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.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

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.


Anonymous said...

This is great news....long time coming, but great to see the changes needed to ensure equity across the board...
I just wonder why this voice, Mr. Hamer's, at a cost of nearly $5,000is heard by the SC and the many, many, others who live(d) the experience of not receiving an equitable education are ignored?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 9:57 - I agree that the report is great and a long time coming -- change is certainly needed. But there are certainly board members, myself included, who have been stating that change is needed for some time, so I'm not really sure about your statement that this has been ignored? I think clearly it took a new superintendent who believed that?

Anonymous said...

Please Ms. Catherine--not sure if you are playing naive here or really are truly unaware of the huge differences in the ways kids are taught in this community. This has been going on for many, many years now. Parents' complaints are ignored....mine were, so I can speak to this first hand.
You simply cannot be blind to the fact that not every child receives the same education Amherst has to offer and yes--many different factors may play into this, but the greatest and most obvious--one that the new super picked up on almost immediately is the income differences. Poor families simply do not receive the same education for their children as wealthy families do! Struggling students come mainly from poor families and high achievers come mainly from wealthy families--I don't know how this plays out....maybe poor kids are not eating right and brain development has something to do with this....maybe poor families have two absent parents working all day long and even they are more likely to have latch-key kids....I just know it has taken an awful long time for a leader to finally recognize this. Now to see some changes put into place that work and don't hurt people by putting them out of a job, or closing down their school.

Anonymous said...

I don't think poor kids receive a different formal education in the schools than the wealthy kids.

I do think that poor people the world over receive much less preparation for school than wealthy kids, and far less ongoing skill development and skill reinforcement on the home front than wealthy kids.

This is not the same as kids getting different educations from the school.

For centuries, the wealthy have known the benefits of education, and it has become part of their culture.

The poor, who have for centuries been locked out of education, are struggling to make its value part of their daily lives.

Do we need to blame someone for this or can we simply decide to work on bettering the situation?

Anonymous said...

Anon. 9:18
Well said! I do not believe anything I am saying is blaming anyone, but I must debate the fact that poor children, do indeed for the facts you even list, receive different educations right here in Amherst. Much different--for example--they are funneld out of the system into the many different sped programs and therefore released from the 'regular' curriculum, sometimes and more often than not, led down a path to lower paying jobs and into the field of the common laborer. It's true and something that needs big time changing... I've seen it now for oh--3 is mind boggling to see how this sort of history repeats and repeats itself.
Just curious...

Anonymous said...

Does anyone in Amherst really believe that no one has recognized and talked about the achievement gap? All people do is talk about the achievement gap. Yak. Yak. Yak. And feel better (and cleanly righteous) that they have spoken about it. What has been done to close and what will be done?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 7:50 - if you read things I've written on this blog and in the Amherst Bulletin, I've talked about the issue of the income gap in the education we provide repeatedly. But I think it is not only low income parents' concerns that have been ignored -- I know of middle and high income parents who also feel their concerns have been ignored (and these include parents of low and high achievers). I'm also not sure what you mean by changes that "don't hurt people by closing down their school" -- the school that is closing is Marks Meadow, which has fewer low income kids than ANY of the other schools! Crocker Farm, which has the most, is staying open.

Anonymous 9:18 - well said. Thank you.

Anonymous 5:17 - I agree that there is considerable talk about the achievement gap ... and that what we need to see now are some solutions for this gap. I think a more rigorous, consistency, and evidence-based curriculum would be a good way to start.

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:50, 9:18, 3:55

See "Report to the Superintendent.."
Anon 5:22, July 28

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:18 and CS
How can we work better the situation where poor children and low achievers (I bleieve are mainly one and the same)receive the same education as others in this system? How can we, besides complaining until our face(s) turn blue, or going on a letter writing campaign, or finding outside tutoring and who can afford that?!...How can we assure that every child, every day, gets the same curriculum opportunities as the child in the seat beside him/her???
Okay--the question is out for the answer...

Anonymous said...

You can't. A lot about doing well at school has to do with what is going on at home. Do we now want to hire people to go home with these kids and make sure the parents are being good parents? Life isn't fair. We can do the best we can at school, but we cannot go home with the kids.

Tired Parent said...

Anon 8:16 is right. Schools can only do so much. It is sad to know that some kids are disadvantaged from the beginning and will continue to suffer because of what they receive (or don't receive) at home, but those are the facts. Schools can try to make up for this, and do--if nothing else these kids get two decent meals a day, but schools also need to serve ALL kids and cannot just spend all the resources on those who are disadvantaged at home.

Anonymous said...

The schools here need to decide are they here to educate the kids, or are they a social services agency? I am reminded of a school district in another state where the schools are horrible. The good news...they instituted a dental care program for the disadvantaged kids. The kids didn't get an education but they had great teeth.

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:20 a.m. here...Okay so as a school system we can't work to assure that every child, every day gets the same educational opportunities as the child beside him/her because....the schools are not a social working system, the schools are not a mental health care system, the schools are not a probationary check site, a babysitting service, a nutrition site, or even a dentist?!
But I have seen the schools in this town set up flouride rinses, before Amherst put it in their town water...I have seen kids come to the school step long after the bell recessed them for their 'evening' meal. I have seen the schools even dress some kids properly for the weather, for the classroom,to fit their growing bodies. If these are the services that our kids are demanding--for whatever reasons--then these are the services that are becoming a part of the public--catch word here--public school system.
Who are we, the adults in charge, to sit and judge whether or not the 'resources' that we have are being drained because of this??
And who is the classroom teacher, the school pyschologist, the building principal, what have you, to say which child will receive these 'resources', and which one will be thrown to wayside?