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.
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.