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.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Math in Other Districts

Given the interest in my recent posting on science courses and sequence in other districts, I've now compiled some similar data on math in other districts.

Comparison Districts Used

I have specifically chosen to focus on the 11 districts chosen by the School Committee this year as our comparison districts. I have also noted whether these districts are part of the MSAN network and whether have been identified as leading high schools by Newsweek and/or US News and World Report). The US News and World Report list specifically only includes schools in which low income, Black, and Hispanic students are performing better than the state average for such students, and thus schools on this list seem to be doing a pretty job of challenging ALL students (not just white and/or wealthy kids).

These districts are: Brookline, MA (MSAN, US News); Chapel Hill, NC (MSAN, Newsweek, US News), Evanston, IL (MSAN, Newsweek, US News); Framingham, MA (MSAN, Newsweek), Montclair, NJ (MSAN, Newsweek), Newton, MA (Newsweek, US News), Northampton, MA;
Oak Park, IL (MSAN, Newsweek); Princeton, NJ (MSAN, Newsweek, US News); Shaker Heights, OH (MSAN, Newsweek); White Plains, NY (Newsweek).

The "how are we doing subcommittee" gathered selected these districts to be somewhat similar to Amherst in terms of our population and aspirations. Four of the districts are largely wealthy (Brookline, Newton, Oak Park, Princeton), three have substantially more low income students than Amherst (Evanston, Shaker Heights, White Plains), and four of these districts are quite similar to Amherst in terms of the percentage of low income students (Chapel Hill, Framingham, Montclair, Northampton).

Questions Asked

I contacted each of the districts (the superintendent, director of curriculum, or math heads, depending on the district) and asked the following questions:

1. At what grade does math grouping occur, and what factors are used to determine grouping?
2. What percent take 8th grade algebra (and of these, what percent take 8th grade algebra and are then ready to move on to geometry in 9th)?
3. Do you offer AP statistics?
4. What percent of students take calculus?

I received responses from most districts (at least on some, if not all of these questions), and these answers are summarized in this report. I have included information about Amherst first in each response to help with making comparisons.

1. At what grade does math grouping occur, and what factors are used to determine grouping?

Amherst begins homogenous grouping at Grade 8 based on whether students choose to do extensions (additional homework as well as in class instruction and assessments), scores on these assignments, test data, and teacher recommendations.

Most schools begin homogenous grouping at Grade 6, which is when middle school begins in most districts (Chapel Hill, Evanston, Montclair, Oak Park, Princeton, White Plains). There were four exceptions to this pattern: Shaker Heights groups students as of 5th grade (they have a separate 5th/6th school), Newton and Northampton group students as of 7th grade, Framingham keeps all students in heterogeneous math classes through 7th grade (with the exception of about 2% of the students who take algebra in 7th grade), and Brookline maintains heterogeneous grouping until 9th grade (however, this district uses a rigorous curriculum in which all students take 8th grade algebra and then move to 9th grade geometry).

In addition, some schools provide opportunities for homogenous math grouping earlier than middle school. For example, Chapel Hill provides both heterogeneous and homogeneous grouping in math in elementary school, depending on the material, as does Shaker Heights.

2. What percent of students take 8th grade algebra (and of these, what percent take 8th grade algebra and are then ready to move on to geometry in 9th)?

In Amherst, roughly 35% of 8th graders take algebra, and most of these take 9th grade geometry. Two to three % of 7th graders take algebra, and then geometry in 8th grade.

These districts vary considerably in terms of the percent of students who take 8th grade algebra and are ready to move on to 9th grade geometry.

In some districts, most or all 8th graders take algebra and move on to geometry in 9th grade (80% in Chapel Hill; 80 to 85% in Princeton; 100% in Brookline).

In other districts, approximately half of 8th graders take algebra and then move on to geometry (50% in Framingham; 55% in Newton).

In still other districts, fewer than half of students take 8th grade algebra and move on to 9th grade geometry (34% in Evanston, 25% in Oak Park, 30% in Shaker Heights, 33% in White Plains).

In several districts, a relatively sizeable proportion of 7th graders take algebra and then as 8th graders take geometry or algebra II (10 to 15% of kids in Evanston; 15 to 20% in Princeton; 13 to 15% in Chapel Hill).

Information on the percentage of students in 8th grade algebra was not available from Montclair and Northampton.

3. Do you offer AP statistics?

Amherst Regional High School does not offer AP Statistics.

All of these comparison districts offer AP statistics. Some students at these schools take both AP Calculus and AP Statistics, and others choose one of these two courses.

4. What percent of students take calculus?

In Amherst, about 90 students (of 300) take a calculus course (30%).

Most schools report that between 30 and 50% of students take calculus (Brookline: 35%-38%; Chapel Hill: 40 to 50%; Evanston: 28%; Framingham: 30 to 40%; Newton: 53 to 55%; White Plains: 20%). However, in all of these other districts, students could take calculus in 12th grade but instead opt for AP Statistics (as repeatedly noted in the responses).

Information on the % of students who take calculus was not available from Princeton, Montclair, Shaker Heights, Northampton, and Oak Park.

This comparison yielded several important findings.

Most school districts (6 of the 11) start math grouping at 6th grade (the start of middle school in most districts). Two districts group at 7th grade, and 1 district groups at 5th grade. Amherst and Framingham are the only school districts that provide no substantial math grouping until 8th grade (with the exception of Brookline, in which all 8th graders take algebra and move on to 9th grade geometry). Amherst does, however, group a very small percentage of students in 7th grade: 2 to 3% of students skip 7th grade math altogether and move into honors algebra.

Grouping is determined, in virtually all schools other than Amherst, by some combination of math grades, teacher recommendations and state/local testing scores (with teachers monitoring the student progress to help in placement especially in moving students up to a more challenging course). Amherst is the only district that also makes placement decisions based on whether students choose to participate in instruction on advanced material and perform additional homework as well as their scores on that homework.

The percentage of 8th graders taking algebra in Amherst compares favorably or at least equally to some of these districts (Evanston, Oak Park, Shaker Heights, White Plains). However, our percentage is lower than that in the over half of these districts (Brookline, Chapel Hill, Framingham, Newton, Princeton).

Amherst is the only district that does not offer AP Statistics.

The percentage of our students who graduate having had calculus compares favorably or at least equally to many of these comparison districts (Evanston, White Plains), although is lower than that in other districts (Brookline, Chapel Hill, Framingham, Newton).

Although one explanation for the overall lower math performance in Amherst (including the percent who take 8th grade algebra, the percent who take calculus in high school, the absence of an AP statistics course) compared to many of these districts is that our district is demographically different (e.g., poorer), the data does not tend to support this explanation.

Chapel Hill and Framingham are very similar to Amherst in terms of the percent of low income students, but both have a higher portion of kids taking 8th grade algebra and both of these districts offer AP Statistics.

Of the districts which are most similar to Amherst in terms of the percentage of students finishing 8th grade algebra (Evanston, Shaker Heights, White Plains), three of these districts have a higher % of low income students than Amherst.

In sum, these findings suggest that a smaller proportion of students in Amherst take 8th grade algebra than students from other districts who serve similar populations. To me, this raises the issue of whether the "extensions" model is a better approach to preparing students to take 8th grade algebra than the grouping approach used by most other districts prior to 8th grade.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Amherst superintendent eyes moving middle school students to high school

Hampshire Gazette
Thursday, November 26, 2009

AMHERST - The cuts needed in next year's school budget are so large that Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez is considering the option of moving students from the Regional Middle School to Amherst Regional High School.

"We're looking to see if that is a model that would save us a substantial amount of dollars," he told a joint meeting of the Amherst and Regional School Committees Tuesday. He said the probe is in its initial stage.

Rodriguez acknowledged that there would be substantial pushback from parents.

But the combination of increased staff costs and decreasing state aid requires cuts that he called "draconian," unless voters agree to raise property taxes beyond state limits next March.

Committee member Debbie Gould, of Pelham, said it's difficult to achieve cuts in the $2 million to $3 million range, while maintaining popular programs, by just trimming here and there. "In these times, we need to leave no stone unturned," she said.

Committee member Irv Rhodes, of Amherst, compared the creation of a school budget to building a house. He said he wants to tell administrators how much money is available but not to micromanage the construction.

Rodriguez continued the metaphor. "Where do you want the window?" Rodriguez said. "We need guidance as we're building the house so there's as little wasted motion as possible."

Member Farshid Hajir, of Leverett, also went with the house-budget comparison.

"I'm afraid we have a Taj Mahal we can no longer heat," he said. "I don't want a log cabin, but I hope to end up with a smaller Taj Mahal that is affordable and sustainable."

He said that if $3 million were cut from the regional budget, it would still be above the state minimum.

Rodriguez, who plans to finish budget preparation in early February, said it's important to define the "core" or "essence" of what the schools do.

"What is it that we stand for?" he said. "What programs are part of this community? Do I really need this program or is it something we can cut and maintain the overall level of services to children?"

Rodriguez said he's looking at the amount of time students spend in special education and the English language learners program, and possible changing the model for instruction.

"Some Ph.D programs are shorter," he said. "We may not be serving kids well, and these programs are costing a lot of money."

Amherst Committee member Steve Rivkin said the town should compare its programs to what other districts are doing. He said the schools should consider returning to a semester system and ending a program enabling students to attend Greenfield Community College.

But Rivkin said that class sizes should be maintained.

"Our main job is to make sure our students are learning core subjects," he said. Members Hajir and Andy Churchill were less optimistic about maintaining current class sizes. "I want the same quality and feeling but on a smaller scale," Hajir said.

Churchill reminded the committee that this year's school staffing is lower than last year's by the equivalent of 55 full-time positions.

Eighth-grade teachers are responsible for 120 students instead of 80, and the central office is having trouble keeping up, he said.

"I don't want to go to mediocrity just because we have to make budget cuts," he said.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Science in Other Districts

Based on the considerable interest my blog has generated over the past few days in the discussion about 9th grade science, I am doing a separate posting that reports on data I have gathered over the last few months. As I've said repeatedly, I believe the curriculum in our schools should look like the curriculum used in other schools--because we are preparing our students to gain admission to and succeed in colleges and universities with students from across the United States. So, I've gathered data from all of the MSAN (Minority Student Achievement Network) districts regarding science education in their schools. In addition, I also gathered information from six local and statewide districts: Northampton, Hadley, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Framingham, and Newton. Specifically, I gathered the following information in all of the 23 MSAN districts plus the 6 local and statewide comparison schools:

• The number (and type) of years of science required for graduation
• The type of science courses required in 9th grade
• The presence of AP Chemistry

I hope this information is helpful as we ponder potential changes to science requirements and course offerings in Amherst.

Graduation Requirements (Number of Years, Types of Courses) in Science

Amherst requires two years of science, requires that the first of these years be a class in ecology and environmental science, and places no requirements on the content of the second required course.

Most MSAN districts require three years of high school science. Districts with this requirement include: Alexandria City (VA), Ann Arbor (MI), Arlington (VA), Bedford (NY), Brookline (MA), Cambridge (MA), Chapel Hill (NC), Cleveland Heights (OH), Columbia (MO), Eugene (OR), Farmingham (MI), Montclair (NJ), Paradise Valley (AZ), Princeton (NJ), South Orange (NJ), Shaker Heights (OH), and Windsor (CT). Similarly, four of the statewide comparison districts require three years of science: Northampton, Hadley, East Longmeadow, and Framingham.

Amherst is thus one of only 6 MSAN districts requiring two years of science. The other MSAN districts with such a low requirement are Champaign (IL), Evanston (IL), Green Bay (WI), Madison (WI), and Oak Park (IL). In addition, only two of the statewide comparison districts requiring only two years of science: Newton and Longmeadow. Thus, Amherst is in the minority of districts that require only two years (21 require 3 years, 8 --including Amherst -- require 2 years).

Most districts require some type of distribution of these courses across types of science. Most typically, districts require courses taken in either two distinct areas (usually biology is one area, physics/chemistry/earth science are in a second area) or 2 of 4 areas (biology, chemistry, physics, earth science). The following districts require some type of distribution across scientific disciplines: Alexandria City (VA), Ann Arbor (MI), Arlington (VA), Bedford (NY), Brookline (MA), Cambridge (MA), Champaign (IL), Columbia (MO), Farmingham (MI), Green Bay (WI), Madison (WI), Shaker Heights (OH), and Windsor (CT). This distribution requirement is also typical in the statewide comparison districts: Hadley (biology, integrated physical sciences), Newton (biology, physical sciences), Longmeadow (biology, chemistry), East Longmeadow (must take biology, and another science – which, given their science options, must be in a physical science), Northampton (must take biology, and another science – which, given their science options, must be in a physical science).

Amherst is thus in the minority of MSAN districts in not requiring any type of distribution across scientific disciplines (13 districts have such distribution requirements, and 10, including Amherst, do not). In addition, Framingham is the only one of the six comparison districts without a science distribution requirement. Thus, 18 of these 28 comparison districts have a distribution requirement, and 11 do not (including Amhers).

9th Grade Science Courses Required/Offered

Amherst Regional High School requires that all 9th graders take classes in ecology and environmental science.

There is a wide range of 9th grade required/offered courses in MSAN and the statewide comparison districts. Most typically, 9th graders choose between a course in biology and a course in a physical science (earth science, or a broader physical science course). This is seen in the following districts: Alexandria City (VA), Ann Arbor (MI), Arlington (VA), Bedford (NY), Champaign (IL), Chapel Hill (NC), Eugene (OR), Montclair (NJ), Oak Park (IL), Princeton (NJ), Windsor (CT), as well as in 2 of the statewide comparison districts (Hadley and Framingham). In all of these cases, 9th graders are able to choose the course that they would like to take and thus are not required to take a particular course (as used to be in the case in Amherst, but is no longer the case).

Several districts require all 9th graders to take biology. These include 4 MSAN districts -- Evanston (IL), Farmingham (MI), Madison (WI), South Orange (NJ) -- plus 3 of the 6 statewide comparison districts (Northampton, East Longmeadow, and Longmeadow).

Several districts require all 9th graders to take physics. These districts include: Brookline (MA), Cambridge (MA), Columbia (MO). Newton also requires all 9th graders to take physics.

One district (Shaker Heights, OH) requires all students to take an integrated physical science course.

So, to summarize, of these 29 districts, 13 allow students to choose between 9th grade science options, and 13 require students to all take a given class (most commonly biology, though in some cases physics and in one case an integrated physical sciences). (I was not able to find data on the 9th grade options in3 of the districts).

Not a single MSAN district, or one of the 6 statewide comparison districts, other than Amherst requires all 9th graders to take classes in ecology and environmental science (nor, in fact, are such courses ever required at any grade level in any of the other MSAN or statewide comparison districts). Given Amherst’s requirement of only two years of science, and that the first one must be in ecology/environmental science and the second one can be any course, it is distinctly possible, and even likely, that some students will graduate from Amherst High now having had only classes in ecology/environmental science and biology (the most typical 10th grade course), and thus having absolutely no exposure to any physical science (earth science, chemistry, or physics). This course taking would be virtually impossible in any of the other MSAN districts.

Presence of AP Chemistry

Amherst Regional High School does not offer AP Chemistry or any second year chemistry course.

The following districts offer AP Chemistry – Alexandria City (VA), Ann Arbor (MI), Arlington (VA), Bedford (NY), Brookline (MA), Cambridge (MA), Champaign (IL), Chapel Hill (NC), Cleveland Heights (OH), Columbia (MO), Eugene (OR), Evanston (IL), Farmingham (MI), Montclair (NJ), Oak Park (IL), Paradise Valley (AZ), Princeton (NJ), South Orange (NJ), Shaker Heights (OH), Windsor (CT), plus five of the six local comparison districts (Northampton, East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, Newton, Framingham). Although Madison (WI) does not offer AP Chemistry, this district offers an Advanced Chemistry course, which is a second-year chemistry course. Similarly, although Hadley does not offer AP chemistry, it does offer an advanced, second year chemistry class. In sum, Amherst is the only one of these 29 comparison districts that does not offer AP chemistry or any chemistry course beyond the intro level (I was not able to find information on the presence of this course in one of the MSAN districts).


In my review of the course offerings and requirements in science at the high school level, Amherst distinguishes itself from virtually all of the other 23 MSAN districts and the 6 statewide comparison districts in the following ways:

• having the lowest number of required science classes
• being one of relatively few districts to place no requirements on the types of science classes completed
• being the only district to require 9th graders to take a non-core science
• being the only district to require students to ever take classes in ecology and environmental science
• being the only district to not offer AP or an advanced chemistry class

One additional note, for what it is worth: I also looked up the Mass Core recommended program of studies. This recommendation is for three years of science (including a class in natural sciences and a class in physical sciences). This report notes: “high school curriculum reflects 41% of the academic resources students bring to higher education” and that “the curriculum measure produces a higher percent earning bachelor’s degrees than either of the other measures.” In addition, and importantly, this report notes: “the impact of a high school curriculum of high academic intensity and quality on degree completion is far more pronounced and positive for African-American and Latino students than any other pre-college indicator of academic resources. The impact for African-American and Latino students is also much greater than it is for white students.” I would hope that, given our district’s commitment to social justice, we have the courage to require all of our high school students to complete what is recommended by Mass Core, which would include three years of science, including a class in natural sciences (such as biology) and a class in physical sciences (such as chemistry or physics). We currently do not follow any of these recommendations.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pledge a thorny issue in Amherst

Hampshire Gazette
Saturday, November 21, 2009

AMHERST - Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez and the School Committee would much rather deal with educational issues than get tangled up in the question of whether teachers have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day.

At Tuesday's committee meeting, Rodriguez said he would send an email message to teachers notifying them that a state law requires them to lead daily recitations of the pledge. But on Friday, after learning that this law is in legal limbo, Rodriguez said he would like to consult the schools' attorney before acting on "this very thorny issue."

"Are we going to get into enforcing a law when we know that the moment it's challenged, we're going to be on the losing side?" Rodriguez said. With budgets tight, it makes more sense to spend the schools' limited resources on children, rather than on attorneys' fees, he said.

"The School Committee needs to make judicious choices about how to spend our dollars," he said.

The issue arose at Tuesday's School Committee meeting when member Catherine Sanderson said some parents have asked her why the district is changing its policies to obey state laws about clustering students by ethnicity while ignoring another state law about reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Massachusetts General Laws read in part: "Each teacher at the commencement of the first class of each day in all grades in all public schools shall lead the class in a group recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance."

But the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion in 1977 that this law is unconstitutional, and a school system cannot require teachers to recite the pledge, said William Newman, a Northampton attorney who heads the western Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rodriguez said Tuesday that compliance with the law in Amherst is "inconsistent."

The superintendent, who arrived in Amherst from Florida in July, said Tuesday that the Pledge of Allegiance should be important to educators because they are giving young children a sense of what is important.

"I'm from the South, where we salute the flag and say, 'Thank you, ma'am' and 'No, sir,'" he said. Rodriguez said he is not accustomed to "some of the stuff that seems to be cultural" in Amherst, citing the tolerance of the annual marijuana festival on the town common.

"I'm all for law and order and making sure we salute the flag," Rodriguez said.

News of the School Committee discussion set off a flurry of comments on Sanderson's blog. While many criticized the pledge as indoctrination, especially its phrase "under God," others said citizens can't choose which laws to obey.

"The pledge is not about what America is, it's about what America should be," wrote Rick Hood, a candidate for School Committee.

The best option is to "let sleeping dogs lie," because the schools have many more pressing issues to deal with, said Andrew Churchill, chairman of the Amherst School Committee. He said he recited the Pledge of Allegiance in school every day when he was young.

"I don't feel I was improved or harmed by it," he said Friday. "But what does it really mean to pledge allegiance to a flag? Personally, I'd rather have us sing 'America the Beautiful' every morning. The bottom line is I don't think this is a big issue, and we have bigger fish to fry."

Sanderson said Thursday that she doesn't have strong feelings about whether or not teachers recite the pledge, and agreed that the School Committee has more important issues to grapple with.

"But to me, not saying the pledge, when it is the law, strikes me as emblematic of a broader concern I have about the schools - that somehow we in Amherst believe that we are so unique that rules and laws and curriculum and policies used in other districts don't apply to us and how we do education," she said.

According to attorney Newman of the ACLU, although the law is on the books, it is unenforceable.

Teachers may lead their classes in recitations of the pledge, but students may remain quiet and can't be ordered out of the room, Newman said.

"No school system can require a teacher to lead the class in the pledge, and no student can be compelled to participate if a teacher should choose to say the pledge," he said.

This issue became a sideshow in the 1988 presidential campaign. Former Gov. Michael Dukakis had vetoed a Massachusetts law that would have required teachers to lead students in the pledge, citing the 1977 Supreme Judicial Court opinion. The Legislature then passed the law over his veto, Newman said.

"The law sits on the books but was declared unconstitutional before it was enacted," he said.

As a presidential candidate, George H.W. Bush used the incident to impugn Dukakis' patriotism, and many voters missed the fact that the law he vetoed had been ruled unconstitutional, Newman said.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to a Florida law that requires all students to stand and recite the pledge unless excused in writing by a parent.

In 1977, the Massachusetts court wrote: "A majority of the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court made answer that as applied to teachers, bill which would require each teacher at the commencement of the first class of each day in all grades in all public schools to lead the class in a group recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag would violate the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution, even if under the proposed bill there would be no criminal penalties against non-complying teachers, since there would still be an element of compulsion on a teacher inherent in the existence of the statutory mandate."

Nick Grabbe can be reached at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Patriotism, race taken up by board

Amherst Bulletin
November 19, 2009

The Regional School Committee dealt this week with the hot-button issues of patriotism and race.

Responding to a question from member Catherine Sanderson, Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez said he will send an email message to faculty and staff advising them to adhere to state law regarding the "Pledge of Allegiance."

After Rodriguez said that compliance is "inconsistent," Sanderson asked if committee members should be concerned. He responded, "It should be important to educators" because of their influence on children.

Teachers must lead a "group recitation" of the "Pledge of Allegiance" at the beginning of each school day, according to the Massachusetts General Laws. "Failure for a period of two consecutive weeks by a teacher to salute the flag and recite the pledge, or to cause the pupils under his charge so to do, shall be punished for every such period by a fine of not more than $5," the law reads.

Sanderson said it sends a "weird message" for schools to ignore the law. If Amherst were "making principled objections and proudly violating the law," she might feel differently, she said.

Rodriguez said he is from the South, "where we salute the flag and say, 'Thank you, ma'am,' and, 'No, sir.' It caught my attention that (reciting the 'Pledge') is not as widespread as I felt it should be."

He said that he is not blaming anyone, adding that he is "not particularly used to some of the stuff that seems to be cultural" in Amherst.

"I'm all for law and order and making sure we salute the flag," he said.

At Tuesday's meeting, the School Committee also addressed the sensitive issue of race, with respect to suspensions and a program mostly for students of color that encourages academic progress.

According to figures presented by Principal Mark Jackson, students from African-American and Latino backgrounds have been suspended more frequently than their percentages of the high school population would seem to indicate. From August 2008 through June 2009, African-American students, who make up 8.75 percent of the school, accounted for 18 percent of the external and 14 percent of the internal suspensions.

Latino students, who comprise 10 percent of the school, received 23 percent of the external and 22 percent of the internal suspensions.

White students, who are 68 percent of the school, received 52 percent of the external and 55 percent of the internal suspensions, according to Jackson's figures.

"This is a white, middle-class environment that is fairly easily alienating for kids of color," Jackson said. But he also said, "This is a very safe and orderly place and the level of compliance with rules is very high."

School Committee member Kathleen Anderson said, "White people aren't intentionally being hostile; they don't know any better."

Welcoming climate

Rodriguez said the school must create a climate where "all students feel welcomed and this is part of their home. This is nobody's fault, and it's all our fault."

Project Challenge, which has existed for more than 10 years, provides support for students to take honors courses and achieve at a higher level. These students are selected on the basis of race, income and family background, and of the 28 current students who have participated, six are white, Jackson said.

The results have been mixed, he said. Some years there is evidence that Project Challenge has helped and others there isn't, but the cost is only about $6,000 to $7,000 a year, he said.

Committee member Steve Rivkin said that with the budget under pressure, "We need to have a lens on everything."

Member Irv Rhodes agreed, saying, "We need to know the reason for existing so our decision on cuts is informed."

Rivkin also suggested that the school district make sure that the racial criteria for the program are in accordance with the law.

Sanderson brought up the issue at a parent's request. Anderson termed the inquiry "a hostile reaction for the privileged class."

"People in the dominant culture expect to have the best for their kids, but when it's extended to those without privileges, they get upset," she said.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Officials see alienation in ARHS suspensions

Hampshire Gazette
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

AMHERST - Students from African-American and Latino backgrounds have been suspended at higher percentages at Amherst Regional High School than their percentages in the school population, Principal Mark Jackson announced Tuesday.

From August 2008 through June 2009, African-American students accounted for 18 percent of the external suspensions and 14 percent of the internal suspensions, while they comprise 8.75 percent of the school population, according to the figures Jackson presented.

Latino students, who comprise 10 percent of the population, accounted for 23 percent of the external and 22 percent of the internal suspensions, according to the figures.

"This is a white, middle-class environment that is fairly easily alienating for kids of color," Jackson told the Regional School Committee Tuesday.

But he also said, "This is a very safe and orderly place and the level of compliance with rules is very high."

White students, who comprise 68 percent of the school population, accounted for 52 percent of the external and 55 percent of the internal suspensions, according to the figures.

School Committee member Steve Rivkin asked how many students who were suspended were new arrivals, and perhaps find a new environment alienating. He asked what the ultimate consequence of suspensions is, such as how many drop out.

"White people aren't intentionally being hostile; they don't know any better," said School Committee member Kathleen Anderson. She asked Jackson how the culture of the high school can be transformed to increase awareness.

Jackson said he's found it difficult to engage in the topic of race, but agreed that some students of color can find the high school "inhospitable."

Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez said the school needs to create a climate where "all students feel welcomed and this is part of their home. This is nobody's fault and it's all of our fault."

He said that children often lash out with violence or other unacceptable behavior because their learning environment is deficient.

During the debate over elementary redistricting, Rodriguez said he saw a lot of anxiety among parents and advocates of students of color who felt that keeping ethnic clusters together would make them feel more comfortable.

"We need to look at structural inequities that lead a certain child one way and another child another way," he said.

Nick Grabbe can be reached at

Monday, November 16, 2009

Amherst eyes fewer bus stops

Many L.A. students not moving out of English language classes

Note from Catherine: Given the interest in the topic of ELL in Amherst on my blog, I'm posting this story. Thanks to Abbie for alerting my blog readers to this story, which also was heard on NPR.

Los Angeles Times
By Anna Gorman
October 29, 2009

Almost 30% of those placed early on in such programs in L.A. Unified were still in them when they started high school, study says. The sooner students moved on, the more they excelled.

Nearly 30% of Los Angeles Unified School District students placed in English language learning classes in early primary grades were still in the program when they started high school, increasing their chances of dropping out, according to a new study released Wednesday.

More than half of those students were born in the United States and three-quarters had been in the school district since first grade, according to the report by the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at USC.

The findings raise questions about the teaching in the district's English language classes, whether students are staying in the program too long and what more educators should do for students who start school unable to speak English fluently.

"If you start LAUSD at kindergarten and are still in ELL classes at ninth grade, that's too long," said Wendy Chavira, assistant director of the policy institute. "There is something wrong with the curriculum if there are still a very large number of students being stuck in the system."

Researchers tracked the data on 28,700 students from the time they started sixth grade in 1999 until graduation in 2005. They found that students who were moved to mainstream classes by the time they were in eighth grade were more likely than students who remained in English language classes to stay in school, take advanced placement courses in high school and pass the high school exit exam.

Mary Campbell, who is in charge of English language learning programs at L.A. Unified, said students must learn English as well as the grade-level material to move into mainstream classes. That often takes longer than learning the language, she said.

"We are aggressively looking at supporting these longtime English learners to ensure that they get the support needed to reclassify in a timely manner," she said.

The vast majority of the students in the segregated language classes are not recent immigrants but rather U.S.-born youths, according to the study. Nearly 70% of all students ever placed in the English language learning program were born in the United States.

Previous studies have shown that English language learners generally score lower on standardized tests than their English-only classmates. Other studies have shown that students in English language classes are usually placed with less experienced teachers, focus on language skills rather than content and are segregated from students who speak English.

"The United States has never learned what is the best way to teach English to English learners," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute. "That's really a shortcoming."

The sooner students switch to regular classes the better, the new study showed. Students who moved out of English classes by third grade scored up to 40 points higher on standardized tests than those who stayed in the classes. If the students moved by fifth grade, they scored about 10 points higher than their peers.

And in some cases, students who were in English learning programs and then moved out performed better than students in English-only classes.

All students who speak a second language at home must take a test to see whether they should be placed into classes for English learners. Once they are enrolled, they must take another test to get out. But Pachon said the process to get in is easier than it is to get out.

Though the study didn't determine why students were staying in English language programs for so long, researchers say schools may avoid moving English learners into mainstream classes to keep test scores high.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Amherst schools brace for budget crunch

Hampshire Gazette
Friday, November 13, 2009

AMHERST - Students in grades 7 through 12 could see much higher athletics fees and the elimination of classes with enrollments under 15 next year, because of the need for massive budget cuts.

World languages, arts and music, libraries, counseling, elective courses and administrative positions could all be on the chopping block, according to School Committee members. An increase in average class size is an option.

On Tuesday, the Regional School Committee will start the process of setting its spending priorities in anticipation of another painful budget season. The Amherst School Committee will start its discussion of next year's elementary budget at its Nov. 24 meeting.

If regional school staffing and programs are kept the same as this year, there will be a shortfall of between $2.2 million and $3.3 million, said Rob Detweiler, the schools' finance director. These figures assume a 10 percent decline in state aid, a 20 percent cut in regional transportation reimbursement, and no override of Proposition 2½, he said.

"You better believe everyone in management is thinking (about) what we can do without," Detweiler said. "Everything will be looked at because we have to."

The current year's budget for the Amherst and regional schools has the equivalent of 55 fewer full-time positions than last year. In considering next year's spending plan, the schools must consider cuts that "go beyond trimming here and there," said committee member Debbie Gould, of Pelham.

The committee is accepting comments from residents about what the funding priorities should be. It is also seeking about seven citizen volunteers for a budget advisory committee, which will meet until mid-January.

"We don't want to be caught thinking about this too late," said Andy Churchill, Amherst School Committee chairman.

The options for trimming expenses are limited because 80 percent of the budgets go to personnel, and these costs are subject to union contracts.

School Committee member Catherine Sanderson said she does not favor asking the teachers union to consider renegotiating its contract, though she described it as "not sustainable." The union is in the second year of a three-year contract that will provide 3 percent cost-of-living raises next year, and about half the teachers will also receive 4 percent "step" increases.

Sanderson favored scrutiny of the $5 million regional special education budget, reconsideration of the trimester system, and a hard look at "expensive electives," intervention support and reading instruction.

"We're in a kind of crisis," she said. "Nothing should be off the table."

The athletics option that's being discussed would make the program self-supporting by increasing fees and creating booster clubs. Fees have already gone up, and if they are raised again, some families won't be able to afford them, Gould said. "We don't want it to be just for the rich," she said.

Gould also expressed concern that more staffing and program cuts could spur more parents to send their children to charter schools, private schools or schools in other towns, thus causing a decline in state aid.

Health insurance for employees, which has been a budget-buster in the past, is increasing at only 6 percent, but the recession is causing more people to sign up for benefits, perhaps because their spouses have lost jobs, Detweiler said.

In addition to operating expenses, the regional schools have a long list of building and grounds maintenance projects, estimated to cost $3.8 million over the next five years. An expense of $92,000 for repointing leaking capstones and caulking windows and doors at the middle school is listed as a "very high" priority for next year.

The Select Board expects to schedule a vote to override Proposition 2½, the state law limiting property tax hikes, on March 23, the same day as the town election. Approval of a $4 million override, the current estimate of the townwide shortfall, would increase the average Amherst tax bill by 11 percent, from $5,611 to $6,228, according to the Finance Committee.

The committee has asked school officials to prepare three budgets by Jan. 18. The first is a "level services" budget, which Detweiler said would increase by about 7 percent. The second is a "level funding" plan with the budget frozen at the current year's level, and the third would cut funding by 3 percent.

The regional school budget must be approved by three out of the four towns - Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury - so their different needs must be considered. On Dec. 12, representatives of the four towns will confer at 9 a.m. in the middle school library.

"We have to confront this head-on," said School Committee member Irv Rhodes. "We can't hide from it for long."

Nick Grabbe can be reached at

Clusters are not illegal; respectfully revisit redistricting

Amherst Bulletin
Published on November 13, 2009

Amherst was once a school system many communities with diverse populations envied. In the last couple of years, though, much has been abandoned. Especially with the changes being made in the name of redistricting, the heart and soul of our schools is shifting with regard to how we will go about educating some of our most vulnerable learners. And while reasonable people can differ on ideas, I fear these decisions have not been as transparent or informed as they should be and that the students and families most affected by these changes deserve.

One example concerns the end of our longstanding language and culture cluster programs. The School Committee and central administration have stated flatly on multiple occasions that they are illegal. Many of us tried to tell them that they are not illegal if done as English language learner programs.

We were not listened to. I thought, I'm not a lawyer, maybe I'm wrong. But I recently got a hold of a copy of the legal opinion from the firm of Murphy, Hesse, Toomey and Lehane that was sent to administration in response to their queries about the legality of our cluster programs. I quote directly from the opinion: "If the district believes that grouping its students based on their language of origin is the fastest, most effective way of teaching English, such a policy would be permissible but not preferable under (state law)."

An email from School Committee member Catherine Sanderson to me confirms that this is well understood by the committee (and thus by implication, the administration as well). Well, all our cluster programs - the Cambodian cluster, Latino cluster and Chinese cluster - are English language education programs. Thus, they are quite legal after all. One is left to draw one's own conclusion about the School Committee's and administration's unequivocal pronouncements about illegality.

Later in the opinion, the lawyer responded to a specific question about "the grouping of students by ethnic group who are fluent in English, and therefore not ELL students." We have no programs like that, so why that question? How could all this misinformation have gone unnoticed for so long, and repeated so often in public, accompanied by such a negative, accusatory tone? What is going on?

This whole process has been shocking, and tainted. I feel particularly bad for the parents who came out to plead for those programs at the public forums, only to be falsely told they were illegal. Given the clear legality of our language/culture cluster ELL programs, and now that the School Committee and administration know, I respectfully ask that they revisit their decision to end them.

But maybe the School Committee and administration do not believe that clustering is, in the words of the legal opinion, the "fastest, most effective way of teaching English."

There certainly can be ideological disagreements and that's fair - just be honest and say so. At least then, supporters have a chance to show MCAS, graduate rate and other data from our ELL programs' excellent 20-plus year track record that makes their case in support of the families that may not be able to advocate for themselves. The schools belong to our whole town, and we all deserve transparency and honesty about whatever agenda is driving decisions about them - certainly not least, the communities most affected.

As someone who served for 20 years in this district, often with populations of very struggling learners who were able to surmount many obstacles because of the support provided to them, I am sad about a lot of what is going on now.

I also wonder why teacher voices are increasingly unheeded in this district, especially in these times when their perspective is so badly needed.

That is one of the saddest things of all.

Ken Pransky has been teaching in the ESL field for more than 30 years, 20 of those as a teacher at Fort River school. For the last couple of years he has been on leave, doing teacher consulting and training in districts across the state, specializing in ESL and student underachievement issues.

A note from Catherine: Since Ken specifically refers to me as stating that the clusters are legal, I want to clarify exactly what I said, and where I disagree with his statements in this piece. First, all of our cluster programs are not in fact ELL programs. We have students who speak English fluently who are being clustered based on their culture in a given school (and receiving free transportation to those schools -- this is what is in fact illegal). Second, if we were to keep the clusters, children who became proficient at English at some point during the 7 years of elementary school would then need to return to their local school -- they could not remain at the school where they were clustered (meaning these children would then have a major change to a school in which they didn't necessarily have friends/know teachers; it could also easily mean that families could have children in different elementary schools). That doesn't sound ideal to me. Third, the School Committee doesn't in fact control how we provide education to particular groups of kids (e.g., how we provide service to ELL students, how we provide service to kids with autism, etc.) -- that is the role of the school administration, so it is up to them to decide how best to educate ELL kids. However, the state does NOT recommend that kids are clustered by language (precisely because such an approach has not been shown to be the most effective way of teaching kids English), and thus I believe the administration is wise in following state recommendations and ending the clustering program. Nonetheless, this is not a School Committee decision -- as evidenced by the fact that the SC never voted to continue or discontinue the language clusters.

The rest of the Crocker Farm story

Amherst Bulletin
Published on November 13, 2009

In an article published in the Bulletin on Nov. 6, data was presented about Crocker Farm's relative performance on the statewide MCAS exam last year. Is this data the whole story? No, it is not.

A more comprehensive look at the data tells a significantly different story. Instead of looking at the aggregate performance of our elementary schools, which have been well-publicized for having disparate populations of students, it is more useful to look at the subgroups and compare their achievement. When this analysis is done, Crocker Farm's scores are above the district average in some areas (for instance, special education students in math and white students in English/Language Arts, among others) and below the district average in some other areas. This increasingly complex picture may be more challenging to report but that makes it no less relevant when a comparison of how our schools are doing is published. Are we at Crocker Farm content with our results? No, we are not.

That is why we are working hard to improve the achievement of every single student in our school. For instance, we worked with the national literacy organization LitLife last spring to develop a coherent, rigorous and consistent reading curriculum in each grade level in our school, which is being implemented this year. We are addressing the performance of last year's fourth-grade students (referenced in the article last week) by increasing the number of "sections" in math at this grade level, so that every student is taught in a small group (the largest section is 11, with an average group size of less than eight).

Like the other schools in the district, we have started an Achievement Academy, with more than 30 upper-grade students receiving additional support after school three days a week. All students who did not receive a proficient or advanced score on the MCAS exam in mathematics last spring are receiving 90 minutes of daily math instruction, which is significantly more than we have offered in the past. We have a group of teachers meeting monthly to participate in the cutting-edge "Instructional Rounds" process, observing each other to identify and consistently implement the best instructional practices. A Crocker Farm teacher won an "Emerging Teacher-Leaders in Elementary School Mathematics" grant from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and is organizing professional development for our staff to improve expertise in specific mathematics content aligned with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. Six of our teachers will be trained this year in the Renzulli Differentiation System, a tool used to ensure that all students are challenged in the classroom. Yet, are MCAS scores the only thing driving our work with children? No, they are not.

We care about the whole child, as it is our belief that we want our students to have a wide range of experiences consistent with their intellectual and social development. That is why we are expanding last year's pilot program, Wednesday Enrichment Clubs, to include more weeks this year. That is why when budget cuts forced a delay in our students' opportunity to start instrumental music instruction in school, we started a program in the classroom music setting in which our third-grade students learn to play recorders, so they wouldn't have to wait until fourth grade to learn to play an instrument in school.

That is why our staff puts in incredible amounts of time to work with students to create talent shows and other school-wide performances and assemblies where our students shine. Is there another side to the Crocker Farm story? Absolutely.

I am proud of our school and how hard we work every day to improve and enrich the educational experiences of our students.

Michael Morris is the principal of Crocker Farm Elementary School.

Education Matters: Preschool is key to success

Amherst Bulletin
Published on November 13, 2009

National statistics reveal that lower-income children on average have lower standardized test scores, are less likely to graduate from high school, and are less likely to attend college than middle- and higher-income children, and the recently released MCAS results reveal that these differences hold in Amherst as well.

In the Amherst elementary schools, 61 percent of low-income children failed to reach proficiency in English language arts (compared to 20 percent of non-low-income students) and 68 percent failed to reach proficiency in math (compared to 25 percent of non-low income students).

In the middle and high schools, 29 percent of low-income students failed to reach proficiency in English language arts (compared to 7 percent of non-low-income students) and 49 percent failed to reach proficiency in math (compared to 19 percent of non-low-income students).

These results evoke considerable concern and indicate that our current efforts to reduce the class-based achievement gap and improve academic outcomes for lower income children fail to achieve our district's goals despite our strong commitment to social justice.

Although we believe that all aspects of our educational programs merit close scrutiny, one striking difference between Amherst and other districts is the absence of a strong preschool program accessible to lower-income children.

The belief in the importance of preschool prompted the federal government to create the Head Start program, a national program that provides early education for hundreds of thousands of lower-income children, in the 1960s. However, research on the effectiveness of Head Start reveals mixed results, in part because the quality of the program appears to vary substantially from site to site.

In contrast, there is quite strong evidence that highly enriching preschool programs convey valuable short- and long-term benefits.

A recent study in Chicago found that children who attended a publicly funded preschool program made substantial progress in terms of vocabulary development, literacy and mathematics.

The strongest evidence of the important of early education comes from a long-term study of low-income children who attended the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich. Adults who attended Perry Preschool were more likely than those in the randomly assigned comparison group to earn a college degree, have a job, own their own home, own a car, and have a savings account, while they were significantly less likely to have been arrested or become teenage parents.

In Amherst, middle- and upper-income families enjoy a wide range of preschool choices, but these programs tend to be expensive and offer only limited scholarship opportunities. Although our district does run a small preschool program at Crocker Farm, this program is mandated by law to serve children with disabilities and offers very few places for other children. In contrast, many similar communities, including Framingham, Brookline, and Princeton, N.J., have chosen to offer public preschool programs funded through a combination of parent fees, local, state and federal revenues, and private contributions as a core component of their efforts to support lower-income children.

Although providing a highly enriching preschool experience for low-income children would not be cheap, it would provide many of our most vulnerable children with the type of early education enjoyed by many of their higher income peers. In line with this view, the Hamer Report, commissioned by Superintendent Rodriguez in July, identified the absence of preschool opportunities as an important omission in our efforts to support lower income children and families.

We believe the district must seriously consider the desirability of reallocating available state and federal funds and taking advantage of additional funding sources, such as the generosity of a community that is committed to expanding opportunities for disadvantaged children, to provide the type of early education that can foster long-term success for our lower-income children. Not only would such a program help to equalize opportunities, but evidence suggests it would lead to a reduction in expenditures on special education and academic intervention and support. Educationally desirable and fiscally responsible is a tough combination to beat.

Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson are Amherst College professors and members of the Amherst School Committee.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More districts use income, not race, as basis for busing

Note: Several friends have now sent this to me, and it seems very topical in light of our redistricting discussions, so I'm posting it even though it isn't about Amherst specifically.

November 1, 2009
By Jordan Schrader

Struggling to improve schools that have large populations of poor and minority students and under legal pressure to avoid racial busing, a small but growing group of school districts are integrating schools by income.

More than 60 school systems now use socioeconomic status as a factor in school assignments, says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, which studies income inequality. Students in Champaign, Ill.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; and Louisville have returned this year to income-based assignments.

"To the extent we can eliminate the highest concentrations of poverty or spread more thinly those concentrations of poverty, I think we make the environment a little less challenging for students and staff to be successful," says Kalamazoo Public Schools Superintendent Michael Rice.

School leaders, though, can encounter backlash from parents of children whose school assignments take them out of their neighborhoods.

Supporters of economic diversity policies hold up the school system in Wake County, N.C., as a national example, but voters who came out for a recent school board election turned against it.

The district's goal is for none of its 159 schools in Raleigh and its suburbs to have more than 40% of its student body eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

That's a goal a third of schools haven't reached in recent years, but Wake County schools still are more economically integrated than others in the state and nation, Kahlenberg says. Magnet schools pull some suburban children into the city; others' reassignments are mandatory.

But opponents of mandatory busing gained a majority on the Wake County school board in the Oct. 6 election.

Parents such as Joe Ciulla, who works for a technology company and lives in suburban Cary, say long bus rides harm children, and distance keeps parents from involvement at school. Low-income families are hit especially hard, he says.

"They take these poor kids who are struggling and do their very best to spread them around and create the appearance of healthy schools," says Ciulla, whose group, the Wake Schools Community Alliance, helped elect four candidates pushing for neighborhood schools.

Wake County bused students for decades based on race but switched in 2000 to considering income, one of the first in the nation to do so.

If the policy were ended, teacher Paulette Jones Leaven – who as a black child in the 1960s attended segregated schools until sixth grade – says she knows what would happen.

"We would return to segregated schools," says the in-school suspension coordinator at Carroll Middle School.

Jones Leaven notes statistics that show 96% of students go to school less than 10 miles from home as the crow flies.

Studies show low-income students do better in middle-class schools, Kahlenberg says. He says that's borne out in Wake County, where both poor and middle-class students have mostly outperformed their peers in other urban North Carolina districts – though scores have slipped lately.

He hopes Wake County will find a middle ground, perhaps like Cambridge, Mass., whose diversity plan offers a greater degree of choice for parents.

Assignment schemes in other communities vary. Champaign assigns children to elementary schools using individual factors such as parents' incomes and education levels, Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd says.

Prodded by a 2007 Supreme Court decision that limited how districts could use race, Kentucky's Jefferson County Public Schools moved to assignments that consider a neighborhood's economic status, minority population and adult education levels, says Sheldon Berman, its superintendent.

Either way, Kahlenberg predicts the Wake County election won't be a preview of backlash across the USA. Most areas don't have the explosive growth in student population that has made school reassignments in the county so common, he says.

Schrader reports for the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times.

Puerto Rican leaders cite injustice as island's flag is flown Amherst

Hampshire Gazette
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

AMHERST - As the Puerto Rican flag was raised over downtown Amherst Monday afternoon, members of the local Puerto Rican community used the annual celebration to announce plans to fight a recent elementary school redistricting plan.

Vladimir Morales, who organizes the ceremony celebrating cultural and ethnic diversity, said the town's Puerto Rican Association is deeply concerned with the socio-economic model used by the School Committee that will mean an equal proportion of low-income children attending each of the three remaining elementary schools. The School Committee received a legal opinion that clustering students by ethnicity was illegal; it sought to correct the situation via redistricting the town's elementary schools, timed with the closing at year's end of Mark's Meadow Elementary School.

The association will not be supporting the School Committee's actions, Morales said.

The theme of this year's celebration, which brought a dozen people to Town Hall and will be broadcast on ACTV, is "Democracy for all in Amherst."

Morales said he believes the School Committee's decision was not based on economics, but because the schools had not met annual yearly progress under the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

This meant breaking up the clusters of Latino and Cambodian students because their communities are not part of the political process and are generally not affluent, Morales said.

"Never did I think I'd be in the position, an adversary of Amherst public schools," said Morales, a former member of the School Committee.

Nelson Acosta, a community member and parent, said the redistricting plan is not about embracing the diversity of Amherst, but seems to be about putting forward a political agenda.

Citing the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, Acosta said the plan disproportionately affects Latino and other ethnic groups by ending the philosophy of clustering those students from similar cultural backgrounds and forcing busing. "It attacks the most vulnerable people in the community," Acosta said.

Acosta said it is unfortunate that this is happening in Amherst, where the spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi are usually embraced.

With this spirit in mind, the Puerto Rican flag was being raised, Acosta said. Morales said Puerto Ricans enjoy flying their flag, noting that it has been displayed in solidarity in several other countries, including China and Australia. "We are very proud," Morales said.

The importance of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. is demonstrated, Acosta said, in that the percentage of island's population in military service is higher than in 34 states. The Puerto Rican flag goes up annually at the beginning of November and flies until Thanksgiving. It is meant to celebrate the Nov. 19 holiday on Puerto Rico, the day in 1493 that Christopher Columbus landed on the island.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis proclaimed Puerto Rican Day in Massachusetts in 1989.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Unused Amherst classrooms to be sold

Hampshire Gazette
Monday, November 9, 2009

AMHERST - Two years after Town Meeting approved spending $275,000 for two movable classrooms near Mark's Meadow School, they have not been used for that purpose and will be sold after the school closes next spring.

Two School Committee members said the purchase showed poor planning and that the modular classrooms probably will be sold at a loss. But another committee member and Mark's Meadow Principal Nick Yaffe defended the decision to buy the classrooms, saying the school had a different vision in 2007.

This year, the only activity in the modular classrooms during school hours is instrument lessons one day a week, Yaffe said. They are also used for an after-school program. Last year, they were used for Title 1, a federally funded intervention program, but never as regular classrooms. They would have been used more this year, but Mark's Meadow lost staff because of budget cuts, Yaffe said.

The two 28-by-28-foot classrooms actually cost only $215,000, largely because the University of Massachusetts donated the labor for their installation, said Kathryn Mazur, the schools' human resources director. The money came out of Amherst's capital budget, not its school budget.

Town Meeting was told in 2007 that the 10 classrooms at Mark's Meadow faced a space crunch because of the need for space for special education, computer classes and physical and occupational therapy. Arguing against the purchase, Town Meeting member Nancy Gordon said all elementary students should be placed in the three other, larger schools, which is what will happen next fall.

School Committee member Catherine Sanderson, who was elected in 2008, criticized "very poor planning" and apologized to the town for "a big mistake that was entirely avoidable." She said she doesn't know whether there's any market for the classrooms.

"If there isn't, I think we should start by asking Superintendent Jere Hochman if Bedford, N.Y., could use them, since Jere was the district leader who convinced Town Meeting we needed them," she said. Six months later, Hochman announced he was leaving Amherst to become superintendent in Bedford.

Elementary enrollment declined from 1,732 students in 1996-97 to 1,460 in 2006-07, and in 2007 there were indications the slippage would continue, Sanderson said. It would have been wiser to bus any overflow Mark's Meadow children to the Crocker Farm School, which has been under-enrolled, she said.

"I fear this type of poor decision-making makes people feel less confident that the schools are using their always-limited resources in a prudent way," she said. The current committee and superintendent are acting more responsibly about spending, as shown by the decision to close Mark's Meadow, she said.

School Committee member Irv Rhodes, who was elected this year, recalled that the modular-classroom proposal was presented to Town Meeting as if there was an emergency at Mark's Meadow.

"Now the damn things are sitting there and not used," he said. "We're going to take a financial hit. It baffles me about how the decision was made."

Andy Churchill, who was on the committee in 2007 and was a Mark's Meadow parent, said that because there were just 10 classrooms for seven grades, every year Yaffe had to decide which grades would have two classes and which only one. This resulted in big swings in the number of students in classes, he said.

"It's easy to play Monday morning quarterback," he said. "It is a different time now and we have different needs and levels of revenue from the state. Would we do it again today? Obviously not, but at the time it was a solution to a problem. It wasn't a stupid idea."

Yaffe said the plan was to hire another teacher and conduct classes in the modulars, but the budget crunch didn't allow that. Mark's Meadow had faced chronic overcrowding for 10 years, since it stopped mixing grades in classrooms, and in 2007 there was no decline in enrollment or discussion about closing the school, he said.

"Our vision was to have Mark's Meadow expand and redistrict," he said. "That plan changed because of economic circumstances and declining enrollment."

The new classrooms provided flexibility in allocating space in the building, Yaffe said. "They served a purpose," he said.

Because they have gotten little use, the classrooms are in excellent shape and Amherst may get a good price for them, he said.

"It was a bargain," he said.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

'Corrective action' for Crocker Farm: School board says low MCAS scores prove need for changes

Amherst Bulletin
By Nick Grabbe
Published on November 06, 2009

Students at Crocker Farm School tested considerably lower than those at Amherst's other elementary schools in last spring's Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. The School Committee cited this achievement gap in voting last week to change the district lines to equalize the percentages of children from low-income households, and those identified as "struggling," in all the elementary schools.

Crocker Farm was a focus of opposition to the redistricting, as many parents defended the practice of clustering Latino students there.

Expressed as an average of nine MCAS tests in third through sixth grade taken last spring, Crocker Farm was in the 43rd percentile statewide (that is, 43 percent of schools scored lower and 57 percent higher). Fort River and Wildwood Schools were both in the 72nd percentile and Mark's Meadow the 63rd. An analysis of 2007 and 2008 data shows similar results, though in these years Mark's Meadow ranked highest.

Crocker Farm's performance has resulted in a state-mandated call for "corrective action." Especially disturbing to school officials is last year's fourth grade at Crocker Farm, where 58 percent of the 40 students tested in the "needs improvement" or "warning/failing" categories in English and 73 percent in math.

In addition to having a much higher percentage of low-income children than the other schools, Crocker Farm has a large percentage of students who have limited proficiency in English. And of those students, 94 percent are low income and 26 percent receive special education services, both much higher than other schools.

This amounts to "triple jeopardy," said School Committee member Catherine Sanderson. During the redistricting debate, committee members cited research showing that low-income students don't perform as well in schools that are more than 40 percent low income, as Crocker Farm is.

"To me, our scores indicate a failure not of our teachers or of our students, but of what we are teaching in the classroom," said Sanderson.

Despite all the criticism of the Regional Middle School over the past year, students there tested in the 81st percentile (an average of five tests) in the MCAS last spring, much higher than the average ranking of Amherst's elementary schools.

The elementary math curriculum, called Investigations, has been shown to be very weak and many schools have abandoned it, Sanderson said. This curriculum is under review this year.

Another factor in disappointing MCAS scores in the elementary schools is lack of alignment, she said.

"Teachers in a third grade at Wildwood may not be teaching the same thing as teachers in third grade at Fort River, and even within a building, teachers in a given grade may be teaching different things," she said. "This means that kids can have gaps in their knowledge in a particular area."


The achievement gap "concerns us greatly," said School Committee member Irv Rhodes.

Most Crocker Farm children have parents who work long hours, and many don't have the educational experience to provide as beneficial an environment for schoolwork as parents living in other parts of town, he said. In addition, because Fort River parents have much higher incomes than Crocker Farm parents, they can raise more money for extras such as computers, field trips and playground facilities, he said.

"It's incumbent on us to make sure we give those kids what they need, but we don't," he said. He endorsed a proposal made in a report to Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez that Amherst implement a universal preschool program.

School Committee Chairman Andy Churchill, who is stepping down next spring, said that "having one poor school and one rich school" represents an injustice. He also questioned the complaints the committee received from Crocker Farm parents about redistricting.

"We heard a lot of arguments that with clustering, we were doing something special at Crocker Farm," he said. "If that's the case, where are the outcomes? Our goal is to make sure every kid achieves."

Because of its poor performance, Crocker Farm has been designated a Commonwealth Priority School. This means that students are receiving extra math and English instruction this year, said Marta Guevara, the student services administrator.

It also means that Principal Mike Morris, now in his second year, has more say about staffing, she said.

"For too long in the elementary schools, each building created a culture of what the curriculum was in reading and writing," she said. "They were doing good work, but they weren't aligned in philosophy or methodology."

Another consequence of the state designation is that the school district has to pay to bus students living in the Crocker Farm district to another school if the parents request it.

This will continue to be an option next year, even as the policy of "open enrollment" ends because of redistricting, Sanderson said.

"We're behind the 8-ball at Crocker Farm," said Rhodes. "Everything Amherst is doing should have been started three to five years ago."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In Our Opinion: Elementary lessons

Hampshire Gazette
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Now that the Amherst School Committee has voted to change the borders of the town's elementary districts, parents and staff should seek to minimize the problems children will face next September when they go to new schools.

Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez is urging parents not to second-guess the redistricting decision and to prepare their children for the transition. We think he is correct to focus attention on what can be done to minimize the disruption to children.

Change can be hard to accept. It has been especially difficult for parents and advocates of Latino and Cambodian children who have been clustered in the Crocker Farm School and the Fort River School respectively. These programs have helped these children learn about their families' cultural backgrounds, have created a genuine sense of belonging and increased parental involvement.

But the school district's attorney has advised that these programs are in violation of state and federal law. Gathering students by ethnic group who are fluent in English is a violation of civil rights laws, the attorney said. These programs have to end and the children who have taken part in them assigned among the elementary schools; that decision is separate from the redistricting issue.

Crocker Farm School has twice the percentage of children from low-income households as Wildwood School, and its performance on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests last spring was far behind that of other schools. School Committee members maintain research shows that students who attend schools with more than 40 percent low-income students do not perform as well as others.

We commend the School Committee for sticking to its goal of equalizing the percentage of low-income students enrolled in the town's elementary schools. The members knew their decision was bound to make some people unhappy, and in fact they withstood a large amount of criticism before the vote.

Most of the critics were upset either about the discontinuation of the ethnic clusters or about last spring's vote to close Mark's Meadow School, which set the redistricting in motion. But these decisions had already been made, and distracted attention from the decision about which map the committee should adopt.

We suspect that after some discomfort, children from low-income backgrounds and from Latino and Cambodian families will adapt well to their new schools, provided their parents don't predispose them to resent the change. They will benefit from their exposure to the larger school population, which will in turn benefit from the broader perspective.

Monday, November 2, 2009

School district lines redrawn

By Nick Grabbe
Staff Writer
Amherst Bulletin
Published on October 30, 2009

Parents, their children, and other community members listen to a speaker during a protest held to address concerns about school redistricting Tuesday on the Amherst Common.

The Amherst School Committee's investigation of how to redraw the elementary district lines revealed differing conceptions of what "equity" and "social justice" mean.

After processing hundreds of emails and phone calls, and holding three public forums on the issue, the committee decided Tuesday on a new map that will cause about a third of all children to attend new schools next year.

The trigger for the redistricting was the closure of Mark's Meadow School next year to save an estimated $700,000 a year in an era of budget austerity, and the need to find a new place for its 185 students. But the larger question of equalizing the percentages of children from low-income families at the three remaining schools proved to be surprisingly controversial.

To committee Chairman Andy Churchill, the fact that Crocker Farm School currently has twice the percentage of low-income children as Wildwood School represents "an injustice." Under the new map, about a third of the children at all three schools will be low-income, and about a fifth have been defined as "struggling."

To achieve the committee's vision of equity and keep the districts from looking like salamanders, two "islands" in the middle of the Crocker Farm district were created. In the East Hadley Road area, there are several apartment complexes with high percentages of low-income families living near single-family homes. Residents of Mill Valley Estates and Hollister Apartments will attend Fort River, while those at The Boulders will go to Wildwood.

The biggest flashpoint of the debate was the elimination of clusters of Latino children at Crocker Farm and Cambodians at Fort River. At these schools, the Latino/Cambodian children attend some classes with their ethnic peers and others with the general school population. Advocates maintained that these clusters promoted group identity, cultural awareness and parental involvement.

But committee members maintained that the practice isn't legal, and would have ended even if the districts hadn't shifted. They said it isn't fair to provide free busing to a Cambodian child who doesn't live in the Fort River district but to require other parents to drive their children to and from school when they choose an out-of-district school under "open enrollment."

"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," wrote committee member Catherine Sanderson on her blog. "I know this is hard for some teachers/staff/families, but this actually has nothing to do with redistricting."

A related issue is the School Committee's belief that the high percentage of low-income children at Crocker Farm has made it more difficult to provide them with the best education possible. The results of last spring's MCAS tests show Crocker Farm way behind the other schools. Here is how Amherst's four schools fared, on an average of nine tests, compared to an average of 857 other schools: Crocker Farm, 492nd, Mark's Meadow, 321st; Fort River, 243rd; Wildwood, 240th.

"We're responsible for making sure we're giving all kids a similar opportunity to succeed," said Churchill at Tuesday's meeting. Committee member Steve Rivkin said the belief that schools with more than 40 percent low-income children have problems is "grounded in compelling research."

But the committee faced a substantial number of people, especially at the public forums, who believed that keeping children of similar ethnicity or language together in the same school promotes social justice more than distributing them to all schools.

"Nowhere in your discussions are the issues of language and culture addressed, although these matters are fundamental to the discussion," wrote University of Massachusetts professor emerita Sonia Nieto in a letter signed by 11 other local academics. "Yet it is not only poverty that separates our children. Our children also face tremendous differences in access to the kinds of academic, personal, moral, language and cultural support to help them become successful learners."

The clustering is "pedagogically sound and socially responsible," the letter said. "This practice creates a community of educators, students and family members that focus specifically on the needs of the children in question. Teachers and staff have created an environment in which the children know that they are loved and cared for, and consequently where they will be safe and able to learn."

The School Committee approved the new map, known as "Map No. 5," on a 4-1 vote, with member Kathleen Anderson favoring a different one. Under the map, all current Mark's Meadow children will go to Wildwood, Amity Street will be the border between the Wildwood and Crocker Farm districts, and those living on South East Street north of the South Amherst common will be able to stay at Fort River.

The redistricting will mean that some teachers will change schools. They were asked this week for their first and second choices of buildings next year, and meetings with principals and counselors took place. By mid-November, there will be meetings on the transition in the schools and in December in the apartment complexes. Open houses are planned for January.