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 6, 2009

Forum Thursday on Amherst redistricting

Hampshire Gazette
By NICK GRABBE
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

AMHERST - It isn't easy to move a third of Amherst's elementary students to different schools without upsetting some parents.

But the redistricting process, to take place next year, got support Friday from two key people: Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez and Select Board member Alisa Brewer, who was on the School Committee for five years.

Meanwhile, the public will have a chance to speak out about the proposal this week. The first public forum on the plan will take place at Mark's Meadow School Thursday at 7 p.m., and another will be at Crocker Farm on Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. The School Committee is scheduled to vote on the plan Oct. 27.

Speaking at a meeting of the committee charged with redrawing the district borders, Rodriguez said the process has been "purely data-driven and empirical" in its effort to equalize the percentages of children from low-income families in each school. The committee also has taken bus safety into account, and the changes "will disrupt communities as little as possible," he said.

"The more variables you throw into the equation, the harder it is to draw maps that are equitable and fair," he said.

Brewer said that equity should be the top priority-not the amount of time on buses, how many children have to change schools, or how easy it is for families to get there.

"This is going to happen, and we're going to make it work as best we can," she said.

The prompt for the redistricting is the closure of Mark's Meadow School next year. The proposed new map has mostly clear boundaries, with the exception of the East Hadley Road area. Right in the middle of the new Crocker Farm School district, 28 children living at The Boulders would attend Wildwood School, while about 47 at Mill Valley Estates and Hollister Apartments would attend Fort River.

Because many of these children are from low-income families and would be bused out of their neighborhoods, the plan "has the greatest impact with precisely the children we're trying to help," said James Oldham of East Hadley Road. He believes there should be a public forum.

These low-income families "are being set up as one population being treated differently from everyone else, and without that public meeting, this should not go forward," Oldham said.

Margaret Burland, of Mill Valley Estates, said children living there tend to form friendships only within their schools. "To change their school is huge," she said. "It's a bigger deal than with wealthier kids."

School Committee member Irv Rhodes said these parents "feel they're picked on, so we owe it to them to be as clear as possible about why this is occurring."

Lately, the map has been changed only to extend the Wildwood district to include all of Strong Street and some houses on High Street, because of transportation concerns.

Enrollment figures show that there are 41 fewer students in the elementary schools this year than had been projected.


UPDATE: Nick Grabbe has just alerted me to a change that occurred during the editing. Jim Oldham's quote was actually "There should be a public forum there, he said." He was meaning that public forums should take place in the apartment complexes off of East Hadley Road.

35 comments:

Rick said...

Kind of strange the Gazette states Jim Oldham as believing “there should be a public forum” and “without that public meeting, this should not go forward” when the article itself is about the two public forums that are scheduled.

Anonymous said...

If the goal is to balance the schools by income, is there any other alternative to the islands scheme? It doesn't seem like there is one and it's an extension of what is going on right now anyway. I know it makes people uncomfortable but I don't see what else could be done.

Rick said...

I agree the "islands" are a shame. Apparently that is the only way to get the income distribution right. Probably they will talk about all other options they looked at during the public forums, and perhaps more about that will be posted on the ARPS site at some point:
http://www.arps.org/node/977

Anonymous said...

Yes, Jim Oldham is strange.

Rick said...

Well, what I meant is that the Gazette is strange. Surely if Oldham did not know about the forums, Gazette would have told him when he said what he supposedly said and then not published what he said because it makes no sense. Whatever...

Margaret Burland is quoted in the article also. She had a really good comment on this blog near the top of the “Amherst Meeting, September 22, 2009” post, and Catherine had a really thoughtful response. Those two comments give a good idea of the dilemma faced here.

Vivian said...

Will the notices distributed at CF be in spanish as well? I was told by a CF teacher that there's not much talk about redistricting going on there maybe because the spanish-speaking families don't really understand the potential impact (that their community may be split up). Perhaps the meeting needs to include a spanish-speaking translator? And the bit on the notice about "Motions brought forth by this committee... Whether to continue the ELE clustering." For someone who speaks English, it's not even clear what "ELE clustering" means. Acronymns that are not used in everyday life need to be spelled out and described if the program is not clearly understood. It should be spelled out as in "Currently, spanish-speaking students are grouped at CF, chinese-speaking students are grouped at WW... and there is a motion to change these programs so that students who speak different languages are spread throughout the school system, based solely on where they live." Well, something like that, but better worded.

Tom G said...

When the Superintendent talks about equity, is he referring to an equal distribution in three schools of students who receive financial support for lunch cost?

If that is the case, is it also fair to say that there is no desire by the superintendent or the school committee to seperate students whose parents speak spanish at home and that that outcome is a result of income equity balancing? That said, would that be good or bad for the students? I have my opinions I want to hear yours.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Rick (1:01) - I did think that was strange. I know Jim was at the SC meeting in which the forums were announced.

Anonymous 1:11 - the goal is indeed to balance the schools in terms of income (% of kids on free/reduced lunch), and the only way to accomplish this is to divide the kids living in the apartments off of East Hadley Road into the three different schools. The issue is that the majority of low income kids live in this area, and the only way to achieve the equity is to divide up this area. I agree that this is uncomfortable ... I think it unfortunately speaks to a larger issue in our town, which is how low income housing is clustered.

Rick (2:26) - I think various alternatives will be addressed at the forums -- and remember, both of the original two maps proposed last spring had these islands, as does our current map (they just look a bit different). I know the staff worked really hard to try other options -- and there isn't a way to accomplish this equity without creating islands.

Anonymous 3:39 - I'm going to pass on responding to this one.

Rick (5:32) - as I said earlier, Jim knew about the forums, so the quote is odd. Margarent Burland has raised some very thoughtful points and made a bunch of good suggestions ... I think ultimately the district couldn't find a way to draw lines in a way that divided these kids into only two schools (WW and CF), which I believe she suggested. So, we basically have three choices:

1. We can have these two islands and have good (almost perfect) equity. Obviously that doesn't feel great to me (or anyone).

2. We can get rid of the islands, and divide up kids in this area between CF and WW and then basically Fort River becomes a very wealthy school (I don't know the numbers, but I bet it would be something like 20% low income compared to 40% and 40%). That doesn't feel great to me.

3. We can create many islands all across the district, just for the sake of having islands. So, kids from Amherst Woods can be bused to WW with kids from Orchard Valley, and kids from North Amherst can go to CF, etc. It would be (a) expensive in terms of busing (gas, time on bus), and thus (b) potentially require a schedule change at the MS/HS if the bus routes were so long that the buses couldn't make it back for their second run. That doesn't feel great to me.

I see three options, and of those, the first one seems "less bad" to me than the other two. Others might feel differently -- and if so, they should voice those opinions at the forums and/or in emails to the SC (not just on this blog, which again is NOT a way to officially communicate with the SC).

Vivian - I do believe that the information going out to families at CF will be in English and Spanish. I know the announcement in the Bulletin was in both languages. I don't know if we have requested a translator for the forums, but I can ask about this -- it is a good idea.

Let me clarify the other piece - right now, children are clustered (voluntarily) by language/ethnicity/culture in different elementary schools. As you clearly write, "Currently, spanish-speaking students are grouped at CF, chinese-speaking students are grouped at WW, Cambodian children are grouped at FR." Children are bused to these different schools outside of thier "home district" through open enrollment. However, if open enrollment continues, it seems likely that some (many?) families would try to return to the school where their children used to go prior to the redistricting, which then could get very messy. In addition, it isn't clear whether our current approach in which kids are bused to different schools based on ethnicity/language spoken at home is in compliance with current state and federal laws (e.g., we provide free transportation to some students through open enrollment based on their ethnicity or language spoken at home). We are getting clarification on this soon and hopefully will have a legal opinion ready for the forums.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

One more response:

Tom G - when the Superintendent talks about equity, he is indeed referring to an equal distribution in three schools of students who receive financial support for lunch cost. In our current schools, about half of the CF population receives free/reduced lunch, compared to 25 to 35% at the other three schools. This has been a concern in the district for a while, and is something that the SC and the school administrators agree is important to resolve.

I certainly think it is accurate to say that "there is no desire by the superintendent or the school committee to seperate students whose parents speak Spanish at home and that that outcome is a result of income equity balancing." I would also say, however, that it was made clear at a SC meeting last year (I think a December meeting) that this process of clustering students by race/ethnicity/language spoken at home would be discontinued REGARDLESS of redistricting ... because I think it is pretty clear that this clustering is not allowed by state/federal law (just like you couldn't group all the Jewish students in one school).

Do I think that ending this clustering is good or bad for students? This is a tough question, and one on which many reasonable people disgree. So, I have two responses: first, I think regardless of whether it is good or bad, the district needs to be in compliance with the state/federal laws (and if people want to fight to get the laws changed, that is up to them and not the Amherst SC), and second, if we do break up these language/race/ethnicity clusters, the SC and the district needs to do whatever it can (legally) that helps these children succeed (academically, socially, emotionally, etc.). I would hope that once a decision has been reached, we can hear thoughts from the community (parents, teachers, kids, staff, administrators, etc.) about what types of supports would be useful in this transition.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately for the goal of balancing the schools by income, the islands scheme isn't just "uncomfortable," it is discriminatory.

Anonymous said...

School Committee member Irv Rhodes said these parents "feel they're picked on, so we owe it to them to be as clear as possible about why this is occurring." In other words, communication will be one way, with no real consideration of what people have to say -- just like the hearings on closing Marks Meadow.

Anonymous said...

Build one elementary school. It will create a real community for a town that is distinctly not cohesive.

Anonymous said...

Again I ask does this plan take into account the low income housing project that is about to be constructed on Longmeadow Dr. It seems silly to me to have a"balanced" plan that will be out of balance within 2 years especially when everyone knows what's coming.

Anonymous said...

i think the issue is 2 fold.
1- communication and dialogue WITH the communities that are most affected. this is especially true given how some groups feel the MM closing was handled. regardless of your position on the MM closing, we need SC members who recognize, acknowledge and appreciate the bad feelings that were created and take steps to make sure people feel they're listened to.
2- as a voter and resident in amherst, I am depending on SC members to make sure that we fully understand - and address - the impact of "breaking up these language/race/ethnicity clusters..." on the kids, on their sense of community, their supports for learning, and on their sense of empowerment.

Anonymous said...

Heaven forbid that the people in charge feel "uncomfortable" about discrimination and elitism! Gosh. Isn't there a way that those affected the most could just go away with a smile? That's what is expected and any anger that surfaces at these meetings will make it so much easier to dismiss their arguments. Always attack the messenger when you don't like the message.
I expect lots of hand-wringing and false concern, but, when it comes down to it, it will be business as usual and the single island plan will prevail.

Anonymous said...

Vivian, EVERYTHING that is sent home from Crocker Farm is also sent in Spanish.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 7:09 - there are many ways to think about things that are discriminatory. Is it discriminatory that we have largely clustered low income students in one school? Is it discriminatory that students in the apartments off of East Hadley Road largely go to Crocker Farm, and the students who live in houses around these apartments largely go to Wildwood? Is the goal of having schools with an equitable balance of kids on free/reduced lunch discriminatory? We all, I believe, recognize that it is unfortunate that achieving equity requires busing kids who live in apartments to other schools. Do you have a solution that you'd like to propose, or would you just like to accuse people of discriminating? I wonder how you'd feel about the SC intentionally developing a plan in which all low income kids just go to one school ... that sounds to me like discrimination as well, right?

Anonymous 8:08 - I'd love to know what would categorize adequate listening. Is it only adequate listening if a plan changes, or is that inadequate listening? Is it adequate listening if some people really like the decision and others don't? How much and what type of listening would be adequate IF a decision is ultimately made that you don't agree with? I heard from some MM families who felt there wasn't even listening, but that was largely (entirely) because they did not like the decision that resulted ... and yet others who felt totally comfortable with the amount of listening because they liked the decision (in fact, some of these people said there was "too much listening"). Try to separate the process from the decision -- and if you have advice for ways the SC could do more listening, send them along -- but that doesn't mean the decision would necessarily be what you want.

Anonymous 8:27 - many, many problems with this idea ... $$ is one ... concern about having 1300 kids in an elementary school is another! I guess I don't understand the level of concern about cohesion (or the lack thereof) -- I have three kids in elementary school, and different plans have had them in different schools. They are (currently) staying in their school, but they are losing dear and good friends to other schools. But we all live in Amherst -- which is a small community. My kids already have friends at all of the schools anyway (even my kindergartener, whose best friends from preschool are at CF and WW yet she goes to FR). They will see other kids at soccer and birthday parties and playdates and so on. I think we have the potential to have three excellent schools, and kids at all three of the schools can and will have an excellent experience with dedicated and caring teachers/staff.

Anonymous 9:03 - this was considered by the redistricting committee, but is not likely to be a huge impact. It is a total of 26 homes ... some of these will go to people without kids, or to people with kids in middle school or high school. Only half of the units are set for low income people, so again, it is not like all the kids will be on free/reduced lunch. So, lets say half of the apartments had an elementary school aged child -- that is 13 kids, spread across 7 grades, which is an average of 1 or 2 kids extra per grade (not even an extra kid per class). This just isn't a huge issue, nor will all of these kids be low income.

Jim said...

This is Jim Oldham posting. I just received a phone call from Nick Grabbe apologizing for the Gazette's error misquoting me and alerting me to the comments responding to that misquote in this thread. I'll clarify for Catherine, Rick Hood and others' benefit:

My concern is that not all parents are equally aware of the redistricting plan or equally able to access information about what is proposed for their children. People in the apartments on East Hadley Road, whose families are being chosen for special and different treatment in order to meet certain district-wide goals, are perhaps more likely to fall into this category due to language, access to internet, and other issues.

I believe that the 2 public forums, which yes I am and was very aware of, have been insufficiently publicized. The also provide inadequate opportunity, for these families to not only learn about the proposal but to have a real say in whether their children should be the ones bused across town and out of their neighborhoods to create balance in all of the schools.

What I asked from the redistricting committee and the school administration was a special meeting specifically with and for those families who reside in the affected apartments. I made a similar request regarding families whose first language isn’t English, who will feel a greater impact than many of us from an end to open enrollment. Nick tells me that he quoted me correctly in the article but that the editor changed it. (Rick, FYI, the Gazette does not, in my experience, check back to varify quotes).

The committee heard and understood my request as did other members of the public who were present. Margaret Burland's quoted comment was made partially in response to and support of my statement. Alisa Brewer, among her other comments, suggested that such a meeting need not be public, with press or other outsiders present, but that the schools should make clear that they are doing such outreach to these families. I don't necessarily agree because I think public transparency is a good thing, but either way, I have yet to learn whether any such outreach effort, public or behind the scenes, is going to take place.

As long as I'm posting here, I've got a couple of other observations:

It would have been very helpful, and more likely to get parents' attention, if the notice about the forums that was sent home with students had included a copy of the proposed map, and mentioned other elements of the proposal such as the end to open enrollment. People are more likely to see the significance of a meeting if provided with useful background information. It would reduce time spent in the meetings simply providing information about the proposal and allow more time for questions and public input.

I share the concerns of anonymous (October 7, 2009 7:09 AM) that the "island" scheme is far worse than "uncomfortable." Given that Catherine was so vocal about the problems with our current districts, I'm surprised she is willing to accept a solution that focusses the problem more intensely on one population rather than really solving it.

Anonymous (October 7, 2009 9:03 AM) points to a real flaw in the plan: it's failure to take into consideration even the most obvious near future events that will throw the new districts completely out of balance. The plan was not finalized until Oct 1 because the schools couldn't get real numbers for enrollement for the CURRENT YEAR until then. Any and all forward looking projections are very iffy and they have definitely not included the Orchard Valley (Longmeadow Drive) development, never mind potential UMass expansion or other likely future events.

Finally, I think anonymous (October 7, 2009 8:08 AM) is right to fear that the forums are not intended to get real input from parents, but just sell a decision that is already made. I would like to be proven wrong on this, but don't have high hopes.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 9:57 - you raise two issues. First, "communication and dialogue WITH the communities that are most affected." Then you point out the MM decision. OK, so here is what happened with MM: there were five forums (one at each school during different times of day, PLUS one in the evening at the MS), plus there were comments at three different SC meetings (including over an hour of comments at a meeting that was held at MM). That is 8 opportunities to share feelings. We also received many comments via email and by letter and by phone. Is this enough communication, or not? I've looked at a number of other communities that have closed a school, and can't find one in which there was over a year dedicated to planning the transition. Many SCs vote in February/March/April to close a school, and the school closes in June. I do think bad feelings were created with the MM closing -- in part because many parents (and teachers) at other schools felt that they heard their schools criticized (as lack of caring, big box schools, bad on achievement, etc.). But I'm not sure that had to do with how we showed listening? If you have an idea about how we could show better listening, let me know. Personally, I respond to all emails and calls and letters that I get personally and I have a blog in which I do the same. I attended all five of the meetings regarding closing MM. But I'm pretty sure that people who opposed this closing would say I didn't listen, or I didn't acknowledge the bad feelings this vote created? Tell me how you think the SC could do this better ... understanding that a vote on some lines will be taken, and I can guarantee that not all people will like where the lines are drawn.

Second, as a voter and resident in Amherst, I would hope that you understand that we have to obey state and federal laws. If those laws say that we are not allowed to
maintain clusters based on language/race/ethnicity clusters, we can't do it. We can then move on to figuring out how to provide these, and other, kids with the necessary support to transition well in all senses (academically, intellectually, socially, emotionally, etc.) And I would love to hear suggestions from you, and others, on how to do this.

Anonymous 9:59 - I don't think anyone is expecting that "those affected the most could just go away with a smile?" But what I'm hoping (though not necessarily expecting) is that people will come with SUGGESTIONS of how to do things differently, not just criticism and attacks of discrimination. I'm quite confident that all members of the SC would welcome viable alternatives to the current plan that lead to equity -- and if you or others have one, share it.

I certainly agree with your statement that "Always attack the messenger when you don't like the message." The SC is the messenger, and so, yes, I agree with you that we will be attacked by anyone who doesn't like the proposed plan (just as occurred with the MM closing).

The single-island plan will certainly prevail if there isn't an alternative that works to provide equity. If you have ideas for other ways to distribute kids that leads to equity, please send them along!

Anonymous 10:00 - thanks for letting us know that!

TC said...

Reading all the comments, I think there's a lot of emotional reactions and not much attention to the facts. I understand this issue is very controversial, and people have strong feelings about it, but let's stop and think. One might argue that the islands segregate kids, but culture/language cluestering doesn't? There's always more than one way of looking at any situation. I think clustering kids on one school based on their ethnicity shows prejudice, and I think that practice should end, even if it's not illegal. Does anybody here showed any concern that a kid who attends a school that is not his/her neighborhood school because of language clustering is being separated from his/her neighbors? Again, let's look at things form multiple perspectives and let our emotions on check a little bit. We all want the same thing, and that's what's best for our kids.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Two things:

1. Never, ever assume the Gazette got it right (and yes, you can quote me on that:-). Their reporters don't check quotes. And the accurate quotes don't always work without context; I stink at speaking in sound bites, which ends up leaving someone reading the article not realizing the context in which I made my quoted remarks.

2. I share the concerns about the lack of background information being provided to potential attendees at the upcoming forums. Without making it clear what the purpose of the forum is, and how we got to where we are, there really is no way to prevent them from going sideways fast.

I asked the Mark's Meadow PGG (our PTO) to put out the (plentiful!) background material I saw on the arps website and suggested CF PGO do the same. Do check it out, and pass it along.

This doesn't help all the folks who don't look at websites or emails, though:-(

Joel said...

Two reactions:

First on listening, talking, and debating, there seems to be a moving target for a lot of folks in town. I'm not sure how many more meetings some people wanted on MM or will demand on redistricting, but we altered the 9th grade science curriculum with essentially no formal input from the community. There was a brief comment session before the SC voted. Some issues require debate without end and others get pushed through without significant community input. I think I remember Jim Oldham at the SC meeting when the science curriculum was changed (I could be wrong) and I recall he was for it the change, so not a peep from him about the limited debate.

On the specifics of redistricting, I served on the now on-hold Social Studies Curriculum Review committee and one thing that bothered me is that the four elementary schools not only don't coordinate a SS curriculum, they cannot coordinate field trips. Crocker simply doesn't have the money for the kids there to take the same field trips as kids at the other three elementary schools in town. That's just one, very real way that the current policy of racial and class segregation has had a direct negative impact on the kids from some of the poorest families in town. The islands are weird, but they may help solve this and other problems caused by the current policies.

Rick said...

Catherine: Really nice job above [October 7, 2009 12:30 AM , reply to Rick (5:32)] explaining the options. If it’s done like that mice and clearly at the forums that will help a lot.

Jim raises some good points. He also echoes this point “the forums are not intended to get real input from parents, but just sell a decision that is already made”. I hope that is not the case, but also would say there are two decisions going on at once here:

1. Do we want the schools to be roughly equal in income levels? That is the decision that seems to have already been made (yes).

2. If the answer to above is “yes”, which it seems to be, then there is the decision on how do we best achieve that.

Are both of these open for discussion at the forums, or just #2?

I might urge that #1 get “sold” first before moving to #2. Since there seems to be no great solution for achieving #2 in a way everyone will be happy with, the importance of total buy-in to #1 is critical.

Finally, this is really hard stuff. The committee seems to be working hard at figuring this out.

Margaret Burland said...

Just to follow up on Rick's last comment, what I want clarified is exactly what level of equity the School Committee expects to achieve. Some of what I've heard from members of the committee in the past week leads me to believe that the goal is to go from a current disparity of about 30% between the richest and poorest schools in the district all the way down to a disparity of 5% or less. I believe that expecting that level of change has made the School Committee feel that they have no alternative but to do what they are doing. But if we were willing to accept a disparity of 15% (half the current level), could we eliminate the low-income islands? That would be a preferable trade-off to me. I would like to hear the School Committee ask parents what exact percentage of disparity they believe would be acceptable and realistic. Yes, we all say we want equity, but since the School Committee has been aiming at an exact figure, let's make sure we all agree that that end justifies the means.

Abbie said...

I would like to add my two cents to the discussion. While I agree that the busing of the apartment complexes to WW and FR is not ideal, I have to trust that the redistricting committee tried very hard to find alternative solutions and failed.

I think that there would be considerable opposition from those to be redistricted if the school that they were moving into had a disproportionate percent of free and reduced lunch (FRL). For example if my child was to move from WW that would have about 35% FRL to CF with ~50% (15% difference suggested by Margaret), I would have problems. I have few problems with the current redistricting plan for my family as all the schools will be about the same.

So if I feel that way about the 15% difference, I imagine those that attend CF now (with ~30% more FRL) must really feel its unfair.

So I think the issue of equity applies to both those of FRL status as those without. If its true that very large % FRL hurts the aggregate performance of the school then its unequitable to ALL kids that attend those schools!

Anonymous said...

How many Hispanic kids are in the elementary schools now? I ask because I'm wondering what the numbers of HIspanic kids will likely be at each school under the proposed plan. It seems to me that there are many more Hispanic kids in Amherst as compared to other groups such as Cambodians. If there are a good number of Hispanic kids at each school that should help address some concerns.

Rick said...

According to this, its about 242 (17.5% x 1,382):
http://tinyurl.com/yb4dft7
(mass.edu)

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Jim - first, Nick also let me know about the error in the article, which I've updated on my blog post. I understand your concern about whether all parents are equally aware of the redistricting plan. I believe this would be a fair question for you to ask tomorrow night to the redistricting committee -- I don't know the answer to what type of outreach has specifically occurred in what communities. However, my understanding is that all children at all schools received information (written, translated) in their backpacks describing the forums, ads were placed in the Bulletin and Gazette, and a phone call went out from the superintendent in both English and Spanish. That is a lot of outreach! I do agree that a more thorough information packet would have ideally gone out (including maps and the proposed end to open enrollment).

As I've noted repeatedly in this blog, we have tough choices given how housing is distributed in our town. I am uncomfortable (and yes, that's the word I'm using) with the islands, but I'm more uncomfortable with saying let's have a poor school and two not poor schools (or one rich school and two poorer schools). If you have SUGGESTIONS for drawing lines that avoid the islands, send them along. As I noted in my earlier post, adding perhaps 25 kids across 7 grades (with only half low income) is not a huge issue - and that is also several years away still. There will be demographic changes in our district in assorted ways, and I imagine we will eventually have to redraw the lines again ... it probably shouldn't be a once every 30 or 40 years thing. The projections very much are looking forward, and they definitely did include both the Orchard Valley project and the anticipated growth of the new Amherst Hills neighborhood. Any time you redistrict, of course you are projecting ... and if we start with basically equitable schools, then small changes in population in different parts of town still won't create wide disparities.

One final point - there is going to be redistricting, and it is going to be based on creating equitable schools. That has been decided. The district has come up with a plan that fits the objective of creating equitable schools using natural boundaries -- and we haven't figured out a way to do so without islands. If someone comes to the forum and proposes a new way to divide the kids in a way that we haven't thought of that could work in terms of equity, I think all members of the committee would be very pleased. But if such an idea isn't presented ... then yes, I think we are likely to vote to approve the most recent version of the map.

TC - thanks for your thoughtful remarks ... and yes, it is emotional (probably more so for parents than for kids). The practice of clustering kids who are fluent in English by ethnicity is certainly illegal ... and that is going to stop (and would be stopped even if we weren't redistricting).

Alisa - I agree that the SC could have sent more around to the parents ... I wish that had happened, and will push for it to happen, at least by early next week. I think that is a good idea, and would be informative.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More responses:

Joel - I agree that listening is very much in the eye of the beholder ... we should listen a long, long time if people aren't in favor of the decision (e.g., closing a school, redistricting), but much less if we are doing something they approve of. It seems like a moving target. The inequity in the schools has many consequences -- taking major curricular field trips, fundraising for expensive projects (e.g., new playgrounds), etc. I believe having three equitable schools is beneficial for all kids, and I'm glad that we should have much greater equity as of next year.

Rick - To answer your two quesions: First, the SC definitely wants the schools to be roughly equal in income levels. That is a decision that was made some time ago (in the motion to close MM that was voted unanimously on last May, but also earlier then that). The SC (prior to my arrival even) felt strongly that equity in our schools was important for many reasons--I served on a committee prior to my election to SC that was focused on reorganizing the elementary schools to create equity (oddly enough, Mike Morris - CF principal, and Ray Sharick -- then WW dad, now FR principal -- were both on that committee with me, along with other parents and teachers and staff members). Equity is not a new idea ... and is definitely something that the current SC feels is important (and I hope the community agrees with this as a goal).

The trickier question is how to achieve that ... the current map is the district's best attempt so far to reach this outcome. If people have other ideas about how to achieve this outcome, we'd still love to hear them. But focusing on trying to get rid of the "let's have equitable schools" goal is, in my opinion, a non-starter (particularly since this was actually part of the motion that the SC voted on last spring when the decision was made to close MM).

Margaret - in retrospect, it might have been good for us to discuss the "zone of acceptability" in terms of equity in our schools. I know Wake County (NC) has a policy that schools will vary only between 25 to 40%, which is a 15% range, and the research points to "avoiding more than 40%" low income kids at one school. So, about 1/3 of the kids in our district are low income ... which means ideally each school would have 33% free/reduced lunch kids. But if we don't want to go above 40%, we don't have that much "wiggle room." In the current plan, I believe CF would have about 125 low income kids (which is 35% free/reduced lunch). You could technically add another 15 low income kids and take away 15 not low income kids (which would get the school to 40%). But that still is only 15 kids (and there are more kids than 15 being bused out of the apartments away from CF). So, I don't think we have a lot of wiggle room, especially since we don't want to climb right up to the 40% line to start with (when that line can easily climb to 41, 42, 43% if a few new low income families move into that district). So, just speaking for me here, I'd say we really don't want to get above 37/38% at a single school, and in order to avoid doing that, we have to really not go below about 30/31% at any of the schools - meaning certainly less than a 10% difference in the % of low income kids at each of the schools. I don't have any idea how my colleagues on the SC feel about this.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more:


Abbie - point well-taken. And it seems clear (in Amherst and other districts) that there is a "tipping point" at which time more and more families will opt out of a school that is seen as predominantly low income. That is another reason why we really need to maintain schools that are equitable in terms of family income.

Anonymous 7:43 - Good question! I don't have the most recent statistics in terms of who is getting ELL support, but as of the fall of 2006 63 students (elementary) reported Spanish as a native language, 23 reported Khmer, 20 reported Korean, and 13 reported Chinese. I don't, however, know where any of those students live or how they would be impacted in terms of the proposed redistricting plan.

Rick - thanks for that data!

amherstmom said...

Catherine: A question... What happens with Amherst's Title one status in the 3 school redistricting scenario. In 2009 CF and MM, as I recall, received about $350,000 from the Fed. Gov in a grant.

"Title 1 grant is aimed at helping disadvantaged students reach high academic standards." As I have heard it Title 1 funds are provided by the federal gov. to schools which have a certain percent of students that are categorized as "disadvantaged". What is the percent that qualifies a school for these funds?

Thanks, Tracy

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Tracy - apparently Title 1 dollars are given based on the % of kids in a district -- last year MM and CF received those dollars only, since those schools were the highest in the district. Central office ran those numbers last year, before the decision to close MM, and again this fall, and their belief is that the amount received won't change (since of course the % of kids on free/reduced lunch in our district won't change -- just how they are distributed in our schools). I think that info will be presented tonight.

Rick said...

Thanks again for all the info.

Above you said “Equity is not a new idea ..”. That is surely true with people who are “in the know” but I would say the average person out there does not understand anything about how important income equity might be to quality education.

So my point was that “income-equity-is-important-and-here-is-why” may want to be presented really well, perhaps citing studies or whatever, because that is the whole premise for redistricting, and if people don’t buy the premise, they will have a harder time buying an implementation solution that probably not everyone will be happy with.

Rick said...

I should probably add that when I said “does not understand anything” I mean that they certainly understand that poor communities generally may have worse schools than rich communities. But I am not sure it’s automatically obvious that within our relatively rich community, that a lower income school has to do worse than a higher income school. That is not super obvious to me, and it’s definitely not obvious as to what the magic number is for how wide the difference there can be between schools.

The SC all seem to agree that income equity is important, so I guess I believe it, but I’m just saying some people might be wondering the same things I am as so explaining this really well is key.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Rick (both times!) - I agree this is important, and this is a piece that kind of got ignored last spring when the focus was on closing MM, not the redistricting the following year. I have asked the district staff/chair of SC to give a brief overview of why this matters and why this is important. If this isn't addressed directly tonight, someone should definitely ask this question because it is certainly something we should talk about. It is clear that this issue of equity is something many communities grapple with -- and it is a way of redistricting that is legal, unlike redistricting based on race or ethnicity.