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."
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.