By NICK GRABBE
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.
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.