By Nick Grabbe
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.
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.