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.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Amherst committee eyes 'snapshot' of comparable schools

By NICK GRABBE - Hampshire Gazette
Friday, June 12, 2009

The school district wants to measure its performance and learn how it compares to similar towns.

The "How Are We Doing" subcommittee has met three times over the past year. It has compiled lists of criteria to use in a kind of annual report on the schools and of districts that are demographically comparable.

"We want to have clear data to look at year to year, so we're not just looking at MCAS or other single measures," said Andy Churchill a member of the subcommittee. "We want a more detailed snapshot we can look at to see trends."

Student achievement could be measured by the percentage of: elementary students reading and doing math at grade level; students found proficient on MCAS; SAT scores; National Merit scholars; and high school students with one or more D or F grades. Other criteria include the average daily attendance, graduation rate and the percentage of seniors going on to college.

The other measurements the subcommittee suggested using are course offerings and requirements, coursework completed, number of expulsions and suspensions, satisfaction as determined by surveys, and extracurricular activities.

The subcommittee looked for similar communities. Amherst's elementary schools serve 1,310 students, who are 56 percent White, 14 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian and 8 percent African American, with 27 percent low-income.

The regional schools serve 1,786 students, who are 71 percent White, 10 percent Asian, 8 percent African American and 8 percent Hispanic, with 16 percent low-income.

One community the subcommittee cited is Northampton. It is similar in size and comparable in low-income students, but is less racially diverse. Longmeadow is also similar in size to Amherst, but is less diverse and has few low-income students.

The subcommittee also looked at Brookline, which is somewhat larger than Amherst and has fewer low-income students, but a similar level of diversity.

Framingham is larger and more racially diverse and serves more low-income students, while Newton is larger, less racially diverse, and serves fewer low-income students.

The subcommittee also suggested comparing Amherst to these out-of-state communities: Chapel Hill, N.C., Evanston, Ill., Montclair, N.J., Oak Park, Ill., Princeton, N.J., Shaker Heights, Ohio, and White Plains, N.Y.

Nick Grabbe can be reached at


Anonymous said...

I hope this committee looks at the special education department and the students it serves. I beleive among this number it will see that nonwhite and low-income children outnumber any other class with these needs. I then hope something can be done to better serve this population other than having them routed out of an equal education and made to feel inferior to their peers....Please keep both eyes open...

Elizabeth said...

I'm curious about the workings of Union #38 School District in Franklin County. I don't hear them brought often when comparing other school districts to Amherst. Like Amherst, there is one superintendent for 4 elementary schools, one which houses a substantially separate special ed program for children with behavioral disabilities, (similar in purpose to Building Blocks, the Amherst program which is so controversial). The Whatley and Conway elementary schools are small--I believe there is only one classroom per grade level--pre-K through 6th, but I'm not exactly
sure. (Does Conway have a Pre-K?) Sunderland has one pre-K classroom but I believe the rest of the grades have at least 2 classrooms. Deerfield Elementary, the largest elementary school, has 2 pre-K classrooms serving different populations in 3 programs: One am program is designated for children with significant disabilities who require intensive one-on-one instruction. The pm program integrates these special ed students with regular ed students, and the third class is a full day
community-based program with flexible hours from about 8am until 5:30 pm. The K through 6th grades have 3 classrooms each, similar to Amherst elementary schools,excluding Mark's Meadow. with an after-school program until 5:30. Union #38s Jr. High and High School,known as Frontier Regional Jr. High and Frontier Regional High, serve the 4 towns I noted above, and maybe more, I am not sure. The same superintendent, Regina Nash, officiates over all 6 schools. Incidentally, the Jr. and High school buildings are physically connected. This seems to me like a rather unique lay-out, with some pros and cons I'm sure. The mileage distance between Sunderland and Conway is similar to Shutesbury and Amherst, only more uphill. I think that must require staggered school hours at some of the elementary schools, to accommodate transportation? I do not know if this happens in the Amherst-Pelham-Shutesbury district. I do not know if each of the 4 Union #38 elementary schools has its own school committee, requiring Ms. Nash to attend those as well as the Jr.and HS SC meetings. I do not know how many sped administrators work in Union #38's Central Office. I believe there is only one early childhood coordinator, but I'm not sure. I have been told that school principals or vice-principals chair team meetings for sped students with IEPs, NOT a Sped administrator, as Amherst requires. I have been told that in some cases a student's one-to-one paraprofessional is expected to attend team meetings at the parents' request, unlike Amherst. I would very much like to know if the Amherst School Committee has taken a close look at our neighbor to the north, who, based on my scanty information and hearsay, seems to be doing a satisfactory job educating ALL students with fewer highly paid administrators, less special ed micro-management, and a smaller budget. Could you, Catherine, or someone else out there who has been toiling over the gathering of data,(Thank you!) put this in perspective for me? There is probably less cultural and ethnic diversity in Union #38 schools, but I suspect that there is a greater number of low-income white, non-Hispanic families, and also a greater number of intact middle income white families with children in special ed, in Union #38, compared to Amherst. What if we step back from the assumption that children of color need more supports in school because their families are more likely to be low income, less educated, and less able to insure that their children complete homework? (I don't know if this is true or not). But if we studied a school district where the majority of underachieving students were white, would that maybe uncover something we have missed? Thank you for reading this.

Rick said...

This is great - nice going Andy, Catherine, etc...

Anonymous said...

This is a really good piece of information and some really great direction. My theory has been that Amherst shuffles their "want nots" or most difficult/challenged students into the special education stream and more often than not this child represents a low-income, nonwhite student. I can safely make this observation after 26 years of seeing it happen both as a parent and educator, after two generations! within the system.
It simply amazes me--as soon as a child is not reading say, or doing math up to par--they are singled out, "tested" whatever this is supposed to prove, and then funneled through the system with a group of kids...Well I'll stop there because it simply needs some really hard investigating of sorts to disprove my feeling that the more sped kids a system can produce the more $ they get in school funding.

Anonymous said...

I think, given the huge amount of money our schools spend on special education, this group does need to look at relative proportions of kids in special education and existence of separate, specialized special ed programs in the other districts it studies. The proportion of the budget being spent on regular education is being cut year after year while the special ed budget keept growing. This is a huge problem.

Anonymous said...

I did mean to say instead of school funding....administrative funding...
Hence, the creation of an abundance of administrative positions, newly made up and ever growing....

Anonymous said...

How are we doing when we cut over 23 to 30% of the middle school regular education teachers? Are any other districts doing this? How will our kids be doing after these cuts?

Bev said...

After the last Overide, former superintendent Hochman praised Amherst as a "town that valued education." However, he warned, the worst was still to come, if we didn't plan accordingly. Everyone agreed, that even with the override, the future still looked very dismal. Remember? He then hired THREE additional sped administrators: Joanne Smith for pre-K through 6th grade, who had previously been a sped teacher at Wildwood, and Alvin Morton, who filled a newly created position as an administrator for students with behavioral disabilities. Brent Neilsen of Building Blocks became the BB coordinator, which is an administrative position, partly because students at BB did not then have the representation of a building principal. (When BB was housed at Crocker Farm, Paul Wiley did not have responsibility for BB students. Parents could not ask Mr. Wiley for help if they needed it, like regular ed families could. The same was true of the vice principal, Susan Kennedy Marx.) An additional teacher, Heather Bish, was hired to fill the gap created when Mr. Neilsen left his teaching post. The reassignment of Ms. Smith allowed Maria Geryk to leave her position as K through 6th sped administrator and step up into a new job as Diretor of Special Ed. Prior to Ms. Smith's new job title, Janet Ryan, director of the Amherst Preschool Program, had carried out the duties of pre-K sped administration for over 20 years. I never understood why Ms. Smith stepped in, at additional expense, I assume. But maybe Ms. Ryan's salary or hours were reduced? At the time of Mr. Morton's hiring by Amherst, he was working at The Program of Quality Assurance,(PQA),which is a D.O.E. (Dept. of Ed.) office that parents of students in Sped can turn to,at no cost, for fact-finding and impartial advice, so they can better advocate for their child and hopefully resolve educational differences without having to go to court. During the time Mr. Morton was making decisions for Amherst families who were in a dispute with the school, he was also seeking employment in the Amherst district. Mr. Morton was also the education specialist from the PQA who evaluated Amherst's Sped department at least once or twice. I believe his continued professional involvement with Amherst families who were filing complaints against Amherst was a blatant conflict of interest. I personally know of one family who was stripped of their civil rights to advocate for their child's education by Mr. Morton because he did not abide by the strict guidelines spelled out in PQA policy. Yes, parental educational advocacy for a disabled child is a bonified civil right, just as god-given as the right to vote. I'll never forget watching a school committee meeting on TV a year later. Someone commended Mr. Hochman for shouldering his part of the sacrifices that were being made, because Mr. Morton's position was being eliminated "due to budget cuts." All I could think of was how LITTLE the school committee knew about special education, and that is still a sad, sad fact.

Jim said...

To Bev, Maybe that's one reason why the teachers' union won't vote to postpone their raises. They see first-hand an overweight, overpaid, administration whom should not have been hired or promoted in the first place. More sped administrators, yet more sped problems than ever. What's going on in there??

Anonymous said...

Dear Rick,
I don't get your message. Please clarify. Is it sarcasm, or a genuine thanks? What are you responding to? Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I find what you say so overwhelmingly true and yet so well kept secret. I worked in CF when BB was housed there and witnessed many, many scenes that would shock the average parent. Scenes, that had I not known better, I might have thought were being filmed for a horror movie.
I must address the hiring of JoAnn Smith the K-6 sped director--this is a position I have seen created out of nowhere using much sped money and it fulfills my theory that preschoolers coming into the system--mostly of low-income and nonwhite households--must be mainstreamed into the sped system to keep their money flowing in.
You raise a really good question. What IS going on in there?? One that needs some answers.
As a School Committee I feel after the many posts I have read on this and another blog--they are an equal hand in this mishandling of money and a blind eye in the abuses of the sped administrators--both with parents of sped kids and the staff who try and speak up!! So you see CS I can only thank the goodness of anonyminity and you to express these concerns here.

Fed Up Parent said...

The increases in special ed spending in our district really needs to be controlled, and these comments just provide more examples of how it has become even more unsustainable. When we can cut our middle school teams from 6 to 4 in one year yet manage to increase spending on special education (with no apparent increase in the special ed enrollment), it is clear that our school district has lost our way.

Anonymous said...

Catherine, could you please respond to this column of concerns? Thanks!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses (sorry -- it has been a busy week!):

Anonymous 8:26 - there is an outside review being conducted of special education -- that seems like the appropriate place for such a review.

Elizabeth - thanks for making this suggestion -- I don't believe this district has been on the radar, but I will research it and see how comparable it is to Amherst to serve as a benchmark. I will research it and report back! I certainly agree that learning how we do special education is essential -- and I've pushed for this at SC meetings for a year (and am glad that an outside review will be done this year).

Rick - thanks! We will discuss this report on the 23rd -- come if you can (although I am imagining that you will be at TM!).

Anonymous 3:39 - I have heard this complaint ... I do not know (a) is this true, or (b) is this different than what happens in other districts. Both are important questions and I will push to make sure they are answered by the outside review.

Anonymous 9:17 - the goal of this group was not to focus specifically on special ed ... but I think you raise an interesting point here -- and I wonder if there should be a DIFFERENT group/task force/subcommittee that examines issues in special ed in general. That seems like an important thing to get a handle on better ... but perhaps something that really needs a whole new group addressing. I will bring this up at the SC meeting.

Anonymous 12:44 - I got it. Certainly the number of administrative positions is someting that needs to be addressed to see where we are -- I'm not sure, again, if that is the goal/point of this committee. It seems to me that this is something a finance/budget committee needs to address? I am working on getting those numbers.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 9:26 - it isn't clear to me that we are cutting at this magnitude. Remember, the world language teachers aren't being cut, and the math teachers are remaining (they aren't included in the loss of a team). I think there will be an update on this at the Regional meeting on the 23rd. I do believe that our class sizes right now in MS are very low compared to other districts (e.g., 17 to 19) ... and that may be a luxury we can't afford in tight budget times. I would be surprised if other districts are maintaining such low class size numbers in MS (will check into these numbers).

Bev - I've only been on the SC for a year, and thus I can't comment on what may or may not have occurred before my arrival. I do think the SC needs to do a better job overall of seeing where we are in the district (including what we are doing well and what we could do better), and making sure that resources are being used wisely. And I'm trying to do that as hard as I can.

Fed Up Parent - As I've noted ... a review of the special ed program is being conducted this year. That should provide valuable information (by a neutral third party person) about the strengths and weaknesses of our present approach ... and will hopefull help us identify ways we could use our resources more wisely.

Anonymous 7:29 - see above!

Anonymous said...

Who is the outside evaluator hired to evaluate the sped system? I cannot help but wonder after reading about the administrator who played a dual role, (PQA position Mr. Morton--gone sped administrator for our schools) with the Amherst schools I ask who exactly this is going to be. You say an 'outside' party or person will be hired, but with the history of this system just how 'outside' will this be?
With all you have learned here by reading sooo many posts on the abuses of programs like BB, and Bridges, and the misuse of authority the (sped) administrators hold over sped parents and even their staff--how will change this other than expecting anyone to come forward?

Tina said...

When and where was the public informed that the outside sped evaluation was in progress? Did Maria Geryk choose the evaluator? Is the school committee up-to-date on the time line of this evaluation? Do you even care? Is the public allowed to know the identity of the evaluator? We are usually informed via newspapers or at SC meetings which companies are hired to evaluate other school issues. For example, in the recent Nick Grabbe report where he interviewed Nick Yaffee, the principal of Mark's Meadow, it was stated that "DeJong-Healy of Dublin,Ohio was hired to review a preliminary proposal for redrawing the elementary district lines and make recommendations." Have I missed something? If I have, please forgive me for being annoyed and ignorant. Why does the SC leave sped out of so many of their equations, as if they are incapable of making informed policy decisions for disabled children? A child is a child. Do you represent my disabled child? Do we need a separate SC to oversee the quality of education for students in Special Education? Shouldn't someone who chooses to run for a seat on the SC be as knowledgeable about special ed as they are about regular ed? If not, is this discrimination against the disabled? If it is true that Ms. Geryk has acted alone, or in conjunction with other sped administrators, then I hope the public calls for an investigation of the evaluation. So why not just be up front and honest and transparent in the first place?