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

Parents urge delay on district changes

Hampshire Gazette

AMHERST - A crowd of more than 130 offered criticisms of the School Committee's plan for redistricting elementary schools at a public forum on Wednesday.

Many people stood in the auditorium at Crocker Farm School, as seats were hard to find in the packed room. Parents and teachers lined up for their chance to comment on the plan to redraw the school boundaries to improve economic equality at the three remaining Amherst elementary schools.

The forum was the second of two, the first being held at Mark's Meadow School on Oct. 8. The School Committee will vote on the plan Oct. 27.

Renata Shepard, a parent of two at Crocker Farm, disagreed that sending students from an area on East Hadley Road, where she lives, to a new school, would bring about equality. "I've always heard that fairness is not everyone being equal, but everyone having what they need," Shepard said. "If you're moving these kids from a little area because them getting reduced lunch means they have a less rich environment, why not create that rich environment here with neighborhood schools?"

Jose Gerena of Mill Valley Estates on East Hadley Road said his children should not have to attend Fort River, instead of Crocker Farm, which they have been attending, simply because they live in a certain area of town. "My kids are getting pulled out of where their friends are and where they've been going to school for six years," Gerena said. "My kids are not on the free or reduced lunch program. I want to know why they have to be sacrificed for the school."

Luis Valdiviezo of North Pleasant Street said a student's economic means is not the only indicator of his or her performance in school. "Research shows that kids coming from low-income families is the factor that decides academic success, but we have to consider the quality of teaching and of the families," Valdiviezo said.

Jim Oldham, the parent of a Wildwood student, requested that the committee hold off on making a decision until all alternatives have been investigated. "The process failed to allow parents or others to influence the plan. There has been no attempt to weigh it in public against other equally valid goals for our schools or discuss what we are willing to sacrifice in pursuit of that goal," Oldham said.

Lucia Spiro, an English language education teacher at Crocker Farm, said the program the school has developed to educate bilingual students is too valuable to be broken up by the redistricting. "Crocker Farm has worked hard to develop bilingual education," Spiro said. "The support we offer could not be duplicated in each of the district buildings."

Mitch Pine of Valley View Circle is a parent of a Fort River student who would have to attend Crocker Farm according to the School Committee's map. "I know the town only has to provide education and not friendships, but I think we all instinctively know that friends and relationships affect the quality of education," Pine said.

Maya Rege-Colt of Valley View Road said the committee should be sensitive to the amount of damage the transition could cause students, especially fifth-graders like her daughter, who will have to relocate twice in two years.

"Children are resilient, but this is a big change," Rege-Colt said. "It will be stressful and unsettling for the most adjusted fifth-grader. Students who have learning disabilities, chaotic home lives or histories of trauma or loss will suffer emotionally, socially and academically."

Rege-Colt begged the School Committee to postpone the redistricting. "Please, please, please consider slowing this process down so that this one year of students doesn't have to bear all the brunt," Rege-Colt said.


Caren Rotello said...

Would it be possible to post the latest version of the map?

Anonymous said...

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

It really is time to put Mr. Oldham in a position of authority and see how he does. He's been on the outside too long.

Why should he miss out on the fun of making a decision and then having his motives and integrity questioned?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Caren - just posted the map on my new blog posting! Busy day or I would have done it earlier!

Anonymous 2:30 - I think Jim Oldham would question anything the SC did, in all honesty. After getting so much criticism for trying to create equitable schools, I have imagined what Jim (and others) would say if I stood up and said, "My kids go to Fort River, and I would really prefer to have Fort River have as few low income kids as possible. Could we cluster all of the low income kids at Crocker Farm, so they can be together and not go to school with my kids?" I would be very surprised if this plan was not seen as ... elitist, discriminatory, and inappropriate. Again, damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Tom G said...

In the crowd of 130, how many spoke to ask questions or make a statements and of those who spoke, how many thought the new plan should be abandoned, reevaluated or delayed? How many supported the plan?

People who live in an "an area on East Hadley Road" live in Amherst. They are entitled by law to public school education but they are not entitled to the public school of their choice.

What are the characteristics of the CF bilingual education plan and why, if it is successful, could it not be offered in the other schools? I don't know state law relating to bilingual ed but if I recall correctly, the idea is that the schools must provide it for one year of bilingual but not longer? Is that the case?

jim said...

Quoting Richard Hood

> The answer is that this statement made in that report:
> "As our leadership team has looked deeper into ways of funding the current
> elementary configuration, we have become convinced that making careful cuts,
> increasing revenue by considering school choice, and possibly instituting
> user fees within the current Amherst elementary school structure will be far
> preferable to the disruption that would result from reorganizing or closing
> a school at this time."
> .is just wrong. The "making careful cuts, increasing revenue by considering
> school choice, and possibly instituting user fees" gets you nowhere near to
> the $700,000 of closing MM.


Your assertion repeats claims that were made by School Committee members at the
time but it has never been proven. The two sources of savings identified from
closing Marks Meadow are:

A) Reduction of some administrative and other non-teaching staff due to
elimination of one school (I believe positions included Principal, secretary,
counselor, and nurse but that may not be exactly correct), and

B) Reduction in teaching staff do to better efficiencies in student distribution
among classes at three larger schools.

There were, however, similar savings possible in the existing four school model:

A) Savings in administrative and non-teaching staff could have been acheived
beginning with the elimination of three assistant principal positions and then
doing more sharing of staff between schools.

B) Limited and thoughtful use of mixed grade classrooms could have provided the
more balanced class sizes needed to reduce total teaching staff in much the
same way that it is hoped redistricting will do.

Both of these ideas were proposed, and had support from some current and former
school employees, yet they were rejected, without study, by the School

Jim Oldham

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Tom G - I would say about 25 spoke ... and I would say virtually all of the comments opposed the plan in some way (e.g., roughly 1/3 spoke in favor of keeping language clusters, 1/3 spoke in favor of not moving low income kids to different schools, and 1/3 spoke about a particular issue facing their child -- such as would we grandfather 5th graders or would we have different rules for kids on IEPs). Only one (Jim Oldham) suggested reconsidering the vote to close MM and delay the plan by a whole year.

The characteristics of the CF bilingual plan are that ALL kids in the school would be taught 50% in English and 50% in Spanish. It would NOT be feasible to offer at all of the schools for multiple reasons (including a lack of having 50% of our staff bilingual in Spanish!). The plan was NOT just to provide some exposure to Spanish (such as they are doing now with Chinese at Wildwood), which I think would be good.

The state law must provide ELL services until a state of proficiency is reached ... but that doesn't mean instruction in one's native language, and it doesn't recommend clustering kids by language spoken in a given school.

Jim - let me remind you of the problem with both of the two ideas you identified as cost savings equivalent to $700,000.

First, you suggest the elimination of three assistant principal positions and then doing more sharing of staff between schools. That idea was discussed, and rejected, by the SC for two reasons: it seemed ludicrous to imagine that one principal would be in charge of 180 kids and another in charge of 425 kids (and the resulting responsibility of overseeing a much larger staff, such as 23 teachers compred to 9), so this would create great inequity in terms of the experience for kids and staff at the large schools versus the small schools, and second, even if all the assistant principal positions were eliminated, this would have saved $200,000 (still $500,000 short of what it saves closing MM).

Second, you suggest "limited and thoughtful use of mixed grade classrooms could have provided the
more balanced class sizes needed to reduce total teaching staff in much the same way that it is hoped redistricting will do." There are also two problems with this idea, both of which were discussed by the SC: mixed-grade classrooms had been in use at MM for some time, and were routinely considered problematic (as ample SC minutes over the years document much before my arrival on the committee) -- neither the principal nor the teachers nor the parents at MM liked the mixed-grade classrooms, which, ironically, led to the purchase of two modulars for MM at the cost of $380,000. In addition, to save $500,000 (the remaining dollar figure you need to cut after you cut all assistant principals), you would have had to cut 10 teachers ... that would mean massive increases in class sizes (whereas closing MM led to a reduction in 3 or 4 teachers).

Finally, you note "Both of these ideas were proposed, and had support from some current and former school employees ..." However, we heard from precisely two groups of school employees who supported this plan -- current and former teachers and principals at MARKS MEADOW! I don't believe we received a single letter, email, or call from any teacher, staff member, or principal at any of the other schools (current or former) who thought the best way to save $700,000 was to cut all the assistant principal positions and fire 10 teachers so that the other teachers could teach mixed-grade classes. If there are teachers and principals in our district now who do NOT work at Marks Meadow and would like to express support for this idea now, please contact the SC ASAP at:

If you have found another way to save $700,000 so that we can keep MM open (and still redistrict), please put it on my blog and I will make sure the SC gives it every consideration.

Meg Rosa said...

A quick question about the languages. I am just no remembering this right now, but is there still Chinese at WW? Has there been a survey on that program to find out what parents think of it? If it is still there, will it be continuing next year?

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to understand.

So, question: If extra space exists in some of the MM classrooms in addition to two empty portable classrooms...couldn't some students from other groups/areas of town be bussed there? Then other adjustments made as far as elimination of assistant principles, shared resources, etc? It just seems there has to be a better solution to be found than that of rearranging everything in town all at once for every school.

Abbie said...

Hi Meg,

according to my 3rd grader there has been no Chinese at WW this year (somewhat to her relief). There has been no explanation to my knowledge. All the talk last year suggested that it was going to be offered this year. I believe there was an job position advertised. Maybe no one qualified applied?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Meg - my understanding is that Chinese is continuing at WW for this year and then it will end. The SC does not intend in the future to have something for only one school, relatedly!

Anonymous 9:58 - the issue that is leading to redistricting is NOT a lack of space at the other schools. The issue is we can't afford to pay teachers to teach in those empty spaces, and that operating three schools is cheaper (by about $700,000 a year than operating four schools. There is not, in fact a better way to save $700,000 (and shared resources and cutting all assistant principals would not get you close to saving that amount AND would have a negative impact on education for all kids -- larger class sizes, no art/music, etc.). One more thing -- redistricting was going to happen regardless of closing MM given the massive inequities in our schools in terms of kids on FRL. The question was just whether we redistrict into three or four schools (and again, three schools is cheaper by far).

Abbie - Hmmm, I'm surprised -- I thought Chinese was continuing, but I guess I was wrong? Do you think it is continuing at some grades?