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.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Amherst looks anew at school boundaries

Hampshire Gazette
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

AMHERST - After getting an earful about a map that outlines which elementary school children will attend next year, the Amherst School Committee is planning a special meeting this Thursday to roll out some new options.

The schools must redraw the district lines because Mark's Meadow School will close next year. The School Committee also wants to equalize the percentages of children from low-income families in the three remaining elementary schools.

Many speakers at two public forums this month criticized the redistricting plan because it would break up clusters of Cambodian and Latino students, groupings that they believe is beneficial.

Last week, the group working on the map responded to some repeated complaints raised by parents by coming up with six options for redistricting. At Thursday's meeting, the School Committee will discuss the pros and cons of these maps and will take public comments.

The most recently proposed plan would move children living on Leverett and East Leverett roads from Fort River School to Wildwood School, thus keeping all current Mark's Meadow students together. It also proposes that children living at The Boulders move to Fort River, joining children from nearby Mill Valley Estates.

Some parents believe this would not satisfy the goal of equalization. Under this plan, Fort River would have 40 percent children from low-income families, compared to 30 percent at Wildwood. The contentious map had approximately equal percentages.

Legal issue raised

Meanwhile, the school district has received a lawyer's opinion that calls into question the legality of grouping students by ethnicity, in response to some parents' expressed preference. In an Oct. 7 opinion requested by the Amherst school district, Carolyn Lyons - citing state law - stated that it is not permissible to treat any student differently based on national origin or ethnicity.

"Clustering students based on their ethnic group, allowing open enrollment for only those students who have a certain ethnicity or national origin, or providing free busing based on their ethnicity or national origin would directly violate these laws," she wrote.

She cited the Massachusetts General Laws, which says that students "shall be taught English as rapidly and effectively as possible." It also says, "Local schools shall be encouraged to mix together in the same classroom English learners from different native-language groups but with the same degree of English fluency."

The redistricting group will recommend two maps to the committee, said Irv Rhodes, a member of both bodies; the committee is scheduled to vote on a final map Oct. 27. The committee will be free to choose one of the two maps or approve a different one, he said.

"All have pros and cons," he said. "None are perfect, and none will please everyone."

The breakup of cultural and language clusters would be necessary even if redistricting weren't happening, said committee member Catherine Sanderson. The schools have been in violation of state and federal laws in such policies as busing Cambodian children to Fort River but not others taking advantage of "open enrollment," she said.


Rick said...

" roll out some new options."

Really? Wondering if these are radically different from maps we've already seen? Guess we'll find out on Thursday.

Suggestion: new maps and info should get posted before the meeting.

[I think stuff presented at a meeting should always be posted before a meeting, if for no other reason than to be able to say at the meeting “you can find this info at”]

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Rick - not to depress you ... but my understanding is that new maps are indeed being presented that are somewhat different from what has been seen. I also believe that the info will all be presented on the website prior to the meeting -- but the maps are still being finalized, so I'm not sure how much before the meeting! I believe Doug is more or less not sleeping at all right now.

Anonymous said...

Whatever the new boundaries are that are ultimately voted in, I think we all owe Doug a HUGE thank you for all the work he has put in.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

I live next door to Doug so I know he hasn't slept much in the past few weeks! The drawing and redrawing of these boundaries has been a herculean task and Doug has risen to the challenge. In the end, he cannot be held accountable for how families with different income levels are distributed around town; that has made the process of trying to balance FRL while maintaining neighborhoods and creating workable bus routes amazingly difficult. No matter what the SC votes to endorse on the 27th, Doug has definitely done his part to keep everyone supplied with the necessary information to make that decision!

Meg Rosa said...

DO you know if the final vote of the SC will be one out of several maps, or just one be presented that night?

Rick said...

===== G0 Doug! =====

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 10:03 - Doug has done a HUGE amount of work ... and the final decision will be better because of it.

Alison - I fully agree with all you wrote!

Meg - my understanding, which COULD change, is that a bunch of maps are going to be presented on Thursday, and the redistricting subcommittee will recommend 1 or 2 of those. Then, the whole SC could agree with those (1 or both of those) or prefer another map entirely. I think there will be an active discussion on Thursday, and then at the following meeting we will be choosing from a number of different maps (maybe just two, but possibly more). I think it will depend on how the maps end up looking (I haven't seen them yet so I just don't even know how I would vote, let alone the other members). I think we will be more clear on Thursday about the process.

Rick (at 2:06) - Yes!

Anonymous said...

All I can say is this is the parking garage revisited.

TC said...

The School Committee is doing a great job in this process. No attempt to say they're not listening or not keeping people informed will fly this time. I just wanted to say that I fully support the redistricting process and its main goal of equalizing the 3 schools in terms of % of kids on FRL (and I'll send an email to the School Committee saying that). My only concern is that we don't delay the process in the name of hearing all objections and requests. No matter how many maps are made, there will be unhappy people. I hope in the end whichever map is chosen accomplishes the goal of having 3 school with roughly the same % of kids on FRL. Kudos to the School Committee and specially to Catherine to keep us well informed.

Anonymous said...

I'm still trying to make good sense out of the idea that once a school building has the same % of children eating FRL as it does eating lunches from home or bought at full price will then in and of itself solve the dysfunction of the main purpose of these buildings and that is to educate children with equity. I strongly feel that this goal, which is indeed an honorable one (the search for equity) is somehow being side swept with all this energy and time being focused on "redistricting". Worthy as some may see this work (redistricitng for equity)...what happens when nothing really changes--when test scores show and "research" shows that what a child is eating or how this child's family pays for it really makes no difference on how s/he is being educated? What then??

Meg Rosa said...

I had posted this before and it was never actually responded to. I am still curious about this and what it means:

"I am looking at the new map they gave out at the CF forum which has the Enrollment #s, %FRLP, and % Struggling students per school.

Enrollment 444
%FRLP 30.9%
Struggling 21.8%

Enrollment 452
%FRLP 39.8%
Struggling 22.6%

Enrollment 350
%FRLP 33.1%
Struggling 21.4%

Looking at these numbers the FRLP does stand out at FR, BUT if you look at the Struggling numbers they are EXTREMELY close in all 3 schools!!

That actually impresses me! To look at that and see the differences with the FRLP but then only see such small percentage difference with the kids who they consider to be struggling, it says that this is more balanced for children needing extra help. I don't have a current map with the same numbers included, so I can not compare this to anything.

What it looks like to me is that not all children who receive free or reduced lunch are struggling students. Not all children who don't receive free and reduced lunch, are not struggling. I think this balance would make it easier to deliver the appropriate services in a more balanced, economical way to all children who need it.

October 16, 2009 3:50 PM"


jm said...

Meg, I don't think anyone has ever said that ALL children who receive free or reduced lunch are struggling. Did you think that? Or that there are NO struggling kids from families that can afford lunch?

As I understand it, the point being made, over and over, is that having more than 40% of kids on free or reduced lunch makes it harder for those kids who are struggling and from poorer backgrounds. Or maybe for all struggling kids. What difference does it make? Except that the School Committee should never, intentionally or by neglect, load any one elementary school with kids from poorer backgrounds. Fort River looks like this school under the current map.

My child has attended such a poorer school and it was very different from his experience here. There are more kids achieving at higher levels at Fort River -- and those kids come from all income backgrounds.

Let's keep our eye on the prize, strong achivement for all Amherst kids. It's not just the bus route and elementary school parents want for their kid. Parents should ask themselves if the needs of their kid outweighs the needs of Amherst children struggling to meet their grade level.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 4:24's post is a reminder that this too shall pass.

After a suitable cooling-off period, we move on to the next kerfuffle and forget what the prior fuss was all about.

The Law of Conservation of Kerfuffle in Amherst states that there can be only one thing at a time that people can get fully exorcised about in town. So just like Gary Condit is the only person in America who cheered when the horror of 9/11 occurred, the School Committee can notice with relief that a certain Guantanamo detainee TM warrant article is coming up over the horizon straight at us.

When that arrives, the SC may be able quietly to move off of the center-line of the roadway away from the oncoming big trucks.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

I love this Law of Conservation of Kerfuffle!
I think Meg Rosa has an interesting point - if the percentage of kids who are struggling is essentially the same at each school despite the evening out of FRL, then haven't we missed something? I thought that was the rationale.

jm said...

I think the point is that when MORE than 40 percent of the kids are on FRL things get worse for struggling kids. The newest map puts Fort River exactly at 40% which seems foolhardy to me to put the school right at the tipping point. Then the school is close to the situation Crocker Farm is in right now.

Crocker Farm is NOW at 50% or greater kids on FRL, recieves extra services and isn't seeing improvements despite these extra costs. So the district is paying for more services without sufficient results. This is the reason for redistricting which will cost nothing or less in the long run -- and most importantly struggling kids will do better.

Why redistrict to help Crocker Farm kids only to potentially move the problem to Fort River? Anyone want to redistrict again in a year or two or three? Let's fix the problem now for all the schools by treating each school fairly, equally or just sensibly. The 33% FRL kids at all the 3 schools did just that.

Worried Parent said...

I share jm's concern that the problem is just being shifted from Crocker to Fort River with this new map. And Crocker, at least, had the advantage of being a smaller school with closed classrooms. Fort River is now slated to become our largest (in terms of enrollment) school, our poorest school, and it has very loud open classrooms. This seems like a recipe for disaster.

Anonymous said...

jm- what are the extra services that Crocker receives and on what measures is improvement hoped for? Seems like even with a 33,33,33 division kids who need services will still need them and it would be good to know what they are and if they're working.

(Crocker Farm is NOW at 50% or greater kids on FRL, recieves extra services and isn't seeing improvements despite these extra costs. So the district is paying for more services without sufficient results. )

Anonymous said...

From Catherine Sanderson's blog on her thoughts on redisticting:

"Second, we have strong and clear evidence (e.g., MCAS scores) that Crocker Farm is not experiencing the success it should. This is occurring although CF has smaller class sizes than other schools, and more intervention support than other schools. Although throwing more money at CF is the "easy way out" (let's just give this school more resources and still keep the poor kids all together), we've tried that and it is NOT working (hence CF is now considered a Commonwealth Priority School)."

Meg Rosa said...

I was not implying either way. I was asking the question and trying to clarify what was said on the most recent maps given out.

So what it seems like I am reading from people's responses to my post, is that there is an assumption that because there is 40% FRLP at FR on this map, that the percentage of struggling students will increase? Again, just trying to clarify this.

I never said I am pleased with the 40% at all. I don't think there should be that much difference between the schools, otherwise what is the point of all this work? I was simply trying to find out if the percent of struggling kids in each school being so close in points, mattered, or just looks good on paper.

Doug, Kathy,SC and many others are working very hard on this and I applaud them all!!! I hope they are getting some sleep!! I know budget talks are right around the corner!!!!

Rick said...


I think you made a good point by showing us those numbers. While I agree with the goal of getting close to 33% FRL for all schools, as I know you do, it’s clear there are other measures to look at. To me what matters is struggling, not FRL. We shouldn’t care is someone is rich or poor, but rather we should care if they are learning what they need to learn. Yes, studies show that high % FRL is bad for learning (for all kids, not just FRL and/or struggling kids) so that is why we are doing this, which is good.

At any rate the numbers you show indicate that perhaps the relatively high 40% FRL at FR will be mitigated by the relatively close % on “struggling”, if in fact the final map ends up at 40% for FR.

jm said...

Here is some information that Catherine has already posted. Note that the low income kids do better with each 1% increase in middle class classmates. This is reason enough to equally balance the FRL at each elementary school since it will create the better and equal opportunies for low-income kids at each school.

From Catherine:

-Among 4th grade students, for every 1% point increase in middle-class classmates, low income students improve .64 points in reading and .72 points in math (David Rusk study, 2002), and

-Low income students at schools that are 85% middle class students show a 20 to 32% improvement in scores compared to those in a school that is 45% middle class (David Rusk study, 2002).

Here I'm quoting from the Century Foundation's report, “Rescuing Brown v. Board of Education”: some forty school districts nationally have turned to income as a basis for student assignment. Using factors such as eligibility for free and reduced price lunch, these districts have had considerable success in raising student achievement and indirectly promoting racial integration as well. In Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina for example, the school board adopted a policy goal in 2000 that no school should have more than 40% of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch or more than 25% of students performing below grade level. Low-income and minority students in Wake substantially outperform comparable students in other large North Carolina districts that have failed to reduce concentrations of poverty. And Wake County’s middle-class students continue to thrive academically.

Anonymous said...

Hello Catherine,
Is there any way to choose to only receive EMERGENCY automated calls from the schools? When caller ID shows a number from the school system in the middle of the day it makes many of us nervous. To answer and hear a message for something we have already had multiple written notices for is getting annoying. We were able to get the message across all those years without it, and any parent who truely wants to be informed and involved reads what comes home.

Don't call me said...

I second Anonymous 12:22's point. I'm on the verge of "opting out" of the call system. Event notification does not equal emergency.

Rick said...

Communication should probably go like this:

1. Paper – sent home with kids or mailed home.
2. Email – duplicate of the paper notice just to help make sure parents get it + maybe other stuff that doesn’t require the paper.
3. Phone – emergency only
4. Twitter? ;-)

I know not everyone has #2, but still, I would do it. Does ARPS use email much for notices?

Anonymous said...

Rick, sometimes we get the phone call and an email saying the same thing. This school year has been over the top with calls, especially with kids in more than one school. I vote for emergency only.

Abbie said...

Is the automated phone calls going to be the next tempest in the teapot?

Really folks, can't we be a little bit flexible? Chill.