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.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Executive Summary of Parent Surveys for Amherst Regional Middle School

Note: This post is simply a summary of the results of the middle school parent survey which was completed in the spring of 2008. Although the raw survey results are available (, I found these results very hard to interpret without really reviewing all of the findings in depth, which took a lot of time. So, I've produced a summary of the findings here, in case that is helpful to my blog readers.

Description of Survey Respondents
The middle school population is predominantly white (64%), with somewhat fewer students of color (African American: 4%; Asian: 12%; Hispanic: 12%; Multi-Race, Non-Hispanic: 9%). Compared to these demographics of students, respondents were somewhat more likely to be white (77%) or multiracial (10%), and somewhat less likely to be African American (2%), Hispanic (6%), or Asian (5%).

Core Learning
Of those who responded, a clear majority (75% or above) felt that they knew the course expectations, that their child was prepared to meet the course expectations, that there was adequate support available to their child, and that report cards accurately reflected their child’s progress across each of the five major academic disciplines (English, math, science, social studies, world language). These findings differed somewhat for other disciplines (PE, music, exploratory). A somewhat smaller majority of parents (between 56% and 75%) felt that their child received meaningful homework (58 to 75%), received helpful feedback on assignments (56 to 66%), and felt regularly informed of their child’s progress (58 to 66%) in these core disciplines. A minority of parents (21.5 to 30%) felt that the level of challenge and expectations for their child’s learning was somewhat low or much too low across the five core academic disciplines (with 4.5 to 12% reporting that the expectations were somewhat high or much too high). Most parents report their child spends 30 minutes to 1 hour (34%) or 1 to 2 hours a night (39%) on homework (with 19% reporting their child spends less than 30 minutes and 8% reporting their child spends more than 2 hours a night).

Of those who responded, 91% felt their child feels safe at school, 86% reported having no areas of concern in terms of safety, and only 4% reported that concerns about safety were not addressed in a timely manner. Slightly over half (54%) felt their child was adequately supported on emotional and/or social issues.

Of those who responded, a clear majority report their child has a strong, positive relationship with at least one adult in the building (78%), that their child’s teachers are welcoming when they come to school or call (83.5%), and that the office staff is welcoming when they come to school or call (79%). A somewhat smaller majority report their child is positive about his/her experience in the middle school (65%), and that the school staff respects cultural/ethnic/gender differences (63.5%).

A majority of parents feel that the school’s discipline policy is clear to them (65%), the school provides information about upcoming events (66%), they know how to get the answers to their questions about the school (72.5%), and the school offers them opportunities to be involved in committees (Family-School Partnership, School Council, etc.; 75%). However, only 40% feel the school offers them opportunities to be involved in school activities and only 36.5% feel welcome to volunteer at the school.


These responses point to both strengths and areas of concerns within the parent population. In terms of strengths, most parents (75% or more) report feeling:

  • they knew the course expectations
  • their child was prepared to meet the course expectations
  • there was adequate support available to their child
  • report cards accurately reflected their child’s progress
  • their child feels safe at school
  • they have no areas of concern in terms of safety
  • their child has a strong, positive relationship with at least one adult in the building
  • their child’s teachers are welcoming when they come to school or call
  • the office staff is welcoming when they come to school or call
  • the school offers them opportunities to be involved in committees (Family-School Partnership, School Council, etc.).

In terms of areas for improvement, the following trends were observed:

  • fewer than half of the respondents feel the school offers them opportunities to be involved in school activities or that they are welcome to volunteer at the school
  • just over half of repondents felt their child was adequately supported on emotional and/or social issues.
  • a minority of parents (22 to 30%) report that the level of challenge and expectations for their child’s learning was somewhat low or much too low across the five core academic disciplines.

Executive Summary of Elementary School Parent Surveys

Note: This is a slow news week in terms of School Committee stuff, so I'm finally getting around to posting the executive summaries I compiled for each of the types of schools (elementary, middle, high). The elementary school survey summary was presented at the November Amherst School Committee meeting, and the middle and high school surveys were presented (although without a summary) at the October Regional School Committee meetings. Although the survey data is posted now in raw form on the website, I felt this presentation was pretty hard to interpret without spending a huge amount of time going through all the pages and numbers. Thus, I've gone through the surveys for each school and compiled my own summary of all of the numbers. Like all survey research, this one is limited based on those who answered the survey -- however, it provides a useful slice of what those parents who responded saw as both strengths and weaknesses of a particular school, and thus I believe is very helpful to the district to have as at least one data point.

Survey Respondents
The elementary school population is approximately half white (51%), with somewhat fewer students of color (African American: 8%; Asian: 13%; Hispanic: 18%; Multi-Race, Non-Hispanic: 9%). Compared to these demographics of students, respondents were more likely to be white (69%), and somewhat less likely to be African American (2%), Hispanic (14%), Asian (8%), or multi-racial (7%).

Core Learning Across Academic Disciplines
Of those who responded, a majority of parents across all schools felt that they knew their child’s learning objectives (52 to 80%), that their child was prepared to meet the course expectations (76 to 90%), and that there was adequate support available to their child (61 to 88%) across each of the four major academic disciplines (English, math, science, and social studies). Fewer parents across all schools reported that their child received meaningful homework, with greater agreement with this statement for English and math (53 to 71%) than for science and social studies (19 to 56%). Similarly, more parents agreed that their child received valuable feedback in English and math (56 to 81%) than for science and social studies (38 to 71%). There was less consensus on whether parents were regularly informed of their child’s progress in the core disciplines (45 to 78%) and whether the teacher contacted parents with concerns (35 to 84%), although most parents felt that the teacher was responsive when contacted by the parents with concerns (68 to 91%). Between 25 and 59% of parents reported that the level of challenge and expectations for their child’s learning was somewhat low or much too low across the four core academic disciplines (with only 0 to 14% reporting that the expectations were somewhat high or much too high). Most parents report their child spends 30 minutes to 1 hour (34%) or 1 to 2 hours a night (39%) on homework (with 19% reporting their child spends less than 30 minutes and 8% reporting their child spends more than 2 hours a night).

Of those who responded, the vast majority felt their child feels safe at school (86 to 95%), and that their child was adequately supported on emotional and/or social issues (75 to 84%). Most parents (77%) reported having no areas of concern in terms of safety, and very few (3 to 6%) reported that concerns about safety were not addressed in a timely manner.

School Climate
Of those who responded, a clear majority report their child is positive about his or her experience in school (78 to 89%), their child has a strong, positive relationship with at least one adult in the building (87 to 98%), the school staff respects cultural/ethnic/gender differences (80 to 94%), their child’s teachers are welcoming when they come to school or call (91 to 98%), and that the office staff is welcoming when they come to school or call (80 to 98%).

Of those who responded, most parents feel that report cards provide an accurate reflection of their child’s progress (77 to 90%), the school’s discipline policy is clear to them (69 to 80%), the school provides information about upcoming events (87 to 100%), and they know how to get the answers to their questions about the school (86 to 97%). Most parents also felt that the school offers them opportunities to be involved in committees (Family-School Partnership, School Council, etc.; 91 to 98%), the school offers them opportunities to be involved in school activities (83 to 96%), they are welcome to volunteer (78 to 98%), and they are given enough information to volunteer effectively (57 to 81%).


These surveys indicate both areas of strength (many) and areas of concern (few). In terms of the strengths, most (75% or more) families feel:
  • they can be involved in schools (PGOs, School Councils, activities)
  • they are welcome to volunteer at their child’s school
  • they know how to get their questions answered
  • they receive information about school events
  • reports cards accurately reflect their child’s progress
  • teachers and staff are welcoming
  • child feels safe at school
  • child has a positive relationship with at least one adult at school
  • school respects cultural/ethnic/gender differences
  • concerns are addressed in a timely matter
  • child receives adequate emotional support at school.

In terms of areas in which to improve, there are the following issues:

  • only 53 to 71% of families feel their child receives meaningful homework in English and math across all four schools
  • only 19 to 56% of families feel their child receives meaningful homework in science and social studies across all four schools
  • in the four core academic disciplines across all four schools, between 25% and 59% of respondents see level of expectations and challenge as too low (somewhat low or much too low).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Citizen group to study Amherst school budget

Hampshire Gazette

AMHERST - While students are on their holiday break, members of a new citizen committee on the school budget will have a homework assignment.

The 10 members will each be writing 10 questions they want answered about school spending and proposed budget cuts for next year. Starting Jan. 4, they'll meet twice a week for at least six weeks before communicating their findings to the public.

The School Committee did not form the group of volunteers to promote or oppose the tax override vote planned for March 23, but to articulate questions and educate the public, said member Irv Rhodes. At the first meeting Monday, several members gave their perspectives on spending issues.

"Amherst needs to be more efficient in its use of tax dollars," said Stan Gawle. He said he opposes an override, but if the school budget "goes on a severe diet and gets down to basics, then I believe people will support it. There needs to be change before people open their pocketbooks."

Becky Demling said that when looking at the budget, it's important to understand programs.

"It's easy to say ¿Let's cut that' without knowing who it serves," she said. "We need to understand what we're cutting. We're trying to preserve as quality a school system as possible, not just getting down to a certain figure, not cutting for the sake of cutting."

Joe Cullen said the committee should look for "out-of-the-box thinking" and ask, "Why do we do it that way?"

School Committee member Andy Churchill said the purpose of the citizen group is to learn "what are the questions the community needs answering."

James Chumbley said he has a question about the teacher-student ratio. "I look at enrollment and divide by the number of teachers and get one ratio, but I hear the average class size is twice that," he said.

The committee will be compiling, through Chairwoman Alison Donta-Venman, a list of information it wants from Finance Director Rob Detweiler. Member Rick Hood said he wants line-by-line spending data in as detailed a form as Northampton provides on its Web site.

A budget forum has been scheduled for Jan. 21 and a public hearing on the school budget will be Feb. 2. The School Committee plans to vote on the regional and elementary budgets the week of Feb. 7.

The other members of the citizen committee are Ernie Dalkas, Jennifer Holme, Joe Gensheimer and Amy Brodigan.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Amherst school study highlights declines in enrollment, services

Hampshire Gazette

AMHERST - A new study of trends in the elementary and regional schools over the past five years sheds light on declining enrollment and staffing at a time when budgets for next year are facing further cuts.

The study - distributed Tuesday at the Amherst School Committee meeting - was requested by the committee and executed by the administration.

Enrollment in the elementary schools has steadily declined since 1998-99, when it was 1,592, to 1,268 this year. The study projects continued declines in the next two years.

The regional school enrollment, which peaked in 2001-02 at 2,068, has been declining since then and is currently 1,691. It is projected to continue declining to 1,480 in 2014-15.

The number of Amherst elementary children attending charter schools has jumped from one in 2007 to 11 in 2008 to 25 in 2009, according to the study. Enrollment in charter schools by residents of the Amherst-Pelham region, however, has stayed relatively constant.

The number of families choosing to send elementary-age children to schools other than Amherst's has increased dramatically, the study showed. It has jumped from seven in 2001 and 15 in 2002 to 26 in 2008 and 34 in 2009.

Enrollment in vocational schools is up from 32 last year to 40 this year.

The percentage of students receiving special services, such as special education and English language instruction, has stayed constant over the past five years. But the number of special-ed out-of-district placements has fallen sharply from 2002: from seven to three in the elementary schools and from 56 to 18 for the region, according to the study.

Budget cuts have totaled $2 million in the elementary schools and $3.79 million in the regional schools since fiscal 2007. This has resulted in the loss of the equivalent of 60.6 full-time positions in the elementary schools and 69.5 in the regional schools, according to the study.

These cuts have resulted in a wide variety of consequences, according to the study.

Since 2007, elementary class sizes have increased, instruction in art, music and physical education has been cut back, and there has been less support to struggling students. There have been cuts in hours for aides, custodians and librarians.

At the Regional Middle School, teachers have less preparation time and more students, the study says. Classes in non-core studies have been greatly reduced, and there have been cuts in guidance and assistant principal positions.

Among the many changes at Amherst Regional High School are a narrowing of social studies offerings, limited opportunities to start a world language in ninth grade, elimination of an American Studies course, and the ending of courses in technology and computers. Access to music education for those not in ensembles has diminished, according to the study.

The schools have adopted several computer systems that have improved efficiency, according to the study. All schools improved lighting efficiency in 2008, saving $33,000 since then, and regional school oil burners were converted to dual fuel in 2007, saving $75,000, according to the study.


Note from Catherine: I wanted to add a few things to this article which I believe will help give readers a clearer sense of the information presented.

1. Given the enrollment declines (over 300 students fewer at the elementary level over the last 10 years, and an additional over 300 students fewer at the regional level over the last few years), budget declines would be expected to offer the same services: fewer classroom and specialist (intervention, etc.) teachers should be needed, and potentially fewer administrators. Thus, some decline in budget makes sense, in light of this relatively major decline in enrollment.

2. The numbers presented in terms of who is choosing to attend a school other than Amherst's are misleading -- they include ONLY students who choose to attend a public school other than Amherst via School Choice. Students who have chosen to attend private school or to be homeschooled are not included in these numbers.

3. The report notes that budget cuts have increased class sizes in the elementary level, but does not report what these increases amount to. So, I checked budget numbers for the three years for which I have data (2007 to 2009). In 2007, there were 1382 kids in the Amherst elementary schools, and 70 classrooms were used, for an average of 19.74 kids per class. In 2008, there were 1316 kids in 69 classrooms, for an average of 19.07 kids per class. We've heard this year (at the most recent meeting) that class size averages are now 19, and will increase to 20 next year if the worst case economic projections occur. But it is hard for me to see these numbers as showing that elementary school class size averages have increased -- at least over the last 3 years -- nor do I believe that average class sizes of 19 or 20 in the elementary schools should be a concern.

4. At the middle school level, teachers used to teach 4 classes a day and now teach 5 classes a day. At the 7th grade level, class sizes have not changed (20), but at the 8th grade level, class sizes have increased this year from last (20 to 25). Non-core electives in family/consumer science, technology education and reading/writing/research have been eliminated, although classes in health, computers, drama and art remain (two of these are taken in 7th, and two in 8th). In addition, students do have option to have music (chorus, band, or orchestra) every other day -- which will increase to every day next year (even at the worst case economic projections).

5. A number of classes at the high school have been eliminated due to budget cuts. These include classes in ethnic diversity, death and dying, American West, Digital Electronics, Computer Networking, and Stained Glass. Students who do not choose to take a world language in 7th grade are limited to choosing between French (at the honors level only) and Spanish, unless they are able to work independently with a teacher on another language. Students who take a world language in 7th and 8th grade have the same option of 6 different languages to continue with in high school (French, Spanish, German, Russian, Latin, Chinese). But I think the biggest concern about the current (and projected) high school schedule is that students are now spending two of their 15 periods in a study hall -- and the high school administration presented a proposed budget at the last SC meeting that would increase that to three study halls a year. That strikes me as a much more significant problem than the elimination of some computer and social studies electives.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Amherst teachers eye contract talks

Hampshire Gazette
Saturday, December 19, 2009

AMHERST - The union representing teachers and staff has agreed to talk about possible give-backs in negotiated raises for next year in response to what could possibly be a $4 million budget shortfall.

Meanwhile, the union president said teachers' discussions with principals about possible reduction in staff and School Committee budget meetings this month have hurt employee morale.

The Amherst Pelham Education Association, representing about 550 employees, voted overwhelmingly Dec. 10 to agree to Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez's request to enter wage discussions, said president Timothy Sheehan, a teacher at Fort River School. He will represent the union in the talks, which may start in early January, he said.

"It makes sense and it's the right thing to do," he said.

Next year is the final one of the current contract and union members are due to receive 3 percent cost-of-living raises; some will also receive "step" increases. The total salary increase is 5 percent for the regional schools and 4 percent for the elementary schools, according to Finance Director Rob Detweiler.

The cost of these increases in next year's budget is $1.3 million. The estimated shortfall under a worst-case scenario is $4 million.

The current average teacher salaries in Amherst are $57,877 in the elementary schools and $56,603 in the regional schools, according to Kathy Mazur, the human resources director.

The School Committee will be represented in the talks by members Irv Rhodes and Steve Rivkin of Amherst and Farshid Hajir of Leverett. Rodriguez and Mazur will also be present. Attorneys for the union and the administration will be there, Sheehan said.

"We want to be open-minded and have a frank discussion," he said.

Rodriguez made a specific proposal to the union, Sheehan said, but declined to say what it was. Even if the union gave up all of its cost-of-living increases, there would still be a sizable budget gap, he said.

Teachers are concentrating on students' needs even as their jobs or those of their colleagues are on the line, Sheehan said. As programs and even entire departments sit on the chopping block, "people try to find ways to be supportive of each other," he said.

"It's tough to watch as the School Committee looks at priorities, to see if your program is a priority," he said.

On the elementary level, teachers also worry about whether they will be assigned to a different building next year because of redistricting, said Michael Morris, principal of Crocker Farm School.

"It's impossible for people not to be affected" by the discussions of budget cuts, he said.

At the Dec. 8 School Committee meeting, Latin teacher Sean Smith read a statement expressing the staff's anxiety over budget cuts, on behalf of 14 department heads.

"We are mourning the anticipated loss of colleagues, some of whom we have worked with for decades," he said. He referred to "this process of dismantling and reshaping our school."

"While we consider the damaging effects these cuts will have on the educational experience of our children, let us also consider the teachers in our schools whose lives will be turned upside down as a result of losing their jobs," he said.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Amherst Meeting, December 15, 2009

The Amherst Meeting started with a question from Abbie Jensen, who expressed concerns about the elementary school math curriculum. Andy noted that one of the district goals is to evaluate K to 5 math, and that he agreed this was important. Dr. Rodriguez said he also felt this was important, and was aware of some concerns regarding Investigations. He said he was waiting for the new MA state standards for math, which would be released soon, before making a decision about a new curriculum.

We then turned to the superintendent's update, which consisted of two items.

First, Dr. Marta Guavara discussed plans for the redistricting, which seem to be moving along very well. Meetings are being held at each of the elementary schools with families who are moving to new schools, and there are plans for interactions for kids between schools and new Open Houses (in February, likely). They also hope to announce staffing decisions early in 2010 (January/February) so that kids/families will know about staff/teachers in each of the buildings. I've heard from parents who have attended these meetings, and my understanding is that this process has worked very well. Andy noted that a new committed led by Representative Ellen Story has been meeting to discuss "equity and participation in our schools" and that we were all invited to participate in such meetings.

Second, Dr. Rodriguez discussed his data showing that in the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 school year, about 90 kids on average withdrew from the district (to attend another school). However, as of the 2007-2008 year, about 200 kids on average withdrew from the district. He is concerned about this rather large increase, and is now planning on having staff members call all families who left to try to learn the factors that led to these departures. He is also implementing an exit survey to ask families who leave to give information about why (e.g., are they moving to a new state, or just choosing a new school -- and if so, why?). I really, really commend Dr. Rodriguez for taking on this issue -- it seems clear that we as a district need to understand not only how many people are leaving ... but why. This will be useful information going forward, and I believe will only serve to strengthen our schools (by understanding the factors that are leading some families to opt out).

We then turned to the big topic of the evening -- the budget update. The information was presented by Mike Morris (principal of Crocker Farm), and briefly, the cuts are as follows

  • 2.6 cuts to administration (largely due to closing of Marks Meadow and needing one less principal)

  • 1.5 clerical cuts (again, due to closing MM)

  • Small cuts in art/music/PE (.55 or .6 to each of these areas)

  • 1 instructional technology (computer) teacher

  • 3.5 cuts in support - nurse, guidance counselor, custodian (due to closing MM)

  • .9 cut in a psychologist

  • 4 cuts in classroom teachers (meaning average class sizes go from 19 to 20)

  • 2 cuts in ELL (change in service delivery)

  • 4.6 cuts in intervention (change in service delivery)

  • 11.5 cuts in special education (8 paraprofessionals -- though service will still be in line with state-mandates in terms of IEPs, plus some clerical and therapeutic and academic SE support).

There are also cost savings in terms of supplies/materials at Marks Meadow ($35,352) plus health insurance premiums ($81,000), and health insurance enrollments ($43,300).

Finally, there are additions of a curriculum director ($28,000 from the elementary budget) plus costs of closing MM ($90,000 to move furniture/supplies), and adding one more preschool classroom ($90,000).

Now, another way of looking at the cuts is what will the schools look like next year in light of these cuts (which, for the record, represent the WORST budget case scenario). Here are these projections:

  • each school will have a principal, assistant principal, 3 secretaries, and 4 custodians

  • each school will have a full-time librarian, at least one guidance counselor, a school nurse, and assistance from a psychologist (part-time)

  • each school will have proportionate to their enrollment levels of art, music and PE (so that each child will have these classes at least once a week, which is the current level; FR and WW have full-time people in these positions and CF has a .6 person in each of these)

  • each school will have intervention support (2 to 3.3 positions per school), ELL support (3 to 3.9 positions per school), special education support (e.g., speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, etc. , at 6 to 7 positions per school)

  • there are no cuts to instrumental music (orchestra starts in 4th, band in 5th)

  • the K to 6 science coordinator position is maintained

These cuts (which again, represent the "worst budget case scenario") frankly seem really, really good to me - they total 1.7 million, yet class sizes remain quite reasonable (average of 20, range of 16 to 24, which is in line with our current mean of 19 and range of 14 to 25), art/music/PE is maintained at current levels, and each building has a full-time librarian. The big cuts are clearly to intervention -- and we had a long discussion about this, which I will try to briefly summarize.

Steve - thought changing the model of intervention makes sense (e.g., to more afterschool programs and summer school, partially paid for by grants), praised the idea of adding a preschool class, and noted that retirement costs the district pays will also be lower (with fewer staff). He also wondered about how effectively intervention support could be provided with this model.

Dr. Rodriguez noted that a group from CORE did a "literacy audit" to evaluate how well our literacy program is working, and he will report back on their findings.

Ray Sharick (principal of FR) noted that decreasing intervention support could lead to more SPED placements, which then is expensive.

I praised the leadership staff for their hard work, and noted that the recommendations seem very reasonable in terms of what they've maintained while making such severe cuts. I also noted that the principals were in the best position to make recommendations, and that in January, I'd like to see some numbers in terms of trade-offs: for example, if we go to larger class sizes, could we add more intervention teachers, or could we cut instrumental music or the preschool program to add more intervention?

Irv noted that he is concerned about cuts to SE and intervention in light of the failure on MCAS of our schools this year. He also wondered whether these cuts reflect our values as a school system. Finally, he wondered about the impact of these cuts on staff of color (who are more likely to be recent hires and thus at risk of being let go as positions are cut). Kathy Mazur noted that of the cuts, 23 are to teachers, and of these, 8 are to classroom teachers -- and that there are 5 minority staff of these 8. Thus, reducing teachers will impact staff of color more.

Kathleen observed that she didn't think we valued kids who need intervention support. She also wondered how we can maintain staff of color, given seniority laws, and pointed out that the instrumental music program is a way of gaining access to fewer study halls in high school and that families should be told about this benefit.

Steve noted that he was sorry world language didn't appear in this budget for K to 6, and wondered if things become less dire than we imagine if this might be brought back for consideration. He also noted that although we are spending a lot of money on intervention, it isn't always clear that these programs are effective, particularly in light of our recent MCAS problems. He felt that we need to figure out if our programs are working, and not just spend money because it "feels like the right thing to do."

Irv wondered if we are cutting too close to our needs on IEPs.

Andy expressed that a prioritized list would be helpful, so that we would know what to bring back first if things improve in terms of funding.

Ray Sharick spoke at some length about how drastic these budget cuts are. He noted that we are reducing technology support in half, and that it will be very hard to do without more intervention support and psychological services. He believes that a 1.7 budget cut will have a big impact.

Irv expressed his desire to have information for a 2012 budget, not just this year's budget.

Steve noted that he doesn't see the budget as disastrous, and that some things like having a more aligned curriculum and a better math curriculum might help improve outcomes and require less intervention support. He believes we need a cost-effective model of intervention, and observed that we certainly seem to spend a lot more on intervention than other districts.

Andy then presented a sheet in which he had gathered information on the per pupil costs based on our comparison districts: Newton, Brookline, and Framingham. He noted that although the sheet Steve had distributed at the last meeting (and which I have posted on my blog) compared to local districts (Northampton, Longmeadow, South Hadley, Hadley, East Longmeadow) and showed our per pupil costs are higher than others, our comparison districts actually have quite similar per pupil costs. Specifically, the Amherst district has a per pupil cost of $15,223.77, which is in line with Brookline (15,431.47), Framingham (14,620.62), and Newton (15,498.08).

I then noted that the reason I had chosen local districts as a comparison in terms of per pupil costs is that 80% of a school's budget is staffing costs, and those costs are often influenced heavily by how much it costs to live in a given community (e.g., housing prices).

SIDE NOTE: I have now confirmed this: whereas Amherst has a median housing price of $328,500 and a cost of living that is 112% above the national average, Brookline has a median housing price of $758,214, and a cost of living that is 147% of the national average; Framingham has a median housing price of $301,716, and a cost of living that is 119% above the national average; Newton has a median housing price of $763,281 and a cost of living that is 161% of the national average). Thus, I still find it strange that it apparently costs a lot more to educate a student in the Amherst schools than it does in our local districts (which have more similar housing costs) -- we seem to spend the same as schools in the most expensive part of the state, yet the cost of living is much cheaper in Western Mass (and it is clear that the programs and classes offered in some of these schools are also much more extensive than those in our schools).

I also noted that we have some things under our control -- such as how we make budget decisions -- but that other things are not in our control -- state aid, whether the SB puts an override on the ballot, and whether that override passes. Thus, regardless of the current funding situation, our responsibility is to make sure that we are making wise fiscal decisions with whatever funds we have. Finally, I noted that the principals and senior central administration have decided not to take raises this year, and that we should be appreciative of this decision.

Dr. Rodriguez then noted that he wished we could add world language (even in 5th and 6th), but that budgets times just don't permit. He also noted that the SC has been concerned about special ed costs so these have been reduced. He expressed his view that we need to be careful in how we are carrying out intervention support -- our current model of Reading Recovery requires 1 teacher to work individually with a student, and that that teacher (cost of $55,000) works with a total of 8 children over the course of the school year, which is just cost-prohibitive. He also noted that we have not been spending Title 1 money wisely (e.g., we could have been using it for afterschool support, which he has now implemented), and that our ELL model could be better than it has been.

Dr. Rodriguez then said, in response to a question by Andy, that if additional funds were available, he would bring back intervention support (but in a better, more strategic way), and that he would like to add world language.

Steve echoed the belief that we need to get more bang for our buck, and said that we should concentrate intervention support on kids K to 2 (whereas Title 1 money requires spending it on kids in 3 to 6, which are the MCAS years).

We tabled our discussion on afterschool programs and preschool -- stay tuned for January for these topics.

There was then a brief discussion about hiring a curriculum director (K to 12), which will be a new hire (but at a lower level than an assistant superintendent, so for less money), and that these funds are in the current budget.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Regional Meeting, December 15, 2009

We had an extra one hour meeting to discuss budget cuts and legal services -- so, this was a short one. I arrived late due to another meeting I had to attend, so apologies if I miss something that happened early on (will try to watch the broadcast and update this post later).

The first topic addressed was budget, and the big new info presented was on the cost comparisons of the trimester versus the semester. I assume this info. will be posted on the ARPS website soon, but briefly, a chart was presented by Assistant Principal Miki Gromacki showing the impact of trimester versus semester on instructional time for kids and teachers.

Here is the quick summary:

In the trimester, with two study halls (our current system) kids spend 86.6% of time in class (2 study halls, 13 classes), whereas on the semester, with two study halls, kids spend 85.7% of their time in class (2 study halls, 12 classes). It was noted that for the same staffing that we currently have (in which kids spend 86.6% of their time in class), on a semester system kids would have 92.8% of their time in class. Each study hall added to the schedule reduces the number of electives we offer (since electives are what are taken out of students' schedules), at a cost of between $279,305 to 323,993. Thus, it is clear that the semester system lets kids spend more time in class for the same money (or spend the same time in class for LESS money).

In the trimester, teachers have more prep time -- 20% of the day (1 of 5 periods), versus 14.2% of the day (1 of 7 periods).

In the trimester, teachers teach the same number of kids per year (250, on average) as they would on a semester, but at a given time in the trimester, teachers would teach fewer kids (though they would have these kids for a shorter period of time).

In the trimester, teachers spend 20% of the day for 2/3rds of the year on "duties" (like supervising study halls or cafeterias or hallways), whereas in the semester, teachers spend 14.2% of the day 100% of the year. This is a cost savings associated with the semester because with the trimester, 2 teachers are available each period for duties, whereas 5 are available on the semester (since fewer kids at a given time in the semester need to be supervised in a study hall). This saves between $14,000 and $20,000 since you don't have to hire monitors or paraprofessionals to make sure there is order in the corridors/cafeteria.

These numbers were very helpful for me to have, and I think illustrate the advantages of the semester system in terms of cost savings (both in terms of time spent in class for students and in terms of teacher availability for other tasks). I hope this model of instruction can be given some serious consideration when the new contract is signed next year, since I think it has real advantages for kids.

There was then a discussion of the budget calendar, and whether the voting on the budget could be moved up from February to January in line with the Select Board's preference. This idea was not supported by the committee, due to concerns about having time for thoughtful review of new budgets in January and a desire to have more time for public comment.

We then discussed legal counsel, and in particular voted in favor of a motion to allow the legal services subcommittee to invite law firms for interviews to assess whether the district might want to make a change in its legal representation.

Finally, there was a brief announcement about the negotations team (will consist of Farshid, Irv, and Steve).

Proposed Amherst elementary school cuts run to $1.6 million

Hampshire Gazette
By NICK GRABBEStaff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

AMHERST - Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez has proposed $1.6 million in cuts to the elementary school budget for next year.

The Amherst School Committee is scheduled to discuss the elementary budget at a meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the high school library.

About 40 percent of the cuts would come from the closing of Mark's Meadow School. The annual savings from the closing are estimated at $768,358, but $90,000 has been added to next year's budget for moving expenses.

A reduction of four elementary teachers would cause the average elementary class size to increase from 19 to 20. A reduction of the equivalent of 4.6 full-time intervention specialists would mean that "students will receive less frequent and intensive intervention support," according to Rodriguez's cut list.

Reductions of about a half a position in music, art and physical education would mean that the remaining staff members would work with more students. Reductions of a .9 psychologist position and one guidance position would result in an increase in case loads and a reduction in availability for consultation.

The cut of one position in instructional technology "will significantly reduce the amount of instruction in technology to students and will require an alteration of the model in this area," according to the cut list.

Special education would lose the equivalent of 13.2 positions, eight of them paraprofessionals, resulting in an increased case load. The English Language Learners program would lose two positions.

The building principals would not receive raises. Central office savings would come from utilities and transportation efficiencies ($62,000) and a cut of 1.6 positions.

Increases to the budget would be $90,000 for an additional pre-kindergarten classroom to "expand early learning opportunities for children in the community to reduce the achievement gap," and $28,000 for the elementary schools' share of a new curriculum director's salary.
These reductions assume no growth in state aid, no override of Proposition 2 ½, and no givebacks of raises by the teachers' union.

Last week, Rodriguez outlined $2.6 million in potential cuts to the regional school budget.

Amherst school panel to discuss cuts Tuesday night

Hampshire Gazette
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

AMHERST - After outlining $2.6 million in possible cuts in regional school spending last week, Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez plans to tackle the elementary budget at a School Committee meeting Tuesday night.

"It's gut-check time," he said. "We need to decide what kind of educational services we want. Do we want bare-bones buildings and doors and windows, or do we want something that's truly motivational and of a substantive nature for our children?"

The level of the possible elementary cuts will be in the $1 million range, not including the estimated net savings of $450,000 from closing Mark's Meadow School, said Andy Churchill, chairman of the Amherst School Committee.

On Saturday, Rodriguez gave 35 officials from Amherst, Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham a vivid picture of the impact on the regional school district of lower state aid and higher staff salaries. State aid, which accounted for a higher percentage of revenues than town assessments up to 2002, is down to 37 percent this year and not expected to rise next year.

There will be an increase in class sizes next year and a decrease in the number of elective courses, Rodriguez told the regional officials. The number of students per guidance counselor will rise and the amount of time allotted to physical education will fall, he said.

Two things could reduce the extent of the cuts. One would be a positive vote in Amherst next March 23 on exceeding the state-imposed limit on property tax increases. The other would be a giveback by staff unions on negotiated salary increases, which add up to 5 percent on the regional level and 4 percent on the elementary level.

There is a need for an override, Rodriguez said, but first it's necessary to go through the process of outlining possible cuts under different revenue scenarios. He said he made an offer on givebacks to the teachers' union, which on Thursday voted to talk to him about the sensitive issue.

"We're not going to economize our way out of this problem," said John Musante, Amherst's finance director.

Still, Rodriguez is looking for savings that don't affect classrooms. He said the district will change the "Cadillac service" of providing house-to-house bus stops. He has asked staff to recommend ways to reduce special-education costs while staying in compliance with the law, he said.
He has also proposed consolidation of two alternative high school programs, one in South Amherst and the other on East Street, where the high staffing level "exploded my mind," he said.
Rodriguez said he is assessing the financial and educational implications of switching from a trimester system to the more common semester system. He has also launched an inquiry into how many students have left the public schools for charter or private schools and what their reasoning was.

School Committee member Catherine Sanderson has circulated charts of state figures showing that the per-pupil expense in Amherst is much higher than the state average and surrounding towns. On Saturday, Rodriguez questioned the validity of such comparisons.

"It's a very inexact science," he said.

The data are two years old, he said, and Amherst last year eliminated the equivalent of 55 full-time positions.

The outcome of the Amherst override will have a big impact on the three smaller towns in the school district. The percentage increase in the town assessment will be largest in Pelham, where enrollment declines are more moderate, and smallest in Shutesbury.

John Trickey of the Pelham Finance Committee said he needs to know what his town's regional assessment will be, with and without an override in Amherst, and would like to project expenses three years into the future.

The regional school budget must be approved in three out of the four towns to become official.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

More Comparisons: Amherst Versus Northampton

I want to start by saying that I think numbers are good for us to see and think about -- of course numbers can be interpreted in different ways, but at least they provide the ability for us to carefully compare the same thing (e.g., MCAS scores, or per pupil spending) at different schools and in different districts. We all likely value different things, and thus come to different conclusions about what the different numbers mean. But for me, looking at this type of objective data helps us figure out what we look like (for better or for worse) than other districts -- in a way that is at least more objective than simply having people say "of course, our schools are wonderful."

So, I looked up 4 sets of numbers at Amherst Regional High and Northampton High: course requirements, mean SAT scores, AP class offerings, and AP scores. These are pretty similar high schools -- Amherst is somewhat larger (1201 kids versus 896 kids), whereas Northampton has more low income kids (26.4% versus 17.3%) and more kids in special ed (21.8% versus 18.6%). But overall, I think they are a decent comparison -- two moderately sized high schools in Western MA in college towns.

  • Both schools require 4 years of English and 3 years of social studies
  • Northampton requires 3 years of math and 3 years of science; Amherst requires only 2 years of each of these subjects
  • Northampton requires an additional writing class (no such requirement in Amherst)
  • Northampton requires 2 additional core academic classes (including world language), whereas Amherst has no other academic requirements
  • Amherst requires a class in PE and a class in health, whereas Northampton requires one class in "wellness"
In sum, Northampton has more rigorous academic requirements (especially in math and science) than does Amherst.

SAT scores

SAT scores are required by many colleges and thus are an important way of assessing how competitive students will be for college admissions (and scholarship aid). In 2008, 246 of the 1201 students at Amherst High took the SAT (20%, which makes sense given that these tests are typically taken by seniors or perhaps juniors). In Northampton, 170 of the 896 students took these tests (19%). So, about the same % of students at both schools took the tests.

Amherst students tend to do slightly better on the SAT than students in Northampton: 570 reading (versus 552), 582 math (versus 573), 571 writing (versus 555). Although the Amherst numbers are better, remember that Northampton has more low income and special education students than Amherst (and those students tend to perform worse on the SAT).

AP Classes Offered

Both schools offer AP English Literature, AP European History, AP Bio, AP Physics C, AP Calculus AB, AP French, and AP Spanish.

In addition to those 7 classes, Amherst also offers 4 additional AP classes: AP Calculus BC, AP Latin, AP Chinese, and AP Environmental Studies.

In addition to these 7 classes, Northampton offers 5 additional AP classes: AP Chemistry, AP Physics B, AP Statistics, AP US History, and AP Microeconomics.

Interestingly, although both schools offer basically the same number of AP classes (11 versus 12 -- although of course Amherst is a larger high school with more overall classes and students and faculty), the types of AP classes differ considerably. In Amherst, 36% of the AP classes offered are in world language (4 of the 11), 45% are in math and science (combined; 5 of the 11), and 18% are in English/social studies combined (2 of 11). In Northampton, 17% of the AP classes offered are in world language (2 of 12), 50% are in math and science (6 of the 12), and 34% are in English/social studies combined (4 of the 12).

AP Scores

There has been a lot of talk on this blog about AP classes, and whether we should have them, and who takes them and so on. But two things are quite clear: first, these classes do help kids get into college, and second, these classes can help kids place out of college classes (and thus have more options in their schedules -- and sometimes reduce college costs).

In 2008, 143 kids in Amherst took an AP test (for a total of 203 test taken, since some kids take more than 1). That means 12% of the kids in Amherst High took at least one AP test. Of the 203 tests taken, 176 received a 3, 4, or 5 (the scores you need to get college credit) -- meaning 87% of kids in Amherst High who took an AP got such a score.

In contrast, 188 kids in Northampton took an AP test (for a total of 324 tests taken), meaning 21% of the kids took an AP test. However, only 244 of the 324 tests taken received a 3, 4, or 5, meaning 75% of tests had such a score.

What does this mean? It means a much higher % of kids in Northampton are taking AP tests than kids in Amherst -- although kids in Amherst tend to do better on the tests (which makes sense -- if we are only having higher achieving kids take the class and/or the test). But given the differences in the populations at these schools (e.g., Amherst has fewer low income kids and fewer kids in special education), it seems quite clear that Amherst is under-represented in terms of kids taking AP tests.

One more thing to note: in the Amherst High Program of Studies, students who take AP classes are told they can take the AP if they want, but are not required to do so. In contrast, in the Northampton High program of studies, students are told that those taking AP classes are REQUIRED to take the test - and it is noted that the fee for the test is waived for kids on free/reduced lunch. I imagine this policy (of both requiring the test and waiving the fee based on financial need) helps more Northampton kids take AP classes and potentially receive college credit and/or placement out of entry level courses.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Per Pupil Expenses: Amherst Versus Northampton

There is considerable talk of our dire budget situation and a March 23rd override going around across town. But as a parent with three kids in the elementary schools and a member of the School Committee, I believe my responsibility is to make sure the schools are using whatever money we have in the wisest way possible (whether we have lots of money or not so much money in a given year). As my blog readers know, I find looking at comparisons to other districts very useful in thinking about how we do education (e.g., what courses we offer/require in a given discipline). I also think such comparisons are very useful in thinking about finances.

So, I examined, using public records ( comparisons between the Amherst Regional Schools and Northampton. Note that Amherst is very similar to Northampton in multiple ways -- they serve just about the same number of kids (2,800 compared to our 3,086) in the same number of schools (6), and the populations are quite similar (except they have a higher percentage of low income kids -- we have 17.3 and they have 26.4 -- and a higher percentage of special ed kids -- we have 18.6 and they have 21.8). Yet they spend almost $1,000 less than the state average per pupil ($11,613.94 compared to the state average of 12,448.78) and we (Regional Schools) spend $3,500 more than the state average ($16,131.11). So, you have to ask do kids in Amherst get a better education for this considerable extra money?

And I don't think so. In the Northampton middle and high schools, class sizes are the same as ours, except they have no mandatory study halls throughout high school (our kids have 2 right now per year, meaning 8 over the course of high school, and may well have 3 next year, meaning 12 over the course of high school). They also have more AP course offerings than we have (AP chemistry and AP statistics). So, I don't see how we are spending so much more, and our kids are getting so much less.

That led me to look at the detailed charts to see where we are high versus Northampton. Here are all the areas in which you can see a real difference (again, you can go to that link I posted above to see the numbers for yourself):

1. We spend more on administration than Northampton (and both spend more than the state average) -- this is particularly true for Human Resources (114.15 in Amherst-Pelham, 31.74 in Northampton, 32.69 state average), and IT (218.19 in Amherst-Pelham, 146.43 in Northampton, 65.40 state).

2. We spend more on instructional leadership (1,237.41 versus 738.57 in Northampton, state average is 800.14) -- that includes more on curriculum directors, and school-building leadership (e.g., principals). Northampton is at the state average on principals -- we are much higher (now, this number may be slightly off since this is only our middle and high school principals, who get paid better than elementary school principals, and the Northampton and state numbers include elementary school principals - so those means will be lower because of that).

3. We spend about the state average on classroom teachers, which includes actual classroom teachers as well as any teaching in a group setting (e.g., art, music, PE, etc.). But we spend way more on specialist teachers -- this is teachers who provide individual specialized attention to one or more students (academic support, intervention, special ed, reading recovery, ELL, etc.). I don't see why Northampton spends $214.50 on these services (with more special ed and low income kids than we have) and the state average is 472.34 and we spend $1,140.47.

4. We spend more than the state average on "other teaching services" but so does Northampton (these are substitutes, medical/therapeutic services, librarians, paraprofessionals).

5. We spend more on professional development than the state average -- Northampton spends less.

6. We spend more on instructional materials than the state average. Northampton spends less.

7. We spend more on guidance, counseling and testing. Northampton spends just about the state average. So, we spend $448.22 on guidance and adjustment counselors -- Northampton spends 275.06. The state average is 232.84.

8. We spend more on pupil services (e.g., athletics, transportation) than the state average -- Northampton spends less.

9. We spend more than the state average AND more than Northampton on operations and maintenance.

10. We spend way more on insurance and retirement programs than the state average -- Northampton spends less. So, we spend $3,112.46 on retirement programs and insurance for employees -- Northampton spends $1,905.06 and the state average is 2,069.27.

11. We spend MORE than Northampton and MORE than the state average on payments to out of district schools. We pay 23,809.73 in this category -- Northampton spends 15,438.42 and the state average is 20.497.51.

So, what do I conclude? We spend a lot more money than the state average (which includes many expensive Boston areas in which salaries would have to be higher) in virtually all categories, and we spend way more money in per pupil expenses than all other area districts. It is not clear to me that this money is being well spent. If we are spending so much more than other districts, why do our kids spend more time in study halls and have fewer course offerings than kids in other schools? And although I certainly believe that we need to spend extra resources on kids who need services (intervention, ELL, special ed), I don't see why it costs us more to provide these services than it costs in other districts, nor do I see any evidence that we provide better services than those in other districts.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Opinion: Outcome-driven decisions

Amherst Bulletin
Published on December 11, 2009

At entry to kindergarten children differ widely in academic preparation, in part because of differential access to enriching early education programs. Such gaps evolve with age, as families use resources to support children in ways that tend to widen differences and schools devote resources to academic support to lessen these differences. By the time students arrive in middle and high school there is substantial variation in proficiency and interest in various subjects. Such differences present a considerable challenge for schools and teachers in their efforts to differentiate education in ways that intellectually engage and challenge all children.

One option is to group students in classrooms on the basis of skills, thereby narrowing the range that teachers must address in a single class. Such grouping tailors the level and pace of the curriculum on the basis of academic preparation, but it also evokes concerns about potential adverse effects on self esteem and academic progress for children assigned to lower levels and/or the fairness of the mechanism used to group students.

An alternative approach is to maintain heterogeneous classrooms but attempt to differentiate instruction based on academic preparation. Although this avoids the need to determine which class is appropriate for each child, it also places substantial demands on teachers who must teach at multiple levels or risk losing some portion of students by either progressing too quickly or too slowly.

Although the Amherst schools use both approaches to differentiate instruction, compared to other Minority Student Achievement Network districts our middle and high schools are much more likely to maintain heterogeneous classrooms. For example, there are no separate honors or AP English classes in the high school, and there is no longer a separate honors seventh-grade mathematics course. Moreover, differentiated instruction in our schools often appears to mean simply providing students with more challenging work to complete outside of the classroom in the form of homework, which may disadvantage those with fewer home resources and less encouragement to voluntarily complete the extra work.

Several factors have likely contributed to the growing commitment to heterogeneous classrooms in our schools, including the belief that grouping harms students assigned to the non-honors classrooms and concerns about fairness based in part on the disproportionate share of low-income children and children of color who have historically been assigned to such classes. These are strong arguments against grouping by academic proficiency, but a fundamental issue remains as to how this approach affects the academic achievement and intellectual engagement of all children.

Despite our rather unique approach to differentiated instruction, we have not systematically evaluated the effects of our methods for serving students with varying levels of preparation, meaning that we have little basis on which to judge the advantages and drawbacks. This includes the reliance on students taking the initiative to complete additional work outside of the classroom rather than being selected (by some combination of testing and teacher recommendation) to receive a more challenging level of instruction during the school day, which in some cases is necessary to qualify for honors-level classes in a subsequent grade. Although it avoids explicit grouping, our approach may disadvantage students under less pressure from parents or peers to push themselves academically or students and parents who are less well informed about curricular options.

As budget shortfalls lead to larger classes that likely make it more difficult to reach children at different levels of proficiency, we believe that it is more important than ever to evaluate rigorously the effectiveness of heterogeneous classes. All our children deserve an intellectually engaging and supported education in all subjects. Moreover, the absence of grouping, although ideologically appealing to some, does not necessarily lead to improved academic outcomes for struggling students or reduced racial or income achievement gaps. It is student outcomes rather than the appeal of specific types of structures upon which we should judge our schools.

Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson are Amherst College professors.

A Solomon-like plan for Amherst

Amherst Bulletin
December 10, 2009

Amherst is facing a long winter of discontent. We can expect passionate defenses of programs threatened by the budget ax, worry by public employees about layoffs, and vows to resist tax increases.

Not unlike other communities, Amherst faces a gap between maintaining the same level of public services next year and anticipated revenue. That gap is currently estimated at $4 million. After the budget cuts last year, it is not possible to trim here and there and expect to save that amount. Asking voters to approve tax increases to cover the entire gap would be a divisive, uphill battle when Amherst's average annual bill is among the highest in Western Mass.

As residents struggle with their own personal budgets, it will be hard for many to put the town's general well-being ahead of their own.

The challenge is how to reach a consensus. In the past Amherst has tried different strategies. In 2007, the Finance Committee proposed a multi-year plan that tied a $2.5 million override to a pledge of no more overrides for three years and the promise that town officials would advance an economic development strategy and press for more financial assistance from the colleges. Voters rejected the override. Selectmen have held January forums to jump-start budget discussions. Amherst school leaders this year are convening a focus group to weigh in on different budget scenarios.

In the end what's needed is an alternative to the all-or-nothing mind set that too often drives budget discussion. What's needed is a grand compromise, in which all interest groups give up something and no one gets everything they want.

The compromise requires some cuts in programs and services, employee unions' acceptance of lower raises, the town's financial wizards agreeing to spend down some cash reserves, and majority support for a modest override on March 23. The compromise assumes that everyone would be willing to sacrifice a little for the good of the whole town, but that no one - neither unions nor fiscal conservatives - wants to feel like they are being asked to bear the whole burden.

The reduction in services is a given. Town boards have been and will continue to make cuts in programs and operations. Amherst needs to accept that it has been living beyond its means, but that few people want to change the fundamental nature of the town. The School and Finance committees are looking at ways to maintain educational standards and deliver public services while spending less money. Residents defending specific programs out of self-interest should propose alternatives or risk losing credibility. School employees are due to receive raises averaging 4.5 percent next year, with municipal employees receiving smaller hikes, costing $1.31 million and $430,000 respectively. Since many residents have gone without raises in the past year, an insistence by unions that "a contract is a contract" is a recipe for massive layoffs and bigger workloads. Administrators and unions are already in discussion on adjustments to contracts that turned out to be more generous than the town could afford. If employees could live with half the raises they're expecting, it would save about $870,000.

Amherst has about $4.1 million in municipal reserves. The town's financial leaders are reluctant to see those rainy days funds drop and risk lowering the town's bond rating. But families struggling to meet their household budgets tend to look at reserves and wonder why they're being asked to pay higher taxes. The key to any plan is spreading the pain as widely as possible, so it makes sense to spend some reserves.

Those who say no to any added property tax must also be on board. They have legitimate concerns over town spending and Amherst's high tax level, but they also must understand how changes in state and federal tax and revenue sharing policies have hamstrung all communities. State aid for Amherst is expected to decline in the next fiscal year. If Amherst approved a $1 million override (a quarter of the anticipated shortfall), the average tax bill would increase by only about $3 a week.

Getting buy-in from taxpayers will require showing that the burden is shared broadly. More specifics are needed, but one approach would be to cover the $4 million gap equally from budget cuts, reserve reductions, wage reductions and a tax increase. We've had winters when the town gets divided up into pro- and anti-override camps. Assuming that Amherst would prefer to come together than be torn apart, it is time to try a new approach.

Our holiday wish list: Town leaders willing to stand up and do the hard bargaining necessary to make this type of compromise work.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Regional Meeting, December 8, 2009

I posted a brief summary of the "highlights" of the meeting late last night -- here is my more thorough review of the meeting. Also, I am VERY behind on posting these meetings summaries (apologies for this) -- I haven't posted summaries for the November meetings yet (but will do so soon). So, keep checking back if you want to read my summaries of the prior meetings (which will include posting the executive summaries from the parent surveys for all three types of schools).

The meeting started with a presentation by MS arts teacher Tara Farley, who brought in three students to share their art (Cubist drawings) -- very impressive presentation (and I hear fabulous things from parents and kids about Miss Farley's teaching - though sadness that art is offered only in 8th grade).

We then had three comments by the public. Sean Smith (chair of world language at the HS) read a letter for HS department heads noting that the schools have a responsibility to educate all kids and that adults who lose jobs will experience a major loss and should be supported during this transition. Lenore Brick (parent) read a letter asking the SC/superintendent to look out for the arts during times of major cuts, since these classes are really important for some kids. Joe Cullen (parent) asked the SC to remember our policy CC in which the superintendent gives an annual report of the administrative structure of our schools, which should be helpful in conveying to the community what the different jobs in our district in fact are.

Next, we had the superintendent's update. First, Dr. Rodriguez described Dr. Beer's on-going work on evaluating the middle school, which has included focus groups, and that he will report on all aspects of the middle school (including different approaches to differentiated instruction, such as extensions) by the end of January. He also announced that he intends to open the search for the MS principal in January or February. Second, he announced that only a single proposal was received to do the special ed review, but that that proposal was judged to be good and hence that bid has been accepted (this work is paid for out of the stimulus funds and costs $50,000). The review will be conducted by the Public Consulting Group, a division of the Center for Resource Management, in Portsmouth, NH. The work will begin early next year, and the review is to be completed by May.

We then turned to the budget updates for both the MS and HS. Both schools have different tiers of cuts, depending on where we end up as a final budget number (I'm going to do my best to present each tier). Here are the proposed cuts:

Middle School

At the first layer, we lose a .8 student adjustment counselor position but gain a 1.0 guidance counselor (so that each grade has its own guidance counselor, which represents an increase from the current staffing), 1 math plus teacher (but math plus -- which is math intervention - would still continue for kids who need it, just in slightly larger sizes -- such as 6 to 8 kids in a group versus 2 to 6 as it is now), between 2 and 4 special ed teachers (the model of service delivery would change in some way to be determined), a 1 position world language cut (meaning the 11 7th graders who now take Russian or German would choose a new language in 8th), 2 positions in PE (meaning PE would not be taught every other day as it is now but would be combined with health and taught during one semester of ONE year), and a .2 INCREASE in music (meaning music would increase from every other day to every day, as it has been taught prior to this year and I think is a great addition). As I said in my blog post last night, these strikes me as really reasonable cuts (and additions), and I think the QUALITY of the education in the MS would really not be impacted by these at all (and would improve in terms of more music). I know the Russian and German classes have been loved by these kids, but in tight budgets, I just don't see how we make decisions to save something that is benefiting 11 kids at a cost of a position.

At the second level of cuts, we would cut the Quiet Learning Center staff member and replace that person with a paraprofessional (this is a place kids can go to study when they are not able to be in class), and we would cut a clerical position in the front office (we'd go from 4 clerical positions to 3).

At the third level of cuts, we would cut another special education teacher (again, considering the re-doing of the model of service delivery), .4 in world language (meaning class sizes in language would go from 22/23 to 25 and possibly we would go from 4 languages to 3), a .4 position in music (meaning we would have one giant section of chorus in each grade instead of 2), a custodian (we would have 5.5 instead of 6.5).

At the fourth, deepest, level of cuts, we would cut a reading/writing workshop teacher (English intervention support), and we would cut 2 more team teachers from 7th grade, meaning class sizes in 7th grade would go from 20 to 25 (with all team teachers then teaching 125 students). Mike noted that class sizes this large would make it hard to teach heterogeneous math.

Those cuts, at the deepest level, total $698,314.40. I have a 6th grader and in all honesty, I think his middle school experience will be just fine next year with these cuts -- although I would hate to have class sizes as high as 25 in 7th grade, he has a class now with 23 kids and last year had a class with 26 or 27 (and he loves music so would really like daily music). I think these budget cuts are a great example of how we can maintain a rich educational experience (3 or 4 world languages offered, music every day, reasonable class sizes) even with some thoughtful cutting -- and again, I want to commend Mike Hayes for his leadership on presenting such a thoughtful budget.

High School

The high school administrators (Miki Lee Gromacki, Assistant HS Principal) started by discussing the numbers and cost savings associated with the trimester/semester issue. She noted that there are no cost savings between a trimester with two study halls and a semester with one study hall -- those are the same costs because they both involve kids being in class the same number of class periods (e.g., 13 class periods in the current system). She also noted that there are a few one-time transition costs in moving to a semester (e.g., buying new books, changing the database structure for entering grades, etc.). She also said she was not advocating for either system, just trying to be clear.

The high school then presented its budget, which was called "Scenario A" and has all kids in three mandatory study halls per year (which, for the record, is kids spending 20% of their time in study halls). At the most basic level of cuts, we lose 3.2 elective teachers (eliminating the family/consumer science department, plus classes in consumer auto, computer repair, and wood technology), 2 special education teachers (change in model delivery), 2.7 core department teachers (likely by reducing the number of junior and senior electives in English and social studies and thus increasing those class sizes), reducing PE by 1.3 positions (combining health and PE into a single class to meet the state requirement in sophomore year), reducing course relief for department heads, cutting some administrators (1 guidance counselor, 1 clerical position, .4 administrators/deans), and reducing the GCC program (in which our kids can go to GCC and get college credits).

At the second level of cuts, we would also lose an additional 1.5 electives teachers (resulting in increases in class sizes), 1.1 core department teachers (resulting in increases in class size), and 1 more guidance position.

At the third level of cuts, we would lose 1.8 more elective teachers (again, more increases in class size), plus .2 in core departments (class size increases), a reduction in a department head (I think this is folding ELL into English), more administrative cuts (.1 of a dean position plus reducing the preschool overhead administration expenses), eliminating the GCC program, and a reduction of $40,000 in the athletics (increasing athletic fees, increasing booster club fund-raising, reducing one sport).

At the fourth, deepest, level of cuts, we would lose an additional .6 of a special ed teacher (change in service delivery model), .4 in core departments (class size increases), .2 in PE (reducing course offerings), .5 of a dean, $6,000 in professional development, another $10,000 in athletics (see above for consequences), eliminating the use of the Mullins Center for graduation ($10,000), and reducing a custodian and some copy service personnel.

These cuts total, at the worst level, $1,324,218.


OK, I'm back now.

The high school administrators said that they had originally presented just the three study hall option because they felt this was important in terms of maintaining class sizes at a reasonable level (e.g., below 30), and that is particularly true since you just can't have electives at a size of 30 (e.g., there are only 20 or 22 computers in a computer lab, so how do you run a computer class above that number). However, they agreed to also present a budget with just two study halls, but did note that this approach would lead to bigger increases in class size AND that some classes (e.g., art, computers) might not even be possible to teach at such levels.

All of the changes to all aspects I noted above are still cut at the same levels - with the exception of the TYPE of teachers who are cut. In the two study hall scenario, they propose cutting 3 elective FTE and 2.7 core teacher FTE at the first level (versus 3.2 and 2.7 in the 3 study hall scenario), .9 elective and 2.1 core FTE at the second level (versus 1.5 and 1.1 in the 3 study hall scenario), 1 elective and .5 core FTE at the third level (versus 1.8 and .2 in the 3 study hall scenario), and an additional .7 core FTE at the fourth, and deepest, level (versus .4 at the 3 study hall level). In sum, if we go with 3 study halls, we cut 6.5 elective teachers and 4.4 core teachers, whereas if we go with 2 study halls, we cut 4.9 elective teachers and 6.0 core teachers.

After those presentations, we turned to questions from the committee. I am going to list the questions and answers (in parentheses) in a brief format.

Kathleen - how will we support kids who need help in English at the MS w/ a reduction in the Reading Writing Workshop (we need math help more since kids are worse at that in general, but kids who need help in English will have to get that through their regular English teacher).

Will more kids go to vocational school if we eliminate consumer science, which costs us money (Marks believes that kids can get training in things like auto repair/cooking/computer technology outside of the high school, but can't take biology or social studies).

What will happen with kids who can't do PE (Mark believes LSSE gives some options with good reductions for low income kids).

Debbie - one trimester of PE in 4 years of high school is absurd. Is that legal (apparently it seems to be).

How about kids who take athletics outside of school? Could we prioritize giving kids more PE who don't get it in other ways (yes).

Andy - how do study halls save money (teachers teach 10 classes a year and have two "duty" periods -- so the study halls count as "duty" periods).

What do class sizes look like in 3 study halls versus 2 study halls (about 26 to 27 in 3 study halls, and 30+ in 2 study halls).

What classes would be cut in core academics (likely electives in English and social studies -- fewer options, particularly for less popular classes since we have to fill the seats).

Catherine (that would be me) - I commented on how the middle school looks great, and expressed appreciation to Mike for this budget plan.

I then noted that I think 3 study halls is really bad. I also noted that I called several other districts today, and that there are NO study halls required ever in the high schools in Northampton, Longmeadow, or Hadley (and there is a requirement of a study hall one semester a year in East Longmeadow for juniors and seniors only). Thus, I don't understand why we have our kids in more study halls (2 now, 3 proposed for next year) than other districts.

I also noted that my calculations show that we could have more instructional time with the same number of academic classes in a semester than in a trimester (86% of the time versus 80% of the time). Miki agreed that this was true.

Tracy - could we have kids in study halls go to the gym to run around (possibly).

Could we get more interns from local colleges to help (possibly).

How long is a study hall (about an hour).

Are we eliminating 9th grade science and adding AP chemistry due to budget cuts (Farshid noted that these issues had not been presented as part of the budget proposal, and Dr. Rodriguez noted that he would discuss his recommendations on high school math and science in January).

Kristen - what are the budget implications if kids go to vocational schools instead of stay in our high school (will be looking into this).

What are the consequences of a shift from teachers to more paras in SE (there is no set model and both can be effective).

Why is there a shift in the staffing of the Quiet Learning Center (again, both ways can be effective).

Is it a problem to reduce Math Plus (no, given that class sizes will still be quite small -- like 6 to 8 kids in a group - and it will be easier to offer Math Plus with having music every day in terms of the potential pull outs).

Debbie - she sees cuts to regular education as unfortunate, and noted that regular education is a decreasing proportion of our budget. She also noted that chorus with 80 kids in a room would be bad (at the MS) -- though Mike noted that this is only a cut at the worst budget level (and David Ranen, chorus teacher at the MS, stood up and said he was OK with this and had done it before).

Irv - he said he was unhappy that the SC received the budget numbers with very little guidance as to the meaning of these cuts (until the meeting tonight), and that he still doesn't understand why we don't have more specifics (e.g., which teachers are getting cut in what subjects and what is the impact on learning of those cuts) and he thinks we also need to look at projections a year ahead (e.g., 2012 budget). Mark Jackson noted that he thinks the HS needs to find a big revenue saver, as the elementary schools did with closing MM - -he doesn't know what that can be.

Irv also noted that as you cut the newest staff, you are disproportionately cutting staff/teachers of color, which he finds unfortunate.

Steve - he said three study halls should be off the table. He also noted that providing student support may be easier in the semester system (with more weeks spent in a given class with the same teacher). He also noted it was a real shame the district hasn't done exit surveys, so we don't know why people are leaving for other schools (vocational, charter, private, choice into other districts).

He then passed out a sheet of comparisons that I had prepared earlier that day - and I'm going to past it into the blog right here (it is very small but if you click on it you can easily see the numbers) -- and noted that he finds it very concerning that we spend so much more per student than other local districts. What this data shows (and it is taken right from the Department of Education for MA website) is that Amherst Regional Schools have a per pupil cost of $16,131 ... which is above the state average ($12,448.78) and above the per pupil cost of every other Western MA district I checked (Northampton, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Hadley, South Hadley).

So, these numbers are really shocking to me. For example, let's take Northampton -- a district that has about the same number of kids in the same number of schools that we have -- and with MORE kids on free/reduced lunch AND more kids in special education. Those kids have ZERO study halls throughout high school, and they have classes in both AP statistics and AP chemistry (so they spend MORE time in class and have more class options). Yet we spend close to $4,000 above the state average per pupil (again, this number is $16, 131.11) and they spend close to $1,000 below ($11,614.02). I think this is a really a crucial thing for the school administration to investigate -- I just don't understand how it takes us so much more money per student to provide what seems clearly to be a lower quality education.

Farshid - he would like the cuts to be as far removed from kids as possible (and noted he was a math/science geek in high school and yet loved wood shop and metal shop and typing classes, and wouldn't like to see those cut). He also noted that if you look at the last four years, we have had a 1.5% decrease in what we spend on regular education, yet an increase of 2.6% on what we spend on English language learning and a 9.5% increase on what we spend on special education. He sees this as concerning.

Finally, Dr. Rodriguez outlined the cuts to central administration. These include reducing some staff from full-year to school-year, reducing a administrator and one clerical person (not noted in what area), combining the two alternative high schools (saving $178,000 by closing the East Street building), and reducing transportation expenses (per the earlier SC vote). There are also some other cuts (e.g., utilities, computer leases, IT expenses), but that is it in terms of personnel.

He also noted that although we are trying to keep cuts far away from kids, when you cut 2.6 million, education has to be impacted in some way--you are just choosing how/where.

So, that took a really long time ... as you can imagine. We then stayed around to discuss a new policy on the Evaluation of Instructional Programs. The current policy can be read at: The new proposed policy (which was based on policies in other MA districts, such as Longmeadow and Brookline) can be read at: As you can tell from reading those, the new policy is considerably longer and more detailed, and I believe will provide a much more regular and consistent review policy by which we evaluate curricula. This policy was unanimously recommended by the members of the Policy Subcommittee: Farshid, Andy, me, and Kathy Weilerstein (a member from Pelham).

There was some discussion about this policy, mostly from Kristin and Kathleen. Kristin had some concerns re. language/wording, and is sending some suggested changes. Kathleen had concerns about the districts to be chosen as comparison districts and whether they were largely white districts (they are not -- they are the districts chosen by the SC as comparisons at a meeting earlier this year and include districts with a range of populations). The superintendent suggested we modify the goal to focus on 1 to 3 curricula/programs a year, NOT 2 to 3, in light of the immense work of conducting such reviews.

We then needed to go to executive session so the meeting ended. However, we did decide to have an extra one hour meeting (6 to 7 pm next Tuesday) to hear an update from the legal services subcommittee.

Let me note a few things.

First, I see the cuts at the MS as very reasonable, and although it would be too bad to have to go to the highest level of cuts, we still would have in my opinion a very comprehensive MS (exposure to 3 or 4 world languages, class sizes of 25).

Second, I see the cuts at the HS as much worse, though I'm still not sure what the impact would be on student learning since the specific cuts weren't addressed. I know I've taken a lot of heat for being "anti-elective" but when I say "elective" I don't just mean "elective departments" - and I think we could reduce electives in core departments in some ways that preserve the core of a comprehensive high school. For example, I think reducing the number of electives (both in core departments and elective departments) in junior/senior year English and social studies classes would be unfortunate, but OK. One of those electives is psychology -- my field! But I still think it is fine to not have psychology in high school (and most students don't arrive at college having any exposure to psychology). I also think it is FINE to cut Russian (I know it is a highly successful program with great students and teachers) -- I don't think we are no longer a comprehensive high school if we don't offer Russian (can't imagine many high schools do). Similarly, I imagine there are under-enrolled classes in elective departments that could be cut (I don't know if wood technology is one of them -- although that was one of the areas proposed to be cut last night), and I think we would need to hear more about those cuts and what they would be before determining how they would impact education. I also think, as I've said on this blog and elsewhere repeatedly, that by moving to a semester system, we could have 6 periods a day and one study hall each semester ... for the same cost as having 3 study halls a year on the trimester with 4 periods a day and one study hall -- and the difference for instructional time for kids is 86% versus 80%. That seems like a clear win for our kids.

Very Brief Meeting Update

I am going to do a longer blog post to really summarize the whole meeting sometime on Wednesday ... but it is after midnight and I just got home from a 4 1/2 hour meeting ... so this will be short. Here are the key things we did:

1. Heard a report on the budget cuts at the regional level.

Here's the good news -- Mike Hayes (senior assistant MS principal) has done a fabulous job of making smart cuts. The cuts are, in my opinion as an SC member and a parent of a 6th grader, really minimal ... and in fact, in some ways are even improvements. No change in class size in core classes in 8th, class sizes in 7th go from 20 to 25 (under the worst budget scenarios). Two world languages (Russian, German) are cut -- but these languages are now serving a total of 11 students in 7th grade. He has even managed to find improvements -- music goes to every day (now is every other day) and there is an extra guidance counselor so there is a guidance counselor for each grade. Intervention support for math is reduced, but remains at what he feels is an appropriate level. PE is combined with health, so kids will have somewhat less PE. But overall, he's taken really smart steps to make cuts that I think will have minimal impact, and although I know no cuts are easy, I am very, very impressed with how he has put together this budget.

Here's the bad news -- the high school administration put forth two proposals. Scenario A moves us to 3 study halls, meaning kids have 12 classes and 3 study halls over the year (4 classes and 1 study hall each trimester). Class size would increase some. Scenario B moves us to 2 study halls a year, meaning kids have 13 classes and 2 study halls (like they do now) -- but the class sizes grow quite a lot (over 30 in some cases) and some electives just couldn't be taught at all at that level (e.g., can you do art to 30?). I believe three study halls a year is impossible (as did several other members of the committee), so I think we are facing huge classes at the high school in virtually all areas next year.

Some cuts to central administration were proposed (these were a bit vague still), and the two alternative high schools would be consolidated (at a savings of about $178,000).

2. We discussed a new policy on the evaluation of instructional programs -- I will post the policy on my blog tomorrow sometime (it is already available on the ARPS website). Some changes were suggested, and the policy subcommittee will revise accordingly.

I will do a longer post tomorrow, but here are the highlights!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What the Research Says Re. More High School Math/Science

NOTE: This is an entry I orginally posted in May of 2008 -- when I believe I had fewer blog readers (in my second month on the School Committee). A poster asked for me to re-post this entry, since it examines issues that we are now discussing at length, so I am following this request.

This post describes an article published in Science magazine in 2007 on a research study describing the link between high school math and science courses and success in college science courses (Science 27 July 2007: Vol. 317. no. 5837, pp. 457 - 458). This research examines the link between amounts of high school science (number of years of coursework in a given discipline -- biology, chemistry, physics) and high school math (number of years of math coursework, including whether math stopped at pre-calculus or calculus) and grades in college science classes (biology, chemistry, physics). Not surprisingly, more years of high school science in a given discipline was associated with higher grades in college science in that discipline (that is, the more years of coursework in high school in chemistry, the higher the grades in introductory college chemistry). However, more years of high school science in one discipline was NOT associated with higher grades in college science in another discipline (that is, more years of high school biology did not increase grades in college physics). Perhaps the most important finding, however, was that more years of high school math was associated with better grades in college science in all disciplines (that is, students who finished calculus in high school receive higher grades in college courses in biology, chemistry, and physics). For those who are visual learners, the graph showing this association is below (high school biology is in orange, high school chemistry is in green, high school physics is in blue, and high school mathematics is in grey).

So, what does this mean for the Amherst Regional Schools? I believe it means two things. First, we should be placing a strong emphasis on making sure that all students have the opportunity to finish calculus in high school, which is associated with higher grades across all core scientific disciplines in college (note: this means pushing for all kids to take algebra in 8th grade). Second, we should be placing a strong emphasis on making sure that we offer two years (one introductory year, one second or AP year) of each science discipline in high school, since students who have two years of a given discipline in high school perform better at college classes in this discipline. Amherst Regional High School now offers AP science classes in biology and physics, and we should add an AP or other second-year/advanced chemistry class to make sure that students who are interested in college chemistry have this option.