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.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Amherst redistricting decided tonight; protest planned

Hampshire Gazette
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

AMHERST - The Amherst School Committee, scheduled to vote tonight on a plan for elementary redistricting, will consider two maps endorsed by a group studying the sensitive issue.

Meanwhile, opponents of redistricting and the closing of Mark's Meadow School have scheduled a protest for today at 4 p.m. on the town common. School Committee member Catherine Sanderson issued a statement in response, criticizing "inaccuracies" in a letter announcing the protest.

The redistricting group, which includes School Committee members Steve Rivkin and Irv Rhodes, met Monday and agreed to endorse two maps that keep all current Mark's Meadow students together at Wildwood School. They are known as Map No. 5 and Map No. 6.

Both maps would place the border between the Wildwood and Crocker Farm districts at Amity Street, and both would keep children who live on South East Street north of the South Amherst Common at Fort River School.

The only difference between the two maps is that in Map No. 5, residents of the Boulders and Mill Valley Estates would be bused out of the Crocker Farm district to different schools, while in Map No. 6 they would all be bused to Fort River.

Map No. 5 would achieve the School Committee's goal of equalizing the percentage of children from low-income families at the three schools. Under Map No. 6, Fort River and Crocker Farm would have 37.4 and 36.3 percent low-income students respectively, while Wildwood would have 31.5 percent.

The letter announcing today's protest was signed by Zulma Rivera, Nelson Acosta, Lissa Pierce Bonifaz and Vladimir Morales. All have come to committee meetings to criticize the plan to end the practice of grouping certain students based on language and culture.

"We believe their plan will be harmful and divisive to the multicultural fabric of our town," their letter reads. "We believe this plan will create animosity between those that struggle economically and those of a more privileged community."

The writers say it isn't fair to mandate "forced busing" of children just because they come from low-income families, calling the plan "offensive." They say that are "not convinced that moving our children to new schools will improve the quality of their education."

They also question the assertion that dispersing low-income or multicultural children will improve their education.

Sanderson said the majority of children, in all income ranges, will attend the same school next year as they do this year. She said that the elimination of language clusters is unrelated to either redistricting or the closing of Mark's Meadow.

"Busing to particular schools based on ethnicity, race or culture is a violation of state and federal law, and would therefore be discontinued regardless," she said. "These programs were going to end, as was announced by the administration last year."

Many studies show that low-income children who attend schools in which more than 40 percent of the children are from low-income families, such as Crocker Farm School, do not perform as well as those who attend schools with smaller proportions, Sanderson said.

Tonight's meeting will be at 7 in the cafeteria of Amherst Regional High School.


Tom G said...

"We believe their plan will be harmful and divisive to the multicultural fabric of our town," their letter reads. "We believe this plan will create animosity between those that struggle economically and those of a more privileged community."

It might appear as though the letter writers are playing the class-ism and anti-multiculturalism cards here. I don't call attention to it in order to be dismissive, rather to explore any substantive issue underlying the claim.

I suspect the basis of this claim is the end of language clusters and redistricting, which will result in some students going to FR instead of CF next year.

The writers say it isn't fair to mandate "forced busing" of children just because they come from low-income families, calling the plan "offensive."

Of course, no one is forcible bused. The SB has created three districts out of 4 or 5 contiguous land partitions to accomplish redistricting according to a specific criteria outlined elsewhere. This is not busing students based on racial or ethnic characteristics. Instead it is based on where they live with consideration given to placing low income students equally throughout the three grammer schools.

Research supports doing this as a benefit to less accomplished students, which is highly correlated with lower income students. The balance the SB has accomplished is to be commended not critiized.

"Forced busing" if you insist on calling it that is based primarily on new districts not race and not income. The three major districts are contiguous and no one has any objection to them (except perhaps where the lines separating them are drawn). The fourth and fifth district are a naturally occurring neighborhoods (apartment complex). Students who live here used to attend CF and would attend FR next year.

They say that are "not convinced that moving our children to new schools will improve the quality of their education."

This is an opening for SB to make some headway with people opposing the plan by giving them the educational studies cited as the authority. The superintendent might want also to explain how social justice also means embracing multiculturalism in all three schools, and what the schools will do to accomplish that.

Keep up the good work.

Ed said...

Nelson Acosta

Now that is a name from the past - and it cost UMass a pretty penny to be rid of him - a major buyout that was 6 figures if I remember correctly.

Wish I could be in town to lead the counter-demonstration. And will the Amherst Police enforce the law as aggressivly against these tenured radicals as they do against UM students?

And to those who wish to "save" Mark's Meadow - fine, what about a "district charter school?" The union contract no longer applies, you run it as a collective, and the school department gives you a per-pupil payment equal to what it would cost them to educate the children at the other schools. And to have the staff ratios you want, you either fundraise or lower salaries...

Anonymous said...

I think it's very easy to dismiss the intentions of today's promised protesters... people who want to make sure their community stays together, fearing not only dilution of their cultural identity, but concern that their children not be in an even smaller minority in a new schools.

This isn't a reason to delay needed redistricting. Nor is it justification for promoting falsehoods in the community. But I think it is an important reminder that when you're in the majority population, you don't need to consider making sure that your kids have other kids "like them" in the same school. It's an assumption, and one that is often true. But it's often not true for everyone, and we may need to increase our sensitivity to the real experiences of minority communities in our town.

Maybe if we can hear and respect the issues that feed the concern we can make sure that this does not leave our town even more polarized. with a little luck, we can progress the discussion and begin to really talk about social justice education, which may involve more than just a discussion of equity and test scores.

Joel said...

Responding to Anon 9:30

I think your sentiment is exactly right, but I have a hard time thinking about how to apply that in the context of Amherst. This is a small town with only three elementary schools next year. No one is going to be isolated or apart from his/her community. We aren't sending kids to Greenfield and Springfield. A very few kids will move from Crocker to either Fort River or Wildwood. Most of the kids at Crocker now will stay there.I don't see how that destroys or even seriously challenges a community. How, after all, do these seemingly fragile communities survive middle school and high school?

Moreover, and I'm sure that this is controversial to some in Amherst, it isn't the town's or the schools' job to maintain or promote ethnic and racial communities. That job belongs to families and community members. Being multicultural means that our three elementary schools recognize and celebrate the diversity of our community.

Clustering, apart from being illegal in how we do it and problematic from an educational point of view, seems to promote much more narrowly circumscribed cultural communities in our schools and so seems to limit real multiculturalism.

I'm a historian and I know a little about culture and community in historical perspective. They're talked about in some circles in town as fixed in stone and located in blood. These are wildly ahistorical notions. Culture and community are social constructed and reconstituted all the time. Public schools play a central role in that and have produced Chicano culture, the American Jewish culture, and on and on.

I thank the SC and the new superintendent for recognizing that Amherst isn't magically beyond the law and that our kids will benefit from a thoughtful, multicultural education for all.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the efforts of people like Tom G and Joel to respond in a detailed, reasoned fashion to the perpetual unhappiness of (usually anonymous) residents in this community with the redistricting.

I'm not "dismissing anyone's intentions" but the protestors don't seem to me to have played fair with their elected leaders. Between this blog and the public forums, I just don't see how the process could have been more open and honest and responsive. The only satisfactory outcome for the protestors seems to be delay, delay, delay.

I suspect that this particular area of contention has become simply a snowball that has been rolling downhill since the MM closing, a snowball that will keep rolling even after the SC decides about a map, rolling into some new forum, perhaps the override debate or even a separate citizen's referendum.

It's a snowball that will probably not come to rest until the disenchanted have injected this issue into various parts of the election on March 23, 2010. Hopefully, they will have a candidate who addresses their concerns, and we'll see how she/he does. That person, if unlucky enough to get elected, can then await the eventual betrayal claims from their former supporters, when she/he has to come to grips with reality on the inside.

It's a real deterrent to running for office in Amherst: instantly upon election, you are transformed into some kind of an "other" with authority, and then suitable for endless bashing about your motives and intentions.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:30

I fully respect the right of people to protest this afternoon. However, I have felt for months that people are protesting the wrong thing.

It is not the school committee or even the town of Amherst's fault that the budget situation is so dire. The reality is that the economy is in bad shape and Amherst can not function in a deficit situation. Marks Meadow had to close. Foreign language clusters have to end and we can't call ourselves a town that promotes social justice and leave one school that is poor and failing.

Lets all refocus our energy to make the schools the best they can be with the resources we have and I thank the school committee for stepping up and making the best of a bad situation.

As long as people are gathering this afternoon, is it too late to change the agenda to rally for universal health care?

Howie said...

One of the reasons we moved to Amherst was for the quality of the schools. However, with one now graduated from Amherst Regional High School, we have found out that the quality wasn't as advertised.

With 2 more to get through the system, we are very appreciative of the many changes that the School Board is making to improve the education of all our children.

With change, comes change, and the need for each of us to change as well. Let's get beyond this stage, we still have the Middle School up next.

Rick said...

This is depressing. Glad to see rational posts above from Tom, Joel, Rich and Anonymous:

"Lets all refocus our energy to make the schools the best they can be with the resources we have and I thank the school committee for stepping up and making the best of a bad situation."

I agree.

TC said...

I just hope that after the School Committee votes for a map all this negative energy can be transformed and directed towards making the transition easier for the kids and for the teachers/staff in the 3 schools. We all want the same thing, which is having 3 great schools for our kids. Let's hope the people of our town can leave the differences aside just for a while and work together for their sake.

lizzie said...

What's missing in all this talk about "social justice" is any discussion of what happens in the schools. Hey folks, wake up! We're living in an era in which a cult of assessment reigns.

How can you value diversity if you worship the god of standards?

If your kid excels at reading, they're bored.
If you're kid doesn't, they're pressured to death and...bored. And then they are IEP'd. Yep it's a verb and a label and it stigmatizes.
We need meaningful elementary education in this town. Excellence without meaning is empty crap.
So after the redistricting dust settles, how about a different conversation?
What if our schools were redesigned after the Reggio-Emilia idea of education.
Or what if we had three different elementary schools with three different themes? What if one had an inquiry-based science and environment focus, one emphasized languages, and a third emphasized a partnership with community agriculture and community engagement? Hmmmm....

Anonymous said...

Thank you Joel for your thoughtful post.