October 8, 2009
A third of Amherst children now in kindergarten through fifth grade will attend a different school next year. Parents and guardians have a lot of questions about this redistricting - and tonight they'll get a chance to speak at a forum at Mark's Meadow School at 7 p.m.
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.
We hope speakers tonight don't waste time going over this decision.
The other, more interesting 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.
We applaud the committee for making this tough decision. 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 will listen carefully to parents' concerns about redistricting tonight. 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.
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.