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.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Editorial: New boundaries for the best

Amherst Bulletin
Published on October 16, 2009

The School Committee faced strong but expected criticism at a forum on redistricting last week, and it's likely it received more knocks at a second forum held on Wednesday.

The issue: a third of Amherst children now in kindergarten through fifth grade will attend a different school next year.

The closing of Mark's Meadow next year is prompting the redrawing of district boundaries. The School Committee voted 5-0 last spring to close Mark's Meadow after extensive public discussion. Elementary enrollment in Amherst has dropped 17 percent in the last 10 years. The committee needed to find a way to save money, and Mark's Meadow is the smallest school.

The other reason for the redistricting is to balance out the percentages of children who come from low-income families (as defined by qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches) in the three remaining schools. The committee has decided that the current situation, in which half the students at Crocker Farm come from low-income homes, is no longer defensible.

Dozens of parents did, however, defend the status quo on Oct. 8, or offered other redistricting permutations of their own design. Parents noted some very valid concerns, from keeping ethnic groups together to minimizing disruptions to students who must switch schools once, or even twice, over the next two years.

We applaud the committee for making this tough decision, especially so in the face of such emotional arguments.

Children benefit from associating with peers who come from a variety of backgrounds. It isn't morally right to have a "poor school" and a "wealthy school." The committee's position that there should be one standard for all elementary schools deserves the community's support. Evening out the percentages will advance both equity and education.

But accomplishing these goals has, not surprisingly, led to trade-offs. And, also not surprisingly, these trade-offs have led to complaints.

The committee plans to end "open enrollment," under which parents can choose which elementary school their children attend, if they provide transportation. The clustering of students interested in particular languages would also end. These decisions are tied to the one to achieve economic balance.

Some parents just don't want their children to change schools. Some who live between Amity Street and Northampton Road don't want their children to have to move from Wildwood School to Crocker Farm, while those north of Amity stay at Wildwood. Some parents living on Leverett and East Leverett roads would prefer to move their children to Wildwood, along with the other students now at Mark's Meadow.

The proposed new map does not resemble a gerrymandered Congressional district, with one exception. In the East Hadley Road area, in the middle of the new Crocker Farm district, there is an island where children living in apartment complexes would be bused to Fort River and Wildwood schools.

This separation of apartment-dwellers from children living in nearby single-family houses, and their resulting longer bus rides, are not ideal.

But because there's a much higher rate of low incomes in the apartment complexes, sending these children to Crocker Farm would upset the economic balances. And children from this neighborhood already go to several different elementary schools.

Parents can get emotional when told their children have to change schools. It isn't easy to explain to a first-grader why her friend will be at a different place next year. Some parents and advocates of Spanish-speaking children don't want their bloc of students at Crocker Farm to be dispersed.

We hope that School Committee members and administrators have listened carefully to parents' concerns about redistricting, and taken any logical suggestions to heart. And we hope that parents will respect the reasons why these changes are happening and the hard work that's gone into redrawing the map.


Anonymous said...

An oversimplification, at best.

Anonymous said...

Elitist, classist. At best.

Anonymous said...

I agree: I think it's very elitist to want all kids to have access to good schools. And it's also classist. Moreover, I think it's elitist and classist to actually educate kids, too - who's the Einstein (talk about an elitist!) that came up with the idea of public education, anyway? Or for that matter, equal opportunity? Classists, all.

Anonymous said...

Two questions: we keep hearing that $700,000 will be saved by closing Mark's Meadow. What if it is only $200,000? or $100,000? Would it still be worth closing a school that is highly successful for minority students, in many cases the low income students that you are supposedly trying to help? Second, if we need to have "busing islands" in order to achieve the questionable goal of spreading out low income students, why not keep the four schools we have and attain your income goal by more creative use of islands and forget redistricting?

Anonymous said...

Exactly what in this editorial is elitist, classist, and oversimplified? Anyone can call names -- support your claims with examples and an explanation.

Anonymous said...

revendaOh dear, don't take it personally. I make these assertions on the basis of the empirical literature. I'm not calling names - I just happen to be educated, and I'm tired of the Amherst university and college community acting like noone else around them is. Examples? Read the research for goodness sakes - . Recall that the premise here is that the FRL population needs to be redistributed. Begin with any number of articles that complete a critical analysis on Ruby Payne's so called "research." For those who might want a quick synopsis, begin with "Revisiting Ruby Payne" by Anita Bohn. Facebook has a nice summary of the research (see Facebook Group page: "Ruby Payne is wrong on poverty and education.")
Sad what is happening to our community. Even sadder is when people think that he/she is the only educated person in a room full of people who cannot speak. As for answers...please. Its shameful - you know as well as I do that there are entire research institutions devoted to facilitating learning in impoverished settings. Begin with the Journal of Controversial Education, which outlines the research of people invested in creating better outcomes for the poor. Without sweeping and redistributing them.

Anonymous said...

to anon@440:

I can't find a journal called "Journal of Controversial Education". Where did you find it?

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:40 p.m.

I like what you say.
I find it very sad that 'educated' people can take such a stand and yes I view it as a bit elitist and quite classist myself. No name calling, just seeing it for what it is--I mean how many people living in SouthPoint or The Boulders are sitting on this fine committee anyway? How many families who have children receiving free and reduced lunches have been polled for their input as to where they'd like their children to go to school? or even have access to this blog...or a computer?
In their search for 'equity' in education they assume a "We know what's best for you" position.
Sad-but sadder still are the families and children who are getting steamrolled by such foolsihness.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

To Anon 7:20 - I thought any Amherst resident could run for SC - so the people of SouthPoint or The Boulders or anyone on FRL or anyone in this town for that matter are welcome to run for the two open positions on the SC. YOU could run, to represent their (or your) views, too.

Do our elected state and federal policitians (or even Town Meeting or Select Board) poll the whole town on every decision they have to make, to make the opinion of every single constituent is known?

Anonymous said...

How did Ruby Payne become a part of this discussion? No one on the SC is basing any decisions on her theories -- what's your point? How is she relevant to this discussion? Creating economic balance and diversity in our schools has nothing to do with anything that Ruby Payne talks about. How do you expect to be taken seriously when you base your accusations on something so outrageous?

Anonymous said...

More specifically we should look at this the link below which is a section in the a-fore-mentioned blog, with regards to redistricting. I think it is important for our School Committee to reflect on whether redistricting to equalizing the FRL children is really going to help in narrowing the achievement gap. The below link is an portion from a journal not yet published and pertains to out-of-school-factors (OSFs) on student achievement.

Anonymous said...

There are several points made in the above link (livinglearninginpoverty) that SUPPORT the drive to redistrict.

Are you saying that this information should cause us to reconsider redistricting?a

jm said...

I think the school committee also should look at --to the extent that they can -- the educational levels of the parents. I've always read the educational level of parents (particularly mothers) is a key factor in educational achievment.

To me it looks like under the new map that the FRL kids now slated to go to Fort River will be from low income families that are less educated than the FRL kids from Marks Meadow heading into Wildwood. As the latest map stands now, Fort River will have the most FRL kids (right at the 40% tipping point) and from lower educational level families. It puts Fort River in a more difficult position that the other 2 elementary schools are not in and just doesn't seem fair.

It's one thing to be low-income because a parent is getting an undergraduate or graduate degree, it's another thing to be in a low-income in a family without any degrees. I've lived this myself so please don't call me elitist. Many kids from these latter families, all of whom can go onto to be strong students, start out at a disadvantage that is harder to make up. They will benefit from having more peers from those middle class families (that annoy so many) that are hellbent on enriching their kids, volunteering at schools, raising funds and helping other kids.

I deeply believe in mixing it up -- no neighborhoods or schools or towns that are enclaves of anything -- be it wealth, poverty, ethnic groups, ideologies. This is the great American experiment. Let's mix it all up here in our Amherst schools, work and do well together. I've seen the kids, teachers and parents do this at our elementary school, Fort River, and know it can work.

Anonymous said...

I am also worried that Fort River will now be composed of 40% low income and the majority of the rest very high income (Amherst Woods, Echo Hill, and Amherst Hills) with very little inbetween. I'm not sure how these two different groups of kids will be able to mix well, enjoy the same after-school activities, etc.

Margaret Burland said...

I appreciate the recent poster who brought up parents' educational background as an important factor in student achievement, and I repeat for the benefit of anyone who missed my earlier posts about this: there *are* well-educated parents living in Mill Valley Estates, and probably some in the Boulders as well. No one should assume that all the graduate students with children are living in U Mass housing -- there is not enough of it to go around, especially for families with more than one child. Mill Valley Estates is an obvious next place to go for well-educated, low-income parents in need of rental housing. It is safer and better-managed than some of the other apartment complexes in town, it tends to have less noise, and for those of us with pets as well as kids, it is one of our only options in this town of wary, picky landlords. Again, there are too many families living in the East Hadley apartments for any generalizations to hold true about all or even most of us. Some of us are very well-educated, and yes, some of us do not even qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, as was brought up by a parent speaking at the last forum at Crocker Farm. Many of us earn enough to pay a mortgage in this town, but we are living in rental housing until we can save up for the downpayment on a house, that's the barrier to home-ownership, and it's a big barrier. But I digress. Fort River parents, take heart. If a large group of students from the East Hadley area do end up going to Fort River next year, they will not transform the character of the school. You would be hard-pressed to tell most of them apart from this year's FR children based on external markers such as clothing or speech patterns. And most of us can afford to send in a few dollars for a school field trip now and then, we can pull our weight within the school community. We just can't afford to buy a house in this inflated market, and if we paid more every month to rent a house instead of one of these apartments, we could never afford a home of our own. Think of the parents living here as people who are making a short-term lifestyle sacrifice while their children are young for the sake of their children's long-term financial wellbeing, including home ownership and college.

jm said...

Thanks Margaret. I didn't mean to sound unwelcoming and I know it's hard to write about these issues and be clear. (Also, for whatever it's worth, this is our last year at Fort River so I think my comments are less self-interested than they might seem.) It's just that the percentages at the 3 schools seemed off to start with and then I started thinking about the often high education levels of low income parents in an academic town.

If the goal is to balance the schools fairly to give low income kids a better chance to learn, it doesn't make sense to put one school right at the 40% line. It also makes sense to look a little deeper (if possible) at parental educational levels since this is a key factor. I don't think I was making an automatic connection between where a family lives, their educations, ability to enrich their child, etc. I don't know enough about the apartment complexes to know any of that.

I've also been thinking thats small changes in the school population, could push Fort River closer to the current unworkable 50% Crocker Farm levels -- or the other elementary schools at significantly lower levels of FRL kids. Then the district is almost back where it started. Let's not make mistakes now and have to go through the redistricting process again soon, if it can be avoided. It seem pretty hard on everyone.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:11 Are you looking at this web link?