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.

Monday, August 31, 2009

PRESS RELEASE - Monday, August 31, 2009

Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Alberto Rodriguez, announced the resignation this afternoon of Glenda Cresto, Principal of Amherst Regional Middle School. Ms. Cresto’s resignation takes effect today, August 31, 2009. We are grateful to Ms. Cresto for her contributions to our community and her service to our district and wish her well in her future endeavors.

Concurrent with this information, Dr. Rodriguez announces the temporary appointment of Mark Jackson as Principal of both the Regional High School and Regional Middle School. Michael Hayes will serve as Senior Assistant Principal during this interim period, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Middle School facility. As Mr. Jackson assumes temporary leadership of both buildings, Ms. Diane Chamberlain will be designated as temporary Assistant Principal, joining Annie Leonard and Miki Gromacki in support of High School matters.

As this is an interim leadership arrangement, we will plan to post and advertise for a permanent Middle School Principal in the coming months.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Amherst school panel looks to new map

Hampshire Gazette

AMHERST - About a third of all elementary school placements will change in the fall of 2010 as the closing of Mark's Meadow School causes the district lines to be redrawn.

The Amherst School Committee is scheduled to vote on a new map, showing which areas go to which schools, at its Oct. 27 meeting. There was much public comment on the redistricting last spring, and the committee hopes to provide affected parents with another chance to react.

"We went through a lot of emotion and energy, but that doesn't mean it's over," said Chairman Andy Churchill at Tuesday's meeting. "It doesn't mean we've reached the easy part. We've reached the hard part."

All students attending Mark's Meadow this year will be assigned to a new school next year. In addition, the administration will try to even out the percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. Crocker Farm School has had higher percentages than the other schools.

Administrators are trying to keep single-family neighborhoods and apartment complexes together so that friends can still attend the same schools. The other factor is the number of available rooms in each building.

Two maps have been proposed. In one, students living in North Amherst would attend Fort River School, while in the other map those living west of Leverett Road and Henry Street in North Amherst would go to Wildwood. One map has the Amherst Woods neighborhood attending Crocker Farm, the other Fort River.

Committee member Catherine Sanderson said it's important to give the community an opportunity to comment before the new map comes up for a vote, perhaps in forums at each school. "We owe it to the community to make sure we're doing that," she said.

Member Irv Rhodes agreed. "I'd hate to see a plan hit us for a vote without the community having an opportunity to have input into it," he said.

The School Committee is due to review the issue at its Sept. 22 meeting. Sanderson said she'd like to hear specific concerns - such as time on a bus and neighborhoods staying together - rather than just complaints that parents don't want their children to change schools.

The committee organizing the redistricting is facilitated by administrator Kathryn Mazur and includes School Committee members Rhodes and Steve Rivkin, Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez and administrator Maria Geryk. Parents can address comments to Mazur at

Parent Brett McDowell said he hoped the committee's deliberations could be public. Rhodes agreed, but Rivkin said it would be unfair to give an advantage to people who could come to the meetings.

The redistricting is a separate issue from whether sixth-graders will attend the Regional Middle School in the future, Rodriguez said.

The administrators need to show the proposed map to the community and get comments and then "tweak" the plan, he said. But the School Committee's vote should be final, he said.

"I don't want it to be drawn out," Rodriguez said. "If one community protests, and you move a line here, another will protest. That could take forever."

Monday, August 24, 2009

6th-grade vision unveiled to board

Amherst Bulletin
By Nick Grabbe Staff Writer
Published on August 21, 2009

The recommendation to move sixth grades from seven elementary schools to the Amherst Regional Middle School has nothing to do with budgets, enrollments, transportation or overcrowding, according to Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez.

Instead, the proposed move is based solely on "educational imperatives," he said. As the new superintendent sees it, the shift would expose young adolescents to more intense classes, improve instruction in social studies, algebra, science and literature, start intervention programs sooner and perhaps increase enrollment in high school honors courses.

Before the sixth grades move to the middle school, Rodriguez has to convince a majority of the Regional School Committee. Judging from the reaction at Tuesday's meeting, he hasn't closed the deal.

Committee members raised a wide range of concerns, from elementary redistricting to problems at the middle school to the time in the morning when Leverett sixth-graders would have to wake up.

For the second time in a month, Rodriguez read his report to the committee and the television cameras, taking 20 minutes to do so. Eleven minutes into the recitation, member Irv Rhodes said he did not want Rodriguez to continue reading, and later said he was "almost anesthetized by it."

"Moving the sixth grade to the middle school as an isolated strategy while maintaining the status quo at the middle school is insufficient," Rodriguez said. "It is just one piece of a larger, strategic vision of creating a world-class educational system that looks beyond the MCAS and prepares our students for a future we can't even describe."

Although the superintendent said he will push for change, his recommendation "is the beginning of a larger conversation that will take place across several towns," he said Tuesday. "It will take into account the feedback from the many constituents of the four towns this school system serves."

Rodriguez said people should not be "fixated" on moving the sixth grade. "You'll see how this is one part of a greater picture of K-through-12 transformation," he said.

Rodriguez based his recommendation on studies of sixth grade and middle schools. He has already received criticism for not including a Duke University study that came to a different conclusion.

On Tuesday, Rodriguez said that although the Duke study seems to say that exposing sixth-graders to older students has a negative impact, other parts of the study raise questions about that by saying that disruptive incidents may just be more reported in middle schools. "They blew a huge hole in their own study," he said.

Committee member Andy Churchill gave Rodriguez some tentative support. He said a problem with the two-year middle school is that by the time students and parents have adjusted to it, they're preparing to move on to the high school.

"I went to a six-to-eight (grade) middle school," Churchill said. By the time his own children got to sixth grade at Mark's Meadow School, "they were ready to branch out," he said.

But Rhodes said that a year from now, the elementary schools will have different district lines. "I don't want to move kids twice in two years."

There have been concerns about the middle school that should be resolved before sending sixth-graders there, he said. "I don't want sixth-graders to be an experiment," he said.

The proposal would mean "a massive restructuring of our schools," said Farshid Hajir, of Leverett, chairman of the committee. It raises questions about the regional agreement and perhaps should be discussed in the context of the ongoing K-through-12 regionalization committee, he said.

That four-town committee has been gathering data on multiple options and is expected to reconvene next month.

Leverett sixth-graders would have to wake up much earlier if they attended the middle school, Hajir said, and he wondered about giving up a grade in the elementary school. "The sixth grade in Leverett is not broken," he said.

Member Catherine Sanderson, of Amherst, said she's heard from parents of middle school students who say it is not consistently challenging, engaging and rigorous.

"So it's hard to think about adding another grade there," she said. "I would need to feel the middle school is heading in the right direction."

Rodriguez said he has met with the middle school principal and will also meet with the department chairs. Among the changes under consideration are common planning with teaching teams and seven periods a day, he said.

He's looking at bringing a consultant in from outside to look at the middle school, he said, acknowledging that there have been concerns about the middle school for a while.

"Part of my vision is to make the middle school a place parents feel proud and joyful about sending kids to once and for all, and help it reach its true potential," Rodriguez said.

Regional Meeting, August 18, 2009

This was our second meeting of the school year, and it was jam-packed with information/discussion -- which I really appreciated.

First, we started with the overall welcome, which includes the agenda review and approval of minutes. There is a new feature called "Student/Teacher Spotlight" for all meetings, in which the high school art department (and their student show of this spring) was featured. Seemed like a very impressive show of a range of student art.

Second, we turned to announcements and public comment -- there were none.

Third, we had the superintendent's update, which include a thank you to Maria Geryk for serving an interim superintendent, as well as various now departed SC members, and members (parents/teachers/community members) of the math and social studies curricular review committees. Dr. Rodriguez announced that the survey results will be presented at the next regional meeting (Tuesday, September 8th). The superintendent then turned to the 6th grade report, which has now been well-publicized in the paper (and on this blog). The committee discussed a few different issues/concerns, including: why not consider a K to 8 model (Kristen), general support for a three-year school in terms of parent buy-in (Andy), belief that our MS facility is under-utilized so moving the 6th grade would be good for the Amherst 1st to 5th graders, but also concern that teacher speciality in a subject does NOT mean rigorous/good quality teaching and belief that the MS (and the Turning Points model) needs work (Steve), concerns about the timing of the decision about where to put the 6th grade in terms of the redistricting in Amherst (Irv), concerns about the rigor/challenge of the MS which should be resolved PRIOR to adding a new grade (me), questions about timing and budgetary implications (Debbie), questions about timing and space allocation (Farshid). The superintendent noted the MS needs some work, and that an outside review might be helpful. He believes that this issue will continue to be discussed, and that he will make a recommendation in the future.

We then had other questions to the superintendent from the committee. Steve asked about whether the curriculum review committees consider perspectives from outside the district, and believed that this approach would be useful. He expressed concerns that some of what we do in our district is very, very unique (and potentially inferior), such as the use of the extensions approach in 7th grade math and the requirement of ecology in 9th grade. He would like more information on the protocol of these committees to make sure that they are worth the time/investment of all those involved as well as the resources we spend doing these committees. I asked two questions: first, I wondered when MS team assignments would be given (apparently these are now out), and second, I asked whether the SC could have enrollment data for all HS classes (which other members of the SC also were interested in receiving and the superintendent believes can be provided to us soon).

Fourth, we turned to unfinished/continuing business, which involved appointing chairs of each of the subcommittees: Steve is chair of the curriculum subcommittee, Debbie is chair of the budget/finance committee, and Farshid is chair of the policy subcommittee.

Fifth, we turned to new business. This included approving the revised MS and HS handbooks (the big piece of note here is that the HS is now going to try to help students make good decisions involving attendance by having conversations early in the semester when absences occur, and field trips will now be considered excused), establishment of a subcommittee to propose district goals and the superintendent's evaluation (members will be Farshid, Irv, Andy, me, and Tracy -- the chairs/vice chairs of the three committees), and briefly discussing whether high school graduation requirements should be changed (in anticipation that this issue will come up at the next SC meeting). The issue of high school graduation requirements was used to illustrate how subcommittees could be useful -- this issue would impact curriculum (what curriculum are we using/requiring), policy (what is our policy on graduation requirements), and budget (what is the financial impact of changing requirements).

Sixth, we then turned to the long awaited report from the How Are We Doing Subcommittee (which included me, Andy, Marianne, and Elaine). I have already posted the whole report on my blog, but briefly, the committee report did two things: first, it proposed a list of criteria by which we could evaluate both how we as a district are doing over time (e.g., do things change in good or bad directions) and how we are doing compared to other similar districts (e.g., are students in our schools doing better or worse than those in other similar districts), and second, it proposed a set of 12 districts by which we could compare our performance on these measures (these schools were chosen largely through their association with MSAN and/or presence in Massachusetts). We had a good discussion about these districts, and it was proposed that Longmeadow be removed from the list (since that is a virtually all white and wealthy district). That would leave us with 11 districts with which to compare ourselves, which seems like a manageable number. The superintendent expressed his support for benchmarking ourselves and our performance with other districts, which I really appreciated (this is certainly a new idea for Amherst, as far as I can tell).

Finally, we discussed items for upcoming meetings. I asked whether the survey data would be posted on the website (it will be), and whether the SC would receive not such quantitative data, but also a summary of qualitative data (we will). Dr. Rodriguez noted that anyone with questions about the survey data and how it should be presented should email him.

All in all, it was a very, very productive and informative meeting!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

My New York Times Letter: 8-22-09

So, I know I've pushed hard on what I think could be better about the Amherst public schools (and I share the superintendent's belief that our schools are NOT living up to their potential), but after reading an article in the New York Times (8-18-09) on people paying $450 an hour for coaching on getting their children into private school in New York City, I was moved to write a letter to the paper praising the joys of public education, which appeared in today's issue. And for those who are still waiting -- my blog posting on Tuesday's SC meeting will appear tomorrow (Sunday) -- it's been a busy week, hence the delay!

To the Editor:

As a mother of three who lives in a small New England college town, I am writing to express my appreciation for the column.

I sometimes regret that my children miss out on the excitement of New York City living — museums, theater, music, restaurants. But learning about what will undoubtedly be a very successful business (charging parents $450 an hour for advice on getting their child into kindergarten) gives me a new appreciation for the joys of small-town living — like enrolling my children in our local public schools without having to take a standardized test or interview with the principal.

Catherine Sanderson
Amherst, Mass., Aug. 18, 2009

The writer is a professor of psychology at Amherst College and a member of the school board in Amherst.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Report from the How Are We Doing Subcommittee

To: Maria Geryk, Regional School Committee
From: Members of the “How Are We Doing Subcommittee” (Elaine Brighty, Andy Churchill, Marianne Jorgensen, Catherine Sanderson)
Cc: Doug Slaughter
Re: Report
Date: June 8, 2009

The “How Are We Doing Subcommittee” met three times during 2008-2009 and focused on two goals: (1) developing a list of criteria for use as an “annual report” on our district over time and (2) developing a list of relevant comparison districts against which to compare our district’s performance according to the chosen criteria, where possible. This report provides updates on our work towards both of these goals.

Comparison Criteria

All members agreed on the importance of having a set of indicators that was not so large as to become impossible to gather, but also a range of indicators (e.g., not only indicators focused on the high school). After consideration of many potential indicators (and the pros and cons of each), we identified the following set of items on which to gather data on an annual basis.

Course offerings and requirements: requirements of the high school (number of years required of English, math, science, world language); number of world languages offered (elementary, MS, HS); number of music performance groups; number of fine arts courses offered; number of technology and computer courses offered; number of AP classes offered; instrumental music offered (elementary, MS).

Coursework completed: % of students graduating with four years of science, math, world language; % of students taking at least one honors class; % of students taking at least one AP class; % of students taking calculus; % of students taking algebra by 8th grade

Achievement: % of elementary school students reading at grade level and doing math at grade level; % of students proficient on MCAS in each subject (elementary, MS, HS); SAT I and SAT II mean scores; % with passing AP scores; number (%?) of National Merit scholars; number (%) of HS students with one or more D or F grades in a course in a given year; graduation rate; % of seniors attending college (4-year, 2-year, selective – as identified by the top 25 colleges/universities as ranked by US News and World Report); average daily attendance

Discipline data: number of expulsions, number of suspensions (internal, external), number of students with a single suspension in a given year, number of students with multiple suspensions in a given year

Satisfaction data: student, parents, staff/teacher surveys (annual)

Extracurricular activities: number of athletic teams (MS, HS).

The committee also expressed interest, whenever possible, in assessing these criteria in terms of student subgroups (race, ethnicity, gender, ELL, free/reduced lunch, special needs).

Comparison Districts

We wanted to develop a list of relevant comparison districts (districts that are similar, though not identical, to Amherst in terms of size, demographics, and aspirations). This work began with examining the MSAN districts. Although some of these districts differ from our district in many ways (size, urban/suburban/rural location, demographic make-up), these districts all have a common philosophy or goal on reducing the achievement gap. We also considered other Massachusetts districts that are ranked highly by objective measures (Newsweek’s list, US News and World Report list) to try to find other districts that are well-rated and similar in at least some ways to our own district. Finally, we considered other Western Massachusetts districts that are often used as comparisons.

Our District:

Amherst Elementary Schools: The elementary schools serve 1310 students in 4 elementary schools. This district includes 56% White, 14% Hispanic, 11% Asian, and 8% African American. This district is 27% low income.

Amherst Regional Schools: The regional schools serve 1786 students in one middle school (7-8) and one high school (9-12). This district includes 71% White, 10% Asian, 8% African American, and 8% Hispanic. This district is 16% low income.

Recommended Comparison Districts:

Brookline Public Schools, Brookline, MA (MSAN): The Brookline school system serves 6,081 students (in 8 K to 8 elementary schools and 1 high school). This district is 62% White, 18% Asian, 8.1% African American, 8.6% Hispanic. This district is 10% low income. This district has a similar percentage of students of color (African American and Hispanic). This district is somewhat larger and serves fewer low income students.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, Chapel Hill, NC (MSAN): This district serves 11,316 students in 16 schools (9 elementary, 4 middle, 3 high schools). This district is 61.7% White, 18.8% Black, 5.4% Hispanic, 13.8% Asian. This district is 12.0% low income. This district is roughly similar to ours in terms of percentage of students of color (African American and Hispanic). This district is somewhat larger and serves fewer low income students.

Evanston, IL (MSAN) - this district is divided into an elementary and a regional:
Evanston/Skokie Elementary School District 65 (Grades K-8) - This district has 6,106 students in 10 elementary schools, 3 middle schools, 2 magnet schools. 42.4% white, 36.4% African American, 14.7% Hispanic, 5.4% Asian. This district is 41.2% low income.

Evanston Township High School - This school serves 3,041 students in one school. This school is 47% White, 37% Black, 10% Hispanic, 3% Asian, and 3% Multi-ethnic. 34% of the kids are low income. This district is larger than ours and more diverse in terms of percentage of students of color. This district is somewhat larger and serves more low income students.

Framingham, MA: This district serves 8,065 students in 9 elementary schools, 3 middle schools (5 to 8), and 1 high school. The district is 66.2% White, 6% Asian, 6.5% Black, and 20.2% Hispanic. This district serves 28.8% low income kids. This district is larger than Amherst and is more racially diverse. This district serves more low income students.

Longmeadow, MA: This district serves 3,157 students in 8 elementary schools, 2 middle schools, and 1 high school. The district is 90% White, 6% Asian, and 3% Black. This district serves 4% low income kids. This district is similar in size to Amherst, but is less diverse in terms of kids of color. This district serves very few low income students.

Montclair Public Schools, Montclair, NJ (MSAN): This district serves 6,650 students (in 7 elementary schools, 3 middle schools, and 1 high school). This district is 50% White, 39% Black, 7% Hispanic, 5% Asian. This district serves 18% low income kids. This district is somewhat larger in size than Amherst and is more diverse in terms of kids of color. This district serves a roughly similar proportion of low income students.

Newton, MA: This district serves 11,631 students (in 16 elementary schools, 4 middle schools, 2 high schools). This district includes 70.7% White, 13.6% Asian, 4.8% African American, and 6.5% Hispanic. This district serves 6.9% low income kids. This district is larger than Amherst and less racially diverse. This district serves fewer low income kids.

Northampton, MA: This district serves 2,793 students in 4 elementary schools, 1 middle school, and 1 high school. The district is 76% White, 5% Asian, 4% African American, and 12% Hispanic. This district serves 26% low income kids. This district is similar in size to Amherst and is roughly comparable in terms of low income students. This district is less diverse in terms of kids of color.

Oak Park, IL (MSAN) – this district is divided into an elementary and a regional:
Oak Park Elementary School District 97 (Grades K-8): This district serves 5,040 students in 2 middle schools and 8 elementary schools. The school composition is 57.1% white, 26.6% black, 3.7% Hispanic, 4% Asian, 8.4% multi-ethnic. This school serves 19.2% low income kids.
Oak Park and River Forest High School: This school serves 3,176 students in one high school. The school includes 61.8% white, 24% black, 4.8% Hispanic, 4% Asian, and 5.3% Multi-ethnic. This school serves 11.6% low income kids.
This district is somewhat larger in size than Amherst and is more diverse in terms of kids of color. This district serves fewer low income students.

Princeton Regional Schools, Princeton, NJ (MSAN): This district serves 3,100 in 4 elementary schools, 1 middle school, and 1 high school. This district is 70% White, 8% Black, 8.4% Hispanic, and 13.4% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 8.0% low income. This district is very similar in size and school composition to Amherst, and has a roughly similar percentage of students of color (Black and Hispanic). This district serves fewer low income students.

Shaker Heights City School District, Shaker Heights, OH (MSAN): This district serves about 5,600 in 8 schools (5 K to 4, 1 5 to 6, 1 7 to 8, 1 9 to 12). This district is 53% Black, 37% White, 5% Multi-racial, 4% Asian, and 1% Hispanic. 29% of the kids are low income. This district is somewhat larger in size than Amherst and is more diverse in terms of kids of color. This district serves more low income students.

White Plains Public Schools, White Plains NY: This district serves 7,173 students in 7 schools (5 K to 5, 2 6 to 8, 1 9 to 12). This district is 44% Hispanic, 33% White, 20% Black, and 3% Asian. 36% of the kids are low income. This district is somewhat larger in size than Amherst and is more diverse in terms of kids of color. This district serves more low income students.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Amherst Regional School Committee members raise concerns about moving sixth grade from elementary to middle school

Springfield Republican
Wednesday August 19, 2009

While some School Committee members have concerns about moving sixth grade to the middle school, Amherst Regional School Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez told the committee that this proposed move is just part of a larger plan. Rodriguez talked about his proposal to move the sixth-graders from the elementary schools at the Amherst Regional School Committee meeting Tuesday night. He had presented his proposal in an 11-page position paper earlier this summer. Moving the sixth grade would create a continuum "designed to increase student enrollment in honors or advanced placement courses in high school by building student and teacher capacity," he wrote. "This cannot be done effectively if sixth grade, as well as its students, are spread throughout several elementary schools."

"The moving of the sixth grade is the beginning of a longer conversation that is going to take place," he said Tuesday night. That conversation is part of a move to regionalize the district from kindergarten to the 12th grade. Currently, the district, comprised of Pelham, Leverett, Shutesbury and Amherst, becomes regional in the seventh grade. Rodriguez said he knows that people in the communities "like to be able to talk things through," He said he doesn't mean to be disrespectful of that. "We need to start somewhere. I don't want the community to be fixated on this part (of the proposal.)" The proposal is one part of the "transformation to make the system the best in the country," he said.

School Committee member of Kristen Luschen said "as a person from Shutesbury it is a big issue for my community."

Rodriguez said he knows that there are particular concerns from people in the towns. He plans to meet with school committees to talk about it. But, he said, "We need to evolve as a school system."

School board member Andrew M. Churchill said he was "impressed by the speed in which it (the report) was produced." He said he went to a middle school that started in the sixth grade so the proposal seems normal for him. He also said with the middle school being just two years, students are just settling in when it's time to move to the high school. "I'm interested to hear more."

Amid reductions, a new schools chief at helm

Hampshire Gazette
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

AMHERST - The biggest changes in the schools this fall will be the unprecedented reduction in staff positions and the arrival of an energetic new superintendent.

The Amherst and regional schools have absorbed budget cuts that resulted in the elimination of the equivalent of 55 full-time staff positions. Some of the people in these positions resigned, retired or were reassigned, so only about 20 were laid off.

(For a detailed account of which positions were eliminated, see the accompanying story.)

These reductions mean that class sizes will be larger this fall and teachers will have more students whose papers they will have to grade. Whereas the Amherst schools typically hire 50 to 60 people a year because of retirements and leaves of absence, this year they will hire only 12 to 15, said Kathryn Mazur, the human resources director.

In the elementary schools, students will be able to start learning to play an instrument a year later than previously. Mark's Meadow and Crocker Farm Schools will have to share a music teacher. And students in the high school will have an additional study hall because of cuts in electives.

Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez burst on the scene in July and quickly made it clear he wants to shake things up.

First, he brought in an educator he knew and trusted to spend 10 days in Amherst, reviewing data and talking to administrators, then writing a report detailing the shortcomings of the school system. The report vindicated the critics who have said Amherst schools aren't as strong as their reputation. It agreed both with those who say the schools don't do enough for students of color and underachievers, and with those who maintain that there should be more emphasis on "excellence."

Then, Rodriguez wrote a report that recommended that the 6th grades in Amherst, Shutesbury, Leverett and Pelham move to the Regional Middle School. This is likely to be a topic of much debate over the next six months.

The Regional School Committee has several new members and a new chairman, Farshid Hajir of Leverett. He said recently that the time is right for the schools to do some reflecting.

"There's a new superintendent, a new School Committee, a new fiscal reality, and pressure from the state to regionalize," he said. "This makes it a perfect time to look at ourselves and take stock of where we are and where we want to go."

The Regional School Committee's next meetings will be on Sept. 8 and 15, Oct. 13, Nov. 17 and Dec. 8. The Amherst School Committee will meet Aug. 25, Sept. 22, Oct. 27, Nov. 24 and Dec. 15. All meetings are open to the public.

This is the last year for Mark's Meadow School, whose students and teachers will be reassigned to other schools next fall. Teachers and Principal Nick Yaffe will emphasize to students that there is a lot of learning left to do, and try to make this year what he called a "celebratory, meaningful time."

A recommendation on how the elementary school district lines will be redrawn is expected in October. The goals are to equalize the percentage of students from low-income homes, which has tilted heavily to Crocker Farm, and to keep friends and neighborhoods together as much as possible.

There may also be a debate this year over whether or not the regional agreement between Amherst, Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett, which currently covers grades 7 through 12, should be extended down to kindergarten. A committee composed of three representatives from each of the four towns has been crunching numbers this summer and is expected to make a report soon.

New professional staffers this fall include: high school: Margo Russell, ELL; Robert Ferullo and Heather Crossen, special education; Annie Paradis, science, and Tobias Thomas, music; Lisette Williams, guidance; South Amherst Campus: Paris Muska, math and science; Wildwood: Immanuel Wineman, special education; Huihong Bao, Chinese; Lisa Bailly, assistant principal; Fort River: Susan Kennedy Marx, assistant principal.

Monday, August 17, 2009

AGENDA for REGULAR Meeting of REGIONAL School Committee

7:00 PM, TUESDAY—August 18, 2009
Amherst Regional High School Library

6:45 p.m.: Call for Executive Session—For the Purpose of Approving Executive Session

1. Welcome
· A. Call to Order
· B. Student/Teacher Spotlight
· C. Agenda Review & Chairperson’s Welcoming Remarks
· D. Minutes—July 22, 2009

2. Announcements and Public Comment

3. Superintendent’s Update
· A. Sixth Grade Report (available at

4. Reports

5. Unfinished/Continuing Business
· A. Appointment of Sub-Committee Chairs & Election of Secretary/Recorder
· B. Location of Regional School Committee Meetings

6. New Business
· A. High School Graduation Requirements Discussion
· B. Approval of ARMS and ARHS Handbooks
· C. Establishment of Subcommittee to Set Goals

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

10. Adjourn

Last updated August 17, 2009

Friday, August 7, 2009

Education matters: It's summer, so crack the books

Amherst Bulletin, August 7, 2009
By Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson

Alice Cooper's lyrics capture the euphoria of the final day of school and onset of those carefree summer days. However, a growing body of evidence shows that the summer holiday comes with a cost, as students lose some of what they learned during the school year. And critically, such summer fallback is not distributed equally among all our students: economically disadvantaged students typically experience much larger declines than do children from higher income families with college graduate parents who tend to read more and enjoy more opportunities for academic enrichment during school vacation. In terms of race differences, some research suggests that summer fallback accounts for virtually the entire growth in the achievement gap during the elementary school years. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the specific factors that widen the achievement gap, evidence indicates that children from lower income families without college graduate parents on average read less and experience less academic enrichment at home over the summer.

So the question becomes, how well does Amherst live up to its social justice commitment in terms of its effort to reduce summer fallback? A recent report from John Hopkins University's Center for Summer Learning finds that simply reading four or five books during the summer is large enough to prevent a decline in reading scores. This study along with other research suggests that mandatory summer reading as well as work in other subjects can help reduce summer fallback, and many districts have put such programs into place.

The Amherst-Pelham Regional School District is one of three Massachusetts districts that are members of the Minority Student Achievement Network (along with Brookline and Cambridge). Interestingly, both of the other districts require high school students to complete summer reading, whereas Amherst Regional High School has no such requirement. At Brookline High School, students are required to read "Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living." In a letter sent to all high school students, parents, and guardians, students are told, "You should be ready to discuss this unique book with your peers and teachers in English and science classes, as well as in community forums when you return in September." At Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, students are required to read at least one book in the summer, and to keep journal entries on their reading. Ninth-grade students read "The Contender," 10th-graders read "Colored People," 11th-graders read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," and 12th-graders read "The Kite Runner."

And it is not just the schools near Boston that require middle and high school students to complete summer work. In the Hadley Public Schools, rising seventh-graders are required to read and write summaries of four books, complete math worksheets and memorize all states and capitals. Rising ninth-graders read "Scorpion House," complete math worksheets, and come up with 10 ideas for science fair projects. Hadley's required summer work even extends to all elementary school grades, where students are required to complete math review packets and read grade appropriate books. The elementary school handbooks states that summer assignments are designed to lessen "the regression in student understanding of math concepts/skills and reading comprehension/vocabulary that typically occurs during the summer break." The handbook also urges parents "to continue their role as active learning partners with their children during the summer months."

The reluctance of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District to assign summer reading may come in part from a concern that some children have fewer resources at home to support this work. However, given the evidence that the absence of summer assignments disproportionately hurts precisely these children the most, current practice would appear to be at odds with our commitment to social justice. Summer assignments are an inexpensive and potentially quite effective tool in the efforts to raise achievement and reduce the achievement gap, and it strikes us that such a fiscally and morally responsible policy merits serious consideration.

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

Monday, August 3, 2009

6th grades in motion?: Amherst school chief floats ideas of shift to town's middle school

Hampshire Gazette, August 4, 2009

AMHERST - Alberto Rodriguez, the new superintendent of schools, favors moving the sixth grades to the Amherst Regional Middle School.

This move would "expose sixth-grade students to more intense, rigorous, content-driven curricula," he wrote in a recent report to the School Committee. It would provide them with specialized instruction in math, literature and social studies, he wrote, whereas most elementary school teachers are generalists.

The change would also make it easier to increase enrollment in honors and advanced placement courses, and enable intervention programs for struggling students to start earlier, he wrote.

"The adolescent stage is the most difficult phase in a student's life," Rodriguez wrote, as students mature physically and see themselves as individuals.

"Their attentions turn to exercising independence and developing strong relationships with peers, while avoiding exposure and embarrassment," he wrote. "As these adolescents begin to view themselves and the world they live in differently, keeping them as sixth-graders in the elementary school is delaying the inevitable and contradictory to their socio-emotional development."

Students coming to the Regional Middle School in seventh grade currently attend sixth grade at four elementary schools in Amherst and one each in Shutesbury, Leverett and Pelham. Students typically attend for two years before going to Amherst Regional High School.

Weighing options

Farshid Hajir, of Leverett, chairman of the Regional School Committee, said there could be more "buy-in" from parents and students if the middle school extended to three grades.

"I don't think it's an open-and-shut case," he said. "I look forward to hearing all points of view." The debate could begin at the School Committee meeting Aug. 18, he said.

No one seems to be saying that having the sixth grade in the elementary schools isn't working, he said.

"The conversation will be about what is the best configuration for the middle school," he said. "Is our middle school giving our kids the best education it can, or can it be improved? Is the grade configuration holding it back?"

There are some concerns over whether sixth-graders are mature enough to attend the middle school, he said. Those living in Shutesbury and Leverett also would have to wake up much earlier to catch the bus, he said.

The issue should be strictly educational and not related to space or money, both of which could be worked out, he said. As an issue, it is separate from K through 12 regionalization, the closing of Mark's Meadow School, and the redrawing of elementary district lines, he said.

Could the change be implemented a year from now? "It's possible, but that's a difficult time line to carry out," Hajir said.

The question is whether the four towns are preparing sixth-graders well for seventh through 12th grades, wrote Amherst School Committee member Catherine Sanderson on her blog.

"We are setting up the middle school almost to fail," she wrote. "We throw 300 or so kids there in seventh grade from seven different schools, and then we tell the seventh-grade teachers to teach all of them well, and hey, you all only get these kids for two years."

Moving the sixth grade while maintaining the status quo at the middle school is insufficient, Rodriguez wrote.

"It is just one piece of a larger, strategic vision of creating a world-class educational system that looks beyond the MCAS and prepares our students for a 'future we can't even describe,'" he wrote.