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, July 31, 2009

Editorial: A bold start for new school chief

Amherst Bulletin, published on July 31, 2009

Excellence for all. At his first meeting with the Amherst School Committee as superintendent, Alberto Rodriguez signaled a need for reforms we hope can mobilize and unify support from stakeholders throughout the school system.

In a debut that caught committee members by surprise, Rodriguez read aloud last week from a report he commissioned about Amherst's schools - a study that gives him an outsider's reading of weaknesses in Amherst public education, as he digs in.

The substance of that report, by Tennessee educator Irving Hamer, is detailed in a story on Page A1 of today's Amherst Bulletin. (Text of the full report is available at Rodriguez and Hamer, who once worked together in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, has many people thinking, talking and blogging.

Even before school starts for his first year, Rodriguez is making it clear he is here to lead. "I wasn't hired to be a maintenance man," he says, "but a change agent."

Rodriguez plans to work with the School Committee to set three or four top goals for the coming year. Given the findings in Hamer's report, it will be hard for the new superintendent to delay tackling the need to lift the bar on excellence for all students in Amherst classrooms.

In a move that's politically astute, whether intended or not, the report Rodriguez read word by word to committee members highlights current barriers to both excellence and to educational access. In doing so, it can energize important blocs of activists within the system.

People in Amherst committed to achieving greater excellence for individual learners are listening. And so are those who have called for greater educational access for low-income students. Those groups, while not always working shoulder to shoulder, have new reason to ally with one another and help push for results.

Hamer's report, based on 10 days of interviewing and data analysis, found that Amherst schools are not doing enough for lower-performing students. Migration into town from urban centers in western Massachusetts is widening family income gaps here. It cited an achievement gap that is masked by how well most Amherst students do on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests. And it said not enough is done to support students who struggle to master their material.

Pointedly, Hamer's report takes aim at the lack of a pre-kindergarten program for students from families living in poverty. When they arrive in classrooms, they should receive help to bring their skills up to those of classmates. Otherwise, Hamer noted, they may never catch up.

Some interviewed by Hamer raised questions about the depth and rigor of teaching in the system. He believes the system uses too many study halls. He faulted Amherst for not already employing a strategy to recruit new teachers able to "advance student achievement."

Rodriguez's arrival creates an opportunity that must not be missed.

Even before he starts in earnest, those who helped provide information to Hamer deserve everyone's thanks. His inquiry gave them an opportunity to tell the truth about a system they know from the inside out. Their knowledge allows change to start from the way things actually are.

Many of those same people will also be asked to push, at the classroom level, for improvements that Rodriguez and other administrators will seek. We hope they take the new superintendent at his word that Hamer's report not be used "as a club to bash staff over the head."

Because of tight budgets, the evolving Rodriguez agenda will need to find traction even as the system absorbs the loss of 55 full-time equivalent positions. Rodriguez must persuade school employees to step up to his challenges. These times demand the firm and purposeful leadership he is already beginning to exhibit.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Report From the Superintendent on Moving 6th Grade

Dr. Rodriguez has completed a report on the potential of moving 6th grade to the middle school, which is now posted on the district homepage (as are the appendices referenced in this report). For ease of my blog readers, I'm also posting the report here.


This feasibility study/position paper is intended to inform the School Committees on an upcoming policy decision on whether to move the 6th grade students to the Amherst Regional Middle School. The School Committees’ desire to make decisions and have policy grounded on data driven, research-based facts is the driving engine behind this report. The report is comprised of several key components concluding with the Superintendent's educational recommendation in order to educate and inform the Committees in their decision.

The report is comprised of the following parts:

* A brief review of the history of middle grades education and its transition from junior high school to middle school;
* A cursory literature review of successful middle school "best practices" supported by such influential authors, works and/or groups, such as the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and its seminal work Breaking Ranks in the Middle: Strategies for Leading Middle Level Reform (2006); the Education Alliance at Brown University under Ted Sizer and its Secondary School Reform (SSR) program; Turning Points 2000 and its study guide with Teachers College Press; the National Middle School Association (NMSA) with its companion This We Believe and "Schools to Watch" criteria, as well as, a position paper jointly adopted by the NMSA and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP); Focus on the Wonder Years: Challenges Facing the American Middle School (2004), funded by the Rand Corporation; conversations held at the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform; selected remarks by M. Hayes Mizell in Shooting for the Sun: The Message of Middle School Reform (2002), funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation; selected remarks by noted middle school expert, Joan Lipsitz;
* A brief discussion on different models, studies, and articles; and,
* The Superintendent's position and recommendation as to the educational imperative of whether to move the 6th grade students to the Amherst Regional Middle School.

A Brief History of Middle Grades Education

Many years ago, schooling rarely lasted beyond what we now refer to as the middle grades, and there are good reasons why. The onset of what we now call adolescence signaled adulthood. Historically, it was the age when youngsters went to sea, joined their fathers and mothers in the mines and fields and factories, and underwent the rites of passage into adulthood. Much of what characterizes middle grades education grew from a desire to offer the vast masses the intellectual skills and knowledge that a favored elite alone possessed. An attempt to achieve fairness helped lead us down a false path. We have extended childhood, but we haven’t figured out just what to do with it (Sizer & Meier, 2006).

By 1900, the predominant school configuration in the United States consisted of eight years of primary school and four years of secondary school. Due to societal pressures, such as increased immigration which burdened primary school enrollment in cities, rapid industrialization and the need to prepare a better-educated workforce for the factories and the demand from college presidents to start college prep courses before 9th grade (Eliot, 1898, as cited in Brough, 1995), the “Eight-Four” model was changed to the “Six-Six” grade configuration.

Although the National Education Association (NEA) published a report in 1899 arguing for secondary education to begin in 7th instead of 9th grade, historians such as Beane (2001) and Cuban (1992) contend that societal and political pressures had the greatest influence on the creation of the junior high school. In spite of the efforts of junior high schools to serve the needs of the rapidly changing society, only about one-third of students in public schools made it to 9th grade between 1907 and 1911 (Van Til, Vars & Lounsbury, 1961).

In spite of the apparent failure of the new junior high schools, there was a sixfold increase in their number between 1922 and 1938 (Bossing & Cramer, 1965). Alexander and George (1981) attribute this rise partly to generally increasing enrollments following World War I. Dissatisfaction mounted in the 1960s as it became clear the junior high was nothing but a “little senior high.” At the same time, secondary school enrollments were declining, and elementary school enrollments, in contrast, were expanding both because of larger birth cohorts and the increasing popularity of early childhood education and kindergartens (Wonder Years, 2004). According to Alexander (1984), the resulting shortage of space at the elementary level caused the 6th grade to be pushed out into the junior high level (Wonder Years, 2004). Thus, enrollment pressures and larger societal issues were important in shaping the formation of middle schools for grades 6-8 from the beginning of the 1900s through the 1960s (2004).

Alexander and George (1981), in their seminal work, The Exemplary Middle School, presented a new middle school concept stating that middle school children have their unique characteristics and needs which cannot be subordinated to the impact of the elementary school nor to the demands of the high school. The middle school should not be viewed as an educational “passive link” (Wonder Years, 2004).

Spurred by the findings of the 1980s, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development presented a different kind of vision with its 1989 report, Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century. Using the conceptual model of a mismatch between the developmental stage and environment, the Council presented ways to bridge the gap or facilitate matching adolescents’ needs, capabilities, and learning environments (Carnegie, 1989, p. 32).

The Council made eight recommendations for improving education during the middle grades:

1. Dividing larger middle schools into smaller communities of learning
2. Teaching all students a core of common knowledge
3. Ensuring success for all students
4. Empowering teachers and administrators
5. Preparing teachers for the middle grades
6. Improving academic performance through better health and fitness
7. Re-engaging families in the education of young adolescents
8. Connecting schools with communities (Wonder Years, 2004)

In the 1990s, developmental responsiveness stressed students’ social-emotional needs over cognitive demands. This school of thought emphasized closer teacher-student relationships and making the middle school feel more personal (Lipsitz, Jackson & Austin, 1997). However, there has been a growing consensus that in spite of the correlation between the feelings of “connectedness” and higher academic performance (Goodenow, 1993), changes in the social climate alone are not sufficient to improve student achievement (Lipsitz, Mizell, et. al., 1997; Williamson & Johnston, 1999). Since 1982, the National Middle School Association (NMSA) published a series of position papers called This We Believe. The NMSA (1995) identified six prerequisites for developmentally responsive schools:

1. Educators committed to young adolescents
2. A shared vision
3. High expectations for all
4. An adult advocate for every student
5. Family-community partnerships
6. A positive school climate

The NMSA (1995) further identified six components that need to be implemented for schools to be developmentally responsive:

1. Curriculum that is challenging, integrative, and exploratory
2. Varied teaching and learning approaches
3. Assessment and evaluation that promote learning
4. Flexible organizational structures
5. Program and policies that foster health, wellness, and safety
6. Comprehensive guidance and support services

In recent debates and research findings regarding whether middle schools should stress students’ developmental needs over academic rigor, Lee and Smith (1999) suggest that students do best in educational settings that provide social support and emphasize academic rigor.

The historical review just presented shows that many of today’s concerns about young teens are the same as those of 100 years ago. However, the solutions that have been proffered over the years have often been more closely related to societal/economic pressures or practical issues such as overcrowding in school buildings (Wonder Years, 2004).

Literature Review of Successful Middle School “Best Practices”

Scholars, educators, administrators and policy makers have long anguished over the conflict of “where do you begin?” School culture? School structures? Instruction? Breaking Ranks gleaned from the experiences of schools 30 recommendations which formulated the following Nine Cornerstone Strategies:

1. Establish the academically rigorous essential learnings that a student is required to master in order to successfully make the transition to high school and align the curriculum and teaching strategies to realize that goal;
2. Create dynamic teacher teams that are afforded common planning time to help organize and improve the quality and quantity of interactions between teachers and student;
3. Provide structured planning time for teachers to align the curriculum across grades and schools and to map efforts that address the academic, developmental, social, and personal needs of students, especially at critical transition periods (e.g., elementary to middle grades, middle grades to high school);
4. Implement a comprehensive advisory or other program that ensures that each student has frequent and meaningful opportunities to meet with an adult to plan and assess the student’s academic, personal, and social development;
5. Ensure that teachers assess the individual learning needs of students and tailor instructional strategies and multiple assessments accordingly;
6. Entrust teachers with the responsibility of implementing schedules that are flexible enough to accommodate teaching strategies consistent with the ways students learn most effectively and that allow for effective teacher teaming, common planning time, and other lesson planning;
7. Institute structural leadership systems that allow for substantive involvement in decision making by students, teachers, family members, and the community, and that support effective communication among these groups;
8. Align all programs and structures so that all social, economic, and racial/ethnic groups have open and equal access to challenging activities and learning; and,
9. Align the schoolwide comprehensive, ongoing professional development program and the Personal Learning Plans (PLPs) of staff members with the requisite knowledge of content, instructional strategies, and student developmental factors.

In addition, attached to this document is the Executive Summary of Breaking Ranks in the Middle: Strategies for Leading Middle Level Reform (Appendix A), listing the aforementioned Strategies as well as the 30 recommendations.

Lipsitz (1999), in a speech prepared for the grantees meeting of the Program for Student Achievement Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, identified successful middle schools or “schools to watch” as sharing the following traits:

1. Clear articulation of desired academic outcomes;
2. Strategic changes in curriculum, instruction and support services designed to help students achieve those outcomes;
3. Established benchmarks for implementing with fidelity the strategies and holding themselves accountable; and,
4. Concentrated energies on important focus areas in order to institutionalize the new “change culture.”

Included in the following narrative are excerpts from a speech entitled “SHAZAM! No Lightening Bolts in School Reform” made by the distinguished M. Hayes Mizell to grantees of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation regarding standards and its proper place in student learning:

You will hear a lot of talk today about standards, but this meeting is not “about” standards, just as it is not “about” implementing standards. This meeting is about learning. It is about teachers learning. It is about principals learning. It is about central office staff learning. It is even about the foundation learning. Unless we all learn more and become much more proficient at what we do, the middle school students we care about will not perform at the higher levels of which they are capable. Student performance is directly linked to our performance. Standards are a means to improve both….

Unless we are clear about what we want students to know and be able to do, students’ lives will be torn by rip tides of conflicting messages about the purpose of their schooling. This is the current situation in many of your schools. Students do not read your schools’ mission statements or school improvement plans, and, if they did read them, those statements would make no more impression on the students than they do on adults.

A school communicates its purpose through the attitudes and actions of individual teachers and administrators. Some teachers communicate that their purpose is to get through the day unscathed. Students understand this message very well, and their performance reflects their teachers’ lassitude and focus on the clock. Other teachers communicate that their purpose is to teach “the students who want to learn.” This message is not lost on the other students, whose performance reflects their teachers’ lack of commitment and misplaced priorities. Conversely, there are teachers, many of them in this room, who communicate every day through their fiery determination, dogged preparation, and unflagging support that their purpose is that students can and will learn. It is not surprising that the academic performance and on-task behavior of their students is the envy of many less successful teachers….

If we want students to learn, we have to get our message straight. Standards can help us. If standards are clear and meaningful, we can use them to communicate among ourselves and to others what students should know and be able to do as a result of their experiences in the middle grades. Standards can provide educators, families, and communities with a better understanding of the purpose of middle school education. We can use standards to focus ourselves, our schools, and our students on learning and performance. Standards can help us become more conscious of the quality of student work and prompt us to scrutinize that work more closely and agonize over it more productively. Standards can be a tool for teachers to use to help students understand that effort and completion of work are important steps toward carrying out an assignment, but that the quality of their work indicates the level of their performance. If we do it right, students will learn more and perform at higher levels. Even test scores will increase…

Some of you still consider standards-based reform as one more project, one more activity on your schools’ very long list of priorities. However, you cannot achieve this reform at the margins. If you try, you will see marginal results. Your schools will either use standards to mobilize the entire school community for student learning and hold yourselves accountable for the extent to which students do or do not perform at standard, or your schools will continue to conduct business as usual with the usual results. These may sound like harsh words, but they are not nearly so harsh as the consequences students will face if we do not help them learn how to perform at higher levels. If we do not believe that most students can perform at standard, and if we are not serious about implementing reforms that will enable them to do so, then there is no point in having standards because students will never know the difference. (Shooting for the Sun, Mizell, pp. 95-98).

Lee and Smith (1999) examined the effects on achievement of the support students receive from teachers, parents, peers, and neighborhoods (as reported by students). The researchers examined 6th through 8th graders in 304 Chicago K-8 public schools that varied in the degree to which the school mission focused on learning and the degree to which students reported that teachers challenged them to do well. The researchers found that students who felt supported and were in schools that emphasized academic rigor showed the largest gains in achievement in 6th and 8th grades (Wonder Years, 2004). Mizell presents a compelling argument in favor of the use of standards, changing the mindset of the different stakeholders responsible for students and the future implications of lukewarm attempts at middle school reform. Joan Lipsitz, noted middle school expert, acknowledges a sense of urgency that the academic performance of too many middle grades is unacceptable (1999). Rigor and relevance of the curriculum has often taken a back seat within the middle school concept. Mizell, along with Breaking Ranks and an increasing volume of research, supports strengthening the curriculum and instruction of the middle school.

However, equally important are the developmental needs of the adolescent student. One component of the middle school concept is advisement. Mitch Bogen writes in the January/February 2007 edition of the Harvard Education Letter, “A growing body of evidence supports the importance of personalized learning environments and strong relationships with school staff in keeping students engaged in school and motivated to learn. These findings provided much of the impetus behind the small schools movement, in which advisory programs are often a key component, and have inspired many larger schools to launch advisories as well. But the simplicity of the idea belies the challenges involved in implementing it effectively. Although many advisory programs have proven disappointing, even schools that have had problems with advisories are going back to the drawing board to get it right.”

As articulated in the vision statement of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, high performing middle schools are academically excellent, developmentally responsive, and socially equitable. Successful middle schools engage in building leadership capacity and a collaborative culture; improving learning, teaching, and assessment for all students; creating a school culture to support high achievement; data-based inquiry and decision making; networking with like-minded schools; and, developing district capacity (Turning Points 2000).

Review of Different Models, Studies and Articles

Today in the United States there are approximately 9 million students in public middle schools (typically, schools that include grades 6 through 8). Approximately 6 million students were enrolled in public middle schools that had the 6-8 configuration. This is by far the most common type of school for young teens. Students in 6-8 schools represented 12.6% of all students in K-12 schools; 1.6% were in 5-8 schools, 2.8% in 7-8 schools, and 2.3% in K-8 schools.

Simply in terms of raw numbers, most 6-8 schools were in rural areas. However, a higher percentage of all schools in urban areas had this configuration (11%) than those in rural (9%). Although 7-8 schools were more common than 5-8 schools overall, larger proportions of the schools in rural and suburban areas had one of these configurations than did schools in urban areas. In comparison, 6-8 schools were as common in urban areas as they were in rural and suburban areas (Wonder Years, p. 123).

There are a number of articles and studies that have been cited as evidence supporting either keeping sixth grade at the elementary school(s) and/or supportive of the K-8 model. The latter is not a realistic option since the elementary schools of the four towns are neither equipped nor have the capacity to house eight grades. Nevertheless, let’s review each study and/or article.

In a 1987-1990 longitudinal study comparing student achievement of 6th graders in elementary and middle schools in the Austin Independent School District, Texas, elementary 6th graders performed better, in general, on achievement tests (Iowa Tests of Basic Skills) than middle school 6th graders (Appendix B). However, after the first year of testing (1987-1988), there has been no difference between both groups on the same achievement test.

Additionally, when elementary 6th graders reached 7th grade, they did not perform as well on achievement tests in relation to 7th graders who attended 6th grade in a middle school. Also, the study is over 20 years old.

A 1971 Michigan study compared 138 middle schools with 138 junior high schools (Appendix C). The study revealed that most middle schools in Michigan were established primarily to reduce overcrowded conditions in other schools, whereas the grade and age level organization of the state’s junior high schools were retained mainly to provide a program specifically designed for students in the age group served (Gatewood & Walker, 1971).

There are several issues that bear a closer look:

* The purpose and reason as to why middle schools were built in this Michigan study (overcrowding) is not a factor in the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District;
* The study identified junior high schools as either grades 7-9, 7-8, or 8-9 and middle schools as a “school separately administered and containing grades seven and eight and at least one grade below seven.” Therefore, 18% of the “middle schools” were 5-8, 4% were 6-9 and 1% were 4-8; and
* The study is almost 40 years old.

The Cleveland Municipal School District began phasing out middle schools by restructuring 21 of its 80 K-5 elementary schools into K-8 schools (Appendix D). The study found a statistically significant difference between K-8 and middle school outcomes, favoring K-8 schools. One of the reasons given is the discontinuity associated with transitioning to a middle grades school. Another reason given for this statistical difference is the emphasis on child development at the middle level of the K-8 schools.

Upon closer examination, the reason for the success of these K-8 schools is being attributed to a different approach to middle grades education provided in these K-8 settings. Another viewpoint to that would be that the real reason for the K-8 schools’ success would be a change in the culture rather than a change in the grade configuration.

Also, the study only uses only one set of data points (Spring 2002 Grade 7 Ohio Reading and Math Proficiency Test) as conclusive evidence.

A 1991 study on the “Impact of Transition from Junior Highs to Middle Schools on Science Programs” (Appendix E) uncovered several findings:

* Seventh and 8th grade teachers did not perceive 6th grade teachers’ teaching as “equivalent;” and,
* Sixth grade teachers felt a lower status due to the fact that their equipment and supplies were not equal to the upper grades’ teachers.

Again, this study had several noteworthy issues:

* The study was conducted when the school system had completed its first year of reorganizing into middle schools;
* Only three middle schools with grades 6-8 were included in the study;
* Seventh and 8th grade teachers typically stayed in their classrooms and the sixth (and ninth) grade teachers were displaced. This disparate treatment could have contributed to their feelings of inferiority; and
* The difference in teacher certification and preparation also contributed to the lower status perception. However, these 6th grade teachers staying in the elementary school would still have a problem with content area mastery when teaching science at the elementary level.

In Yecke’s 2006 article (Appendix F), the author claims that the middle school concept has “wrought havoc” on the intellectual development of many middle school students. She cites several cities that are pursuing the K-8 model over the middle school model (Baltimore, Milwaukee, Philadelphia) and then cites “Ten Strategies for Transition.” However, there are some inconsistencies in some of the Strategies:

Strategy 2: Add higher rather than lower grades.

This is actually contradicted by the Shimniok and Schmoker (1992) article “How We Made the Transition from Junior High to Middle School” (Appendix G) where they found a successful strategy on adding a lower grade level (6th) to convert the junior high into a middle school.

Strategy 5: Establish a strict transfer policy.

This strategy is really about exclusion. If middle schools were allowed to do this, they too would see an improvement.

Strategy 6: Modify facilities.

In an era of shrinking budgets, this is prohibitively expensive and not realistic.

Strategy 7: Have high expectations for both academics and behavior.

This can and should be done at all middle schools and it entails a difference in approach and philosophy not exclusive to K-8 schools.

Strategy 9: Provide greater access to advanced courses and electives.

This is actually a limitation of the K-8 model.

Strategy 10: Provide greater access to extracurricular opportunities.

Another limitation of the K-8 model.

Superintendent’s Recommendation

Many of the aforementioned groups invested in shaping educational policy and practice affecting middle schools stop short of recommending an appropriate grade level configuration (4-8; 5-8; 6-8; 7-8; 4-9; 5-9; 6-9; K-8; 6-12,etc.).There are legitimate philosophical differences about grade configuration, and there is likely no one "right" answer. The only "right" answer universally accepted is the following: "Regardless of grade configuration, policymakers, school boards, and superintendents must stop making decisions based on budgets and the transportation schedules and instead create schools based on what is best for young adolescents-schools that address the intellectual and development needs of each student" (Breaking Ranks/Executive Summary, 2006).

The conversation in this school district regarding moving 6th graders to the middle school is neither predicated on transportation schedules (since the current system is fully operational and sustainable, although there are possible areas for savings) nor on overcrowding (even after redistricting the elementary schools are within capacity and percentage of utilization).

I have used what I consider to be educational imperatives as the criterion upon which to base my recommendation. Keeping in mind that there are opportunities for community point/counterpoint and sophistry, it is my intent to provide a compelling vision as to how moving the 6th grade to the middle school fits into a larger theoretical construct designed, minimally, to raise standards and expectations for students and staff, improve the focus of instruction, enhance opportunities for students and staff, and ultimately increase student achievement and outcomes.

The benefits of moving the 6th grade to the middle school include, but are not limited to, the following:

* Expose 6th grade students to a more intense, rigorous, content driven curricula;
* Provide 6th grade students with opportunities to learn algebraic concepts, engage in scientific discovery/investigative paradigms, be exposed to literature, grammar, and writing in English/Language Arts, and become familiar with the major themes/concepts of political and physical geography in social studies (6th grade teachers do not possess the necessary credentials or certifications for this kind of specificity in the content areas);
* Begin a 6th-12th grade continuum designed to increase student enrollment in Honors and/or Advanced Placement courses in high school by building student and teacher capacity. This cannot be done effectively if 6th grade, as well as its students, are spread throughout several elementary schools; and,
* Start, if necessary, implementation of intervention programs earlier at the secondary level.

Additionally, there are also developmental issues that need to be considered. The adolescent stage is the most difficult phase in a student’s life. Students are beginning to mature physically, and to think of themselves as individuals outside their families. Their attentions turn to exercising independence and developing strong relationships with peers—while avoiding exposure and embarrassment (NMSA & NAESP, 2002). It is my belief that as these adolescents begin to view themselves and the world they live in differently, keeping them as 6th graders in the elementary school is delaying the inevitable and contradictory to their socio-emotional development.

The concern parents have, supported by research, is the actual transition from elementary school to middle school—regardless of the grade level. Transition to middle school is marked by several changes in educational expectations and practices (NMSA & NAESP, 2002). Children go from self-contained classrooms with a familiar set of peers and one or two teachers to interacting with more peers, more teachers, and with intensified expectations for both performance and individual responsibility.

In a position paper jointly adopted by the National Middle School Association and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (2002), it states the following:

Transition to middle school is marked by several changes in educational expectations and practices. In most elementary schools, children are taught in self-contained classrooms with a familiar set of peers and one or two teachers. Once students reach middle schools, however, they must interact with more peers, more teachers, and with intensified expectations for both performance and individual responsibility. Social, developmental, and academic experiences are affected, requiring them to adjust to what they see as new settings, structures, and expectations. All of this comes at a time when they are also experiencing a host of changes associated with the transition from childhood to adolescence….

A well-designed transition plan can restore the strong sense of belonging the entering middle school student once felt in elementary school - a key element associated with the positive motivation to enjoy and succeed in academic tasks….

The concerns most often expressed by students about to enter middle school focus on the routine of the new school: finding their way around and getting to class on time, dealing with lockers and combination locks, and mixing with older students. They also worry about choosing sports or extracurricular activities, and keeping up with homework and long-term assignments. Schools at both levels can mitigate many of these concerns by providing orientation activities that demystify new routines well before the first day at middle school. Involving students at both levels in the planning and implementation of these activities ensures they are appropriate to student needs and provide positive initial contact between younger children and their older peers….

The most common transition activities include meetings with incoming students and their parents and student visits to the new middle school. Typically, there is some type of information sharing between middle school administrators and counselors and elementary staff to help facilitate the transition initiatives….

The attributes of successful transition programs include the following:

* A sensitivity to the anxieties accompanying a move to a new school setting
* The importance of parents and teachers as partners in this effort

* The recognition that becoming comfortable in a new school setting is an ongoing process, not a single event.

The NMSA and the NAESP call on principals, teachers, counselors, and parents at both the elementary and middle school levels to work together in the planning and implementation of a “transition program” designed to ease the apprehension of incoming middle school students. It is clear that collaboration among all who share responsibility and concern for our children’s welfare is ultimately the most effective transition strategy we can employ (NMSA & NAESP, 2002).

Moving 6th grade to the middle school as an isolated strategy while maintaining the status quo at the middle school is insufficient. It is just one piece of a larger, strategic vision of creating in Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools a world-class educational system that looks beyond the MCAS and prepares our students for "a future we can't even describe" (David Warlike).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Amherst super: 'We can do a lot better'

Hampshire Gazette
Saturday, July 25, 2009

AMHERST - To Alberto Rodriguez, the new superintendent of schools, this town where education is paramount has gotten a little too comfortable.

"That's reasonable, because the building's not on fire," he said in an interview. "We're doing OK, but my position is that we can do a lot better. We have all the ingredients to blow the roof off the system."

The Amherst schools aren't doing enough to help struggling students, and aren't pushing capable children either, Rodriguez said.

"A town like this should have National Merit Scholarship finalists coming out of the woodwork," he said. "It's not the teachers' fault; it's the culture of 'everything is fine.' I see a lot of lost potential. We have a well-educated populace, involved parents, little crime, no huge poverty and good schools, so why are we misfiring?"

Rodriguez comes from the rough political landscape of Miami, so he's not a timid soul. As he arrives, the Amherst schools are reducing staff by the equivalent of 55 positions and facing hot-button issues like the closure of Mark's Meadow moving the sixth grade to the Regional Middle School and regionalization.

He's got opinions

He has opinions on all of them. And he has views about education that challenge the status quo.

Rodriguez, 49, has lived in Miami almost his whole life, and has been a history teacher, principal and assistant superintendent there.

His wife, a school guidance counselor, and his two daughters, 19 and 20, still live there. He and his wife communicate regularly using online video and see each other in person every two weeks.

"Leaving Miami was not just a career change for me; it was a life change," he said. "I'm taking this position at great personal sacrifice." Lifting two framed photographs, he said, "This is all I have of my daughters."

Asked who his role models are, he cites his father, who left Cuba in 1955, and Ronald Reagan, with whom he shares a belief in limited government. But he resists political pigeonholing and said his beliefs come from both sides of the spectrum.

He saw Amherst's ad for a superintendent in Education Week magazine, and got a call about the job from the head of a search firm. "I felt I could create greater change as a superintendent," he said. "I was looking for a larger, bigger challenge."

Rodriguez is transitioning from a city where parents are not so involved in their children's schools to a town where every decision is scrutinized. The superintendent has a more hands-on role here, and he has to adopt a different mind set, he said.

"It's a small ship compared to a trans-Atlantic ocean liner," he said. "Which can turn more quickly?"

Graduate schools of education are not equipping tomorrow's teachers to teach today's youths, Rodriguez said. They're not teaching future educators that today's students need to be engaged and won over, he said.

"You need to sell (students) on the fact that they need to learn what you're teaching them," he said.

"If we keep addressing them the way we were taught, we're doomed to fail. We need to be probing, seeing what it is that awakens this spirit of curiosity, and it's not the same for every child."

Amherst teachers care deeply about students, but he wants to "change the conversation," he said.

"We need to use data to inform instruction," Rodriguez said. "We need to be mindful that this is a new generation, able to process information at many levels. We need to be at the top of our game on how the brain works. There are so many other media that teachers have to compete against."

Narrow the gap

He also wants to narrow the gap between low-achieving and high-achieving students. He favors frequent assessments, immediate return of data back to teachers, and monitoring of student progress.

Rodriguez had lunch with Town Manager Larry Shaffer Thursday, and has met with University of Massachusetts Chancellor Robert Holub. He said he wants to have closer ties with UMass and the area colleges in terms of mentoring teachers and learning about the latest instructional technology, he said.

The Amherst schools' staff cuts require a different approach to teaching, he said. But he also noted that he "won't dump more work on teachers."

At the same time, school supporters need to prepare for an anticipated tax override vote next year.

"We need to decide as a community what kind of education we want," he said. "If we need to go through another round of cuts, the kind of educational system we will provide will not be the same. It will be unrecognizable. We need to have a heart-to-heart with the community. Do we want bare-bones schools, with no frills and increased class sizes, or diverse and inclusive schools, the kind of quality system Amherst residents have come to love?"

Further cuts would impair the schools' ability to recruit, he said. "No one runs into a burning building," he said.

Rodriguez said moving the sixth grade to the middle school would enable children to start algebra and literature sooner. "If we want to push the envelope, the current configuration doesn't lend itself to that," he said.

He said he intends to visit Mark's Meadow frequently in its last year "to give parents assurance we haven't forgotten them." This year "counts very much" for students, and the time to pack up is next summer, he said.


A four-town committee has been looking at K-12 regionalization. Rodriguez said this could be more efficient in terms of aligning the curriculum and "getting all the systems talking to each other."

He called the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System a valuable data source, but said it shouldn't be the only one. "To use one indicator of the quality of a school is wrong," he said.

Rodriguez said he knows he has to pick his battles. He's looking at three or four goals for his first year, but declined to name them before he can talk to the School Committee.

He hopes to be a consensus-builder in the highly charged political environment of Amherst where, as the T-shirts say, "only the H is silent."

Grading Amherst schools: Outside report commissioned by new superintendent finds achievement, curriculum gaps amid 'pockets of excellence'

Hampshire Gazette

Saturday, July 25, 2009

AMHERST - A blunt report commissioned by the new superintendent of schools says the Amherst district should do more for poor and lower-performing students, overhaul the curriculum and find better ways to measure progress.

Irving Hamer, deputy superintendent of the Memphis public schools, spent 10 days in Amherst this month at the request of Alberto Rodriguez, who started as superintendent July 1. He reviewed data, interviewed administrators and talked to Rodriguez.

Rodriguez said Hamer's report includes "the good, the bad and the ugly."

"I know we do things well, but that won't inform my work," he told the School Committee this week. "I wasn't hired to be a maintenance man but a change agent."

He said he didn't try to influence Hamer and didn't want "a flowery report. I want what needed to be done." He said that for the Amherst schools, "It's not a matter of working harder, it's working smarter and within a strategic plan. We don't want to be like a hamster on a wheel."

Rodriguez said the Hamer report should not be used "as a club to bash staff over the head," adding that many of the changes recommended do not require spending more money. The report cost $4,999.

Hamer, a native of Harlem, has served on the New York City school board and was deputy superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where Rodriguez was an assistant superintendent. He read Hamer's entire report to the committee Wednesday, and several members made supportive statements afterwards.

"I'm tremendously impressed," said Farshid Hajir, the new chairman of the Regional School Committee. "The conditions make this a suitable time to do some reflection, with a new superintendent, new committee members, a new fiscal reality and pressure from the state to regionalize.

"This is a perfect time to look at ourselves and take stock of where we are and where we want to go."

Member Catherine Sanderson called the report "inspirational" but said it presents a "daunting list" of challenges.

Rodriguez said the goal is to develop a model of excellence. "We have excellence going on in pockets. We need to make it uniform and not leave it to happenstance."

Amherst has "pockets of extraordinary wealth and growing enclaves of low-income families," the Hamer report reads. "A steady migration of low-income families from Holyoke and Springfield is an emerging challenge to the school district."

There is an achievement gap in Amherst "that is masked by the good standing of the district and the performance of a majority of the students" in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

Hamer noted "the absence of a coherent K-12 literacy program, various report card models among elementary schools, teacher-developed programs of instruction that differ within the same building and between buildings, limited efforts to support struggling students, no common assessments except for MCAS, and the absence of an aligned curriculum."

He cited the "gross under-utilization" of the Regional Middle School, which houses Grades 7 and 8. School officials are looking at the option of moving Grade 6 to the middle school.

"There is a general perception that the middle school is not consistently rigorous across the entire faculty and that its students do not acquire the appropriate knowledge and skills," the report reads.

It criticizes the trimester system for requiring too many study halls and calls the absence of district-wide assessment "a glaring vacuum."

Hamer noted that last year, of 178 students starting kindergarten, 71 came from families with incomes low enough to make them eligible for free and reduced prices for lunch.

"Yet the district offers no pre-kindergarten program for students living in poverty," he wrote. "It is generally understood that the achievement gap begins in kindergarten among children living in poverty because they begin school with underdeveloped skills. Without intentional programs and interventions, there is little likelihood that students hobbled at the beginning of their schooling will close the gap between themselves and their more advantaged peers."

Hamer also saw problems with higher-achieving students.

"There is recorded criticism that even for students that benefit from enriched learning environments at home and extensive supplementary education, the teaching is not deep and rigorous, albeit wide-ranging," he wrote.

Hamer saw a need for more efficiency in transportation, custodial services, information systems and purchasing.

Greater accountability, such as a "scorecard recording the successful implementation of goals," is also needed, he wrote.

Most of the district's official goals are more tactical than strategic, Hamer wrote. He cited as an example "the absence of a strategy for recruiting new teachers that might advance student achievement and respond to the needs of our sub-groups."

Hamer urged better relations with parents, labor unions, taxpayers, elected officials, businesses and local campuses.

"The need for strong, focused constituent support is evident in the likely event that a tax override is necessary within the next 12 to 24 months, and some form of regionalization is crafted and implemented, new and expanded partnerships with higher education will be essential, and the need for a robust, multi-year information and instructional technology plan becomes more obvious," he wrote.

Successful implementation of changes "is likely to be transformative and may require some change management," Hamer wrote.

"These findings are meant to inform you, as superintendent, with opportunities for improvement and to help you formulate a compelling vision with a strategic plan designed to realize that vision," he wrote.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Amherst and Regional Meeting, July 22, 2009

This was a very long meeting (3 hours), and was really a joint meeting of the Amherst and Regional School Committees--it was also our first meeting with our new superintendent, Dr. Alberto Rodriguez. I'm going to do my best to report on the events of the meeting-I'd also encourage you to watch it on ACTV because it was a three hour meeting and I am not going to have every detail in this blog entry (but will focus on hitting the highlights).

The meeting started with the election of officers for both committees. Farshid Hajir (member from Leverett) was elected Chair of the Regional Committee, and I was elected vice-chair. Andy Churchill was re-elected Chair of the Amherst Committee, and Irv Rhodes was elected vice-chair. We then had a brief review of the agenda and approved some minutes.

Next, Dr. Rodriguez read aloud a report on our district that was written by Dr. Irving Hamer (an outside consultant who he had hired to assess the current state of our district). Dr. Hamer has extensive experience in education (now serves as Deputy Superintendent of Instruction in Memphis, has served on the NYC school board, worked in multiple districts, etc.). I've put this report in a separate blog posting which is right before this one so you can read it yourself (it is also supposed to be put on the district webpage soon). The superintendent started by saying that we do a lot of good things in this district, but he asked Dr. Hamer to focus on areas in which we could improvement. He also noted that teachers/staff in this district do a very good job -- and that the point of this report is not to "bash" people, but rather to help identify things that could be better. I will assume that most readers of my blog are now reading the report themselves -- but let me briefly say that my read of the report was that there are multiple areas of concern in this district and many things that could be better (which I think is a fair statement). In brief, he stated "We are good, but we could be much, much better" and that he believes low achieving, middle achieving, and high achieving students are all UNDERperforming. He also noted that many of the ways in which he wants to see the district improve are NOT driven by money/finances (which I find refreshing and encouraging).

After the report was read, the committee discussed the report and asked some questions of the superintendent. I asked about hiring an assistant superintendent (the failed search this spring), given the scope of this work, which he sees as essential (and he is hoping this will be possible). Kristen Luschen (new member from Shutesbury) then asked what are the priorities, given all that needs to be done -- he believes the SC needs to discuss this, and will at a future meeting. Steve Rivkin made four points: there are some specific things that need to be addressed (K to 5 math, K to 12 science), that we spend a lot on interventions and may need to reallocate some of this money to fund other approaches (such as PreK for low income kids), we should consider placing MORE demands on educationally-fragile kids (such as homework and summer reading), and we should consider the district philosophy of not really teaching to high achieving kids (e.g., telling 7th graders to teach themselves the extensions work). Andy then made 3 points: he supports the idea of PreK for all low income kids, he sees urgency to hire the assistant superintendent for curriculum, and he believes doing PR/outreach to the community is essential so they understand and trust the decisions that are being made by the SC/superintendent/administrators. Kathleen noted that the achievement gap increases during elementary school, and that the assistant superintendent needed to focus on this gap, and not just be swayed by some very high achivement on the part of some students. Irv noted that we need to focus on a limited number of goals as well as strategies for achieving these goals. He also wondered how we could fund PreK for all low income kids.

We then turned to the topic of future meetings and subcommittee assignments. We decided to form three new subcommittees (budget/finance, policy, curriculum) and to move to 1 Amherst and 1 Regional meeting a month (the Regional Meetings have been occurring twice a month), with the idea that the subcommittee meetings could replace one of the regular meetings and be more intensive working meetings. Farshid asked for volunteers for the subcommittee, and we tentatively agreed that Andy, Irv and Debbie would serve on Finance/Budget, Farshid and I would serve on Policy, and that Kristen/Steve/Kathleen/Tracy would serve on Curriculum. For Amherst members, it was agreed that Steve and Irv would serve on a redistricting committee), that Andy and Irv would serve on the Budget Coordinating Group, and that Kathleen and I would serve on the Joint Capital Planning Committee.

We then had a pretty long discussion about the issue of 6th grade placement. In brief, Dr. Rodriguez expressed his strong view that 6th grade should be in the middle school for educational/pedagogical reasons (kids being taught by teachers with discipline specific training), and that he believed that move should potentially happen with the redistricting/closing of Marks Meadow. He also stated that if Amherst chooses to send their 6th graders to the MS, the other towns would have a choice as to whether they preferred to send their 6th graders or not. There was a bit of a debate at this point as to this issue -- with some concerns expressed by members of small towns in particular about whether this was the right approach as well as the timing of this decision in light of regionalization. Ultimately, this discussion was postponed for a subsequent meeting (with Dr. Rodriguez noting that he would attend the next regionalization meeting to describe why he felt this move would be educationally beneficial).

Finally, we discussed future meetings dates. It was decided that the Amherst meeting would occur on the 4th Tuesday of each month and the Regional meeting would occur on the 2nd Tuesday of each month (depending somewhat on specific dates/schedules, which we will review next time). Given vacation schedules, however, we will meet alternative dates for the summer: Tuesday August 18th (Regional), Tuesday August 25th (Amherst), and Tuesday September 1 (Regional).

One more thing: As readers of this blog know well, I didn't support the hiring of Dr. Rodriguez as superintendent -- and I had grave concerns about whether his background/experience would enable him to effectively take on the serious work that I felt needed to be done in this (challenging) district. So, let me be the first (or perhaps ONE of the firsts!) to say that I believe I was wrong -- after reading this report, and hearing his thoughts about areas in which the district needs work, I believe he is recognizing precisely where this district needs to go (I especially liked him comment last night that "we are good, but should be much, much better"), and I am hopeful that he will have the ability to take us in that direction. I thus stand fully corrected on my initial hesitation, and I truly look forward to working with him on these impressive and ambitious goals.

Report to the Superintendent on the State of the District

July 13, 2009

To: Alberto Rodriguez, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Amherst, Pelham, and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Districts

From: Dr. Irving Hamer, Consultant

Re: Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Districts


1. Scope of Work Statement

As part of the transition of Dr. Alberto Rodriguez into the role of Superintendent of the Amherst, Pelham, and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Districts, the consultant was engaged to do an exhaustive review of some of the quantitative and qualitative profile data of the school system. The review of the districts’ profile is intended to inform the conversation between the Superintendent, as the Chief Executive Officer of the school system, and the consultant, in preparation for developing a program of work that would build on organizational strength and remediate some challenges.

2. Methodology

A memorandum of critical queries was submitted to the Superintendent. The request for information was distributed among the management/leadership team of the school district with a directive to compile, and make available to the consultant, the responses to the critical queries. Numerous binders, reports, data files, financial documents, and folders were assembled and made available to the consultant.

Over ten days, fifteen hours per day, the consultant reviewed thousands of pages of information, reviewed data files, interviewed nine central administrators, three principals, and had numerous conversations with the Superintendent.

However, the observations made during this intensive period are limited by the amount of time spent observing and studying. In such a situation, there is likely to be important information that eludes observation and consideration. Nonetheless, the following observations are predicated upon available data, evidence, and first person interviews.

3. Observational Snapshots of the District

The Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Districts reside in a university corridor that is urban-suburban in character and demographics. There are pockets of extraordinary wealth and growing enclaves of low-income families. A steady migration of low income families from Holyoke and Springfield is an emerging challenge to the school district. So too is the vibrant language diversity that is evident in Amherst. Like many urban-suburban school districts, there is an achievement gap that is masked by the good standing of the district and the performance of a majority of the students on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).

For instance, during my many conversations with staff, some of them were surprised to learn that 13.3% of Hispanic students and 28.6% of Limited English Proficient/English Language Learner (ELL) students dropped out of the 4-Year Adjusted Cohort that graduated in 2008. Note should be made that the number of students in each category were small, perhaps accounting for the lack of familiarity with the condition. However, the small number of Hispanic and ELL Students in the cohort also makes their failure to graduate a more compelling issue.

The schools in the district are not articulated. This is the case with regard to curriculum, student and parent reporting, assessment, organization, operational efficiencies, programmatic priorities and focus. Examples of this condition include, but are not limited to, the following: The absence of a coherent K-12 literacy program, various report card models among elementary schools, teacher developed programs of instruction that differ within the same building and between buildings, limited efforts to support struggling students, no common assessments except for MCAS, and the absence of an aligned curriculum.

Efforts are underway to develop curriculum maps in all the core content areas. The alignment between the scope of the curriculum maps and the capacity of teachers to implement the curriculum guides is not clear. For instance, the curriculum map for Grade Six Mathematics calls for the teaching and learning of some algebraic concepts; however, the district has no certified math teachers in Grade Six.

The location of Grade Six in each of the elementary schools punctuates the alignment/articulation challenge. Teachers in elementary schools are not required to be certified in a content area. Students get six years of elementary instruction and content before moving into a two year middle school. One unintended consequence of the location of Grade Six in elementary schools is the gross under-utilization of the facility housing Grades Seven and Eight.

In addition, there is a general perception that the middle school for Grades Seven and Eight is not consistently rigorous across the entire faculty and that its students do not acquire the appropriate knowledge and skills. Some parents enroll their children in private schools for the middle years. After private school, the students return to the district for four years of high school.

As a school of choice in the region, the high school is challenged by alignment/articulation issues with the middle school, intervention supports for its struggling students, a trimester system that requires study halls because of significant reductions in the teaching staff, and the reliance on outdated MCAS data to report on student achievement.

Indeed, the absence of district-wide assessment tools is a glaring vacuum. There are no formative or diagnostic tools that are employed to ascertain student needs, inform differentiated instruction, progress monitor student achievement, and/or predict student performance. This condition is particularly poignant because of the increased diversity in the district and the need for responsive, timely interventions that support struggling students.

Despite the presence of significant Title I resources in the district, a testimony to the economic diversity in the district, there is widespread frustration with the lack of a coherent effort to attend to the needs of sub-groups that constitute the epicenter of the achievement gap in the system.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the early grades. Last year, there were 178 students who started Kindergarten in the district. Nearly 40% (71) of the students were eligible for free and reduced lunch. Yet the district offers no Pre-Kindergarten program for students living in poverty. It is generally understood that the achievement gap begins in kindergarten among children living in poverty because they begin school with underdeveloped skills in literacy and numeracy. Without intentional programs and interventions, there is little likelihood that students hobbled at the beginning of their schooling will close the gap between themselves and their more advantaged peers.

Equally important is the matter of teacher repertoire and effectiveness with all enrolled students. A review of the professional development program for the district did not reveal elements devoted to serving students with various needs. Correspondingly, there is recorded criticism that even for students that benefit from enriched learning environments at home and extensive supplementary education, the teaching is not deep and rigorous albeit wide ranging. In some measure, the criticism is supported by MCAS scores in English Language Arts in the elementary schools and the very expansive array of courses at the high school. (It is notable that there are no online courses included in the array).

The wide array of course offerings is, however, threatened by the financial profile of the district that prudently assumes that there are likely to be additional reductions in revenue, increases in expenses, and a need to reduce expenditures—including teachers. And, the financial outlook requires that the district be more efficient and cost-effective.

Currently, there are operational areas where the need for efficiency is evident. Some of the areas include, but are not limited to, transportation, custodial services, information systems, and purchasing. For instance, the information systems supporting Finance and Operations and Human Resources do not interface; there is little route optimization for the transportation service provided students; and there are incidences of technology purchases not approved by Information Systems.

A corresponding condition has to do with accountability. There were an estimated 76 Major District Goals distributed among each functional unit in 2008-2009. There is no scorecard recording the successful implementation of the goals among the array of materials reviewed for this consulting assignment. The condition suggests the district struggles with implementing its goals with fidelity and being accountable for doing what is planned.

It is notable that the Major District Goals are mostly tactical and are not part of a discernible strategy—short or long term. The absence of strategic initiatives compromises the integrity of the tactical goals and renders each functional area a “silo” responsible for discrete, unconnected activities that, if implemented, have marginal impact on organizational effectiveness/efficiency. Examples of this observation include the absence of a strategy for recruiting new teachers that might advance student achievement and respond to the needs of our sub-groups, to reverse the pattern of declining enrollment of nearly 500 students in recent years, the lack of a defined strategy to implement the districts’ new evaluation tool that might improve teacher effectiveness, the absence of three year financial projections given the recent revenue reductions and the continuing increase in expenses, ongoing needs for physical facilities, and the need for strategies to generate alternative revenue (grants, fees, events, etc.).

Despite an increasing need, the management of constituents (internal and external, parents, labor unions, tax payers, elected officials, municipalities, local business, higher education institutions, etc.) relations is not apparent. The need for strong, focused constituent support is evident in the likely event that a tax override is necessary within the next 12-24 months, and some form of regionalization is crafted and implemented, new and expanded partnerships with higher education will be essential, and the need for a robust, multi-year information and instructional technology plan becomes more obvious (none of which can be done by the school district alone).

4. Proposed Program of Work

What follows is a proposed program of work that responds to the observational snapshots made by the consultant during an intense, albeit short, period of time. The elements of the program of work are not in priority order or a preferred sequence for implementation. A key challenge for implementation will be who will be responsible for which elements and how much of the program of work can be simultaneously executed. Mostly, the program of work that is sketched below seeks to identify key strategic initiatives that will yield transformative outcomes if implemented with fidelity and accountability measures. The strategic initiatives will require teamwork, transparency, external partnerships, critical policy work by the School Committee, high quality data to support and justify the courageous decisions/actions that have to be made, and the re-deployment of existing human and material resources.

4a. Strategic Goals

Curriculum and Instruction

* Overhaul, refresh, and align curriculum and instruction with emphasis on K-12 literacy, effective teaching, and articulation within and across school buildings.


* Develop and install a multi-dimensional, data-rich array of assessment tools that diagnose, progress monitor, inform instruction, and supports the management of student and school outcomes.

Universal Achievement

* Create programs and structures to accelerate student achievement and eliminate the achievement gap.


* Design and implement a plan that aligns teaching and learning throughout the region.

Constituent Management

* Engage external and internal partners to support and advance student, community, and organizational development.


* Install system-wide targets that drive academic, operational, and fiscal performance and efficiencies.

4b. Curriculum and Instruction

* The need for curricula and instructional alignment demands that a seasoned leader be installed to guide, develop, and adjust the K-12 curriculum and the corresponding teaching strategies. It is strongly recommended that an Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction be recruited and installed as soon as possible.

* Install a K-12 literacy program with appropriate enrichment and intervention components which emphasizes writing across all content areas.

* Align curriculum with effective teaching in all of the core content areas, particularly at middle school.

* Introduce online courses at the high school as a delivery system for selected content.

* Establish protocols for school and classroom “walk throughs” to support the implementation of key initiatives and to provide frequent feedback to teachers and administrators.

* Set measurable targets for student and school outcomes that align with NAEP standards.

* Collaborate with higher education institutions to integrate state of the art instructional technology into instruction.

* Link all professional development to the program of work for curriculum and instruction.

4c. Assessment

* Develop and install a standards-based, common report card for students and parents.

* Install formative assessment tools that inform instruction, progress monitor, and provide rich data on student and school performance in a time sensitive manner.

* Install and employ diagnostic tools that support intervention supports for struggling students.

* Develop performance assessments for those content areas not subject to MCAS testing.

4d. Universal Achievement

* Design and implement a PreK program particularly for young students eligible for free and reduced lunch.

* Develop and deliver a coherent system of interventions for struggling students, including but not limited to, tutorials by college students, computer-assisted instruction, study groups, and family literacy programs.

* Provide mentoring support and internship opportunities for selected students.

4e. Regionalization

* Stimulate and provide guidance on the completion of a study to regionalize/redistrict the school system. Infuse a measure of urgency into the planning by establishing targets and a time and events schedule.

* Develop a compelling educational imperative for regionalization that envisions the 6-8 middle school becoming a school of choice for the region. (Be careful not to forecast expense reduction—often such efforts end up costing more initially.)

* Direct district staff to develop a three-year business and operational plan for the possible expansion of the region.

4f. Constituent Management

* Schedule and conduct Town Hall meetings in each community served by the school district and secure the participation of municipal leadership.

* Develop a partnership relationship with the institutions of higher education serving the region.

* Meet with the parents of students on a regular basis and support their focused program of work (Pre-K, extended day, enriched instructional technology integration, etc.).

* Regularly brief local media on developments and accomplishments and conditions of the school district. Arrange to write an editorial for the newspaper periodically and participate in talk radio conversations with other professional educators (particularly administrative leadership at the universities). Craft a common message to be shared with all constituents.

* Participate in one faculty meeting at each school once a year.

* Develop and install a monthly institute for principals on the campus of an area university where the challenge of accelerating achievement is a central theme. The Superintendent should participate and lead the institute and, occasionally, invited guests might participate.

* Arrange to meet with each School Committee member before the start of school in August, 2009.

4g. Accountability

* Conduct an audit on the execution and implementation of last year’s Major District Goals. Refine and restart the goals where appropriate. The acceleration of the implementation of Power School and the Parent Portal will benefit articulation, alignment, and communication with a key constituent.

* Introduce performance targets for all principals.

* Schedule and conduct quarterly reviews of progress with all of your direct reports and principals. Such reviews are to be data driven—budget management, student progress, implementation of major goals, etc.

* Direct your administrators to deliver cost reduction and/or cost avoidance measures that reduce expenses by implementing route optimization for student transportation, issuing directives that all technology purchases must be approved by the Director of Information Systems, resolving the lack of interface between Finance and Human Resources, realignment of the custodial staff to Facilities and Operations, and requiring the use of technology tools to reduce labor intensive routines.

* Establish measurable targets for advancing the achievement of underserved sub-groups in each school and require an individualized achievement plan for each student. Each plan is to be reviewed and monitored quarterly.

* Develop and widely distribute an annual report on the school district, its schools, student progress, and exemplary work by teachers, staff and administrators—tell the Amherst story!!


The proposed program of work is not intended to be exhaustive but strategic. As such, successful implementation is likely to be transformative and may require some change management (some current employees may have to be changed to enhance your capacity to execute).

Upon adoption of the program of work you should convert those items you adopt into a schedule of objectives against which you might be evaluated by the School Committee.

Clearly, there are some goals and objectives that deserve your attention from last year. However, take care not to create a program of work that overwhelms staff or for which there is no internal capacity to execute.

Be advised that there is a need to establish momentum, pace, and focus for your administration. As such, getting some things done early will reinforce the notion that a new day is underway in the district. It is vitally important that you execute your program of work within the boundaries of current human and material resources. To do so requires that you quickly re-purpose existing resources. Also, the absence of third party, private support for the district is glaring. Seek outside funding sources, particularly private sector grants, to assist with your initiatives and reinforce your vision.

In conclusion, these findings are meant to inform you, as Superintendent, with opportunities for improvement and to help you formulate a compelling vision with a strategic plan designed to realize that vision. The plan’s goals and objectives should be reflected in every instructional, non-instructional and administrative staff member’s performance assessment. All goals and objectives of the district are to be tied to your program of work. Any other work should not be happening unless it meets compliance requirements or is on-going. In short, discontinue activities that cost money and are not directly tied to your program of work.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Report of Redistricting Consultant

On April 23, 2009, the district released a “Community Presentation on the Proposal to Close Mark’s Meadow School”. This report provided an overview of our district, the history of and projected revenue and expenses for the Town of Amherst, and factors for the Committee to consider as it determined whether to close Mark’s Meadow School, a vote that was finalized by the Amherst School Committee in May.

The consultant from DeJong-Healy concluded that both redistricting renditions achieved the primary goals of achieving balance among the three remaining elementary schools with respect to percentage of students eligible for free/reduced price lunch, maximizing school capacities, and keeping students from individual apartment complexes and neighborhoods together. Additionally, the consultant concluded that both renditions provide adequate space for enrollment through FY14.

A copy of the final report of DeJong-Healy is on the district webpage at:

Monday, July 20, 2009

Agenda for the Joint Meeting of Amherst and Regional School Committees of July 22, 2009

AGENDA for Joint Meeting of AMHERST and REGIONAL School Committees
7:00 PM, WEDNESDAY—July 22, 2009 (NOTE: Wednesday, NOT Tuesday!)
Amherst Regional Middle School
Professional Development Center

Call for Executive Session (if needed)

1. Welcome
· A. Call to Order—Election of Officers
· B. Agenda Review
· C. Minutes—Amherst Minutes of June 18, 2009 and Regional Minutes of June 23, 2009

2. Announcements and Public Comment

3. Superintendent’s Update

4. Reports

5. Unfinished/Continuing Business
· A. Calendar of Meetings for 2009-2010
· B. Sub-Committee Assignments
· C. Researching Possibility of Moving Sixth Grade to ARMS

6. New Business
· A. Accept Gifts—List Attached

7. Policies

8. Sub-Committee Reports
· A. How Are We Doing Committee Update

9. School Committee Planning
· A. Calendar review
· B. Items for upcoming meetings


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Absences through the roof at school

Amherst Bulletin
By Nick Grabbe, Staff Writer
Published on July 17, 2009

School Committee members expressed surprise at the number of Amherst Regional students who have excessive absences and are seeking more information about who they are and why they are out.

Principal Mark Jackson told the committee last month that 262 students - about a quarter of the school - exceeded the limit of eight absences in at least one course in the spring trimester. Theoretically, all these students could have been denied credit. Jackson said the high school is considering a change in enforcement of the policy.

"Our enforcement has been spotty," he said in an interview. "The only thing to do is enforce the policy as it's written. We'd like to be in a better place and do what we say we're going to do."

Jackson said some students who exceeded the absence limit did not receive credit, but didn't say how many. He said the school's goal should be figuring out how to help kids make good decisions.

"We haven't been good on this, and we're going to be better," he said. "My message is that they can expect us to be good to our word."

According to the policy, students are allowed eight absences in each trimester course before losing credit, with tardiness counting as one-third of an absence. Absences at the student's or family's discretion are counted, while absences the school requires, such as for testing and field trips, are not. Any student exceeding the limit can apply for an attendance waiver that can restore lost credit.

The number of students exceeding the absence limit "seems extraordinarily high," said School Committee member Catherine Sanderson. But she needs more information about who these students are and what their motivation is before she endorses a crackdown, she said.

"A lot of these students are getting A's and B's," she said. "The question becomes, what do you do with a student who is exceeding the number of absences but is clearly showing mastery of the material?"

To force students who are very bright and teaching themselves to retake a course because of absences seems "silly," Sanderson said. But if a lot of students are learning the material without going to class, that's a problem, too, she said.

It's also possible that some students who are late for class are deciding it's easier to be absent than to be registered as tardy and have to serve detention, she said. "Is the punishment for late too severe, or is the punishment for absent too lenient, and/or not enforced?"

Some might be seniors who have already been accepted at college and don't feel motivated to go to class, she said: "If the policy is not enforced, students learn that pretty quickly."

School Committee member Irv Rhodes said he was shocked at the number of students with more than eight absences.

High-achieving students who are cutting classes are saying by their absence that "this is not stringent enough for me, or it may not be appropriate for me," Rhodes said.

"Some kids treat attendance as optional," he said. "The bottom line is we need to know why these kids are doing this. If you're going to have a rule, then enforce it."

Last August, members of the Northampton School Committee expressed surprise at the number of requests for attendance waivers at the high school. Assistant Principal Bryan Lombardi said there are between 50 and 90 absences a day.

"Change is coming with me," said new Principal Nancy Athas. "We recognize there is an issue with attendance. I'm here to tell you that students need to be in school, and they need to be there every day."

Since then, there has been "a huge increase in communication with parents," said Kim Broussard, Athas' administrative assistant. Lombardi has been sending letters to the parents of students who have high levels of absences, and when report cards are sent out, memos are included on lost credit because of poor attendance and the need to come see him, she said.

Students can have up to nine absences per semester in full-credit classes, Broussard said. Near the end of each semester, students are notified they must come to the office to get an attendance waiver and a printout of their attendance to take home, she said. Parents can then provide documentation of the reasons for the absences.

The policy is enforced across the board, she said. The number of absences has declined, she said, but she was unable to provide any statistics.

At Easthampton High School, student absences are excused for illness, medical appointments, bereavement and some religious observances. Three unexcused absences, or 14 excused absences, result in referral to the School Attendance Review Board.

This board, which includes faculty members, a psychologist, and a nurse, meets at the end of the semester, said Assistant Principal Anne Beauregard. It reviews each student's situation and decides whether to impose or defer loss of credit.

Thirty-one students went before the board last year in a school with about 530 students. About half lost credit because of their attendance problem and about half regained credit, she said.

"Things happen in people's lives that you have to take into account," Beauregard said.

Nick Grabbe can be reached at

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Message from Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez

Just wanted to post this message from our new superintendent -- which is also posted on the ARPS website. As a School Committee member, but more importantly as a parent with three kids who will be in the Amherst schools starting next month, I'm very pleased with this statement and believe it sets precisely the right goal (making our schools world-class), and sets clear priorities and strategies (including making fiscally prudent decisions, using best practices research, and comparing/contrasting our district with other similar districts). I share Dr. Rodriguez's enthusiasm for the year ahead, and working forward to working with him at this exciting time of great potential for our schools.

Dear Amherst, Pelham and Regional Faculty, Staff and Community Members:

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the citizens of Amherst, Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury for the warm welcome given to me and my family. Your hospitality and warmth shall always be remembered. I am truly honored to serve such involved, engaged, and passionate communities that believe education to be one of the pillars of our society. Additionally, I have been impressed with the commitment and professionalism exhibited by this school system's faculty and staff and look forward to working with such dedicated professionals.

The current economic conditions we are facing have adversely affected the four corners of our nation. The Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools are no exception. We have had to make painful cuts, while always keeping in mind the child sitting at his/her desk and the teacher in front of the class. In the midst of these budget cuts, we owe it to our students to improve our educational system while seeking opportunities for improved efficiencies and exploring ways to consolidate economies of scale.

As we forge ahead, determined to make Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools a world class PreK-12 educational school system, we need to model "best practices," compare/contrast our work and outcomes with similar school districts, strengthen linkages with local constituent groups and stakeholders, raise standards and expectations for all students, and always strive for continuous improvement.

I strongly urge you to be full partners as we collectively pursue this vision. The future is not for the timid and the solutions cannot be tepid. As a school district, we need to think big while taking small, but decisive, steps towards a vision where all children can and will learn and meet high expectations and standards.

I look forward to sharing this sojourn with you.

Alberto Rodriguez, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Amherst OK's school raises

Hampshire Gazette

Friday, July 10, 2009

AMHERST - A divided Amherst School Committee approved 2 percent cost-of-living raises for a group of 24 non-union district employees that includes all administrators.

Member Irv Rhodes said he strongly objected to the June 24 decision, calling it "outrageous" at a time when teacher positions are being eliminated and there are cuts to supplies and after-school activities.

"On top of that, there was a warning to the (teachers) union to come to the table to possibly give up their (raises), so it was hypocritical," he said. "Here we are in this incredible fiscal crisis and people are in pain, and we're giving out raises. It's contradictory."

The School Committee had recently asked the teachers union to consider moderating its 3.5 percent cost-of-living raises under an existing contract, to limit the number of positions to be lost because of budget cuts, but the union declined.

Similar measures were attempted in municipal government here, but those too failed.

Rhodes and member Kathleen Anderson were in the minority in the School Committee's 3-2 vote, he said. The Regional School Committee voted 4-3-2, with member Marianne Jorgensen also voting no and members Catherine Sanderson and Steve Rivkin abstaining, Rhodes said.

Sanderson said she voted in favor of cost-of-living raises for the elementary principals in part because the teachers union did not give them up. She said the principals have had a difficult year, with much turnover in the superintendent position, the need to manage budget pressures, and the resulting challenges involving morale and workloads.

"Given the staff cuts that have been made at the administrative level, I felt that we were also asking the remaining administrators to shoulder an additional load over the next year," she said.
Sanderson said she abstained from the regional vote because she didn't understand all the raises, which included some "step" increases and varied considerably by position.

The total aggregate salary of the 24 employees was $1.8 million last year, said Kathy Mazur, the schools' human resources director.

Included in the non-union group are seven principals, one assistant superintendent, four directors (of human resources, business/finance, maintenance/transportation, and information systems), and 12 support positions.

Also in this group is the new superintendent, Alberto Rodriguez, who will make $158,000 this year. He will not receive the cost-of-living raise because it is his first year of employment.

The Personnel Board has also approved 2 percent cost-of-living raises for department heads and 3.5 percent for other non-union employees on the municipal side.

Town Manager Larry Shaffer said these raises are a "fair and rational" response to what teachers and school administrators are receiving.

Nick Grabbe can be reached at

Education Matters: Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate

Amherst Bulletin - July 10, 2009


As members of the School Committees, we hear frequently about the outstanding teachers we have in our schools and occasionally about teachers who fail to live up to expectations. As parents, we know first-hand how great it is when a child spends the year with a fabulous teacher who "gets" each of the children in the classroom. Research, including work conducted by Steve, supports the belief that there are substantial differences in teacher effectiveness, even among teachers in the same school.

The essential question, therefore, is how to ensure great teaching in every classroom in our district. The obvious first step is hiring well - and one of the greatest strengths of our schools is the abundant supply of prospective teachers who desire to work in Amherst. However, it is difficult to predict who is or will be a great teacher based on easily observed characteristics, including whether a teacher has a master's degree, the score on a licensing exam, or the type of college a teacher attended (a local college, state university or private school). In sum, it is simply very difficult to identify the great teacher on the basis of credentials and brief interviews.

Professional development for teachers provides another means to foster excellent instruction. Mentoring and other training programs have the potential to improve classroom management skills and expand knowledge of subject matter and pedagogy. Unfortunately, although research shows that strong programs can improve the quality of instruction, particularly for new teachers, the effects appear to be modest for most.

We believe these findings reflect the multi-dimensional nature of the skills required to be an excellent teacher. It is not enough to be very knowledgeable about mathematics, science, history or English, or even all four; it is not enough to understand theories of child development and pedagogy; it is not enough to understand and empathize with children with diverse backgrounds; it is not enough to be a supportive team player. A teacher must master each of these and other skills to excel in the classroom.

If outstanding teachers are difficult to identify at the time of hiring and the benefits of professional development are limited, rigorous evaluation prior to promotion with tenure becomes a crucial component to ensuring high quality instruction. However, recent research conducted by The New Teachers Project suggests that schools across the country fail to conduct rigorous performance-based evaluations, and that nearly three in four teachers report receiving no specific feedback on how to improve their teaching at their last evaluation. Moreover, almost no teachers (less than 1 percent) receive unsatisfactory evaluations, even in schools in which students repeatedly fail to meet academic standards. The absence of meaningful evaluation almost certainly diminishes the experience of children in those schools.

We have both participated in the tenure process as junior faculty seeking tenure, as outside reviewers of tenure cases at other institutions, and as department chairs involved in the evaluation of junior colleagues. It is a stressful process for untenured faculty - we have had our teaching observed by senior colleagues and received candid comments from both our students and our colleagues on our effectiveness (or lack there of) in the classroom. The evaluation of a junior colleague is particularly awkward as one moves from mentor and sometimes friend to supervisor. It is therefore tempting to overlook deficiencies to avoid the unpleasantness involved in the denial of tenure. Yet such a lowering of the bar reduces the quality of instruction and the likelihood of sitting in a room with that fabulous teacher.

We've already seen that shrinking budgets lead to program cuts and larger classes, and persistent budget shortfalls will likely lead to lower salary increases for teachers in the future. We believe that maintaining competitive salaries should remain a district priority. However, providing salaries that help make Amherst a desirable place to teach is not enough; we also need rigorous evaluation and high standards for tenure to ensure that those dollars translate into great teaching.

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