Hampshire Gazette, August 4, 2009
By NICK GRABBE
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.
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.
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.