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.
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.