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.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Amherst Meeting, September 22, 2009

NOTE: I am still finishing my entry for the regional meeting on September 15th, which will be posted soon (it was a LONG meeting). But I put this one up fast because I know there is a lot of interest regarding the redistricting. Check back later this week for the summary of the last regional meeting.

This meeting began with a series of public comments from parents and community members. These parents expressed concerns about closing Marks Meadow and redistributing low income kids to different schools to create equity among % of low-income kids in all the schools. There was a proposal made by a group to create an immersion (Spanish-English) school at Crocker Farm, which would keep Spanish-speaking kids together (with Spanish-speaking staff). A formal proposal will be submitted by this group in October.

We then turned to superintendent's update. Dr. Rodriguez made three announcements. First, he noted the there had been two open redistricting subcommittee meetings with time for public comment, and there will be two open forums for such discussions. Second, he noted that this is the first he has heard of an immersion school, and would need to learn more. Third, he encouraged all parents to attend the Open Houses being held on Wednesday, September 23rd, at all of the elementary schools.

Next, we heard a presentation by Kathy Mazur (head of HR) on the work of the redistricting subcommittee. A map was shown (already on my blog) -- which is still a draft in progress. This map may be revised some, when final district enrollments for the year are determined on October 1st (interestingly, the overall elementary enrollment is down by about 30 kids from projections last spring). Some changes are already likely to be made to two roads (given transportation issues): Strong Street will all stay within the Wildwood district (even though it is cut by the railroad tracks) and State Street will go to Wildwood (now shown as going to Fort River).

Several aspects of this map were noted, including:
  • no child is on a bus more than 30 to 35 minutes
  • language clustering will not occur
  • the % of low income kids is 32.3% at WW, 34.8% at CF, and 35.2% at FR
  • the size of the schools is within 100 kids at each (359 at CF, 454 at FR, 440 at WW)
  • class sizes are still low (average of 19.9 at CF, 19.7 at FR, and 20 at WW)
  • the plan follows natural borders (e.g., main roads, railroad tracks), with the exception of two apartment complexes off of East Hadley Road (one will move to FR, one to WW)
  • kids at all schools are moving (100% at MM, 40% at CF, 20% at FR, 38% at WW).
There will be two open forums to discuss the restricting plans (childcare provided at each): Tuesday, October 8th, 7 pm at Marks Meadow and Wednesday, October 14th, 7 pm at Crocker Farm. The maps and information on the plan (e.g., school size, class size, etc.) will be posted on the district website on Friday, October 2nd (after the final enrollment numbers are out).

The plan is for the SC to vote officially on this plan at the October 27th meeting. At this meeting, there will also be votes regarding several key issues, including:
  • whether to return the portables to the town (since they are not needed in any of these plans, and thus could be sold by the town to replenish reserves)
  • whether to eliminate differential programs (e.g., Chinese language at only one school)
  • whether to allow for open enrollment to a school not in one's district
  • whether to continue clustering students by language.
There was some discussion by the committee involving redistricting issues. Steve noted that kids would teachers/staff will change buildings along with kids, so that kids will recognize familiar adults in all buildings. I noted that kids now in different apartment complexes off East Hadley Road are NOW going to different schools, so this is not a change in what has been occurring in the district. Jim Oldham (audience member and parent) expressed his view that busing children in apartments to different schools than children who live in the houses across from apartments disrupts their ability to form friendships and make playmates with kids who live nearby and are going to a different school, and that we weren't splitting up any other neighborhoods like this. Kathleen then noted that in her experience, kids in apartments aren't playing with kids in houses anyway, and that kids in apartments made friendships and did playdates with other kids in apartments REGARDLESS of whether they were going to the same school. I then noted that kids who live in downtown Amherst (e.g., Lincoln, Dana, etc.) would be divided -- kids on one side of Amity will go to Wildwood and kids on the other side will go to Crocker Farm. Kathleen then asked if it was possible to switch which apartments went to which schools to try to keep as many kids at the same school as they now attend. Doug agreed to look into this.

The committee then turned to discuss a budget update, which included reviewing a memo from the Budget Coordinating Group (BCG) -- Andy and Irv are the SC members on this committee. This memo states the importance of having budgets ready early this year, so that the town services (town, schools, library) can coordinate the budget process and be ready in case the Select Board proposes an override at the March 23rd election. Steve stated his concern that the schools should be focusing on doing as well as possible with the resources we have, and that we should not be presenting dire scenarios (e.g., eliminating world language and instrumental music) to build support for an override. Andy stated that the issue was one of timing, and that we would of course look for cost-savings before asking for an override. I noted that the elementary school budget should actually be in good shape next year, since with the closure of MM, we would be operating with fewer teachers and an entire administrative team. Irv agreed with this, but noted that the structural deficit remained (as noted in the FCCC report) and that an override would likely be needed at some point. Dr. Rodriguez noted that we would certainly look into efficiencies and potential cost-savings.

Next, we turned to a discussion about district goals. Steve suggested adding a goal to conduct a thorough review of the elementary school math curriculum, particularly given the concerns expressed nationwide about the math curriculum we use (Investigations) and the movement of other districts to different math curriculum. I expressed support for this goal, and noted that a review of this curriculum had not ever been done (certainly not for 20 or so years). I also noted that it would not be hard to look into what other MSAN districts were using, and that Everyday Math was a curriculum used by many MSAN districts (and with demonstrated research success as described in the What Works Clearinghouse) and that Think Math! is a curriculum now being used in Brookline and Framingham, MA (and also has demonstrated success). Both Irv and Dr. Rodriguez expressed their support for adding this goal.

Kathleen suggested adding a goal to increase professional development on issues of race for teachers. There was some discussion about this, and ultimately the superintendent offered to bring his recommendations regarding this goal to the next meeting of the goals subcommittee.

We tabled the discussion of the elementary school survey results (it was quite late by this point), but will return to this discussion at the October meeting. Steve and I agreed to prepare a brief presentation of these results to guide the discussion.

We then accepted a few gifts, discussed items for upcoming meetings (including world language in elementary schools), and reviewed a calendar regarding upcoming meetings and a budget timeline.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Redistricting plan prompts criticism

Hampshire Gazette
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

AMHERST - The new plan to redraw the boundaries of elementary school districts faced its first criticism at Tuesday's School Committee meeting.

Parents and concerned citizens will be able to make additional comment on the plan at hearings Oct. 8 at Mark's Meadow School and Oct. 14 at Crocker Farm School, both at 7 p.m. The School Committee plans to vote on Oct. 27.

The redistricting is triggered by next year's closing of Mark's Meadow School. The School Committee also wants to equalize the percentage of students at each school who come from low-income households.

The map puts 100 more students in Crocker Farm by extending the northern border to Amity and Main streets, with the railroad tracks being the eastern border.

Children living north of Amity and Main and west of the tracks would attend Wildwood School, while those east of the tracks would go to Fort River School.

Only in the East Hadley Road area would children go to multiple schools.

The Boulders would be in the Wildwood district, Mill Valley Estates and Hollister Apartments in Fort River, and children in nearby single-family houses would attend Crocker Farm.

Jim Oldham, of East Hadley Road, said the plan should be postponed until a decision is made about whether sixth-graders will attend Amherst Regional Middle School, so that no students have to move twice.

He said some children living in apartments in his area would be separated from their friends and neighbors.

"You're using low-income families as justification for redistricting but burdening them with the biggest impact from it," he said.

Several speakers spoke about the impact of the redistricting on Spanish-speaking children currently attending Crocker Farm.

"I am here to put you on notice that I will do all in my power to prevent from going forward any districting proposal which targets for dispersal to other failing Amherst elementary schools the children of Spanish-speaking Crocker Farm families, their teachers and their educational support staff," said Vladimir Morales, a former School Committee member.

Zulma Rivera, a Mark's Meadow parent, said her group, Amherst Families for Two-Way Immersion, will submit an alternative redistricting proposal.

"The idea of redistricting the community of children we met at Crocker Farm is as harmful as what is planned for Mark's Meadow," she said.

"What you propose to cut is not fatty tissue; it is muscle and nerve that are deeply embedded in our community."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Regional Meeting, September 8, 2009

This meeting began with a teacher/student spotlight, in which Heather Sullivan-Flynn (English curriculum leader at the MS) discussed work in the MS on poetry. She read some poems aloud, as did a current MS student. This unit included integration of work in English and science (poems about science) as well as a visit by author Janet Wong to the MS last year. Ms. Sullivan-Flynn expressed thanks to the Family-School Partnership at the MS for giving grants to teachers who are interested in inviting outside authors/writers/scientists to come in to the classroom.

We then turned to announcements/public comment. Farshid announced a program in Leverett in which all families are invited to read the books Three Cups of Tea (which I've heard is excellent). Michael Aronson, a parent of a MS student, asked the superintendent for information about the process by which parents could meet individually with the superintendent, as apparently was offered by the superintendent to several parents sometime last week. Dr. Rodriguez noted that parents could come see him or Maria Geryk by making an appointment.

The next agenda item was the superintendent's update. First, Dr. Rodriguez announced that current Pelham Elementary School principal Rena Moore would be serving as the elementary curriculum coordinator for the rest of this year (since the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction was not hired). She will work on horizontal and vertical alignment of English Language Arts, math, and science in the five schools. The assistant superintendent position will be re-opened, in hopes that someone can start July 1, 2010.

The superintendent then announced that given Glenda Cresto's resignation on August 31st, Mark Jackson would serve as 7 to 12 principal, Mike Hayes would serve as senior assistant principal of the MS, and Diane Chamberlain would serve as an additional assistant principal in the HS. He will re-assess how this plan is working in December, and intends to conduct a search for a new MS principal next year. He also intends to hire a consultant to do a thorough study of the MS. He has selected a consultant named Barry Bears, who lives in Virginia and has a PhD from the College of William & Mary. Dr. Rodriguez offered his apologies to parents who learned of Glenda's resignation in the newspaper, which was prior to a letter going out on Tuesday.

The committee raised various questions. Steve asked whether the transition could be re-assessed if other opportunities are presented, and also raised a question about a budget item presented the prior week (why was $69,000 used on Investigations last year?). Irv expressed concern about the burden being placed on Mark to manage two buildings, and his hope that this is a short-term, not long-term situation. Farshid noted that it is the superintendent's job to make personnel decisions.

The superintendent stated that the MS faculty are pleased to have Mark in a leadership role, and that Mark would present the leadership plan to the SC at next week's meeting. He noted that there are many administrators in place at the MS, including now two assistant principals and a Dean, as well as three assistant principals at the HS. He noted that parents who had concerns should meet first with an assistant principal before meeting with Mark.

Andy then asked whether the roles of the different assistant principals are divided in some way, and that the HS is already under-staffed (e.g., there used to be three assistant principals until last year). The superintendent noted again that the leadership plan will be addressed next week.

Farshid then asked about how Rena Moore's time is split between serving as principal of Pelham and working on curriculum. Dr. Rodriguez noted that a schedule has been worked out, that Pelham is going to be well taken care of, and that important work on aligning the curriculum to state standards is going to take place.

Irv asked for information about how Rena is being paid. Dr. Rodriguez noted that her salary is being paid out of Title 2 money, so it is not coming out of other district budget lines.

I asked about the cost of the MS consultant, and whether it was under $5,000 (which is the amount above which proposals must be sought). Dr. Rodriguez stated that he did not yet have a final price for this consultant, so did not know whether it would be under this amount. I then stated that if it was this amount, surely we would be needing to do a RFP, which he said would be done if that turned out to be the case.

We then turned to public comment. A lot of this has now been widely reported in the press, so I'm not going to get into each comment from all parents. Briefly, Julia Rueschemeyer read an email aloud that she has written to the superintendent following a meeting they had had, in which she and another parent had asked whether Glenda could possibly return to the MS as principal. She stated that she had talked to Glenda, and that Glenda was potentially interested in coming back, and that when she conveyed that information to the superintendent, he wrote "Have Glenda give me a call. Thanks a million!". Julia asked whether Dr. Rodriguez in fact would be willing to consider having Glenda back. The superintendent repeated his desire to have Glenda give him a call, and said he would not comment further on personnel issues.

A number of other parents then expressed concerns about whether the community would ever understand why a principal would leave on the 3rd day of school, why a Connect Ed call had not gone out so that parents could have learned of the resignation from the school instead of the newspaper and/or Facebook, and that a sudden and unexplained departure of a principal who was widely seen as an asset to the district creates stress and strain. The superintendent acknowledged the communication could have been "crisper" and that his priority had been getting a new leadership team in place quickly. He also was not sure that a Connect Ed call would have been the best approach to conveying this information.

Jennifer Keller Jackson asked why her child's PE class has 60 students. Mike Hayes noted that this was being worked on still, and that there were two teachers working with such a large group.

The committee expressed a number of reactions. Kathleen noted that personnel issues are private, and don't have to be shared with the community. Andy noted that communication is a key goal in this district, and that the use of Connect Ed would have been appropriate. Irv noted that the SC has a goal of transparency, but that this is an issue in which true transparency is impossible. Steve said that he respects the rules in which the SC must operate, values community feedback, and welcomes comments and concerns from all parents. Kristen asked whether the school could move forward this year, given the transitional leadership team in place, and wondered who was spear-heading such efforts. The superintendent noted that many people were taking a leadership role, including Mark, Mike, and Maria.

Updates start here:

I then expressed my thanks to the parents who spoke about the confusion they had felt regarding this change in leadership, and shared their belief that Glenda had been as asset to the school and that her departure was anxiety-provoking. I also expressed that I did not feel I had a full understanding of the events that had transpired.

Tracy Farnham stated that communication to the SC had been excellent. She wondered if people just weren't hearing what they wanted to hear.

Debbie said that she felt Glenda was valued by the parents, and she thanked the teachers and superintendent for their hard work over the last week.

Farshid said that Glenda was thoughtful and involved, and would have a lasting impact on the school. He appreciates the teachers' hard work and recognizes the community's concern and takes that very seriously.

The superintendent said he appreciates the parents' comments.

The meeting then turned to a discussion of engaging an outside consultant from Boston College, Dr. Alan Ladd, to facilitate the development of a district strategic plan. Dr. Ladd said that a strategic plan sets a philosophical foundation with core values in which districts choose to focus on their energies on some things and not on others. This includes creating a vision statement -- five years from now, what will we look like? -- as well as a mission statement -- how are we going to get there? Then district (and school) improvement plans would be written with the specific goals and objectives and action plans (resources) needed to accomplish this vision.

The superintendent would create a steering committee (including community members, teachers, parents, students, people from the local colleges/universities, and two SC members) which would canvass the community to help shape this mission and vision. This group would write a document, which would be presented to the superintendent and SC. The SC would then determine whether the document fits the goals of the community. Dr. Ladd's role would be to present options to the steering committee for developing the plan, seeking community input, etc.

The committee then raised a number of questions. Debbie wondered about the size and make-up of the committee (less than 20 people, which would include those from all four towns), and the time frame (about 6 months from start to finish). Andy asked whether Dr. Ladd had done work in other high-achieving, diverse, college towns (Dr. Ladd suggested Franklin, Lexington, and Waltham), and asked how this document would interact with the goals document we are producing (apparently it would fit with it, and should not be in conflict to it, based on prior experience). I asked about the cost (60% would be paid by Dr. Ladd's organization, so the district would pay only $4,999). Kristin asked about the role of the consultant (he facilitates the discussion), how there would be buy-in for this plan from the community (he believes that comes from everyone in the community getting an opportunity to share views), and whether the goals of the SC might differ from those of the steering committee (not likely in Dr. Ladd's experience).

Steve then stated that he believed it wasn't clear at all that our community would agree that student achievement would be a valued goal. He felt that it was essential that we were looking at other districts that are solving the same problems we are. (Dr. Ladd noted that this approach is really reflected in district/school improvement plans, NOT in a strategic plan). Steve then noted that the district/school improvement plans we have seen show little consistency, and little objectivity. Dr. Ladd noted that school improvement plans should be consistent, should be measurable, and should be reflective of a larger piece (e.g., a district strategic plan). The distinction noted by Dr. Ladd is that the strategic plan is a philosophical view, whereas district or school improvement plans are more specific (e.g., how do you go about the work of carrying out the district's mission).

Andy noted that we (I'm not sure if he meant the SC or the community here) haven't articulated any common vision, and he's not sure whether we can reach this with any depth (e.g., whether it would be bland). He hopes it works, but ultimately believes the SC will have to approve such a plan.

The superintendent noted that strategic plans can be very useful. Farshid said he would try to get a list of districts and their strategic plans for the committee to review.

We then turned to subcommittee reports. Farshid started by stating that as chair, he intends to appoint a subcommittee to review the district's legal counsel. We currently don't have a written contract with our lawyer, Gini Tate, and she charges $210 an hour. He believes it would be wise to study best practices in terms of legal counsel, and asked for volunteers for such a committee. Irv and I volunteered. Farshid also appointed Kathy Mazur to the subcommittee.

Alberto stated that Gini Tate is an excellent attorney, and doesn't know why we would want to change counsel. Debbie asked for the total amount that she is paid each year (an answer wasn't available at this time, but will be given at the next meeting). Andy stated that he believed it would be good to know whether we are using best practices, and that since the staff of the district works with the attorney regularly, he hopes the SC would take the staff's preferences into account. He questioned whether it would be useful to change attorneys.

Alberto asked about the timing of the appointment of this subcommittee, and asked whether there are concerns historically about our legal representation.

Kathleen explains that the SC orientation includes material on legal issues, so she doesn't see why we need to consult another attorney.

Andy said that in the context of budget discussions, there have been questions about the cost of legal services. He thus sees looking at our costs and legal services as a good idea, although believes we could ultimately choose to stay with our present legal representation.

I also expressed that I had heard concerns from the community about legal costs, and believed that this was important to examine.

Steve noted that the chair of the committee has a right to call a subcommittee to review legal representation, that legal fees are complicated, and that the SC has a right to choose the legal counsel for the district.

Irv noted that it is "bad form" not to have a written contract, and that even if it is legal NOT to have a contract, that doesn't make it right.

Kathy Mazur noted that it may or may not work to the district's advantage to have a contract, which Gini Tate would be glad to explain to members of the legal subcommittee. She noted that sometimes you can have a contract for a certain number of hours (at a certain cost) and the district can use fewer hours and thus spend money that is not necessary.

The superintendent stated that he recognized the importance of having good legal representation.

Given the hour, we postponed discussion of the district goals subcommittee. The policy subcommittee is working on policies related to instruction, budget, and communication (in line with broad district goals), and the budget subcommittee will meet for the first time on October 5th.

There was a brief discussion about moving the SC meetings to the MS auditorium in order to have a live feed for the meetings. It was agreed that the SC was in favor of this, so the meetings will move as of next week.

Finally, we discussed planning for future meetings. The survey data on the MS and HS will be given to the SC by Thursday (and presented at the next regional meeting), and the elementary survey data will be given to the SC by Friday (and I assume presented at an upcoming elementary meeting). I asked a question about the RFP for the special education review, and there is still no update on that.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

All Invited to Join ACE

Given the discussion that has occurred on my blog involving what ACE is, and what ACE is NOT, I thought it would be useful to post this letter which appeared in today's Amherst Bulletin from the ACE Executive Board. Although I'm actually just an ex-officio member of the board now (given my service on School Committee), I'm certainly glad to answer questions about ACE through my blog OR though private email (

To the Bulletin: We invite all interested residents of Amherst, Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury to join the newly reconfigured Amherst Committee for Excellence.

The Amherst Committee for Excellence believes that the Amherst Regional Public Schools should intellectually engage and support every child. We believe that the schools should set high expectations for all students to achieve academic success and become life-long learners. We support evidence-based decision-making for, and rigorous evaluation of, all programs, policies and curricula in our schools.

Our key strategies include increasing transparency in the development and assessment of school policy, curricula and programs and advocating for increased participation of the community in setting academic standards and expectations.

ACE has been reconfigured from the original petition group founded by Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson. An advisory board of eight individuals with diverse backgrounds will now guide the organization's activities. Steve and Catherine will continue to participate as ex officio non-voting members of the advisory board. ᅠWe are compiling specific priorities for next year and invite all members to participate in the process. Members also receive email updates on events, issues and activities relevant to academics in the Amherst Regional Public Schools.

For more information on specific strategies and priorities, and a list of our current members, see our Web site at

Join on the site, or by sending an email to:

The ACE Advisory Board

David Berkman
Claudia Donald
Yaniris Fernandez
Lise Halpern
Steve Rivkin, ex officio
Julia Rueschemeyer
Catherine Sanderson, ex officio
Peter Siegelman
Rob Spence
Dan Viederman

Principal outlines plans for double duty

Amherst Bulletin
By Nick Grabbe
September 18, 2009

In meetings with middle school parents and the School Committee this week, Mark Jackson was frank about the challenges of being principal of both regional schools.

"We want to avoid getting consumed by the immediate and the urgent and keep the angle of our lens wide," he told the School Committee. "It's an awkward situation. There's no handbook on how to manage a transition like this. I wasn't a candidate for this job."

Glenda Cresto, who resigned as middle school principal Aug. 31 will definitely not be returning despite one parent's effort to bring her back, Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez told the panel.

Jackson noted that he was a middle school principal elsewhere from 1993 to 2003, and that the two assistant principals, Mike Hayes and Libby Hurley, have "deep roots" in the building. Now that a scheduling fiasco has been corrected, his goal is to clearly define roles.

"We want to avoid pin-balling ourselves from one emergency to another so there's a sense of settledness on the large issues we face," Jackson said.

With expanded responsibility, he said he won't be able to have as much direct contact with parents and students. He urged parents to contact teachers when they have concerns about courses or assignments. Hayes has responsibility for curriculum, scheduling and budget development, while Hurley oversees special education and, with Dean of Students Rich Ferro, discipline.

Jackson said he doesn't want the only standard at the middle school to be "the trains run on time and it looks like a school." He said the new administrative structure, though temporary, presents some opportunities.

First, preparation of a budget proposal for next year will be more efficient and unified with one principal for both schools. Also, he will get a better sense of how the middle school curriculum can become better aligned with that of the high school.

Several School Committee members seemed reassured by Jackson's presentation, but others expressed concern about the direction of the middle school and the risk of burnout.

Steve Rivkin said there should be a "serious evaluation" of how the middle school teaches math, which is different from other districts. He urged Jackson to have "frank conversations" with more experienced high school teachers about how it can become better aligned with the middle school.

Jackson suggested renewing that discussion in six weeks. Sometimes teachers at all levels ask, "What the heck is going on down there?" he noted.

"It's an article of faith that we're not aligned," he said. Ninth grade teachers "expect to find people all over the map," he said.

Andy Churchill said he is concerned about burn out with Jackson doing double duty. "People can do extraordinary things for a limited time, but can't be expected to do them for a long time, he said.

Catherine Sanderson expressed worry about what will happen when Miki Gromacki, assistant principal of the high school, goes on maternity leave around the end of the year. Jackson said that Diane Chamberlain, interim assistant principal, will take over those responsibilities, but noted the school will be down an administrator.

Cresto report, parent survey

Rodriguez related several phone conversations he had Monday with Cresto. A middle school parent who is a professional mediator had acted as a go-between in the hope that Cresto might return to the job she left just after classes started.

"I can safely assure the community that Ms. Cresto is on her way to bigger and better things," he said. "I know the community felt there needed to be closure. It was an amicable parting, and I assured her anything I could do to help her further her career I would be there for her."

The panel also got the results of a survey of the parents of middle and high school students, whose respondents were predominantly white and highly educated.

Churchill asked how valid the results are if the responses are heavily skewed to white, highly educated residents. Elaine Puleo, who coordinated the survey, said it was "not a random sample of the population."

"A lot of parents care about their kids, whether or not they responded to the survey," said committee member Kathleen Anderson. "Maybe (parents of non-white children) didn't have the time or the initiative or didn't know about it." She suggested a direct phone survey to supplement the results.

Survey results are available at

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rodriguez: Cresto's resignation final, amicable

Hampshire Gazette
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

AMHERST - Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez announced Tuesday that Glenda Cresto will not withdraw her resignation as principal of the Regional Middle School and described her parting as an amicable one.

Rodriguez said he spoke to Cresto Monday at the urging of a school parent. "I can assure the community that Ms. Cresto is on her way to bigger and better things," he said. "I know the community felt there needed to be closure."

Meanwhile, High School Principal Mark Jackson described the "awkward situation" of his taking responsibility for both buildings two weeks ago.

Jackson spoke to a group of 70 middle school parents Monday, and to the School Committee Tuesday. "There's no handbook on how to manage a transition like this," he said. "I wasn't a candidate for this job."

He noted that he was a middle school principal elsewhere for 10 years, and Mike Hayes, the senior assistant principal at the middle school, has 10 years experience there.

Jackson said he wants to clearly define roles and responsibility to avoid "careening."

"We want to avoid pinballing ourselves from one urgent emergency to another, so there's a sense of settledness on the large issues we face," he said.

Jackson urged parents who have questions about courses or assignments to contact teachers or department heads. "I am going to have to step back from some of the first-line contact with parents and students," he said.

The plan is for Jackson to be principal of both regional schools until December and then reassess the situation. He said there are some positive aspects.

First, budget preparation for next year may be more efficient and unified because he oversees both schools, he said. Also, he will get a better sense of how aligned the two schools are instructionally. He noted that the two schools share some faculty, such as in music and language.

Several committee members said they felt reassured by Jackson's presentation. But member Andy Churchill said he is "concerned that we don't burn out the high school principal, too." Member Steve Rivkin urged that a "serious evaluation" of math instruction in the middle school proceed and warned of "inertia."

Member Catherine Sanderson said she was concerned that residents who think the schools have too many administrators will look at the temporary staffing setup and conclude that it is adequate. She said she's heard from parents who worry that the middle school will be "treading water for a year."

Northampton High AP scores spur regional interest

Hampshire Gazette
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

NORTHAMPTON - Northampton High School leads the region in Advanced Placement test results with a 59 percent increase in the number of AP students who qualified for college credit from last year - nearly 17 times the overall state average.

AP classes completed in high school are eligible for college credit on the condition a student passes the exam for any given AP subject.

"We have a lot of reasons to be proud of Northampton," Mayor Clare Higgins said Monday morning at a kickoff event for the Advanced Placement program at the high school.

Others in attendance Monday praised Northampton students for their confidence in themselves and Northampton teachers for their confidence in their students.

"There is a confidence and a competence in Northampton that you just don't find everywhere," said Charlotte Carlisle, math director for Mass Math and Science Initiative, a division of the Mass Insight Education & Research Institute. The boost in performance is widely credited to the initiative's AP Training and Awards Program, in which Northampton is taking part for the second year.

And this year, Easthampton High School will work with Northampton High School in the initiative, which provides teachers with training and expands AP offerings. Easthampton High offered AP calculus and U.S. history last year, and with the new grant in hand, the school has added AP chemistry, Grade 11 AP English and Grade 12 AP English this year.

Enrollment in the Advanced Placement program at Easthampton High is up from 12 seats last year to 63 seats this year. That number represents the number of seats combined in advanced placement offerings, not the number of students, because some students take multiple AP classes.

John Smolenski, director of advising for the initiative, said the program plans to add AP statistics and AP biology to Easthampton High School in the future.

"We think that Easthampton kids are fully capable of doing these courses and they just haven't had that opportunity because not all of the courses are running," Smolenski said. "The results in Easthampton should be similar to the results in Northampton."

In Northampton, participation in the high school's eight AP classes increased from 236 seats to 413 seats. Northampton High School is expected to have a two-year enrollment growth of 75 percent and adds two new sections of AP statistics this year. The trend of students taking up AP classes is increasing, with 53 percent of the entire junior and senior student body enrolled in AP English. Smolenski believes the Advanced Placement program can reach many more students.

Students seem to think more of their peers will jump on the AP bandwagon, too. Ben Weaver, 16, a junior at Northampton High, said he enrolled in AP modern European history last year because he wanted to challenge himself. An aspiring pre-med student, Weaver took on AP English and AP biology this year. While AP classes often entail difficult concepts, heavy homework and a lot of memorization, Weaver said, one common thread throughout them all is student support for success.

"We're a really close-knit community," Weaver said. "As a community, we drive each other."

Meanwhile, Northampton teachers will lead and support Easthampton teachers this school year, Smolenski said. Because the initiative crosses school district boundaries, it provides teachers with a variety of options in terms of opportunity for growth in subject instruction, he added.

"In most schools, there's only one AP calculus teacher," Smolenski said. "Where do they talk to other AP teachers? They can go on College Board's Web site and read blogs, but now you have teachers from the district next door that have been doing this, that have a proven track record of getting the kids to the finish line. The teacher is not an island - they have a support system."

In periodic meetings and frequent phone conversations, Northampton and Easthampton teachers will share supplies and discuss ideas related to education style, techniques and teaching methods to take back to the classroom, teachers say. Middle and high school teachers in the neighboring school districts will gather four times a year in teams to focus on consistency in middle and high school instruction.

"It's allowing us to mix and meet schools we normally wouldn't and compare notes," said Paul Marcinek, AP calculus teacher at Northampton High School.

The initiative provides teachers with training and classrooms with resources the school wouldn't otherwise be able to afford, Marcinek said. Each professional development session, Marcinek noted, is "completely different," whether the focus is hands-on student activities or strong content-based instruction.

Meanwhile, students have access to three Saturday sessions with a focus on their subjects at local universities. Student taking three AP classes may take up to nine Saturday sessions - three in each subject - to prepare them for the Advanced Placement exam at the end of the school year. Professors are available during the sessions, which give students exposure to the college campus, admissions department and dining areas. Last year, Northampton High School students went to UMass Amherst for Saturday sessions.

Easthampton is one of 12 high schools to join the program this year. The Mass Math & Science Initiative hopes to add more Hampshire County schools to its AP program next year, Smolenski said. The initiative was awarded a $13.2 million grant in 2007 from the National Math & Science Initiative, primarily funded by ExxonMobil, the Gates Foundation and the Dell Foundation. The initiative's long-term goal is to reach full-program implementation in 90 high schools - benefiting 1,200 teachers and 37,000 students - by 2013.

In the end, the program shows students "taking rigorous courses in high school can impact their ability to do well in college freshman year," Smolenski said.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Key Reminder: Change in Meeting Location

Tonight's School Committee meeting (and all future meetings) will meet in the Middle School auditorium. This change in location will allow the meetings to now be broadcast LIVE by ACTV.

Revised Preliminary Redistricting Map

This is the most recent map proposed by the district for the redistricting. This map is still PRELIMINARY, and the School Committee will hear comments from the community regarding this map, and some revision could potentially occur. Please remember that commenting on my blog is not actually communicating with the School Committee in an official way -- official comments should be sent to the entire School Committee ( and/or can be made at the public forums. This map will be presented at the September 22nd Amherst School Committee Meeting.

To give a sense of the comparison to our current district, I've now added our current districts (which seem much less intuitive to me). For the record, the current breakdow in terms of % of kids on free/reduced lunch is: CF - 50.8%, FR - 32.2%, MM - 31.4%, WW - 24.4%.

The new map creates three much more equitable schools, as noted in the article posted below.

Amherst redistricting group develops proposed map

Hampshire Gazette
September 15, 2009

AMHERST - A group charged with redrawing the elementary school district lines now has a proposed map to present to parents and the School Committee.

The map would have students who live north of Amity/Main streets and west of the railroad tracks attend Wildwood School, while those living east of the tracks attend Fort River School and all others south of Amity/Main and west of the tracks attend Crocker Farm School.

The only exception would be an island of three apartment complexes near East Hadley Road. About 28 children living at The Boulders would attend Wildwood, while about 47 at Mill Valley Estates and Hollister Apartments would attend Fort River. Children living in the nearby houses would attend Crocker Farm.

The School Committee is scheduled to vote on the district maps Oct. 27, but before that, there will be two opportunities for public comment, tentatively scheduled at Mark's Meadow School Oct. 8 and at Crocker Farm Oct. 14, with bus transportation and child care provided.

The trigger for the redistricting is the closure of Mark's Meadow next fall. Most of its current students would go to Wildwood next year, except for those living on Leverett and East Leverett Roads, who would attend Fort River.

Another goal of the redistricting is to equalize the percentage of children from low-income homes, as defined by those receiving free and reduced-price lunches. Currently, Crocker Farm has 50.8 percent low-income students, Fort River 32.2 percent, Mark's Meadow 31.4 percent, and Wildwood 24.4 percent.

Under the proposal, the percentages would be: Crocker Farm, 34.8 percent; Fort River, 35.2 percent; Wildwood 32.3 percent. The apartment complexes, which have much higher percentages of low-income parents than single-family houses, were placed in schools other than Crocker Farm to help equalize these numbers.

When new demographic information becomes available Oct. 1, the numbers will be adjusted.

The island in the middle of the Crocker Farm district looks "bizarre" and could spark some parent comments, said School Committee member Irv Rhodes. But the rationale of equalizing low-income students "has a large amount of support on the School Committee and the community. The rationale is defensible and conforms with the values we have."

The school district should provide money for emergency transportation for parents who live in these apartment complexes who don't have cars and have to get to their children's schools, he said.

"Concentrated poverty is a bad thing," said School Committee member Steve Rivkin. He spoke highly of the new map, as did Douglas Slaughter and Maria Geryk, two other members of the redistricting group.

Under the proposed map, the number of children switching schools next year would be much higher at Crocker Farm and Wildwood than at Fort River.

Monday, September 14, 2009

School Board Redraws District

Amherst Bulletin
September 10, 2009

For parents of children in Amherst's elementary schools, the question is fundamental: Which building will the bus take them to next fall?

A group of administrators and School Committee members is redrawing the map that determines which elementary school children attend. Committee member Irv Rhodes, a member of the group, admits the final product is not going to please everyone. "It is not possible for us to devise a plan that will meet everyone's expectations," he said. "What we can do is meet the criteria and then put it out there and have the process be transparent."

The group will meet Monday at 10 a.m. in the Professional Development Center at the Amherst Regional Middle School. Parents can attend the meeting, but it is not a public hearing.

Opportunities for public comment will come in mid-October, after the group makes its recommendation. The School Committee plans to vote on the new map at the end of October.

"It's not going to be a perfect map," said committee member Catherine Sanderson. "The perfect map is, 'My kids are going to the same school.'"

The main reason for the redistricting is that Mark's Meadow School will close after this year. The other reason is a desire to achieve greater parity between the other three schools in terms of the percentage of children from low-income families. Crocker Farm educates more such children than the other schools.

Two maps were proposed last spring, and the group is likely to recommend a third one. These two maps are at .

Here is Sanderson's analysis of the two maps.

The first map has children living on Pine/Meadow Street and northward, plus those north of Belchertown Road, going to Fort River, while those living in Amherst Woods would attend Crocker Farm. This map does a good job of equalizing the number of children in each building. But it has still has a higher percentage of low-income children in one school (38 percent at Fort River, vs. 32 percent at Wildwood and 30 percent at Crocker Farm). It doesn't follow natural borders, and it fills Crocker Farm to capacity, providing little flexibility.

The second map has all children living north of Main/Amity Street and west of the railroad tracks going to Wildwood. It puts those living on Leverett Road, Henry and North East streets and eastward, and those living north of the Norwottuck Rail Trail, in Fort River. This does a better job of equalizing low-income children. But it leaves Crocker Farm under-enrolled at 329 students while Wildwood is crowded at 515, a problem exacerbated by Wildwood's open quads.

One of the goals of the redistricting is to keep neighborhood children going to the same school. Both maps fall short of that goal in the gerrymandered East Hadley Road area, where children living close to each other would attend all three schools.

School Committee members are getting emails from parents saying they bought their houses because they wanted their children to attend a particular school, Sanderson said. Some real estate ads have listed "Fort River School District" as a selling point. "This speaks to a problem in the district that we have to solve," she said. She called the current maps "distasteful and inappropriate" because of the imbalance of low-income children between the schools. Rhodes said the disparity may be in violation of state law.

There are several other factors the redistricting group will have to consider. Neither of the two maps takes bus travel and walking distance to school into account. Both would require children living on the western part of East Hadley Road to be bused through the center of town to Wildwood.

And buses must have places to turn around.

Then there are the "portable" classrooms at Mark's Meadow, purchased in 2007 for $380,000 and never used for that purpose. The school district could sell them at a loss, or it could move them at an estimated cost of $140,000. But Crocker Farm, the logical place to move them to, doesn't have the infrastructure to accommodate them, Sanderson said. "It wasn't a good use of money," she said.

Parents of Mark's Meadow children would like them to all attend Wildwood next year, but that would cause problems elsewhere on the map, she said.

There's also Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez's proposal to move the sixth grades to the Regional Middle School. That seems unlikely to happen next year, especially with uncertainty in the middle school leadership, but if the move does take place it would be "extremely unfortunate not to do it at the same time" as next fall's redistricting, Sanderson said.

Ultimately, the School Committee will have to make value judgments about which criteria are most important, she said. For example, it will have to decide whether it's willing to live with a 10 percent disparity in low-income children between the three schools, or with long bus rides for some, she said. It will have to decide how important keeping neighborhoods together is.

"This is not a science," Rhodes said. "But this is something that we have to get right. There will be people who will be upset. We want to be as fair as possible."

Data: Not a Bad Thing

Amherst Bulletin
September 10, 2009
By Steve Rivkin & Catherine Sanderson

When discussing education in the Amherst Regional Public Schools, one often hears about the uniqueness of our town, such as our special mix of students, progressive environment, and strong commitment to social justice and diversity and, in turn, how this uniqueness means that we have little to learn from other districts.

Although we agree that Amherst is a wonderful community, we disagree that the challenges we face in providing an intellectually engaging, progressive and supportive education differ from those faced in other communities. Schools across the state and country must educate children who arrive at school with a range of interests and family circumstances on increasingly tight budgets. More important, we strongly disagree with the notion that we have little to learn from the experiences of these schools: a resistance to or simply a lack of interest in looking to the experiences of other districts when designing curriculum or examining programs handicaps our efforts to provide the type of education we aspire to provide for all of our children.

Outsiders provide invaluable perspectives and ideas, and schools that operate in isolation bypass opportunities to learn from others with similar goals tackling similar problems. As Amherst College faculty in departments that recently underwent external reviews, we experienced first-hand both the benefits and anxiety of having a small number of noted professors from prestigious colleges and universities review our respective programs. The reviewers read our descriptions of our respective departments and then came to campus and met with students, faculty and administrators. Several weeks after their visits, the external committees submitted reports and recommendations. The process and feedback provoked some dissatisfaction, but we believe that these reviews provide the type of perspective and evaluation that is crucial to improving curriculum, the quality of instruction and the intellectual life of a department.

Comparison with peer institutions and external reviews are certainly not unique to colleges and universities. In fact, the Brookline Public Schools conduct reviews of each program and curriculum area on a regular basis, with the goal of improving »student achievement through a comprehensive and rigorous examination of our programs.« These reviews, which are conducted by committees including teachers, administrators, parents and community members, have four distinct phases: assessing the current state of the program, determining what is necessary for improvement, implementing a plan for improvement and reviewing the effectiveness of the plan. In some cases, these reviews may involve hiring outside consultants to assist with data collection and/or provide objective information about strengths and areas of improvements.

Similarly, some districts regularly evaluate their own progress by engaging in comparison with other similar districts. The Newton Public Schools, for example, have selected a group of seven benchmark districts in the Boston area that share their strong commitment to education and have similar demographic compositions. Curricular and program evaluations in Newton use information on these other districts in judging performance and deciding whether to continue, modify, add or terminate programs. Similarly, the Worcester Public Schools have studied how students in their schools compare on various measures, including attendance and drop out rates, post-graduate placement, and MCAS scores, to those in other similar districts.

Looking outside Amherst for ideas, comparisons and feedback has not been central to the operation of the Amherst public schools in recent years, though we see signs that this may be changing.

Assistant Superintendent Maria Geryk is currently working on soliciting proposals for an outside review of our special education programs, Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez began his tenure in Amherst by commissioning an outside review of our district by an independent consultant, and the Regional School Committee recently selected a set of 11 districts to use as comparisons when evaluating our school curricula, programs, and outcomes.

Gathering and processing data and paying outside reviewers are costly in terms of both time and money, and some may balk at these efforts. However, if they lead to more effective instruction, better outcomes for students, and a more efficient use of resources, it would be well worth the cost.

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

Friday, September 11, 2009

Parent seeks to mediate, bring back Amherst middle school principal

Hampshire Gazette

AMHERST - A Middle School parent is trying to work out a deal that could get former Principal Glenda Cresto who resigned Aug. 31 back on the job.

Julia Rueschemeyer, an Amherst lawyer and mediator, said she has been talking to Cresto and Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez in an attempt to bring them together to reconsider the resignation. She has offered to mediate such a meeting.

Rueschemeyer said in her conversation with Cresto Sept. 3, she learned that Cresto would like to, as Rueschemeyer put it, "find her way back" to the post.

Rueschemeyer and parent Mary Jo Viederman met privately with Rodriguez Sept. 3. Rueschemeyer then spoke to Cresto and told her Rodriguez said the decision to reconsider was up to her.

"She is interested in sitting down and having a conversation with the four of us," Rueschemeyer wrote in an email message to Rodriguez Sept. 4. "Given what you told us about your vision and how that aligned with her vision, I think that it would be worth it to see if there is enough common ground to repair the damage that has been done."

She read the email message out loud at a School Committee meeting this week.

Rodriguez had said that Cresto resigned because she was not a "good fit" for the position, and acknowledged that criticism of the middle school did not create "ideal working conditions." On Tuesday he announced that a consultant will be hired to study the middle school and come up with a "blueprint of next steps."

Rueschemeyer said the trigger for Cresto's resignation was a massive student scheduling mix-up that came to light just after the middle school opened.

"It has been too many years without consistent leadership at the middle school, and the community needs that stability," she wrote to Rodriguez. "The children are the ones who suffer. Glenda's return to the middle school would allow the whole community to breathe a sigh of relief and continue the important work that she and the teachers started."

On Sept. 7, Rodriguez responded to the email saying that Cresto should contact him, according to a copy of the email provided by Rueschemeyer.

At Tuesday's School Committee meeting, Rueschemeyer said it would be helpful if Rodriguez called Cresto and asked her to come back. Rodriguez responded that Cresto had not contacted him and said he is "uncomfortable talking about personnel."

Rueschemeyer then talked to Cresto again and later said, "She would like to be able to find a way back to the middle school."

"She felt that the superintendent was so upset about the scheduling confusion that there would be no way for the two of them to move forward," she said in an email message to the Gazette Wednesday. "She believes that they had the same vision for the middle school, but that right when the schedule problem happened, executing this vision would have been impossible."

Now Cresto, and perhaps Rodriguez, have more perspective and realize that scheduling is only a small part of the principal's job, Rueschemeyer said.

"I'm sure they are starting to realize that having her leave three days into the job and under such secrecy undermined their shared vision more than any scheduling conflict," she said.

In response to Cresto's resignation, Rodriguez asked high school principal Mark Jackson to assume responsibility over the middle school as well, and named Michael Hayes senior assistant principal.

Rueschemeyer said that for Rodriguez and the School Committee to consult the same attorney about whether to comment on the Cresto resignation represents a conflict of interest. Committee member Catherine Sanderson said she agreed, saying the committee "needs to receive legal advice from its own attorney."

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Parents upset at circumstances surrounding surprise resignation of Amherst Regional Middle School Principal Glenda Cresto

by The Republican Newsroom
Wednesday September 09, 2009, 1:15 PM

AMHERST - Some parents are praising the middle school principal who resigned last month and questioning whether something could be worked out where she might be able to return.

Parents at a Tuesday night Amherst Regional School Committee meeting pressed for the reasons Glenda Cresto resigned Aug. 31, three days after the start of the school year.

Some Amherst Regional School Committee members, meanwhile, said they were concerned that Amherst Regional High School principal Mark Jackson was being overburdened by being named temporary principal of the middle school in addition to his regular duties.

Amherst Regional School Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez explained that by law he cannot divulge more information about the reason that Cresto, the former site director of the Boston Teacher Residency training program, resigned after one year on the job. She reportedly told faculty that the position wasn't a good fit for her.

Parent Karen Lavine said Cresto "was a wonderful asset to the middle school." She said there are concerns that her resignation "was shrouded in mystery."

One parent, Julia Y. Rueschenmeyer, asked whether Rodriguez would contact Cresto to see if they could discuss the possibility of her returning under Rodriguez's tutelage. Rodriguez said Cresto would need to contact him with the request.

Committee member Catherine A. Sanderson would also like to see Cresto return. In an e-mail, she wrote that she felt that Cresto was "making good progress" on changes at the school. "I certainly wish she would come back, and I certainly have heard that sentiment expressed by parents in the community," Sanderson said. She also believes having a stable leader would be better than the temporary plan in place.

Parents were also upset that they didn't find out about the resignation right away.

Rodriguez apologized and said he could have done a better job at communicating the news, but that his first concern was ensuring interim leadership was in place.

"My priority was acting quickly to bring stability to the middle school," he said.

Diane Chamberlain, the South Amherst campus program coordinator for special education, will be designated as temporary assistant principal, joining Annie M. Leonard and Miki Lee Gromacki in support of high school matters.

Michael C. Hayes, a former co-principal at the middle school, will serve as senior assistant principal during an interim period, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the middle school.

School committee member Irvin E. Rhodes said he was concerned about having Jackson "being between two schools. I'd like to see it as temporary as possible."

Rodriguez said he would reexamine the situation in December and will begin a search for a new principal. However, he believes that since most likely candidates for the job are already locked into contracts at other schools, a new principal would not begin until July 1. He also said he wants to hire a consultant to evaluate the middle school.

Principal's sudden resignation called 'distressing' by parents

Hampshire Gazette, September 9, 2009
Staff Writer

AMHERST - Parents told the Regional School Committee Tuesday of their distress over the resignation of middle school principal Glenda Cresto just after classes started.

Julia Rueschemeyer praised Cresto's flexibility and openness and said she called her to ask her to consider coming back. Rueschemeyer, a lawyer and mediator, said she would like to arrange a meeting between Cresto, Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez, herself and another parent.

She said it would be helpful if Rodriguez called Cresto and ask her to come back. "Ms. Cresto will need to contact me," he said.

Karen Levine said the resignation seems to be "shrouded in mystery," and this has created "a level of stress that is extremely distressing for parents."

Jennifer Keller Jackson said her eighth-grader asked, "Why on earth did the principal resign on the third day, and are we ever going to know?"

Several School Committee members said Rodriguez can't legally talk about Cresto's situation because it's a personnel matter, and even they don't know exactly what happened.

"It's her business, and if she wants to tell you, she will," said member Kathleen Anderson. "It's not our right to try to fish out something we don't have a right to have."

Several parents criticized Rodriguez for not communicating the information about Cresto more effectively. "My priority was acting quickly to bring stability to the middle school," he responded.

But he also said, "Could we have done it crisper? Yes." He said he didn't want to "raise hysteria."

Committee members Irv Rhodes and Steve Rivkin said they are concerned about stretching high school principal Mark Jackson too much by giving him responsibility for the middle school.

"Splitting Mark threatens to make him psychotic," said Rhodes. "I want his full attention on the high school."

Rodriguez responded that "it's not like the school is devoid of administrators." Michael Hayes has become senior assistant principal at the middle school, and Libby Hurley acts as assistant principal.

He said it's hard to hire a new principal at this time of year, and the situation will be reassessed in December.

Rodriguez thanked Hayes for redoing the class schedules of all 490 students over the weekend, after a mix-up that was revealed just before Cresto resigned. He said he is negotiating with a consultant who can study the middle school and provide "a blueprint for next steps."

Jackson "has a vested interest in having things go well" at the middle school because those students will move on to the high school, Rodriguez said.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Amherst Meeting, August 25, 2009

Sorry for the long delay in posting this one -- I've been preparing for the start of my own semester, and hence just didn't get around to finishing this one for a while.

The meeting started, as always, with a call to order, agenda review, and announcements/public comment (no public comments were made).

We then turned to the Superintendent's update, which included two topics. The first topic was on the Marks Meadow closing and issue of redistricting. Kathy Mazur reported that the staff at Marks Meadow is already going through old materials and electronics to figure out what to toss and what to save/move. The intention is to ask U Mass to allow the district to use the building through December 30, 2010 to make sure that the final move can be done without disrupting kids. The intention is to have a vote on the final redistricting plan on October 27th. By this point, good enrollment data will be available (early data suggest that enrollments are lower than projected at the four elementary schools), and it is hoped that a final plan can be worked out by the subcommittee focusing on redistricting by early October. This plan involves people from IT (Doug Slaughter) and transportation (Ron Bohonowicz, Peter Crouse) as well as central administration (Kathy Mazur, Maria Geryk) and two School Committee members (Steve, Irv).

We then turned to some questions from the committee. Steve noted that the SC needs to set the criteria up-front in terms of the factors that will be considered in drawing the lines (e.g., what priority will be placed on moving as few children as possible versus bus times, etc.). He also stated that we need to make a decision soon on whether we are going to move the 6th grade -- because the lines could be drawn differently if schools needed to house 7 versus 6 grades. Finally, he noted that if you draw the lines for 7 grades, and then move 6th grade, CF becomes very under-enrolled, which again leads to a lack of equity in the schools. Kathy noted that these issues would be addressed by the redistricting subcommittee.

I then asked three questions: what is the timeline for community feedback, are we moving the portables, and will we be teaching language in any of the schools (as we now do in Wildwood only)? These questions will also be addressed by the redistricting subcommittee.

The superintendent then stated that the 6th grade issue can't slow us from drawing lines, so we need to proceed with keeping 6th grade in the elementary schools. He also stated the he believes we need to have community feedback on the maps, and that he intends to have a second "Open House" night to allow kids to see their "new school" once the lines are drawn and finalized.

A parent in the audience then asked whether there would be opportunities for public comment, and whether parents could attend the redistricting subcommittee meetings. There was some discussion about this, but following the meeting, it was clarified that parents ARE allowed to attend the meetings and hence those should be posted and announced (however, feedback will not necessarily be taken by parents and community members).

I then asked whether we intended to continue busing kids to different schools based on the language spoken at home. This question will apparently also be addressed by the redistricting subcommittee.

The superintendent then noted that his priority is "access and equity" and that he believes it is essential that the programs and curricula are the same high quality across all schools. He knows that not everyone will be happy with where the lines are drawn, but that he believes the key priority is making the three schools equitable in terms of the experience.

We will have a report from the redistricting subcommittee at our September 22nd meeting - and it is expected that a draft of a single redistricting map will be available in early October.

The next issue addressed in the superintendent's update was the position of Curriculum Director. He intends to re-open the search for an assistant superintendent of curriculum instruction in December, and to have curriculum work completed this year with current district staff. This work will focus on aligning the curriculum to the state standards and he has indentified a person to take on K to 6 alignment, and a number of people will work on MS alignment (including Mike Hayes, Marta Guavara, Maria Geryk). The goal of this work will be to focus on raising the rigor of the MS to make sure that more kids are ready for AP and honors classes in the high school. The high school will be dealt with separately--and that will start with a meeting between the superintendent and the HS math/science teachers to discuss the high school requirements and course sequences in these disciplines.

The committee then raised a number of questions.

Steve asked about the role of evidence, including evidence from other districts, in making decisions. He wondered whether the curriculum we have now is necessarily the best (in terms of the ordering and/or the pacing of classes). The superintendent stated he was taking a close look at all math curriculum, including Investigations (elementary), Impact (MS), and IMP (high school), and he was focusing on what other districts are using (both other districts in MA and other districts that are in MSAN). He stated he "doesn't want to make decisions in a silo" and will be looking outside. He is also working on developing a district strategic plan with a professor from Boston College, after realizing that our district's strategic plan is now 8 or 9 years old.

I asked two questions. First, I asked how we would know if something was working, since often the people who design or create a curriculum/program then speak to how well it is working without any objective evidence. The superintendent noted that ideally there are outside evaluations, but this is costly. Second, I asked for an update on the status of the RFP for a review of the special education program. I was told that this will go out soon, and that the committee is still meeting to work on this.


Irv then asked a question about the districts' preparation for the H1N1 virus. Maria Geryk answered this question, explaining that there is a protocol in place that has been reviewed by all the principals. Irv also wondered if there is a set time at which a school closes (e.g., if a certain % of kids are infected). Maria said there is not a set limit -- it varies by district and by state.

We then turned to unfinished and continuing business. First, Rob Detweiler presented the final 2009 budget results, which revealed that the Amherst schools returned $220,379 to the town in unspent funds at the end of the year. Information on the final year end budget is also now presented on the ARPS website. The superintendent stated that he has asked Rob to prepare monthly budget reports now to show where we are fiscally at all times, which Irv supports.

Next, we discussed how the Amherst School Committee and the Regional School Committee subcommittee assignments could work together. It was noted that Steve and Kathleen are already on the curriculum subcommittee (and will serve in this way for Amherst as well as Region), that Irv and Andy are on the budget subcommittee (again, for both districts), and that I am now alone on the Policy subcommittee (it was later decided that Andy would join me on this committee at both the Region and Amherst levels). In addition, Irv and Steve are on the redistricting subcommittee, and Andy, Irv, and I are all on the district goals/evaluation subcommittee. We discussed whether we should have separate or combined subcommittees (Amherst and Region) and decided we needed separate subcommittees to work on Amherst specific issues. This may involve some consecutive meetings (e.g., curriculum committee could meet for an hour just as Amherst, then an hour with Region ), or separate meetings (e.g., it may be too much to do budget subcommittee meetings for Amherst and Region on the same day/night).

Steve then brought up the question of what the curriculum subcommittee should examine. He suggested that math might be a place to start, and brought along some information collected from the other districts suggested by the "how are we doing" subcommittee on math curriculum used in elementary and middle school. There was then a long discussion about whether curriculum work should fall into the School Committee domain, or whether that is really the domain of administrator/teachers. Steve noted that this is really a policy issue -- on the use of data -- and that the policy subcommittee should be writing policy to express the procedures that should be used.

We then brainstormed about some Amherst-specific goals. Steve suggested three: how well do we do interventions for struggling kids, how well have we implemented literacy programs across the elementary schools, and how much science is being taught K to 6. Kathleen suggested we examine how well the district is implementing the social justice/becoming a multi-cultural school system initiatives.

Our next topic was new business. We approve the reaccreditation of the Common School. Then we turned to a discussion of the policy in our district on facility rental (e.g., use of schools after school hours). Ron Bohonowicz discussed the current use of the schools, and in particular that there has been a lack of consistency in charging fees for such use. In some cases, non-profit afterschool programs have paid no rental fees at all for afterschool use, but they are receiving fees from families. In other cases, teachers (such as music teachers) are not paying rental fees, but are charging kids for private lessons. The issue is that we need to make sure that the policy is written in a way that is fair and equitably applied.

There was then a pretty long discussion about whether it was fair to have LSSE (a town-sponsored organization) running the Wildwood afterschool program (in which generous subsidies are available to low income kids), whereas such subsidies are NOT available to kids at other schools (although some may be able to use vouchers). The committee ultimately decided that we needed some more information--such as what is the actual cost to the schools of staying open after hours (e.g., are we paying for heat/electricity and/or custodian services, etc.), how much kids at different income levels are being asked to pay at different schools (e.g., it would be unfortunate if low income kids at Wildwood paid very little, given the LSSE policies, whereas students at other schools had to pay much more). That information will be gathered and reported back. In addition, the policy subcommittee will examine the policy on the use of schools by outside groups and update as needed (and the administration will make sure the policy is enforced consistently).

Finally, we discussed items for upcoming meetings. These include the discussion of a new policy on facility use, a brief from our lawyer (Gini Tate) on legal issues involved in restructing/redistricting, a report on the survey data, and a report from the redistricting subcommittee on their work thus far.

Agenda for the Regional School Committee Meeting, September 8, 2009

AGENDA for REGULAR Meeting of REGIONAL School Committee
7:00 PM, TUESDAY—September 8, 2009
Amherst Regional High School Library

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

2. Announcements and Public Comment

3. Superintendent’s Update
· A. Personnel Changes
· B. Middle School Update

4. Presentations
· A. Strategic Plan Discussion—Presentation by Dr. George Ladd

5. Sub-Committee Reports
· A. District Goals/Superintendent Evaluation Subcommittee Update
· B. Policy Subcommittee Update
· C. Budget Subcommittee Update

6. New Business

7. Policies

8. Unfinished/Continuing Business
· A. Location of Regional School Committee Meetings

9. School Committee Planning
· A. Calendar review
· B. Items for upcoming meetings


Friday, September 4, 2009

District Strategic Planning

This statement from the superintendent is taken from the ARPS website:

Every organization periodically reassesses its core values and beliefs as well as its vision and mission. The Regional School Committee’s Goals Subcommittee is partially addressing this issue in the form of creating a document outlining the scope of the work for the Superintendent and the School Committee for this current year (2009-2010). However, there is a need for a more comprehensive, longer-term approach that will guide our work for the next several years. One of the Superintendent’s roles is to “Propose and initiate a process for long range and strategic planning that will engage the committee and the community in positioning the school system for success in ensuing years” (MASC’s Charting the Course, pg. 6).

As a result, I have commissioned Dr. George Ladd, Professor Emeritus, Lynch School of Education, Boston College, to spearhead the District Strategic Plan initiative. Dr. Ladd has guided similar efforts in many school districts in the New England area. Next week, I will formally announce the names of the members of the Steering Committee that will carry out this task. This work is long overdue since the last district strategic plan was created in 2000.

Attached you will find Dr. Ladd’s resume, the Data Analysis and Strategic Planning Project (DASPP) pamphlet describing the kind of work conducted by Dr. Ladd and DASPP, and a Prospectus (Appendices A-C; NOTE: these attachments are available on the website). The Regional School Committee and the community at large will be regularly informed, as part of my commitment to open and transparent communication, as to the progress of the Steering Committee’s work.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Middle school principal quits amid criticism

Amherst Bulletin
By Nick Grabbe and CATHERINE BAUM Staff Writers
Published on September 04, 2009

The Amherst Regional Middle School, which has endured public criticism this year, lost its principal this week with Glenda Cresto's resignation four days after classes started.

She told Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez she was not a "good fit" for the position, a view she'd previously expressed to him and to former Acting Superintendent Maria Geryk, he said. But other issues came into play as well, Rodriguez said.

"I'm sure that there were not ideal working conditions," he said. "You don't want to be clubbed over the head morning, noon and night. It's hard to work with that kind of criticism."

When students arrived at the middle school for the first day of classes last week, some were missing class assignments. A report on what went wrong is being prepared, and everything will be ironed out by Tuesday, Rodriguez said.

Cresto took responsibility for problems even though they weren't necessarily her fault, he said.
"In the short term, we're making sure every student has a teacher in every period," he said. "In the long term, we're redoing all schedules to make sure all kids are in the right teams."

Rodriguez said he had already chosen a consultant to do a "deep and intrusive assessment" of the middle school's effectiveness before Cresto resigned.

"I think it takes an incredible amount of courage to openly say 'I'm not sure I'm the right person for the job,'" he said. "I don't know many people who would do that. I take my hat off to her."
He said the resignation was "her decision all the way."

Asked whether the intense scrutiny that principals are under in Amherst was a possible reason for Cresto's departure, Rodriguez said, "Sometimes the expectations of administrators is unrealistic."

Cresto was on the job for only a year, and had never been a principal before. In August 2006, she resigned as assistant principal of Carver High School for personal reasons, not long before school resumed.

She was hired by former Superintendent Jere Hochman and expected to get mentoring from him. But Hochman resigned, and there were three interim superintendents last year before Rodriguez arrived in July.

"It's been a very challenging year," said School Committee member Catherine Sanderson. "She made good progress in moving the middle school in the right direction. She was excited about the opportunities to make the middle school the star of the district. The middle school has faced a challenge for a long time, and no one has assumed the problems were created in Glenda Cresto's tenure."

Posts on Sanderson's blog have described Cresto as "attentive, open, available and helpful" and said "she had no ego, was flexible and always put kids first."

One posting described her as "a caring professional who improved communications with parents and tried to make some headway in a time of enormous budget cuts and transition at the superintendent level."

Interim arrangements and plans for finding a permanent replacement will likely come up at Tuesday's Regional School Committee meeting.

High school principal Mark Jackson has assumed on the additional role of middle school principal. Sanderson said she's heard from parents who are concerned he is taking on too much, though Rodriguez said, "He's fine with it."

Michael Hayes, who was interim principal before Cresto arrived and a finalist for the position, has become senior assistant principal of the middle school. Teacher Diane Chamberlain has become temporary assistant principal at the high school.

As for a permanent successor, Rodriguez said he will look internally before advertising the job. Sanderson said she favors advertising immediately and getting a principal on the job by the end of December. "It's very important to have someone in place," she said. "You can never tell what is going to be available, given the budget cuts. There may be some super candidates who are out of work."

There could be a positive component to Cresto's resignation in providing a clean slate for a thorough review of the middle school, Rodriguez said. "This is best for Ms. Cresto and best for the middle school to have a fresh start," he said. "She will go on to bigger and better things, and we will get a deep, hard look, without personalizing it, at the whole middle school operation without it being about the principal. This is the best time to do it."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Amherst middle school principal resigns

Hampshire Gazette

AMHERST - After one year on the job, Glenda Cresto resigned Monday as principal of Amherst Regional Middle School because she said she was not a "good fit" for the position, according to schools superintendent Alberto Rodriguez.

"It did catch us off guard a little bit," said Rodriguez, who accepted Cresto's resignation Monday. "She felt she wasn't being as effective as she could be. I sadly accepted her resignation and that's where we are."

Rodriguez, who is himself in his first year on the job, said he hopes to form a search committee and fill the principal position by the end of the school year, with plans to advertise the post in the coming months. In the meantime, high school principal Mark Jackson will take on the additional role of middle school principal. In addition, Michael Hayes, who was interim principal before Cresto's hiring, will put off his work on the mathematics curriculum in the central office to serve as senior assistant principal of the middle school. And teacher Diane Chamberlain will become temporary assistant principal at the high school, while someone else will be assigned to her class, Rodriguez said.

"At this particular time these are the folks that I think need to be in these positions, but this could very well change within a week to two or three weeks," Rodriguez said. "This is not etched in stone."

A 'very challenging year'

Cresto, who was hired in April 2008, had an extraordinary experience in Amherst, according to school officials. She had never been a school principal before, and, upon being hired, she worked with five superintendents in 13 months. She also started the current school year with one assistant principal instead of two due to budget cuts.

"It's been a very challenging year in the Amherst district," said Catherine Sanderson, vice chairwoman of the regional school committee.

Also, since school opened its doors Thursday, seventh- and eighth-grade students have faced glitches in their schedules. Sanderson said the schedule problems would be sorted out "momentarily," possibly by today.

Formerly an educator in Boston, Cresto had numerous bosses in Amherst. Former superintendent Jere Hochman worked with Cresto for a couple of months before he resigned in June 2008. Helen Vivian and Alton Sprague picked up where Hochman left off as interim co- superintendents until the married couple resigned in February 2009. Maria Geryk, who had been director of student services for six years, completed their term ending June 30. Finally, Rodriguez was Cresto's boss July 1 to Aug. 31.

"I think she needed a more consistent mentorship," Sanderson said. Sanderson added she is "regretful" the district didn't provide her more support and guidance during her time here.

She "was a good hire," Sanderson said. "I have a lot of respect for Glenda and the work she did."

Specifically, Sanderson commended Cresto for her commitment to communication, responsiveness and transparency to parents and students. Cresto also aimed to increase English, literacy and writing skills in middle school students, and last year brought in a poet who was well received by students, Sanderson said.

Catherine Baum can be reached at