By NICK GRABBE
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.
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.