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 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.


Anonymous said...

"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."

You just have to love the guy! Gave me the best laugh of the day. Thank you Irv.

Anonymous said...

"They blew a huge hole in their own study."

Wouldn't it be interesting to hear a response from the Duke University and U. of California researchers who compiled this report to this dismissive comment.

Anonymous said...

ar·ro·gant [ árrəgənt ]


proudly contemptuous: feeling or showing self-importance and contempt or disregard for others

ARMS Parent said...

Anon 9:18PM, are you referring to Irv or A-Rod?!

Ed said...

I believe, and will continue to believe, that 12 year old 6th graders are developmentally, socially and (yes) sexually on the level of elementary school students.

They are not yet teenagers. They are still children.

They are too young to be pushed into the adult world of Middle/High School. Has this issue been addressed yet?

Of course, I am a fan of the K-8 approach, which I know raises this issue in a different light *but* in that case you have mini-adults in your 8th Graders (and grades 5-7 aspiring to that) who get to act in a quasi-adult manner (supervising recess, etc) BEFORE they get dumped into the adult world of High School & College.

Excepting those cases where administrators maliciously do things (and that isn't uncommon) all of the student problems at UMass can be boiled down to either students not prepared for the adult world and mental health issues (often a consequence of that).

So you push children to grow up too fast without actually ever growing up. Well....

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:52 a.m.


abbie said...

I think that until there is measurable improvement in the middle school and not just plans to improve it there will be considerable, reasonable opposition to moving our 6th graders to the middle school.

I think there is A LOT that the superintendent can work towards improving without moving the 6th graders. I know that its a complicated situation wrt to the redistricting but I don't think that should be an impetus to move quickly on this issue.

I hope that the Sup Int isn't seeing this as his "Waterloo".

LarryK4 said...

Probably not. But his salary increase over the previous Golden Boy will be his "waterloo".

Nina Koch said...

I find it interesting to see the behavior that people will display when they avail themselves of the cloak of anonymity.

I have seen a variety of defenses for people posting anonymously, but in many cases, I think people just use it as an opportunity to be obnoxious.

If you were to meet the superintendent and shake his hand, would you say "Hello, A-Rod, nice to meet you"? I don't think so. It's ironic that you accuse him of "contempt or disregard for others" when your post is itself contemptuous.

This is a small town. We see each other at the farmers' market or the grocery store. We are capable of being civil to each other even when we disagree.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 4:10 - I agree with Irv's view that more reading of the report wasn't necessary -- particularly since the entire report is already available on line for anyone to read.

Anonymous 7:58 - I've read the Duke study, and the authors themselves acknowledge there are weaknesses (as there are in ALL studies). This is one study, and it is a piece of information -- the Amherst SC and the superintendent will have to decide how to weigh this study and other info in terms of making a decision about the placement of 6th grade.

Anonymous 9:18 - not sure what your post adds at all (and from a very safe anonymous perch).

Ed - many districts have 6th grade in the MS, and I'm not personally convinced that this is a bad thing. Many of us, me included, went to a 6 to 8th grade school, and I think there is ample evidence that this structure CAN be successful. That being said, I'm not in support of this move AT THIS TIME given the state of the MS ... but I don't believe that our 6th graders are just that different from those in other communities in which 6th grade is working well in the MS.

Abbie - I agree that measurable improvement in the MS is needed BEFORE such a move. It is too bad that the timing of the redistricting is this year -- in that it would be easier to redistrict KNOWING what the organization of the schools would be like in 2 or 3 or 4 years. But I agree -- we can't move the 6th grade simply because we are redistricting this year (and ultimately, this is a SC vote, NOT the superintendent's choice).

Larry - we all know how I voted on the salary. But given that we are paying him what we are paying him, I am very much hoping that he will be worth it (and I am encouraged by some of the observations noted in the Hamer report and some of his early statements in terms of the needed areas of priority/concern).

Nina - I agree completely about the tone of (some) anonymous remarks ... though I like the ease of the A-Rod label!

LarryK4 said...

Damn Nina, you gotta come over to my blog and see some of the cowardly Nitwit Anons I have to deal with--
and I don't get paid.

Mr. Rodriguez is by far the highest paid public official in town. He better have thick skin.

Anonymous said...

As I read some of the comments in this article and other reports about the school committee meeting I get very upset about the statements about the middle school. As CS said awhile ago, perceptions matter, but it seems like perceptions are now being thrown around like they are proven fact.

I am concerned that Dr. Rodriguez can make statements about the middle school like he is doing without having ever observed one moment of it in action. And his consultant wrote about the middle school although he never spoke to its principal, or any of its teachers, as part of his investigation. Within days of arriving Dr. Rodriguez started throwing out some very critical statements that he could have not actually come up with through any of his own observations.

Every school can improve. Even the best teacher can do even better. I believe that the teachers at the middle school would be very open to constructive approaches and positive suggestions.
One might want to try the sugar approach rather than the vinegar one.
I can't imagine it is anything but demoralizing for teachers to have this new administration put such critical comments into the media that rely on the perceptions of a few, yet choose to present them as fact. Perhaps after he had actually spent some time observing the school in action his comments might fall on more receptive ears.

I know he wanted to hit the ground running, but his (and his consultant's) approach strikes me as reckless and potentially very counter-productive.

Anonymous said...

A perfect example of Anon 11:44's thoughts is in CS's post above: the statement: "given the state of the middle school". That is such a leading statement that I don't feel is based on any real data. Catherine you are all about data...but you continue to state facts that are just perceptions in disguise.

Tom G said...

Dr Rodriguez might focus on how the curriculum for 6th graders could be accomplished under one roof as opposed to how it cannot in three elementary schools, and then address the issue of age group appropriateness.

I understand why he wants to move on the issue now, as part of redistricting, and not redistricting now, and maybe 6th grade later.

Rodrigeuz needs to know his board members better. Did that happen?

Anonymous said...

Now that the Superintendent is on the job, can we agree that it is beating a dead horse, in poor taste, and out of bounds to discuss his salary every time we discuss an initiative or problem that is to be addressed in our schools?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

LarryK - anonymous posters are somehow very courageous on all blogs.

Anonymous 11:44 - I imagine it is very hard for you to know what data Dr. Rodriguez has or has not listened to. For example, survey data was collected at all of the schools in June, and I am quite certain Dr. Rodriguez has seen this data (including surveys of middle school parents). There was a survey LAST YEAR of MS parents which revealed that only about half saw the school as challenging (again, this is already collected data that was reported to the SC last August). The SC and the superintendent receive emails from parents describing concerns about the schools (this could include concerns from parents about the middle school). The consultant reviewed considerable data from the schools, and this may have included other types of data about the middle school (such as a review of math in the district that was done two or three years ago -- I was on the committee -- which included parent surveys and child surveys and the middle school was seen in the most negative light of all the schools in these surveys). I'm not sure why talking to the middle school teachers or principal would be the best way of finding out if the school is challenging ... sort-of like asking someone if they believe their child is attractive or smart?!? The perception in this town is largely that the middle school does not consistently provide a challenging and rigorous education for all kids -- we can pretend that isn't true, but that is what parents say on the sidelines at soccer fields, at birthday parties, and so on. And until we are ready to acknowledge that, we can't begin to fix it. I admire Dr. Rodriguez for being willing to be open about the problems in our district (which the Hamer report clearly did). And finally, as a member of the SC, my primary concern is not making the teachers feel good -- it is making sure our kids get a good education. I believe a first step in making this happening is acknowledging areas in which our schools aren't as good as they could be -- so that we can then make appropriate changes.

Anonymous 11:52 - data includes information gathered from parents describing their child's experience in the MS, and it includes quantitative and qualitative data gathered from many parents at the MS regarding math, and it includes data gathered last year in a survey of MS parents. All of those data points suggest that the MS is not providing a consistently rigorous and challenging experience -- hence my statement about the state of the MS. What types of additional data do you suggest I need before making this claim?!?

Tom G - this sounds like a very reasonable plan -- and one that would make a lot of sense -- good idea! In terms of your second question: Dr. Rodriguez is making every effort to get to know his board members well -- including having individual meetings with each board member monthly (something that hasn't happened since I've been on the board with another superintendent).

Anonymous 5:53 - I think this seems like a reasonable suggestion. However, I also think it will continue to be salient in people's minds that given the high salary, we can have appropriately high expectations of the superintendent's performance!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the statement - Fix the middle school first. Stop making middle schoolers guinea pigs.

My older daughter had to have a tutor because the experimental math program was teaching her the same stuff she learned in 5th grade.

My youner daughter could not cope with going from a one teacher model to a schedule that was incomprehensible. Who designs a 8 day schedule for a 5 day week. Or was it a 12 day schedule for 10 days. Is today A1 or A2?

Leave 6th grade alone!!

Rick said...

The newspaper article does not say whether there was talk about moving the 6th grade in the same year that redistricting occurs – which would remove the “move-twice-in-two-years” problem for one class of students. Was there that discussion, and if so, what is the deadline for a “move-the-6th-grade” decision in order to not mess up redistricting plans?

My guess would be late 2009 or early 2010? If so, let’s make a decision by then – one way or the other – and not talk it to death. I’m sure that well before then we will have all the information needed to make that decision, as well as time to have discussed it. I see this as a lot less of a major decision than closing Marks Meadow and so should not require as much discussion/time as that did.

Another thing:

While the SC needs to oversee this stuff of course, they also just hired a guy whose vision they apparently agreed with, so I would suggest that they let him carry out his vision. No, that doesn’t mean let him do whatever he wants. But it does mean don’t put him in a straightjacket either; otherwise you’d get a half baked vision.

Anonymous said...

To anon 10:51

I have to point out that it does not make sense to me that your daughter needed a tutor to help her with work because the "math program was teaching her the same stuff she learned in 5th grade."

One complaint could be it was teaching her stuff she already learned, the other could be she needed a tutor to help. How could saying both of these be anything but completely contradictory?

Some of the criticisms seem to be out there just for the sake of criticizing....but don't really make sense.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:55. I think the tutor was hired so the child would learn some math in middle school.

Anonymous said...

When Mike Hayes was the math department head in the middle school, he specifically, intentionally had watered down math so that the lower achieving kids could get caught up to the advanced kids. It was a stupid idea, and I think everyone agrees now that it didn't work. Ali Burrow

Char said...

Yes sugar gets you more than vinegar, and the squeaky wheel gets the oil. So here's my 2 cents. Both my sons attended ARMS, ten years apart. (The youngest just entered 9th grade). They both had ADD, which got worse during the emergence of puberty in 6th and 7th grade. Remembering them as 6th graders, they were emotionally, socially and behaviorally ready for Middle School. It would have been good for the 5th graders to be rid of 6th graders. 6th graders have more in common with MS teens. My boys were not high achievers and they required a lot of adult support at home and at school. The MS teachers went beyond the call of duty. They were always available to help and answered my questions right away. They found a way to engage my spaced-out, hormone-shaken, socially clueless sons so that they both made it to high school. We have to remember what a tumultuous time the early teens are and how distracted kids are by their physiological transformations, and those of their peers. They see friends as role models, not adults so much. The section of their brain that processes academics gets an atomic wedgie by the part of their brain that processes face breakouts and hair cuts. Self esteem becomes a precious commodity and must be rewarded by teachers along with academic effort. My sons were challenged plenty by the curriculum. I was concerned that they may feel "stupid" beside all the kids with straight A's. Maybe my boys in some way helped to lower the academic bar at the MS, if it is indeed lowered. But they received all the support they needed to do as well as they could. And they said goodbye to teachers whom they really liked, who they thought were cool. I call that great teaching.

Anonymous said...

Please--As a young college student with a rotating schedule I was lost!, in a building a little bigger than the MS. I had to write each day's schedule with room numbers and teachers' names on my hands and heaven forbid I should forget and scrub them too hard. I had to ask each Monday "What schedule are we on this week, A, B, or D?" I made it, but as a young adult it presented its own set of problems. I can't imagine a child having to go through this. What is the point of a rotating schedule anyway and who dreamed this up?
The transition from having the same teacher for core subjects and then being thrown into a rotating schedule as anon. 10:51, 8/26 stated, one that is quite difficult to follow, should not happen to children who are already going through so many changes both physically and emotionally. Please--listen to these valid cncerns and leave the 6th grade alone.