First, here is the most recent map for those who didn't come last night. It is about the same as the one presented last week, except the MM kids are now all together (the E. Leverett Road kids moved to WW) and the island is all going to FR (is not split between FR and WW anymore).
For those who have been attending the forums (or watching them on TV), or reading the paper, you know that the School Committee is facing serious criticism. So, I just want to respond specifically to the different types of criticism that we've heard as a way of showing that we really, really are listening! Here is what I've heard, and my response (again, this is my response, not the official district or School Committee response):
1. You didn't ask the community for input on the equity goal (e.g., why are we redistricting based on income?).
I have three thoughts on this front. First, I feel that there were indeed options last spring for people to discuss whether equity was a reasonable goal -- that was SPECIFICALLY part of the motion I made to close Marks Meadow. Many people came to the forums and asked questions, and literally not a single question was about "why is this equity thing a goal?" We showed two maps last spring, and both of these maps had islands (different types of islands, but islands nonetheless) in the area off of East Hadley Road as potential redistricting plans. We also included the % of kids on free/reduced lunch in each of these plans, because again, we cared about this as an issue. This was presented in March, April, and May ... and no one said "I really think it is better to have a school in which we cluster the poor kids." So, maybe people were just distracted by the Marks Meadow issue, but it does strike me as potentially a way now for people to complain BECAUSE it impacts where their kid is going ... because we sure didn't hear concerns about that at all over the last few months. However, and in fairness, some people who are sad about their child moving have specifically even stated (in emails to us, at public forums) that they still do believe equity is a good goal (so this is NOT everyone).
Second, we have strong and clear evidence (e.g., MCAS scores) that Crocker Farm is not experiencing the success it should. This is occurring although CF has smaller class sizes than other schools, and more intervention support than other schools. Although throwing more money at CF is the "easy way out" (let's just give this school more resources and still keep the poor kids all together), we've tried that and it is NOT working (hence CF is now considered a Commonwealth Priority School). To me, I think it is (past) time for us to try another approach.
Third, let's say that we as a community all came together and said we'd really rather cluster the poor kids at one school. I can certainly imagine many families in Amherst saying that in an ideal world, their kids' school would have fewer poor kids ... and that they'd be more comfortable in a school that was predominantly (entirely?) composed of middle/high income kids. We could totally do this -- in a sense, we already have (e.g., lots of the poor kids in town are clustered at one school already). So, we could take the low income kids and largely have them at Crocker Farm (that should would be 50-55% low income, and FR and WW would be 25% or so low income). Does that feel right and good to do in this town, even if MOST people privately supported that as a decision? If it does feel like the right way to go, email the SC (firstname.lastname@example.org) right now and let us know that you are in favor of that sort of division, and I guarantee you that we will discuss this. This just doesn't feel right to me at all -- maybe this is just me, but I certainly believe there is a feeling on the SC right now (and has been a feeling on prior SCs, and is a feeling in the district leadership staff, and is a feeling at least among SOME parents and community members) that we just can't say we are a district focused on social justice while we continue to maintain a "low income school".
I think the key thing is people do not like redistricting, because it involves moving kids to different schools, and change is hard. That is why we as a community haven't redistricted in 30 or 40 years -- it is a no win proposition for the School Committee, because you are DEFINITELY going to make some people unhappy. But we are closing a school (more on that later) and thus we have two choices: redistrict based on equity (create three schools with roughly even % of kids on FRL) or redistrict based on pure geography (and create 2 wealthy schools and one poor school). That's it -- and I think the first choice is BETTER for ALL kids than the second.
2. You closed Marks Meadow and that was a stupid decision.
I certainly know there are people who feel this way--and I imagine will always feel this way. I continue to believe it was the right decision for many reasons. We have under 1300 kids in our district K to 6, and those kids can absolutely fit in three schools (with very reasonable class sizes and plenty of classrooms). This is a more cost-effective way to run our schools, which then lets us spend our limited education dollars in the best way possible (e.g., on intervention support, on music/arts, etc.). As I wrote probably 100 times last year, if we kept MM open, we would have lost a lot of other things ... and I think all the children would have experienced a reduced quality of education. This decision is done, and it really isn't going to be undone, or delayed by a year (so we can spend the next 18 months debating drawing lines and equity while cutting other programs/taking money out of reserves to pay for it and while NOT having the superintendent and SC and central office focus on things that really matter in terms of education -- like teaching, curriculum, instruction, etc.). This isn't going to get easier or simpler over time -- it is just going to impact different kids in different ways.
3. You are stopping the language/cultural clusters (e.g., Cambodian program at Fort River, Spanish program at Crocker Farm).
The decision to end these programs is highly controversial because some teachers/staff families felt these are very important programs. However, this is (a) NOT a School Committee decision, and (b) a decision that would be made REGARDLESS of whether redistricting occurred. The administration, in consultation with our lawyer and after a careful reading of state and federal regulations, has determined that it is not possible to continue these programs (nor are these programs occurring in other districts in Massachusetts). I know this is hard for some teachers/staff/families, but this actually has nothing to do with redistricting nor is the SC able to create a policy that violates state/federal law. Given this decision, I would hope teachers/staff/parents can now turn to discussing what we COULD do legally to support these kids/families in various ways.
4. You should adopt a Spanish immersion program at Crocker Farm.
This is a very creative idea ... but one that is messy for MANY reasons. First, you can't legally require someone to go to a Spanish-English immersion program -- you can legally create it as a CHOICE, but you can't require it. So, in order to do this, we'd have to divide the district into entirely into two districts (e.g., North/South) -- meaning we would be putting 640 kids in each of the other two schools as their "base school". Second, you'd have to make sure you attract at least 300 kids who would WANT to go an immersion school ... and those kids would have to be equally distributed (at least roughly) across grades. It isn't clear at all whether the demand in Amherst would be high enough to say that close to 1/3 of our population would CHOOSE this as an option, and if only 100 or 200 chose that option, the other schools would be DRAMATICALLY over-crowded. Third, you'd increase costs dramatically -- for example, you'd have to provide busing for all kids, so since kids across town could choose the immersion option, you'd be running two buses into ALL parts of town. You'd also have to hire teachers at all grade levels who are bilingual ... and yet teachers who have professional status in our district are still assured jobs in our district, so it would increase our budget potentially dramatically. Fourth, and finally, you really are providing a very different experience for kids in different schools, and I think that works against what should be the goal of the district to provide an enriching, challenging, and equitable education for all kids. I'd much prefer to see a plan that has kids in neighborhood schools yet with all schools having some world language exposure K to 6.
5. You are stranding groups of kids (East Leverett kids who now go to MM and should go to WW, Southeast Street kids who now go to FR and should stay there instead of going to CF, Blue Hills/Dana/Lincoln kids who now go to WW and should stay there instead of going to CF).
This is the major challenge of redistricting ... how to move kids to different schools in as fair a way as possible. So, we "solved" the E. Leverett Road issue by moving those kids all to WW (taking care of one of the three groups) and by moving kids in the Boulders to FR (making the island all going to one school instead of two, so at least kids in apartments are traveling togther). Now, that decision has created other issues -- specifically, Fort River is now at 40% low income kids, which is a higher percent than the old map (when it was 36%), and Wildwood is only 30% low income kids, so we now have a 9% divide in terms of equity (in the only map, the range was 3%, with FR at 36%, WW at 35%, and CF at 33%). In addition, it means we are really treating the MM kids differently (e.g., they are now ALL going to the same school) than we are treating other "stranded" clusters (e.g., those leaving FR and WW). That is a tough call, and I'm still not sure which way is "right." The other two clusters, however, are MUCH harder to solve because each of those clusters wants to get out of CF, and there are two issues: first, FR and WW are both at capacity right now (meaning to get those kids who are stranded into those schools means you have to get other kids out of those schools -- and it isn't obvious how you do that in a good way), and second, both of those areas in town consist largely of non-FRL kids, so moving those kids out of CF to the other schools means that CF increases in the % of kids on FRL and the other two schools decrease.
Here's an example: the island that is now going to Fort River (Mill Valley, Hollister, Bounders) could ALL go to CF (it is about 70 kids). Then you get rid of the island, which is good. Then you have to move 70 kids out of CF to the other schools. So, you move the Amity/Route 9 corridor (about 30 kids) to WW, but then need to move 30 kids out of WW (so you move the MM kids who now live off of East Leverett Road BACK to Fort River). You also then move the Southeast Street kids back to FR from CF. That then solves 3 problems -- you get rid of the islands (they ALL go to CF), you make the Amity/Route 9 people happy (they go back to WW), and you make the Southeast Street people happy (they go back to FR). HOWEVER, in this plan you (a) continue to divide MM into two schools (the East Leverett Road kids stay at FR) and (b) have a poor school and two wealthy schools (CF is probably over 50% and the other two schools are at 25% or so). Does that feel better? I'm not sure -- probably is better individually for many kids (except the MM kids), but probably is worse (in my opinion) for the overall greater good, which I continue to believe is to have three equitable schools. But that is precisely the type of struggle that we are in. Thoughts are welcome on solutions -- but they can't be just "move my kids back" -- they have to be accompanied by "who do we move out to do that!"
6. Your plan is especially mean to the 5th graders, who will have to go to four schools in five years.
I have two thoughts on this tough issue. First, this is true for ALL of the MM 5th graders, and there is nothing we can do about it. So, this is what happens when you close a school, and is it fair to allow non-MM 5th graders to return to "their" schools when MM kids can't? Second, if we allow all (except MM) 5th graders to return to "their" school, we really have to provide transportation (or else it is just an option for wealthier kids or those with parents who have flexible schedules). That is a real cost to the district to run extra buses/vans just to pick up those kids, and it also introduces for families the issue of having kids at different schools (e.g., we are NOT going to grandfather 5th graders and their 2nd grade siblings). So, is this do-able? Perhaps, but at what cost? I think that is the key question (to me, messing with the equity for one year just isn't a big deal, since this is a small number of kids overall and wouldn't have a major impact).
7. Your plan is mean/discriminatory to kids who live in the apartments off of East Hadley Road.
Three more thoughts here! First, there are kids from ALL over town moving to new schools. Some of the kids are low income, and some are not. We are 100% not just moving low income kids to new schools: all of the MM are moving to new schools, a group of FR kids are moving to new schools (mostly those on Southeast Street, but also in some other areas around Cushman Village and the end of East Pleasant), and a group of WW kids are moving to new schools (those between Amity/Route 9 on Lincoln/Blue Hills, those in the houses off of East Hadley Road). Second, kids in the apartments off of East Hadley Road are ALREADY going to different schools: some go to CF, some go to WW, some go to FR. There have been NO complaints about this from anyone since I've been on SC. Third, I think it is mean/discriminatory to low income kids for us to say, as a community, that we are comfortable having a "low income" school. I think the research is quite clear that this is not helpful to achievement in kids, and I think as a community, we shouldn't be comfortable clustering kids that way.
Those again are all my thoughts on the redistricting process. It isn't easy for anyone, including the five of us on SC who are going to have to vote for/against something, knowing we are going to make some people unhappy. I've talked to SC members in other districts that have done a redistricting, and it is NEVER easy (that is why in many communities in which a school closes, they just distribute those kids to the other schools in town, instead of redistricting the whole town ... which sure sounds easier to me than what we are doing). I am continuing to read and respond to all emails I get on this topic, and we continue to get a lot of email from parents -- again, you can reach the entire SC by sending an email to: email@example.com. Let me just say one thing -- if you LIKE the plan, you could also let us know that! Most people who come to public forums or write letters to the SC (or the paper) are unhappy with some aspect, and thus are complaining in hopes we will change it. But I believe there are actually many people in town who think this plan is a good one, and like it, but just aren't bothering to let us know. We would be glad to have those emails as well (and we are getting some, but I don't think we are getting anywhere near a sense of the feeling from most).
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.