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.

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.


Anonymous said...

are you and steve the only 2 who ask questions?

Ed said...

I have mentioned bits and pieces of this before, and it may be a bit too technical but it is relevant:

First, through the 80s & 90s there was the "Whole Language" versus "Phonics" war - and it really was a ideological war as to how reading should be taught. Both sides had some merit but I digress.

And to some extent the same thing is happening with the teaching of math now. Something I sarcastically refer to as "Calculus for Third Graders."

The two schools of thought, at their most basic, are as follows. The traditional school is that of a structured progressive curriculum of counting base10, four functions, algebra, geometry, trig and maybe calculus. Student masters one and goes to the next.

The progressive school is to comingle the concepts including bringing in what is legitimately calculus into a third grade curriculum. And everything is comingled and students get to see everything over and over again. I compare this to Whole Language and the advantages are that (a) a student who can't master one thing can still progress and (b) there is review of everything to preclude forgetting. The disadvantage - like in Whole Language, is that students can get really confused and wind up not really mastering anything.

Now math curricula aren't as clearcut as this and most have mixtures of both. And there are advantages of both as well. And the larger issue is that the curriculum, whatever it is, is far less important than having teachers THAT ACTUALLY KNOW MATH.

There is a great deal of research on this and the case can be made that instead of revising the curriculum, you need to boost the math skills of your teachers.

Ed said...

One other thing on math -- we have a group of kids that learn it, and we have a group that don't -- and we then have remedial courses where we attempt to beat the math into the heads of kids that neither want nor are able to learn it.

This isn't the 19th Century anymore, most of the basic calculations are done by machine and when a machine is off, it is WAY off.

So I often argue - quite controvercially - that instead of trying to teach, say, long division to kids that can't learn it, we teach estimating and guessing skills. For example, if you have a hoist rated for 10,000 lbs and you have five items each weighing 4,321.445 lbs each, it is far more important to know that you are way over the weight limit of the winch than exactly how much weight is going to come down on your head when it breaks. Or, conversely, if you have three items, each under $2, there is simply no way that the total can be over $18, even with Deval Patrick's new sales tax.

And I will go one step further - not every child should be expected to go to college. (Look at the arrests next week if you don't believe this...) And the question is what are the math skills that THESE kids need? They are not those needed by kids going to MIT, which are not the ones needed by kids going to Amherst College.

Which then gets into tracking, aka homogenous grouping, for which the ARSD got sued by the NAACP some years back. But I know someone running an autobody shop who (with his 2 year community college degree) is not only making more money than I will with my doctorate, but has been making it for the past 15 years...

Anonymous said...

Hey Ed, Can you speak about the ARSD getting sued by the NAACP? I think they/ARSD skirt around this tracking thing very well and keep it pretty hidden to not be sued by the NAACP again and again. I think most Sped kids, those not physically challenged, are kept in a holding bubble until they reach an age and then become another entity's service receivers like DSS or Tri-Count Youth. But tracking, if only by a different name, is still alive and living very well in the Amherst schools! And sadly, among this population is representative of a disproportionate number of children of color. Oh yes Amherst where more than the h is silent...

Ed said...

On the NAACP suit, thanks to UMass' rather extreme violation of my civil rights, I don't have the time to research the specifics right now. Time is short.

And then with the town all set to drop tons of concrete tomorrow to segregate my at-least 80% minority community from the rest of the all-white Lincoln Avenue, not that racism isn't involved here, I might not be the most objective of observers.

But the basic rule always was that you should expect 10% of a K-12 population to be SPED, and if it got anywhere near 25% being diagnosed, you have over-reporting.

Not as to race but as to SES you *will* have a higher population amongst lower income/at risk populations because (a) wealthy parents opt out for private help, (b) you can (but not always have) more social issues with lower SES so you are getting more Fetal Alcohol and what I insist is Fetal Drug syndromes. And (c) the instability and trama of the lifestyles of some (not all) low SES families isn't conductive to the development of coping learning skills.

I have been in this game long enough to remember when we were accused of ignoring the SPED needs of minorities, and then accused of ghettoizing all the minorities in SPED. As this is mutually exclusive, well, we can't be doing both concurrently...

SPED is a difficult issue, but I firmly believe that we have too many kids in it...

Anonymous said...

Is it safe to assume that any school committee member who has a child in elementary school will refrain from voting on a redistricting plan? Especially one that would move kids from the wealthy Amherst Woods area into the relatively newly-renovated Crocker Farm School and move the poor and minority students into one of the larger, in-need-of-renovation schools?

Anonymous said...

If kids continue to be bused to different schools based on the language spoken at home, is it still possible to predict that redistricting will result in the desired, equitable socioeconomic distribution?

Anonymous said...

If kids are bussed to a school based on the language spoken at home it will totally defeat the purpose of re-districting, as will keeping kids from the same neighborhoods and apt. complexes.

I also think that SC members who have children in the elementary schoos need to recuse themselves from this vote. IMO, we should follow the example of Holyoke when they redistricted after coming out from under their consent decree. They hired a third party to draw up a map which took into account equitable distribution of kids, neighborhood concerns, bussing issues and transportation costs.

being a child advocate said...

I believe that having a child in the SPED system, does not mean the said child will be in there for their school career. I believe the system we had 10-20 years ago, is different than the one we currently use. I have lots of experience with this new system. The main piece of information parents need to know, is that their child's education is sitting in their hands. They need to be in contact with their teachers, understand why their child is getting extra help, know what that help is and anything they need to be doing at home to help the child. It takes a lot of work to help kids through school. That is part of our jobs as parents. We can not just put them on the bus in the morning and expect them to be completely taken care of. The teachers need the parents help. The parents need to be told this. Parents need to be taught to be involved. Not just show up for the annual IEP review. They need to fight for their kids.

Tom G said...

Thanks CS, I find your summaries of the SC meetings informative.

Think it through... said...

I think many of us who have kids in the two older, unrenovated elementary buildings want to have our kids stay in them, so I don't quite get the recusal request. Either way a school board member votes, they will be open to the accusation of favoritism, that is, keeping their kids in a stable community -- or moving to a nicer building.

Every vote made by a school board member that affects their child's education can be found to be biased. Do you want a board without any kids in the school --or board members voting only on topics that don't affect their children? No votes on the SPED program if a board member has a kid in SPED -- no votes on band if their kids plays a trumpet? No votes on gym or recess if their kid uses these programs? This could go on and on.

Let it go -- or vote the board members you don't like out in the next election. Better yet, run yourself.

Abbie said...

I agree entirely with "Think it through...". Thanks, I was thinking about posting the exact same thought (but with different examples...).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 4:30 - no, not at all! I think Steve might ask the most questions of anyone (or did at this meeting), but Irv and I also both ask a lot. I think generally Andy and Kathleen ask fewer (of course, they've been on the committee longer than anyone else, so they may just know more and hence need to ask less).

Ed - the issue of math is one of great interest to me (I was on the first math curriculum council in our district starting in 2007) ... and it is very complicated. Lots of theories about how to teach math (at both the elementary and high school level), and yet often we have teachers (not just in Amherst, but across the country), at least at the elementary school level, who don't have strong math backgrounds. I think this points to the importance of having a clear and good (research-based, demonstrated results) curriciulum in place so that we are not asking teachers to reinvent the wheel! I hope some serious look can occur in our district on what is going on with math -- and in particular, how what we are doing with math compares to what other districts are doing, and to what end.

(I'm not commenting on the dialogue between Ed and Anonymous 5:03, which wasn't an issue addressed in this meeting).

Anonymous 10:57 - I don't know of any district in which redistricting has occurred in which some SC members were able to opt out of voting, nor do I think that would be fair or appropriate, given that we were elected to serve on SC and that this is one of the tasks on our agenda this year. Relatedly, I don't believe Andy Churchill abstained from voting on purchasing two portables (cost of $380,000) for Marks Meadow when his children attended that school. In addition, as I'm sure you know, I live in Amherst Woods -- and I talk to a lot of people who live in my neighborhood. NOT ONE person has said "hey, it would be GREAT if you could get us moved to Crocker Farm!" I have three kids who attend Fort River now, and none of them would like to move to Crocker -- not that it isn't a great school, with a great principal, and great teachers, and a beautiful building. But I think children like familiarity (surely this was one of the factors that led the Marks Meadow community to push for their school staying open), and the children I know at Fort River (and their parents) just don't walk around saying "this school building really sucks -- we hope we get moved to a new school." That is just magnified by the fact that the Fort River community (including many Amherst Woods families) fundraised for and designed and built a new playground two years ago (and, nothing personal, it is BETTER than the CF playground)! However, there's no way for me to win on this vote anyway -- if my kids stay at Fort River in a new plan, you will say "of course HER kids didn't even have to move." And if my kids DO move to Crocker, you will say "of course, that's what the Amherst Woods families wanted all along." I am confident that the redistricting subcommittee will draw lines that create three districts with an equitable proporion of kids on free/reduced lunch -- and I fully believe that we will have three high quality elementary schools that will work well for all kids, no matter what school a particular child attends (and I therefore have NO preference as to the school my own children attend).

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 5:59 - it is my tentative understanding that that busing by language situation is being discontinued. But I will clarify that at the next Amherst meeting.

Anonymous 6:36 - I agree that if we bus kids by language, attempts to draw lines equitably will fail. Again, my understanding is that this busing by language will end.

In terms of recusing from voting: I do not know of any school districts in which SC members have abstained from such a vote -- if you know of districts, send them to me. I have talked to redistricting consultants (and we hired one last spring to evaluate both plans, and their report is posted on the website), and they say that for a community the size of Amherst, the key final piece is the transportation issue -- and that that piece is much easier (and cheaper) to be done "in house" (by current staff who know the transportation software). I think we have already seen two plans that are generally good (not perfect), and I am confident that we will have a new and improved tentative final map soon. But I guess I don't understand the concern about who is drawing the maps ... information on who is going where is going to be public, as is the equity balance in the schools. Given that the goal is clearly to create three equitable schools, how COULD someone bias it, even if he/she wanted to?

Being a child advocate - thank you for your thoughtful words. I think they actually apply well to ALL parents (not just those of SPED kids).

Tom G - thanks! The blog has certainly been helpful to me in having a wider discussion with the community on school issues than I believe I would normally have had!

Think it through - I totally agree with what you said. Thanks!

Abbie - thanks -- I think this sentiment is exactly right.

Anonymous said...

What a statement Ms. Catherine--"But I think children like familiarity..." Then why on earth have you been the spear thrower in the campaign to close Marks Meadow if these, your own words, are indeed words of truth?

Anonymous said...

I'm offended by Ed equating kids who "can't" with kids who "won't." The two are not synonymous. The kids who can't...OK, they can't - so they should learn life-skill math. The kids who won't must continue to be encouraged and we should spend more time looking at why they won't in order to combat that.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

The concept that's been mentioned associated with recusal is the Rule of Necessity -- I expect MASC already provided the current School Committee members information on how this works. You may want to make a statement about how it applies to this situation just for clarity during this agenda item for the benefit of the viewing audience.

Anonymous said...

The Rule of Necessity seems to be about what happens when a member of a public board recuses himself/herself because of a financial conflict -- then leaves the board without a quorum. I'm not sure how that applies here other than suggesting recusal is required by public officials when they have a direct financial tie to something they are voting on. This isn't the case here.

Alisa, can you explain this more other than posting a link?

Anonymous said...

"...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."

Am I missing something?

Anonymous said...

why did the amherst schools return over $200,000 while elementary music was cut and high school clubs gutted?

why do we assume that kids going to school in their communities with their neighbors and neighborhood support is a bad thing?

Rick said...

I’m just guessing but probably the schools always return an amount to the town at the end of the year. It’s impossible to hit the budget right on the nose so they have to undershoot at least a bit to be safe, because budgets cannot run over, but they can run under. The $200,000 is just .6% of the approx $30,000,000 school budget. Hitting a budget that large within .6% is probably pretty good.

Anonymous said...

Do you think that such a surplus came as a surprise in May, when pink slips were being handed out? Might they not have had some inkling in April when employees were being told to get their purchase orders in as we have extra money?

Sorta like the University, when in the spring, you're told to spend all your budget cuz we don't want to give any back to the State. Or worse yet, don't want the State to know that they really gave us too much and therefore will reduce our allotment the next year.

Sorta makes you want to pay your taxes, State and property, doesn't it?