By NICK GRABBE
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.
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.