

Amherst School Committee members Andrew Churchill and Irv Rhodes, along with Interim Superintendent Maria Geryk, had a conversation with UMass Chancellor Robert Holub May 19. They sought to learn whether UMass was willing to either help with the costs of educating the graduate students' children or to make the Mark's Meadow building available to the schools for other purposes.

"My sense was that he didn't know any other university where there's a precedent for taxing graduate students, as he put it," Churchill said. "His sense was if the town wants to get revenue from these students, it should build taxable housing. It sounds to me like the agreement would have to be revisited."

School Committee member Catherine Sanderson said that because of budget cuts, "this is a crucial time for the university to step up." UMass benefits from having good public schools in Amherst to attract graduate student-parents, who in turn help the campus thrive by teaching courses and helping to bring in grant-funded research, she said.

"It is patently unfair for UMass to not let us use the Mark's Meadow building for another purpose and to refuse to pay us," she said. "I really hope the chancellor will decide to do the right thing and work out an alternative that benefits both the schools/town and the university." Top-quality public schools are "very, very hard to create, given the dismal fiscal realities we are facing," she said.

There is a lawsuit in New Jersey over whether Rutgers is required to pay to educate children who live in tax-free housing owned by the university, Sanderson said. "It suggests that UMass could face a lawsuit for refusing to assist with any aid," she said.

The economic and cultural benefits to Amherst and the Pioneer Valley from the presence of the university are substantial, said campus spokesman Ed Blaguszewski.

"A 2006 study shows the economic impact of UMass Amherst on the Pioneer Valley at $1.2 billion annually," he said. "In Amherst itself, the economic impact of the university is conservatively estimated at more than $172 million each year."

Amherst benefits from private housing developments such as Puffton Village, where 80 percent of the residents are UMass students but most don't have children in the public schools, he said. Puffton Village pays more than $200,000 annually in property taxes, he said.

UMass will consider renovating the Mark's Meadow building and using it for School of Education programs, Blaguszewski said.

Rhodes, the other School Committee member who met with the chancellor, said he was impressed by Holub's arguments. He said the "squishy" language of the agreement does not obligate UMass to pay anything if Mark's Meadow closes.

"I find it hard to support the position that we're going to tax kids from subsidized housing," he said. He added that after he read the text of the agreement, he concluded that "this thing doesn't hold water."

Shaffer admitted that UMass is also under financial pressure, adding that he doesn't expect any quick agreement.

"The university is not immune to budget shock," he said. "It would be foolish to think their budget issues wouldn't cast a shadow over their abilities in this arena."

Blaguszewski said, "There are no easy choices, as we move ahead to eliminate $10 million from next year's budget."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

What Should U Mass Pay?

There has been a lot of discussion this week, which I'm sure will continue, about what the appropriate contribution should be from U Mass to the town/schools once Marks Meadow is no longer used as an elementary school (because U Mass has always said that they don't need to pay the per pupil costs for the 50ish children who attend Amherst schools but live in tax-free housing since they are providing a "free" building). So, I did some looking for what the precedent is for other universities in terms of payment for educating children who live in tax-free housing, and found a very recent article from New Jersey. It seems like Rutgers worked out a very interesting approach with their local school district, which perhaps could be a model for the type of negotiating Larry Shaffer and the superintendent should do with U Mass.

Piscataway school district, Rutgers reach lawsuit settlement agreement

By JARED KALTWASSER • Staff Writer • April 30, 2009

PISCATAWAY — The township school district will receive an $80,000 credit and preferential treatment from Rutgers University under the terms of a settlement agreement reached between the two entities.

The deal resolves a lawsuit in which the school district challenged the tax-exempt status of Rutgers' graduate student housing in the township. The school district contended that it was unfair for the Rutgers buildings to be tax exempt because many of the Rutgers graduate students who live in the apartments have school-age children who attend the public school district. About 65 children living in the Rutgers graduate housing currently attend Piscataway public schools.

A state tax court upheld the tax-exempt status of the buildings in a ruling last August. The school district, with board member Russell Stoddard acting as the plaintiff, appealed that ruling.

The appeal is now resolved with the agreement, which became effective April 1 and was formally approved April 16 by the Board of Education.

"I think it is a real positive thing for the school community, and to be honest with you I think it's one of the proudest accomplishments of the Board of Education," Superintendent of Schools Robert Copeland said.

Under the one-year deal, which runs through March 31, 2010, the school district can use $80,000 worth of services and facility rentals at Rutgers free of charge. The district anticipates it will use those credits on a variety of items, including holding graduation ceremonies at the Rutgers Athletic Center, using a Rutgers pool for the district's summer camp program and swimming team, and sending staff to professional development activities at Rutgers.

In addition, the agreement sets up a work-study site in the school district, which will allow Rutgers students who qualify for the Federal Work-Study program to work in the school district and be paid by the federal government.

The agreement also calls for the township district to receive what school district officials are calling "most-favored district" status. Essentially, that means the Piscataway School District will get first choice when Rutgers programs or facilities are made available to public or private schools. The agreement does not, however, negate existing contracts between Rutgers and other school districts.

The agreement states that Rutgers will advocate before the governor and state legislature for financial relief for the school district to help cover the cost of the children living in graduate housing.

The agreement also called for Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick to issue a public statement acknowledging the Board of Education's role in the community and ask residents to vote in the April 21 school board election. McCormick did so in a letter to the editor published April 21 in the Home News Tribune.

The agreement calls for Rutgers to supply, free of charge, a head football or basketball coach to speak at a Piscataway Township Education Foundation Event.

"We are pleased that the matter has been resolved amicably without further litigation," said Sandra Lanman, director of public relations at Rutgers.

Attorney David B. Rubin, who represented the school district, said the one-year agreement is an experiment, but it was one with great potential.

"Sometimes you are adversaries with somebody, but then you shake hands and make a deal and an agreement and you move on," he said.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Amherst School Committee Approves Motion to Redistrict

On Tuesday, May 19th, the Amherst School Committee voted unanimously to approve the motion made in March 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. This difficult decision was made after months of budget planning during the ever-worsening state and national fiscal crisis, as well as a two month period spent considering input from the community.

Understandably, this is a challenging and potentially emotional time for our students, staff, families and community. Now that the decision has been made, we must work together to develop a transition plan that best supports our students during the process of closing a school and redistricting. This process must be comprehensive, taking into account a multitude of details, and must be clearly articulated in an action plan.

The District will immediately begin developing this detailed plan to support the process of major restructuring. This includes formation of an oversight committee to oversee the work as a whole, as well as establishing multiple, single-purpose teams to address the following:

  • Redistricting—This team will work with consultants to establish new school zones within the next few months. The consultant(s) will analyze and finalize our preliminary work on redistricting to ensure it is educationally sound and equitable.
  • Student Support—This team of district and school leaders will create a plan to support the educational and emotional needs of all students who are making school transitions.
  • Staff Support—This team will develop a district plan to redesign building staffing to minimize disruption to transitioning students and to thoughtfully reassign Mark’s Meadow staff.
  • Moving—This team will develop and implement a staged, year-long plan for relocating educational materials, furniture and fixtures to other district locations.
  • Communication—This team will ensure that students, families and the broader community are kept up-to-date on progress throughout the redistricting process.

Community members are needed in many capacities to assist the district with this work. Those who are interested in helping with this process should contact Debbie Westmoreland, Assistant to the Superintendent, at or by phone at 362-1823.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Budget woes force closure of Amherst's Mark's Meadow Elementary School

Budget woes force closure of Amherst's Mark's Meadow Elementary School
by The Republican Newsroom
Tuesday May 19, 2009, 10:56 PM

AMHERST - Mark's Meadow Elementary School will close at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, a victim of the state's budget crisis.

In an emotional vote before more than 70 parents, teachers, school and town officials the school committee voted 5 to 0 to close the school Tuesday night.The closing was proposed by committee member Catherine A. Sanderson in March. Since then the committee has held five public forums to receive comments and questions, heard from parents and others at committee meetings and received dozens and dozens of e-mails.

Because of a reduction in state aid, the committee needs to trim $1.5 million from its budget, with the closing expected to save a net amount $532,000 after accounting for initial costs to move and pack; and $673,000 after that. The Finance Committee has told school officials it will allow the use of reserves for fiscal 2010 to help cover the gap until the school is closed.

Chairman Andrew M. Churchill his voice breaking said, "my kids went to Mark's Meadow, which makes this difficult." But he said "we need to get this under control."

State aid is 30 percent of the budget, but it hasn't kept pace with budget needs. Every year, the committee has to cut more and more from the schools. Committee members believed that if they didn't close this school, more difficult cuts would happen at all four elementary schools.

"We need to make structural changes to save money," he said.

"Any way you look at (it) schools are going to be different," he said.

Churchill pointed out that enrollment has dropped from 1,800 to 1,300 over the past 15 years and there is an unconscionable concentration of poverty in one school. Students from the four schools will be redistricted in such a way that there will be a similar proportion of children on free and reduced lunch in each of the schools.

"This is patently unfair to Mark's Meadow. It's a wonderful school. It's a successful school." But it is the smallest school and logically he said it's easier for the other three schools to absorb the students from the school.

The committee did not take comments on the closing at Tuesday's meeting because it held so many public forums. But resident James B. Oldham shouted that he wanted to be heard and complained the public forums were opportunities to sell the change and not real forums.

Sanderson said earlier Tuesday that closing the school is the best option. People don't want an override, they don't want to give up art or music and don't want class sizes to increase.

"It's not like a tooth fairy is going to drop a bunch of money. We have to live within our means."

Churchill said that incoming superintendent Alberto Rodriguez has been in the district the last four days and was part of the discussion. "He sees this as a piece of a broader strategic discussion."

During a three-minute break after the vote, people huddled in small groups talking. Principal Nicholas W. Yaffe said the closing is sad. "I'm not convinced they are going to save as much money (as they think.)"

The school, he said, provides "a sense of community" to a vulnerable population.

"It's not something that can be replaced easily." Many students at the school are children of the University of Massachusetts international students.

Unanimous Vote to Close Marks Meadow

The School Committee voted tonight 5 to 0 on my motion of March 17 to close Marks Meadow at the end of NEXT school year and to redistrict into three elementary schools with proportionate numbers of kids on free and reduced lunch. I'll post the longer version of the meeting summary tomorrow -- but I know people will check my blog to find out the outcome of the vote, so I'm posting this quick note now.

It's been a long few days, but I just want to add three quick things:

First, I want to say that I'm really sorry to those who feel the closing of Marks Meadow will be detrimental for their child/family. I know that closing a school is always emotional, and I know that Marks Meadow has been a high performing and very successful school. I am sorry that the combination of a very tough budget time (this year and for the foreseeable future) and declining/stable enrollments have led this to seem like the best of many bad options that we faced. I do feel this was the right decision for maintaining education in Amherst for all kids, but I know this decision will negatively impact some kids/families, and for that, I am really sorry.

Second, I want to let any families (at Marks Meadow and elsewhere) know that I want to do everything in my power to make the move to three schools work as well as possible. I want to take time and care to redistrict well, I want to make sure kids move with friends, and I want to make sure we focus on creating three truly excellent schools. If there are things I should know about how your school works well, what you like, what your kid needs, etc., I'd like to hear them anytime. I hope we can spend the next few months working on creating three schools that work for all kids, and I hope the community can rally around building a truly excellent school system -- one in which we recognize that the core of our schools is the caring and dedicated staff, and not a particular building. I hope Marks Meadow families in particular will reach out to me to let me know what worked so well about their school, and what we need to do to bring this feeling and strength and success to all of our schools.

Finally, I want to thank all of those who have supported me over the last few months -- despite how it may appear to some who don't know me, receiving pretty unrelenting criticism at meetings and in the press and on my blog has been really, really tough. This is not an easy decision for me, and it was far harder in the face of the highly personal attacks I received, and continue to receive. I received a lot of support from friends, of course, but I also received a lot of support from people who don't know me at all -- and contacted me privately to thank me for having the courage to take this stance. I appreciated that a lot. I also want to really thank the Marks Meadow families who have sought me out and have supported me in this decision, and/or have accepted that I needed to make this decision even when they wished I had not made it, and/or have introduced yourselves and just made friendly connections (even after tonight's meeting!). Thanks to you all especially -- these gestures were and are tremendously meaningful to me, and I appreciate them more than you know.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Amherst panel offers twist in school closing

Hampshire Gazette story
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

AMHERST - The proposal to close Mark's Meadow Elementary School and send its 194 students elsewhere, which the School Committee plans to vote on tonight, has a new financial twist. The committee is asking the University of Massachusetts, which owns the building, to continue to make it available to the school district, or to reimburse the town for the cost of educating the Mark's Meadow children who live in tax-exempt UMass housing.

Closing Mark's Meadow in the fall of 2010 would save the school district an estimated $673,000 a year. A motion before the Amherst School Committee in March to close Mark's Meadow was revised Monday and is now contingent on UMass agreeing to one of these options. Tonight's School Committee meeting will start at 7 p.m. in the high school library, with the Mark's Meadow motion the first item on the agenda. Committee members will debate it and vote, and there will be an opportunity for public comment afterward, said Andrew Churchill, the committee chairman.

"The agreement between the university and the schools involves Mark's Meadow and negotiations on how that would change haven't been completed," he said. "It seems like an important point to clarify before we say we're going to vacate the school."

Town officials have made the point in the past that about 50 children a year attend the town's elementary schools while living in UMass housing that's exempt from local property taxes. An annual payment in lieu of taxes to cover these costs to Amherst would be between $675,000 and $725,000. UMass has responded to this argument by pointing out that it makes Mark's Meadow available to the town at no cost, Churchill said. UMass officials declined to comment for this story.

If UMass allowed the school district to continue using the building, the two alternative high school programs in South Amherst and East Amherst might move there, said School Committee member Catherine Sanderson. Students in these programs have had difficulty fitting in at the high school. "This would be an ideal solution," Sanderson said. "It would be better for those kids to be in one building rather than two, and it would be wonderful to have it on a college campus so they could see the university as their future."

If a regionalized kindergarten through grade 12 district decided to include the sixth grade in the Regional Middle School, it could accommodate the extra students by moving the superintendent's office, and those of other administrators, to one of those vacated buildings, she said. "This is an opportunity for the university to collaborate with our schools," Sanderson said. UMass could facilitate its recruiting of faculty and graduate students by having strong elementary schools with small class sizes, she said.

There are 1,327 children in Amherst's four elementary schools, down from about 1,800 just 15 years ago. Mark's Meadow is the smallest school.

While the School Committee estimates the annual savings from closing Mark's Meadow at $673,000, the first-year savings would be $125,000 lower because of moving expenses. These savings would not have an impact on the debate over the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, because they would take place in the following year.

But Mark's Meadow could still be an issue, said Churchill. "We have this structural gap, with costs rising faster than our revenues, and to put a stake in the ground to make a structural change to reduce our costs in the future might give the town more confidence in using reserves to get us through next year," he said.

The children attending Mark's Meadow could be accommodated at the other elementary schools, according to proponents of the closure plan. A redrawing of the geographical lines showing which children go to which schools could help equalize the percentage receiving free or reduced-price lunches, proponents say.

But parents of Mark's Meadow students have spoke out in defense of saving the school at a series of forums on the issue. They have maintained that Amherst needs a plan to deal with future growth, and any new school would cost millions of dollars. They have said that closing Mark's Meadow would fill only about a quarter of the shortfall in the elementary budget for next year, and that the small class sizes offered at Mark's Meadow result in more successful students.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why I'm Going to Vote "YES" on the Motion to Close Marks Meadow

The vote about whether to close Marks Meadow at the end of the 2009-2010 school year is scheduled for tomorrow night (Tuesday, May 19th), and given that this is my motion (made at the March 17th meeting), I feel I owe it to the community to explain why I plan BARRING ANY UPDATED INFORMATION THAT I RECEIVE IN THE NEXT 24 HOURS to vote to close Marks Meadow. I've already expressed how I came to this conclusion many times in this blog -- so I'm not going to repeat all the reasons why I think it is a tough option for some in our community (and clearly closing a school and redistricting kids throughout Amherst is emotional for virtually all parents/kids/teachers/staff -- change is just hard, and few of us relish the thought). But because there were four columns in last week's Bulletin (most written by parents in the MM district, although not all were identified as such) describing reasons NOT to close MM, I'm going to respond to the points addressed in each of these pieces to share my thinking about how/why the issues raised in these Op Eds just didn't change my mind. But I'm still listening ... and I truly welcome any ideas that people want to send to me today or tomorrow in terms of how else we could save $700,000 a year. So, seriously, if you want to save MM, send me your ideas of how we can achieve this cost savings in a way that preserves the Amherst education to the best of our ability for all kids.

Unsustainable Amherst

Sustainability cannot be measured simply in fiscal terms. While budgets must balance, the long-term strength of our institutions depends on our ability to preserve key resources through the toughest times. The proposal to close Mark's Meadow School fails this test and should be voted down or postponed when the School Committee meets on May 19.

Since Mark's Meadow wouldn't close until FY2011, nothing decided on May 19 will affect the budget currently under consideration. There is time, and a need, to carefully consider the long-term implications of the proposal in a way that has not yet happened.

The projected savings are small, about $600,000, less than 3 percent of the budget. Although significant, they won't prevent painful cuts. Much of the anticipated savings can be found without giving up a school: sharing assistant principals, guidance counselors, librarians and various "specials" teachers between schools would allow similar staff reductions yet would be easier to reverse. The greater efficiencies in distributing students among classrooms could also be achieved with four schools if the sixth grade were moved to the middle school as the School Committee is currently considering.

The full cost of closing Mark's Meadow has not been adequately explored. Most striking is the lost opportunity to collaborate with UMass. One frequent comment during the comprehensive planning process was that we need to address town needs by drawing on the university and colleges. Rather than demanding funds from a cash-strapped university, we could be asking how we could recover the mutual benefits once provided by our laboratory school.

No one knows whether the district will be able to keep the building for another use, nor is there any long-term plan for when shifting demographics or aging infrastructure again require an additional school. Meanwhile, as we seek ways to make Amherst walkable, the plan makes families more dependent on cars.

Closing Mark's Meadow has been tied to the need to redistrict for a more equitable mix of income levels in the schools. Unfortunately, the rush to close the school risks poorly planned redistricting. My concern, hinted at in initial redistricting maps, is that families living in apartment complexes will be disproportionally targeted for switching districts because they provide an easily identified and bused population. The children intended to benefit may become those most negatively impacted.

Why are we considering closing Mark's Meadow? Part of the answer lies in the School Committee's belief that it is OK for the Superintendent's salary to jump 17 percent in this year of crisis, and almost 50 percent since 2003, while growth in regular education spending (classroom teachers) rises less than 1 percent annually. The net gain in the superintendent's salary in just seven years would pay for the middle school librarian or a classroom teacher.

This is not about Dr. Rodriguez nor is the issue limited to the schools. The problem is the unsustainable idea that we should pay more than we can afford for outside experts even when that requires running down the very services they are paid to direct. The argument that we have to accept the "realities of the labor market" is based on the failed notion that only an elite management class has the brains and skills to handle our complex institutions. The result is a widening gap in pay levels and a two-tiered system where budget "realities" justify cuts to teachers, aides, librarians and lunch ladies but are ignored when hiring administrators.

What's the sustainable alternative? Michael Greenebaum suggests filling future openings with career-starters to reduce costs while promoting innovation. I'd encourage hiring from within the system and nurturing talent committed to our community. Besides costing more, people attracted by big salaries are easily lured away. We need a less hierarchical management model where no one individual carries such a large burden or high price tag. Such changes would not only save money short term but contribute to a more collaborative, community connected, and truly sustainable approach to education in Amherst.
Jim Oldham is a precinct 5 Town Meeting member and a parent of students at Wildwood and ARHS.

Catherine's comments: First, although the school wouldn't close for a year, a tremendous amount would need to occur to carry this closing out with minimal impact to kids. New district lines would have to be drawn (and this would need of course to be done very carefully -- and for the record, all of the plans move MANY kids -- not just those in apartments by any means). Staff/teachers would have to be moved. Kids/families would have to have time to visit and get to know their new schools. This all takes time, and I think a vote on May 19th would give the administration time to accomplish all of what needs to occur much better than a vote sometime next year (in which surely, according to Mr. Oldham, redistricting plans would be that much more rushed). There is also a proposal right now from the Finance Committee suggesting that the use of reserves will be considered ONLY if there is consensus for a specific plan (not just the discussion and studying of a plan) to achieve greater cost efficiencies (so voting to close a school on May 19th could indeed help this year's budget as well). Second, although Mr. Oldham suggests $600,000 is a "very small amount" (and smaller than the $671,000 that is actually projected), this is a HUGE amount to cut in a budget of about $20 million. And although he is correct that we could cut the same amount in other ways (sharing guidance counselors, specials, librarians, assistant principals), you can't achieve these cost savings without impacting services (so, one librarian would serve twice as many kids, as would one art teacher, one guidance counselor, etc.). And the savings can NOT be achieved (even if you get rid of all assistant principals) unless you also impact class size. That is the reality. Third, I'm in favor of moving 6th grade to the MS ... but if/when we do that, we also have to pay to educate those kids, which would mean covering part of the MS staff salary (e.g., principals, art, music, librarian, guidance, custodians, etc.). That achieves cost savings by reducing the number of classes needed, but also has more administrative costs, so this actually leads to higher costs overall for our elementary school budget. Plus, if we move the 6th grade, thereby reducing the elementary school enrollment to 1100 kids (needing about 54 classrooms), why in the world would we need four schools -- there would be literally over 15 classrooms sitting empty! Fourth, having a year to plan the transition would indeed give us a chance to explore how U Mass wants to be involved -- whether they would let us use the space for our two alternative high schools (the interim superintendent's preference) or whether they would pay us an annual sum to educate the kids in U Mass housing who attend our schools. Either seems like a great win to me compared to keeping open a school we don't need! Fifth, everyone knows I didn't vote for the new superintendent's salary ... but let's say we were paying the new superintendent EXACTLY what we paid Dr. Hochman ... that would have saved us a total of $30,000 ... split between Amherst and Regional (a sum much, much less than what is saved by closing MM), so it seems silly to bring that up as a reason to keep MM open. I'm fine to hire from within, and seek less experienced people -- but those two plans aren't going to save $700,000 a year. On the other hand, a big part of the savings of closing MM is achieved by reducing the administrative staff (e.g., principal, secretaries, librarian, nurse) -- which I think is exactly what Mr. Oldham has repeated pushed for in his prior columns (reducing administrator costs and keeping education focused on classroom teachers -- which the close MM plan does).

Chart a long-term course for schools

On May 19, the School Committee will decide whether to close Mark's Meadow school. As Mark's Meadow parents, we know this school provides an outstanding educational environment. We believe that a decision to close it should only be made based on solid, long-term planning. Although the process around this question may already seem drawn out, there has in fact been little substantive discussion by the School Committee and few answers provided to concerns raised at the various meetings and forums.

One major concern is space. Do the three other schools have enough of it to meet the needs of our school population, including a reasonable contingency for possible future increases? There is cause for great concern. A 2007 report, commissioned by the schools, concluded that all four elementary schools are already overcrowded by modern standards. While the detailed numbers in this report can be argued with, its main observation is sound. The scope of educational services has increased dramatically, outstripping the buildings' capacities. "Programs or services," it states, "have moved into regular classrooms, storage areas, alcoves and wherever else space could be carved out."

The three-school plan calls for 64 classrooms, five more than currently used at these schools. No mention is made of where the educational services now taking place in these five classrooms will happen, even as the programs are expanded to serve 17 percent more students from the closure of Mark's Meadow. Perhaps more closets are available.

A responsible plan should also allow for possible future growth. For example, 27 affordable apartments will soon be built on Longmeadow Drive. Moreover, Amherst's 2008 draft master plan proposes a range of measures to increase affordable and moderately priced housing. More such housing means more kids in school. Planning for the schools should be consistent with our town's deeply held and clearly stated aspirations.

Although owned by UMass, Mark's Meadow represents a major fiscal asset to the town. If it is closed, UMass will reclaim the building. If a new school is subsequently needed, it will cost millions of dollars, assuming a suitable site can be found. The town pays no rent or utilities for Mark's Meadow, a significant in-kind contribution from UMass.

In January, the former superintendents recommended against closing Mark's Meadow, stating that the result would be "large, overcrowded elementary schools." The option is now under serious consideration only because of the anticipated, major budget shortfall. Due to the global recession, both state aid and growth in town tax revenue are down substantially. Closing Mark's Meadow would fill about one quarter of the possible $2.1 million gap in the FY2010 elementary school budget.

We agree with the former superintendents that this budget shortfall should be met through reversible cuts. School administrators have produced a list of careful cuts, now revised many times in response to community input. Many of these cuts are painful. However, they can be undone once the economy recovers.

Hard times call for creative thinking and flexibility. We offer the following additional possibilities: Share some positions between schools. Cutting the number of principals and assistant principals by one each would save about $170,000. Sharing one secretarial and one custodial position would save about $60,000. Having students eat lunch in their classrooms as they do at Mark's Meadow would save about $75,000 on cafeteria aides. Eliminate computer instruction for a few years. It is not a core subject. Reduce energy usage by turning off unnecessary lights. Utilities are one of the fastest growing parts of the budget.

Currently Amherst pays $150,000 for 30 students leaving through school choice, but doesn't allow students to "choice in" to our elementary schools. This policy should be changed to enhance revenue. Such cuts and new revenue can match the projected saving from closing Mark's Meadow.

A sensible, long-term plan is to purchase two more modular classrooms for Mark's Meadow, giving it a total of two classrooms per grade. Its enrollment could then be expanded, reducing enrollment at the other schools.

Eventually the economy will improve. We should get creative about economizing and making reversible cuts, rather than charting a long-term course that leaves our schools overcrowded and poorly equipped for the future.

Alyssa Melnick is a project manager in construction for MMB Associates. David Kastor and Jennie Traschen are married physics professors at UMass. All have children in the fifth grade at Mark's Meadow who would not be affected by a 2010 closing of the school.

Catherine's comments: First, the NESDEC report was done prior to the start of the Chinese Charter School, and hence their enrollment projections were high (thus, we have more space than they anticipated we would). The superintendent and her staff have computed classroom projections, and believe we will have no trouble fitting the kids in three buildings. They also note, wisely, that if projections are higher than anticipated, we could move the 6th grade to the MS (an educationally sound move) -- which would eliminate about 200 kids from the elementary schools (MORE than currently are in Marks Meadow). Second, there are now empty classrooms in ALL of the schools. Crocker Farm is currently using 16 classrooms, but there are 19 classrooms in that schools. Similarly, both WW and FR have empty classrooms right now. That is how we are able to handle all the kids from MM in our existing three schools. Third, if projections are lower than actual enrollment, we can move our roughly 200 6th graders to the MS (again, this is more than the total enrollment in MM). That school was designed for three grades, and could easily handle our 6th graders (a move which also makes sense educationally). We could also move the portables to one of the other schools -- none of the plans now are to even use those two classrooms, which could each house 25 kids (again, adding space for another 50 students if projections turn out to be inaccurate). Fourth, the superintendent has clearly stated her preference is to continue using MM to house the two alternative high schools (and thus get the free utilities). If U Mass prefers to reclaim the building, we could then negotiate a fee from U Mass to cover our expenses in educating the kids living in U Mass housing. Both of these represent real cost savings to our district. Fifth, although the authors describe a few cost saving measures (representing about half of what is saved through closing MM), these measures seem really problematic to me. The authors propose that kids at MM (180 of them) will have ONE principal, as will the kids at the other three schools (with class sizes at WW and FR more than double that in MM) -- surely the principals at the large schools will have great difficulty spending time in classrooms, getting to know kids, mentoring teachers, handling emergencies, etc. without an assistant principal, whereas the kids at MM will experience no difference at all since they don't currently have an assistant principal! Firing all of the lunch ladies -- among the lowest paid workers in our district -- to save MM just seems really wrong to me, as does eliminating computer instruction for ALL kids in ALL schools (which probably is much more of a hit for low income kids than those who are the children of professionals and graduate students at U Mass and presumably are more likely to have computer access at home). And even if you thought these reversible measures DID make sense ... you are only half-way there (so, come up with another $300,000 -- which is going to mean larger class sizes). Sixth, School Choice doesn’t solve it — if we take in 60 kids a year, we make $300,000 (that of course assumes that we could find 60 kids in the exact right grades who want to enter our district). But we have to hire three more teachers, so we make $150,000. This is, once again, a LOT less than $700,000. And finally, we are NOT using the 2 modulars bought (for $380,000) for MM right now, nor do we need them for next year. So I guess I'm really not sure why they suggest the answer to solving our budget problem is to buy two more?!? The issue is NOT classroom space ... we have EMPTY classrooms right now. The issue is that we don't have money to pay teachers to be in those classrooms. Last point -- the authors note that they are the parents of 5th graders, so they won't be impacted if MM closes ... but the more important point to me is that they ALSO won't be impacted by the devastating cuts that all schools will experience IF we keep MM open.

Don't kill Mark's Meadow Elementary School

Much has been said about the attempt to close Mark's Meadow Elementary School in Amherst as being for the greater benefit of the whole community. I just can't see it that way. Our school system is a family, and killing off a family member should not be the typical human response to hard times that threaten survival. Here's a straightforward analogy.

Imagine a hardscrabble farm family during the dust bowl/depression years deciding to kill one of their four children to enable them to weather the tough times they are facing. This child they decided to kill was healthy and thriving. It might have been their smallest child, but it wasn't sickly. Each of the family's children had special skills and characteristics, and this child was no exception. (Had the child been sickly or frail, it would still have been an unthinkable crime, a murder, for the family to kill this child.) Yes, tough times require tough choices, but our human morals and ethics create some boundaries which, when we cross, we give up some of our humanity.)

What would have really happened is that everyone in the family sacrificed so that all might survive. They would divide the food into smaller portions, give up things they could do without, maybe even send the family dogs and cats off to fend for themselves, but they would stop short of sacrificing a member of the family. They would band together. Why aren't we doing the same?

Here in Amherst, people are trying to drive people apart, with a specious "sacrifice for the greater good" argument. Let's not buy into this Spartan, Lord-of-the-Flies mentality. Let's face this financial crisis with our family, our elementary school system, intact.

Things look pretty bleak, budget-wise. At this point, even the closing of Mark's Meadow would not prevent other drastic cuts from happening. Some argue that even if it doesn't really keep things at status quo, why not save every penny we can by closing the school. This is a callous and cavalier attitude, and one that has no place in a family. It's like the farm family saying, "Well, we can't really be sure that killing one child will truly insure the survival of all the others, but let's just kill them off anyway so we can each have a little bit more to eat than we would have with all of us alive."

I have been a musician all my life. I would hate to see any of the great things that characterize Amherst schools, like music, disappear. Yet I do know that such programs can be put on hiatus and later restored. (They could possibly be sustained with alternate funding sources, as well.) You can't bring the dead back to life. Kill Mark's Meadow, and you lose it forever. Don't side with those who would murder a family member to survive. Join hands with your whole Amherst family and together we will all survive this crisis.

A great sage once said, "In a place where no one (else) is acting like a human being, strive to act like a human being." Let's all strive to act like human beings, not merciless Spartans.
Adrian A. Durlester lives in Amherst.

Catherine's response: I have only two reactions to this. First, I think it is really a shame to talk about this in terms of "killing a member of your family." ALL the schools are excellent -- great teachers, caring staff, involved parents. That is why I do not care where my own children go -- because I know they will be OK in any of the buildings. If we close the school, the families, the kids, the teachers, and the staff would work in other buildings (a better analogy -- during times of really tight budgets, do you consider selling your "vacation house" that you don't really need because the whole family can live in your "regular house" but you do still like to have the vacation house for weekends and summers? Ummm, yes, I think you should consider selling the summer house). I don't believe for a second that what makes your school so good is the physical space -- it is the PEOPLE. And those PEOPLE could and would be equally excellent in another building because they care about building a community and educating kids. We are going to continue to educate the kids who now go to Marks Meadow -- they will just be educated in ANOTHER building. Second, although you say we could find "alternative funding" for music, art, etc., there are three major problems with this: first, you can't just find grants to pay for all in school activities (e.g., music, art, etc.); second, if these programs "go away for awhile," the kids who go through elementary school during this time would not have them -- we can't make it up to them in a few years when they are able to return; and third, even if you get rid of ALL the art and music -- you still don't save $700,000 a year ... meaning other cuts still need to occur (e.g., fewer intervention teachers, larger class sizes). At what price do you think it is worth it to keep MM open? All kids in all schools having larger classes, no art/music/PE, and no intervention teachers? Is that really a trade you think is good for all kids?

What is best for the children? Small schools

The considerations presented here are based on scholarly research, and attempt to address the basic question: What is best for the children? All other considerations, like what is best for the Amherst taxpayers or what are the desires of some groups of citizens, are less quantifiable in terms of scientific research, and will not be discussed in this commentary.

Research shows that small schools perform better than large schools, as quantified by a number of metrics (see below). How small is small? Although numbers vary from research to research, a reference number is less than 300 to 400 students. Small schools should not be confused with small classes, which are sometimes correlated. Most statistics quoted here refer to small schools, not necessarily small classes.

If Mark's Meadow were to be closed, only Crocker Farm would remain below 400 students, while Wildwood and Fort River would receive more than 400 (and, in one re-districting scenario, more than 500 for Wildwood) students.

Is this matter of concern? There is a well documented gap in performance between students coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and students who are not. This has been shown by a variety of research across the U.S., by comparing standardized test results between free and reduced lunch students and other students. Typical differences in (math and reading) test results are around 20 percent, with free and reduced lunch students performing less well than the other students.

However, these differences are smaller in small schools relative to large schools, and by eighth grade economic differences all but disappear as a factor in student performance for students from small schools, studies show.

Other rigorous studies also show that small schools are positively correlated with: greater teacher commitment, better student attendance, greater sense of community and belonging among students. In a study of 264 elementary schools sized 150 to 1950, researchers found that in schools with less than 400 students: 1) teachers take more responsibility for the students' academic and social development, and 2) this translates into higher student achievement. Student tardiness and absenteeism are lower by at least 10 to 30 percent in schools with less than 300 students relative to students in larger schools. The greater sense of belonging that students feel in small schools, in addition, leads to: lower rate of behavioral problems, and higher participation in extracurricular activities.

Extracurricular participation not only translates into a better educational experience, other studies show, but also leads to future greater involvement through high school, and greater volunteerism and participation in society as adults.

Mark's Meadow is a success story of how well small schools work and serve their communities. It is a small school (slightly less than 200 students), although it does not have small classes; most classes are similar in size to or larger than those of the other three elementary schools in Amherst. Mark's Meadow has 38 percent free and reduced lunch students, significantly larger than both Wildwood and Fort River schools.

Yet, the MCAS scores of Mark's Meadow school for at least the past three years (2006-2008) have been typically higher than those of the other elementary schools in the district. The largest difference is at the highest schools grades (fifth and sixth), which support the findings of the scholarly research quoted so far. In 2008, Mark's Meadow was number one in the state in sixth-grade English MCAS, and number two for mathematics; this is a testament to the efficacy of small schools.

Bottom line: cost efficiency does not equal cost effectiveness in education. Closing Mark's Meadow hardly seems the correct direction to take, if we want to be serious about stronger curricula.

Daniela Calzetti is a professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Catherine's response: First, the vast majority of research cited in this piece is messy -- small schools are often rural and surburban schools, and large schools are often urban schools -- so it is important not to mistake correlational for causation. Second, the majority of research cited in this article focused on schools below 400 kids. If we move the 6th grade to the MS, all three of our schools would be below 400 (we'd have 1100 kids to educate in three buildings). I'd be glad to push for this as a goal, which I assume Dr. Calzetti would eagerly support -- then we'd have three schools, but all would be within what the research shows is a good size. Third, there is also well-documented research showing that small class sizes matter, especially for lower income kids and especially in the early grades. We've heard from the superintendent that keeping MM open will result in larger class sizes, which seems especially problematic for more disadvantaged kids, so one would have to careful consider whether having ONE small school with regular class sizes for some kids (13%) is more important than smaller classes in all the schools for all kids (100%). Most of the disadvantaged kids in our district are not, in fact, at MM -- in terms of overall number of kids on free/reduced lunch, both FR and CF (and maybe even WW -- I'm not sure about their overall number of low income kids) have many more kids on free/reduced lunch than MM (so again, is it fair that only the low income kids at MM get to experience the small school environment)? Fourth, the parents of MM children are often affiliated with U Mass, so it is not surprising that these children (sons/daughters of U Mass professors, administrators, graduate students) are achieving well on the MCAS - they are very likely to be in families in which education is very prized, and would do very well if in another building in Amherst. Again, let's not mistake correlation for causation. One final thing -- let's say for the sake of debate, that I agreed that smaller schools were better for kids, based on scholarly research. Then it seems like the only fair thing for all kids in Amherst is to have a lottery in which a lucky 13% of the population gets to benefit from this superior learning environment, right? I mean, it really doesn't seem fair that kids of U Mass faculty and graduate students get to have a great school that leads to great MCAS scores when the other kids in Amherst go to schools that produce less good outcomes. So, I would hope that Dr. Calzetti and other current MM parents would come forward and ask the SC to make sure that if we keep MM open, MM turns into a lottery system so that all kids in Amherst can have at least a chance to experience this opportunity. Such a proposal, to redistrict Amherst into three districts, but allow a lucky 13% of each district to attend MM, would get some serious attention by all members of the SC and the administration, and I think would hep convince the community that desires to keep MM open, even given the costs it would entail to all schools, is really for the benefit of ALL kids in our community and NOT just those who happen to currently attend MM. I would welcome such a proposal by a group of MM parents on Tuesday night.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

One Approach to Reducing the Achievement Gap

There has been a lot of discussion on my blog over the last week about how to reduce the achievement gap -- and whether setting high expectations is at all effective (or completely inadequate?) and whether providing additional support to disadvantaged students is the best (only?) approach. As anyone reading my blog by now knows, I want data ... I don't want anecdote or intuition, and as a social psychologist, I've read a lot of research showing that sometimes programs that "seem" like they would be effective can backfire (e.g., early work on programs specifically designed to help support students of color succeed in college revealed that these programs were stigmatizing, by giving students the message that they needed remedial help to succeed -- and thus such approaches were found to be not particularly effective, and in some cases, even harmful). So, I'm always eager to learn about programs that have been proven to work (as in, with DATA) -- and here is one (just published in April 2009 in Science) about a program that seems quite effective in raising achievement in African American students -- in a way that some might find surprising.

Writing About Values Boosts Grades, Shrinks Achievement Gap

A short self-affirming writing exercise that took only about an hour of class time boosted struggling black junior high school students' grade point average by nearly half a point over two years, according to a new study. The surprising result, published this week in the journal Science, suggests a new way to combat the persistent achievement gap in grades, test scores and graduation rates between black and white students, according to the researchers. "The intervention is relatively brief, but it's powerful in a lot of ways," says Geoffrey Cohen, a social psychologist at the University of Colorado.

Cohen and his colleagues followed more than 400 seventh-grade students at a suburban public school in Connecticut. The school's population was about half black and half white. In a series of 15-minute writing assignments, the researchers asked half of the students to complete a self-affirming exercise: to choose from a list of values -- such as relationships with friends and family, athletic ability and smarts -- and write about the value most important to them. A control group was asked to write about why the values they ranked as unimportant might matter to someone else.

In early results published in 2006, the researchers found that the exercise reduced the achievement gap between black and white students by 40 percent over one term. Researchers said the exercises benefitted low-achieving black students the most, while they appeared to have little impact on white students or already high-achieving black students.

In the new study, Cohen and his colleagues tracked the students until the end of eighth grade. They found that the benefits for low-achieving black students continued for the entire two years -- students who completed the self-affirmation exercise raised their GPA by four-tenths of a point compared to the control group. They were also less likely to need remedial work or to repeat a grade -- 5 percent as compared to 18 percent of the control group. The intervention continued to have no effect on white students and high-achieving black students.

That such a small intervention could have such big effects "surprises most people to the point that some people I know didn't believe the initial finding," says psychologist Richard Nisbett, an expert on achievement and intelligence at the University of Michigan. "But what makes it believable to me is that, as a social psychologist, I've learned that 'dinky' things sometimes have big effects."

The exercise is based on a tenet of psychological research called stereotype threat. Previous studies have found that when people are reminded of negative stereotypes about their racial, gender or other group, the stress of worrying about confirming those stereotypes can negatively affect their performance. The self-affirmation exercise, by reminding students about what is really important to them, could help reduce that stress, the researchers suggest.

And by timing the intervention to occur at a crucial period such as the beginning of middle school, Cohen says, the benefits could compound. "Performance is recursive," he says. "If you start off at something and you're stressed and do badly, then that makes you do worse the next time. And that seems to happen a lot in middle school, where you see this downward spiral [...] By just tweaking [the students] a bit you could set them on a totally different trajectory."

But Cohen added the intervention is not a panacea to solve all students' educational woes. "We have no illusions that this is a silver bullet," he says, "our philosophy is that the more positive forces in a child's life, the better. That includes good teachers, good homes [...] and then also psychological interventions."

He also says that there is much work to be done before the exercise can be scaled up for use in more schools. For example, the researchers want to study how the intervention would work in more racially homogenous schools, and whether it would matter if teachers knew the purpose of the exercise.

The researchers also want to better understand how, precisely, the intervention works, and what it changes about the students' academic experience. "I think that if we could answer those kinds of questions the findings would be less mysterious, because we would know what the engines are in the school that make this intervention take off," says Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, a psychologist at Columbia University and a co-author of the study.

But Purdie-Vaughns says that as a black parent, as well as a researcher, she sees the research as crucial. "As the parent of an African-American child, I would consider giving my child this worksheet before the first day of class," she says.

---- By Lea Winerman, Online NewsHour With Jim Lehrer

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Regional Meeting, May 12, 2009

This was a REALLY long meeting in which a lot happened, so I am going to be as brief as I can be to get the update out.

First, we heard public comment/announcements. Several Middle School students presented science fair projects that were going to a statewide competition, and Tom Flanagan (7th grade computer teacher) talked about a "common assessment" that he has been working on this year (and offered to come present it to the SC, which I think sounds like a good idea).

Second, Maria made a number of announcements. These included that she has recommended the adoption of Impact 1 math series for the 6th grade (which will feed into the Impact 2 and 3 books now used in the MS, which I think is GREAT), that there is more bad budget news (presented by Rob), and we need to add a School Committee member to the search committee for the new assistant superintendent (Kathleen and I will both serve -- originally there was only going to be a single volunteer, but she and I were both interested, so Maria suggested we both serve). Rob also created a line by line budget for the MS/HS, which he distributed (and I think will be very helpful). I asked a question about middle school music, based on what I've heard from parents -- and learned that MS orchestra and band will go from EVERY day to every other day (as part of budget cuts) and that some new type of "music elective" will be added (to be determined). Maria also announced that Dr. Rodriguez will be visiting next week.

Third, we discussed the comprehensive review of the MS that I had proposed last week. The good news is that a survey of the MS will be done, as will surveys of all the schools (which I think is great). I am also very impressed that Maria talked to Dr. Rodriguez about whether having this type of information would be useful on his arrival, and he felt it would be. So, let me be the first to thank Dr. Rodriguez for interest in data! We then heard from a number of MS teachers who felt that their school should not be singled out for attack and criticism, and that when such concerns appear in the press and on blogs (!), it is demoralizing.

So, I have a few thoughts I'd like to share about this (I tried to share these at the meeting, but Marianne did not call on me). First, I assumed that staff time was short/limited, and that a motion asking for ALL schools to be surveyed would have been overwhelming -- and hence I focused only on one. Second, I do think this is a critical time for the MS in a way that it is NOT for the other schools -- because we are having regionalization discussions that could lead to 6th grade moving to the MS (and there are no other such major plans that impact any of the other schools, making this one more urgent). Third, I do hear far, far more complaints from parents about the MS than I do about other schools -- and as an elected official, I don't think it is my job to just say "everything is great in our schools." I think that has occurred for a long time by members of the School Committee, and I actually think that erodes trust in the school leadership. My decision to call for a survey was to figure out whether what I'm hearing is in fact accurate -- maybe it is NOT (perhaps it is just a small number of unhappy parents/kids, but most are really happy!). Again, the best way to learn this is to actually survey the parents and kids about their experience.

It is clear to me that the MS teachers felt threatened by the idea of the survey, and I'm sorry about that. But the reality is, I work for the community, and the only way in which the community has input in the schools is by electing SC members ... so, if I keep hearing things that concern me, it would be irresponsible for me not to try to figure out if there is in fact a concern.

I guess I'm also a bit puzzled about why there is so much concern about an evaluation. Here is a highly personal example -- the president of Amherst College asked last summer for the psychology department (of which I was then chair!) to be evaluated by professors at other schools. So, literally yesterday and today, a visiting committee of four professors (Williams, Pomona, Yale, Brown) spent two days talking to people at Amherst College. We did a survey of all students in psych classes and all psych majors. The committee met individually with students and asked questions. The committee met individually with each member of the department, and the president, and the dean of the faculty. And then they gave some recommendations about what our department could do better. Is this somewhat scary/intimidating? Sure -- maybe the students said I was an awful professor, maybe the committee would insist I teach a new course or teach one of my current courses in a new way, etc. But the reality is, this experience was really valuable to me and my colleagues in learning about the strengths AND weaknesses of our department, and I'm really glad that we had this opportunity. I guess I would hope that the MS teachers would take a similar view about all the good that can come out of these surveys -- let's learn what is working well, and let's learn what could work better. This seems like a win-win for teachers, parents, and kids (and School Committee members and superintendents, for that matter).

We then turned to a motion Irv Rhodes made for making it a policy that we conduct annual surveys (teachers, parents, students) at each school. After some discussion, this was tabled for a future meeting (probably after the arrival of the new superintendent).

Fourth, we had a pretty brief discussion (it was getting late) on superintendent/district goals for 2009-2010. This will be discussed at a meeting in June (we are NOT meeting on May 26th). We also accepted a gift. I think those are the "highlights"!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Education Matters: Could school mission be hurting student achievement?

Education Matters: Could school mission be hurting student achievement?
Published on May 08, 2009 - Amherst Bulletin

Today marks the introduction of our new monthly column, Education Matters, which will address education issues relevant to Amherst. As elementary school parents, School Committee members and Amherst College faculty conducting research on adolescent behavior (Catherine) and the economics and sociology of education (Steve), we approach these topics from multiple perspectives. We hope to bring alternative viewpoints and encourage discussion on a number of issues in upcoming columns. The opinions expressed in our column reflect our own views and not those of the Amherst or Regional school committees or the Amherst Regional Public Schools district.

Our initial column will focus on the issue of social justice, a core tenet of the Amherst schools. As stated on the district homepage, "Our mission is the academic achievement of every student learning in a system dedicated to social justice and multiculturalism." But a fundamental question is whether our policies and efforts actually succeed in fostering the academic achievement of all students. Specifically, we wonder whether concerns about inequality in family resources and academic preparation might contribute to lowered expectations for students and families in ways that unintentionally widen differences between students in academic achievement and career opportunities.

One example is a belief often held by teachers and principals that homework at the elementary school level should be avoided or minimized to avoid creating distinctions between children who will successfully complete the homework, perhaps with support from adults at home, and those who will not, perhaps because they do not have the same level of support. However, we believe that this approach may actually increase the achievement gap. First, many parents from across the income spectrum, but more easily for those with higher incomes, will replace the absence of homework with supplemental math, reading, writing and even science at home or with paid tutors. Second, regardless of knowledge of a particular subject matter, all parents and guardians have the ability, and indeed responsibility, to compel children to complete homework assignments, particularly since these assignments should serve merely to reinforce skills that are taught by teachers during the school day.

A second example is the low level of math and science courses required to graduate from Amherst Regional High School. Our high school requires only two years of math and two years of science (compared to three years of social studies and four years of English), whereas many Massachusetts high schools require three years of both math and science (including Belchertown, Brookline, Cambridge, Hadley, Newton and Northampton). On the one hand, some students may find these courses difficult, which could lead to lower grades and a higher drop out rate. On the other hand, our low requirements may actually increase the achievement gap. Students with parents who are not well informed about the importance of math and science preparation may be more likely to take the minimum required course load regardless of their potential for success in math and science courses. In contrast, students with parents who are better informed are likely to take courses beyond the minimum, which in turn is likely to improve prospects for college admission and financial aid and expand career opportunities regardless of whether students attend college.

Although we applaud and support our district's commitment to social justice, we worry that current policies and strategies might widen, rather than narrow, achievement differences and lead to lower outcomes for disadvantaged students. Because it is imperative that we determine whether our current efforts actually foster the academic and intellectual development of all children, we support the rigorous evaluation of our programs as well as an examination of alternative programs with demonstrated success in other similar districts.

Such objective measurement is the only way we can know whether some of our district's actions in the name of social justice unintentionally harm the most disadvantaged students, thereby widening rather than closing the achievement gap.

Steven Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson are Amherst College professors and members of the Amherst School Committee.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Amherst official calls for survey of middle school

I'm pasting this article from today's Gazette which I thought might be of interest to readers of my blog. Let me just add a few points here. First, I agree with Irv that a survey of all schools should be done, and I'm hoping we will discuss that issue at next week's meeting. I made my motion because I do hear considerably more concerns from parents about the middle school than about either the elementary or the high schools, and was concerned about the district's ability to conduct multiple surveys in a relatively short amount of remaining time, but certainly agree with Irv that having that type of feedback about all of our schools is important (and if Irv wants to make a friendly amendment to my motion to cover all schools, I would gladly accept it). Second, although some members of the School Committee have suggested waiting on doing surveys until the arrival of our new superintendent and the to-be-hired assistant superintendent, I believe that it would actually be extremely helpful for both of these people to arrive and receive some current data on the strengths and areas of concern within our schools. That seems like it would be a very good basis on which they could choose how to concentrate their initial efforts, and would provide valuable information to the School Committee on what our goals for the superintendent should be for his first year. This issue will be discussed at the Regional School Committee Meeting on May 12th, and I strongly encourage those with interest in this topic to attend that meeting and/or to email the superintendent ( and school committee members ( with their thoughts on whether surveys should be conducted in the next month.

Amherst official calls for survey of middle school

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

AMHERST - School Committee member Catherine Sanderson is calling for an anonymous survey of Amherst Regional Middle School parents, teachers, students and staff to gauge how well the school is meeting the community's educational goals.

Parents have told her they are concerned about the education provided at the school, she said. School Committee member Steve Rivkin has said Amherst Regional Middle School is regarded by some people as a kind of "poor stepchild" of the school district.

Sanderson noted that her request is no reflection of how she thinks Glenda Cresto, the new principal, is doing, and said she appreciates the leadership Cresto has brought to the school.

The survey Sanderson envisions would include questions about each course of study at the middle school and would ask about satisfaction with their rigor. Respondents would be asked to indicate whether students receive an appropriate amount of feedback on written assignments and whether there is a "warm and supportive environment."

As there are only about eight weeks left in the school year, Sanderson asked the School Committee on Tuesday to vote to implement the survey in mid- to late-May and to compile the results in time to give to incoming Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez in July.

Committee members, however, voted to table discussion of the survey for another two weeks, with only Sanderson and Rivkin voting to endorse the idea of conducting one.

School Committee member Irvin Rhodes said surveys at all of the schools should be conducted every year to gather usable data and that the middle school shouldn't be singled out from the rest.

Rhodes explained his thinking further on Sanderson's blog, Rhodes said he would continue to post on Sanderson's blog any time he thinks another School Committee member's view in addition to hers should be represented.

"Catherine like any other citizen has a right to have a blog. If she has a blog as a School Committee member and she's going to make statements about her positions, how she looks at things, I don't want that to be the only voice out there. Since the School Committee doesn't have a blog, this is it."

Rhodes also said he plans to suggest the School Committee start its own blog, he said.

"This is 2009 here, we've got all these modern tools," he said. "Why not a blog?"

Mary Carey can be reached at

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


I just returned home from the fifth and final presentation regarding the proposal to close Mark's Meadow (and for the record, Steve Rivkin and I were the only two School Committee members to attend each and every presentation -- Marks Meadow, Wildwood, Fort River, Crocker Farm, Middle School Community Forum). I am not going to repeat all the questions/answers, since those will be available on ACTV by demand, but I do encourage you to watch those. I am also posting a very thorough document prepared by the Superintendent's office that includes answers to commonly asked questions from the various forums we've held over the last week (this is also on the ARPS website:, which I think will be helpful.

When will the school committee vote on the proposal to close Mark's Meadow?
The Amherst School Committee is scheduled to vote on the current motion at their May 19, 2009 meeting.

What influence should the new superintendent, Dr. Rodriguez, have in this decision?
Dr. Rodriguez has been kept apprised of the process thus far, and he is aware of the implications which accompany such a decision. Given the familiarity that school officials and school committee members have with the school district, Dr. Rodriguez is confident that a sound decision will be made, however challenging and difficult.

If Mark’s Meadow closes, how will the district plan for this major change? What types of Committees will be formed to support a one-year transition?
We have not yet finalized the number of committees which will be responsible for facilitating the transition. Closing a school will be complicated and will involve a variety of individuals and groups to support the work. Initially, it has been determined that there will be groups responsible for student support, staff support and assignments, communications, data management, and moving of district property. Key to success of each of these groups will be how they are connected to each other and with the community. The district will need significant assistance from staff, from parents and from the community at large, but committees will be coordinated at the district level.

Can our students fit into three schools, or will the schools be overcrowded?

The School Committee has gathered extensive data about projected enrollments in our schools. In 2007, the School Committee hired the New England School Development Council (NESDEC) to compute demographic and enrollment projections for our elementary schools. This report clearly states that our projected enrollment in K to 6 through 2016-2017 varies from 1368 to 1417. However, our actual numbers for the 2008-2009 school year were less than those projected by NESDEC, thus to estimate future enrollments, actual enrollments in combination with projections were used to estimate the enrollments for the coming years. Based on this information, the remaining three schools can hold the projected enrollment.

Why do the NESDEC projections differ from projections done by the district?
The NESDEC report was done in spring of 2007 and was based on enrollments at that time. They were not able to consider the impact of the creation of the Chinese Charter School when their report was done. Plus, the district annually conducts a projection exercise based on actual enrollments each October 1. Our in-district projections have proven reliable over time and are somewhat lower than those prepared by NESDEC.

Will the remaining 3 schools have enough classroom space over time? How much time?
Enrollments are currently projected by the district through the 2013-2014 school year, and are based on birth census data annually gathered and shared by the Town of Amherst. Projected enrollments show a decrease in enrollment of 15 students for next year, with a further decrease over the next two-year period of 21 students. After that point, the 2012-13 school year, we are projecting an enrollment of 1359 students. Currently the 4 elementary schools have a total enrollment of 1324 students.

What about Grade 6 moving to the Middle School? What are the chances of this occurring?
If Grade 6 moves to the Middle School, it will free up an additional 8-10 classrooms at the elementary level. We have discussed the desirability of including Grade 6 students at the Middle School for several years. Such a design – a Grades 6-8 Middle School – is pedagogically appropriate and sound. A report is expected from the Regionalization Committee in the fall, which should give us a good indication whether K-12 regionalization with Pelham, Leverett, Shutesbury, and Amherst is likely to occur.

If Marks Meadow is closed, would the quads at Wildwood and Fort River be turned into 4 classrooms each?
Currently, the building quads are comprised of 3 actual classrooms and 1 smaller space reserved for small group instruction. The number of classrooms reported in the "State of Our Schools Report", does not depend on any change in the configuration of current classrooms.

Will there be changes to the present location of special needs programs?
No decision has been made at this time, but it is possible one or more programs will be moved.

What would be the impact of keeping Marks Meadow open and just increase class sizes throughout the district?
The likely result of this would be class sizes above recommended maximums and the transfer of some or all kindergarten students either to or from Mark’s Meadow to the other three elementary schools to better equalize these class sizes and more efficiently distribute staff. This would increase the cost of transporting students, but the costs would be far less than the cost of an increased number of classrooms.

Why not close part or half of Fort River or Wildwood instead of closing Mark’s Meadow, thereby creating 1 more "small" school?
Both Fort River and Wildwood Schools are small learning communities by many measures. Further, it is not practical to keep part of a building vacant. We will still be responsible for insurance, energy, cleaning, and maintenance costs. We would still have administrative and support costs – a principal, secretaries, custodial, etc. Also, since the cafeteria and gymnasium spaces are on opposite ends of each building, space could not be completely shut down. Leaving Mark’s Meadow open with its 12 classrooms and reducing the number of classrooms at either Fort River or Wildwood will not address the needed efficiency of more equally dividing students across classrooms to maintain small class sizes.

Fort River and Wildwood school buildings have proposals in to the state for construction funds to update the buildings. Where will we put the students if/when these projects get underway?
When Crocker Farm was expanded and renovated some years ago, careful consideration was given to the beginning and end dates of the annual district school calendar to accommodate the work of construction/renovation crews and to minimize disruption to students and staff during the school year. We anticipate similar planning for any upcoming renovations, which at this point will not be underway for several years.

Could we redistrict to solve equity and then have four elementary schools?

Although it is possible to redistrict to better apportion equity in our current four elementary schools and a plan for this was presented in draft form to the community in April, there are two problems with this plan. First, it would not be in the best interest of children to redistrict now for equity and then redistrict again in one or two years for fiscal or enrollment reasons. This could be very difficult for children and their families. Second, redistricting and using four elementary schools would require two or three more teachers than our current system, at an estimated cost of $108,000 to $162,000 more per year. Thus, redistricting to four elementary schools solves our equity problem, but increases our financial problem.

We were able to view preliminary redistricting maps. When might a final redistricting plan be in place?
The preliminary plan must be reviewed by a consultant or consultants familiar with the challenges of redistricting and the implications of transportation routes. If it is voted to close Mark’s Meadow, it is hoped we can secure a consultant right after the School Committee vote and have more definitive information to share by the end of June.

Will all current Open Enrollments end no matter how many years they've been in place, and will only those applications associated with an IEP or 504 will be considered in the future?
There is presently a school committee policy which permits students from Amherst to attend their non-neighborhood school. Open enrollment is granted only if space is available in the requested school and if parents are willing to provide daily transportation. The School Committee will want to revisit this policy and see whether it can be sustained under a redistricting scenario, and whether such a policy creates school inequities.

How will the district address the special issues of families and students who, while they may be able to walk to their present school, may not be able to do if they are redistricted?
One of the teams that will be created if it is decided to close Mark’s Meadow School, will address student and family support. Our schools have active parent groups in each. It is our hope we can work together with these groups to assist and/or resolve any impediments to school accessibility.

What is the budget problem for the Town of Amherst?
In November the Amherst Finance Committee issued preliminary FY2010 budget guidelines. At that time they suggested a 2.0% increase to town department and school budgets, and a 3.5% increase to the assessment to the town of Amherst for the Regional budget. For the Amherst schools that would have required that $658,000 be cut from a level services budget.

The economic downturn has severely impacted state and local government funding across the country. Anticipating a $3 billion revenue shortfall for FY2010, the Governor’s budget recommended a reduction in lottery aid and in additional assistance to municipalities in January. The reduction for Amherst was projected to be $2.77 million from the original FY2009 level. In April the State House Ways and Means Committee released its budget recommendation which cut state funding even further. Revenue projections for the Town of Amherst are following the same trend: current data paint a picture that is worse than earlier projections. Lower than expected lodging tax revenue and lower than usual growth in the tax base.

With the reduced revenue projections, the Town is now facing a funding gap of $3.8 million in funding the Finance Committee’s original guidance for FY2010 budgets.

What solutions are being considered by the Town?
The Budget Coordinating Group of the Town of Amherst, comprised of representatives from the boards and senior staff of each of the four budget entities (town, libraries, Amherst elementary schools, and the Regional School District), has been meeting on a regular basis to monitor and plan for meeting the fiscal challenge facing the town. Each department has identified the level of cuts beyond which major restructuring would be necessary for next year. These further cuts, along with projected increased local revenue for the town next year, reduced the funding gap to $2.48 million.

Last week the House voted to increase the sales tax from 5.0% to 6.25%, and separately voted to allocate $205 million to replace some of the aid to towns that was cut. It is anticipated that $1.68 million from that source would flow to Amherst. However, this sales tax increase must also be passed by the Senate and signed into law by the Governor in order to be enacted.

The Budget Coordinating Group will recommend that the remaining gap be covered from reserves, with the understanding that any additional funding from the state or local option taxes be used first to make the reserve fund whole. The Finance Committee will discuss this concept at their next meeting

If the legislature decides to increase sales tax, when would the revenue be realized? How much revenue increase can be expected if this occurs?
Revenue from increased sales tax would begin to be available in FY2010. Early projections are noted above.

What about other sources of potential revenue - the meals tax, etc.?
The State Legislature will be considering some other sources of potential revenue, including some form of meals tax, a hotel/motel tax, and a measure to close a telecommunications tax loophole. These measures will likely be debated in May. Current outlook for these initiatives is pessimistic, due in part to the recently voted increase to the sales tax.

Aren’t there other ways to decrease our budget problem? Could we accept School Choice students at the elementary level?
School Choice students bring in $5,000 each per year. Consideration is given each year to targeting specific schools and grades where choice slots might be made available – mostly; at Crocker Farm and at Mark’s Meadow, where class sizes tend to be smaller. However, the Amherst School Committee has been and is concerned about the possibility, over time, of overcrowding at the Regional level since there have been successive years of academic and elective cuts at the Region. School Choice regulations provide that if a student is accepted by a K-6 school district, they are entitled to attend the Regional district to which that town belongs.

If we keep four elementary schools open next year, what types of changes will we see in the schools?
To keep the four elementary schools open next year requires a cooperative process among all Town departments, including the willingness to use some funding from reserves if additional funding does not fill the revenue gap. This plan allows a year to properly plan to close a school and redistrict students into three remaining elementary schools. This plan calls for cutting $1.14 million from the level services budget for the Amherst schools for FY2010. These cuts are listed elsewhere.

What will likely be cut if Mark’s Meadow School remains open past June 2010?
In this uncertain fiscal environment it is difficult to project to FY2011 and beyond. If we assume that the recession will not recover quickly and that state funding will be flat, and that the town will only be able to allow a 2.5% growth to the budget, we can anticipate having to cut another $1.3 million from a level services budget in FY2011.

Cuts of this magnitude - $1.3 million - without closing a building might be as follows:
• Centralized librarian to support 4 buildings
• Centralized computer teacher to support 4 buildings
• Elimination of after school buses and programming
• Reconsideration of current instructional materials
• Significantly increased class sizes at all levels

If Mark’s Meadow is closed a savings of $530,000 is anticipated for the first year. This partial solution would then point to the need for an additional $740,000 in cuts.

I understand that a decision to close Mark's Meadow will not eliminate the total budget gap for FY10 or FY11. How will the district address the gap for those years?
Beyond FY10, we will need to understand the implications of any additional tax revenue, identify the remaining gap, and then project anticipated district needs. As stated in the FCCC Report, an override for FY11will likely be necessary to sustain the FY10 level of services to students.

Could we pass an override?
The FCCC report recognized that an override will probably be necessary at some point in the next 5 years to sustain even the most essential school and municipal services. However, all members of that committee agree that an override will not solve Amherst’s long-term budget gap and substantial cutbacks will be necessary regardless.

How will closing a school and redistricting impact the Title 1 funds we receive for low income students?
Redistricting will not decrease the Title I funding since it is based on a Town-wide census of our economically disadvantaged students. The change in school boundaries will, however, allow us to reapportion Title I funding to different schools based on the needs of the students in those schools.

How does this discussion fit in with the broader discussion about regionalizing our elementary schools with Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury, the way our middle school and high school are currently?

We are still unsure of the impact of potential regionalization and what the structure of all the schools might look like. The decision about closing Mark’s Meadow has no apparent, direct impact on regionalization discussions.

Will UMass take the Mark’s Meadow building back if we close the school? Is there any discussion of ways to retain the building in case we need it later, so we don’t end up building a new school if enrollments increase?

The disposition of Mark’s Meadow School needs to be discussed with UMass officials, and they have been invited to enter into dialogue with district officials. It is our hope that the building can be maintained for alternate district programs – South Amherst Campus and East Street Alternative High School – so that post secondary programs can be developed to support these students.

If the University agrees to let the district use Marks Meadow for secondary in-district programs, will there be costs related to this change?
There may be minor changes to bathroom fixtures to accommodate adolescents, but we do no foresee any major building costs associated with relocation of in-district programs.

You have identified Marks Meadow as the logical school to close in the detailed proposal. Can the district be more specific about why it would consider closing a school which is provided for free by the University of Massachusetts?
It’s true that Mark’s Meadow is "free" in terms of utilities, but it is not free in terms of what it costs the district to operate this building (teachers, staff, materials, buses, etc.). The reality is that all of our elementary students can fit in the other three buildings at a cost that is roughly $700,000 a year less than keeping this building open. We also believe strongly that if we were to move to three elementary schools, we would either be able to use this building for free for another purpose (the alternative high school programs) or receive an annual payment from UMass for educating children of their graduate students. Thus, either of these options would more effectively allocate our limited resources than continuing to use MM as an elementary school. In addition, the timing of possibly closing Mark’s Meadow may work within the timing of regionalization efforts.

If it really saves this much money, and it really is inevitable, then why not just rip off the Band-Aid and close Marks Meadow for 2009-2010, rather than hoping to convince the Finance Committee to support some use of reserves for FY10—not enough reserves to prevent a number of additional cuts that could affect all kids—and then hoping to convince Town Meeting to agree to such a Finance Committee recommendation?
This would be a daunting task to thoughtfully complete by September 09 and there are many components that must be considered. First and foremost are considerations of the health and safety of students. Next we need to carefully plan the manner in which the remaining 3 buildings will be staffed. We need to be sure that students from all schools can see familiar adults and have an opportunity to get used to a new school setting. Issues such as transportation, materials, furniture, equipment, books, etc., need to be carefully planned over time.

How can we keep everyone informed if it is voted to close Mark's Meadow in June 2010?
One of the teams which would be created would involve communication, so that there will be a central clearing house for information to the families, staff, and the community.