By NICK GRABBE
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
AMHERST - The Amherst School Committee voted Tuesday to create a new map for determining which elementary school children will attend next fall, closing a rancorous debate about ethnicity, poverty and achievement.
The redistricting, necessitated by the closure of Mark's Meadow School next year, will equalize the percentages of children from low-income families at the three remaining schools. It will also equalize the percentage of children who are "struggling," as determined by test scores and teachers.
Currently, students at Crocker Farm School are twice as likely to receive free or reduced-price lunch as are those at Wildwood School. "Having one poor school was an injustice that has held us back," said committee chairman Andy Churchill in voting for the change.
Four of the five committee members voted for "Map #5," which will send all 185 Mark's Meadow students to Wildwood, and sets Amity Street as the boundary of the Wildwood and Crocker Farm districts. To achieve socioeconomic balance, children living in apartment complexes off East Hadley Road will go to all three schools.
Committee member Kathleen Anderson cast the sole no vote. She favored "Map #6," which would have sent children at Mill Valley Estates and The Boulders to Fort River School.
"We have a responsibility to make sure we're giving all kids a similar opportunity to succeed," Churchill said. Map #5 will enable children to "go to a school a few miles from their homes that reflects the composition of the town they live in," he said. "It's the job of each school to create a supportive culture for all students."
The vote will end the clusters of Latino students at Crocker Farm and Cambodian students at Fort River.
The current practice of busing students to schools outside their districts because a cluster of students with their ethnic backgrounds were there is a violation of state and federal law, said committee member Catherine Sanderson. That policy had to end even without redistricting, she said.
"I'm not attempting to sabotage communities; I'm for obeying the law," she said. "I'm not convinced it's better to cluster low-income kids at one school." Crocker Farm is "not performing as well as it should for all kids," she said.
Committee member Irv Rhodes called the process "gut-wrenching and painful." But he said he is "100 percent certain of its educational soundness."
"I know this decision won't be welcomed by everyone," Rhodes said. "I hope everyone will think about how we can go about implementing it so we do the best for all our kids."
The redistricting will also mean that teachers will change schools. A survey is going out today asking them for their first and second choices of buildings next year, said Kathleen Mazur, director of human resources.
There will be meetings with principals and counselors this week, and by mid-November, meetings in the individual schools, and in December in apartment complexes, she said. Open houses and "celebrations for transitioning students" are planned for January, she said.
Jim Oldham of East Hadley Road said these discussions should have taken place six months ago. He warned the School Committee that it will be their responsibility if the district is sued, if more parents choose to send their children to out-of-town schools, or "if the override fails because people don't trust the way schools are being run."
On Tuesday afternoon, about 40 people gathered on the town common to protest the redistricting plan.
Nelson Acosta of Riverglade Drive said the plan "will segregate people based on low income and establish quotas." Elementary schools "should be about keeping kids close to home and creating special communities."
He questioned how the plan to create classrooms that are more economically heterogeneous will help low-income children. "Just because they're hanging with more affluent kids, they will benefit? How? By osmosis?" he said.
Laura Quinn of Shays Street told the rally that research showing that inner-city, low-income students benefit from being in middle-class suburban schools doesn't apply to Amherst.
Adrian Durlester of Valley Lane said the financial crisis that spurred the School Committee to close Mark's Meadow is "an excuse for empowering a classist and racist agenda." He said he's lived in town for a year and is no longer sure Amherst is where he wants to be.
He urged those at the rally to summon "that patriotic spirit that's willing to stand up to tyranny."
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.