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.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

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.


Caren Rotello said...

This report sets some important (and necessary) goals for our district. Let's hope that it's taken seriously! The fact that the report was created at the request of our new Superintendent is certainly a positive sign.

Anonymous said...

What does the term "articulation" mean?

Anonymous said...

Any parent who has had a child at Crocker Farm over the last ten years could tell you that the up migration of kids from Holyoke and Springfield who are woefully unprepared academically and who also often have significant discipline issues, has had a tremendously negative impact on the district and the quality of education at the affected schools. In my opinion this is the single biggest issue facing the schools over the long term.

Why is this a shock to folks? Here's the deal- you can't have "affordable housing" without having to deal with all the negatives that having housing projects located in your community brings. Things like a concentration of poverty in certain areas of town (ghettoization of South Amherst with more planned), middle class flight from the public schools (already happening), lowered property values, increased social service costs.

Anonymous said...

Hey, not just Crocker Farm, it was happening at Ft. River.

Anonymous said...

I think the report was using "articulation" to mean what you learned in first grade precisely meets up with the curriculum and expectations of second grade...and so on, even up through the high school. Each grade builds on what was learned in the previous year and every grade teaches the SAME curriculum. Hear that Russ???? The report was great and I too hope it is taken seriously. I don't know how the other elementary schools were, but Ft. River was "free-wheeling" from K through 6th. Every teacher did what they wanted, never communicated with other teachers of their grade. They could have cared less that maybe the third grade wasn't going to be ready for fourth. There were no consequences for the teachers. The kids paid dearly though. The fourth grade at Ft. River was what every grade, every elementary school should be like. There were 3 teachers in the East Street Building who coordinated curriculums, and those kids left fourth grade prepared. It all fell apart when they moved the fourth grade back to the main building. Also, those teachers retired. That was the crown jewel of Ft. River, and everyone knew it.

Amanda said...

So much of this report is what parents (and teachers) have been saying for years -- and then they were called classist, racist, elitist, only worried about poor kids -- and so on. Guess what, the parents are right. I guess we needed to have it said by an expert for decision-makers in the system to listen.

Rick said...

Overall one has to say this is a good report and it’s good that the Super asked for it to be done. However, to me the hard part is not figuring out what’s wrong, which is all this report really does, it’s figuring out what the fixes are and implementing those fixes that’s hard.

For example, here is a line item from the report's general TO DO list:

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

Any of us could have put that down as a TO DO item. But what exactly are the specific “programs and structures” that need to be created?

This is hard. Hope the new Super is up to it and gets support from all to do this hard work.

Anonymous said...

"the 6-8 middle school becoming a school of choice in the region"

There's a long way to go before
6th grade teachers are there by "choice". And I don't see too many 6th grade parents beating down the doors either.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Caren - I agree completely with all you said!

Anonymous 1:00 - I think it means alignment (from grade to grade within and between schools).

Anonymous 1:35 - I think there are many challenges facing the district, and the diverse population of students in our schools (which has increased of late) is one of them. I also think the SC should NOT have let the schools become so imbalanced in terms of poverty, as has occurred at Crocker Farm. I hope that the redistricting will solve this.

Anonymous 2:54 - I think it was happening most at Crocker, and then some at Fort River. WW is much wealthier in terms of population, and MM is a very unique case (e.g., lower income kids but many are from highly educated families, which is different).

Anonymous 3:05 - I think it would be fair to characterize the report as indicating that what you describe is occurring relatively consistently across the district (including different grades/different schools). I am glad that Dr. Rodriguez recognizes this issue (as does Dr. Hamer) as a problem, and I hope we can see some movement in this respect.

Amanda - I certainly agree with this point ... and hopefully with Dr. Rodriguez saying it, things can now start to change and such concerns won't be so easily dismissed.

Rick - I think in this case, and in most, there are two issues. First, it is admitting that there is a problem -- and Dr. Rodriguez has done this more clearly than anyone I've heard do in a long time (including Jere Hochman). That is an essential first step, and although some of these issues may be relatively obvious, others are/were less so (at least to me, and I'm pretty informed). This is the advantage of having someone come in with deep experience in other districts. Second, and this is what you allude to -- you have to be able to SOLVE the problem. And that is what ultimately the SC will evaluate the superintendent on. But I don't think this second step is even possible unless the first step occurs, so I'm still delighted to see the first step.

Anonymous 7:48 - if you read the report, Dr. Rodriguez's big issue about 6th grade is having 6th graders taught by teachers with expertise in a particular domain (math, science, English, etc.) -- so I don't think it would actually be OUR current 6th grade teachers (unless some of them have such specialization/certification). I know of 6th grade parents who would like it and others who wouldn't -- probably depends on the child. But if you watch the ACTV broadcst, you will also see Dr. Rodriguez talking about the important of having the MS improve in terms of rigor/preparation -- which in turn would, I think, increase enthusiasm for this idea of moving the 6th grade.

Anonymous said...

From Anon 7:48

Want to be sure I understand you!
Dr. R is talking about a 6-8 school
where 6th graders are in a departmentalized setting (i.e. - they learn from a number of teachers, each with an area of expertise). That sounds very different than the model you've talked about for the past fwew months on this blog (i.e. - 6th graders stay with one teacher all day for all subjects).
Is that correct?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response to Anonymous 7:48/9:34 - yes, that is exactly right. I had heard discussed informally in the district the different model (6th graders in a separate wing with just classroom teachers, like they are now). But the report (and both Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Hamer) is very clear that the model they prefer is different (discipline specific teachers). I think we will hear A LOT about this in the months to come.

Anonymous said...

My child did more and harder work in 6th grade than in the 7th grade. You can have expertise in a subject area and not teach it well or have low course requirments. I think this will be one strong basis of opposition by parents and worth paying attention to because, again, parents are often right. Also, many 6th grade teachers think they should stay in elementary schools, as do many other school districts that keep kids in K to 8 schools (like Brookline).

Anonymous said...

let's have this guy do a report on trimsters vs semesters in the high school!

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 10:33 - I certainly hear from parents that their kids do more work in 6th than in 7th ... but I don't think the solution to that problem (and yes, it IS a problem) is to say let's just keep them in elementary school another year to avoid the MS. I think the solution is to make the MS a more consistent rigorous place, right? And although I totally agree that
"You can have expertise in a subject area and not teach it well or have low course requirments" -- I think it is also true that someone can have expertise AND teach it well AND have high requirements (and I know this isn't the NORM in the MS, but it should be, regardless of whether it is 7/8 or 6/7/8). Given our facilities, K to 8 just isn't feasible -- you can't have kindergarteners in the MS (with 600 other kids), for example, which would then happen as you re-district all schools. In addition, providing things like 6 world languages in 7th/8th becomes fiscally a nightmare if you have 4 schools in which language is provided. I do know schools that have had great success w/ K to 8 ... I just don't think our facilities allow this to be a feasible option.

Anonymous 2:18 - excellent idea!

Anonymous said...

re: trimesters vs. semesters in the high school. as i understand it, it's in the teachers current contract that they have final say over the high school schedule (and their course schedule). i heard this was put in their contracts when it went to trimesters. this year, the teachers voted against change. when is the contract up so that this piece can be re-negotiated? it seems to me that if it turns out to be financially and academically better to return to semesters, we should be prepared to address the teacher contract issue as well. and i agree that this is an issue that has a lot of myths and urban legends attached to it. we may do better to have this outside consultant provide his take on this issue as well.

Anonymous said...

It's disappointing to me that the report didn't recommend a strong and focused attempt to improve in the ways we address the needs of a group of students who have, for many years, been falling through the cracks - the ADD/ADHD population. The group is large, comes in all colors and from all economic backgrounds. Maybe because they are such a diverse group, not falling tidily into one of our regularly discussed sub-groups, they've gotten lost in the conversations about social justice and every-kid-every-day. The lack of serious attention to this group in the current conversation about ways to "do better" is disheartening.

Anonymous said...

15 hour days??