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.

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.

102 comments:

Anonymous said...

Before you say these budget cuts are really good I must comment through my tears. I recognize that cuts need to be made and how those cuts impact my particular child is not the big picture issue. I realize there is some backlash as to how much money is being spent on Special ED and I too am surprised about some of the programs such as Building Blocks, alternative high schools etc which are BIG Sped line items. .However let me tell me how this will impact one child in Amherst not that I think anyone will care and again the goal of the SC is to think of all kids not particular kids. My son is very bright but due to his early life before he was adopted has a processing reading problem. Since we moved to Amherst he has been pulled out of the classroom for SPED help for a large part of the day. Contrary to popular opinion there is little differentiation in the pull out classes either so we have spent hundreds if not thousands of dollars on tutoring to 1. help him stay up to speed in reading and 2. help him accelerate in math as he has the ability and was bored in his pull out but could not be in the classroom due to the heavy reading component not the math ability. Liam is among the most popular kids in his grade, a gifted athlete and has no social behavioral problems like many (not all) students pulled. We are fortunate in that we have the means to pay for tutoring however as Liam becomes more involved in travel sports (where he makes his friends and gets his self esteem)finding the time is a problem. Until this year I had a very frustrated little boy who hated being pulled and being away from his friends as he has the intellectual ability but a disability that prevented him from being as successful as most students. Long history. This year due to the willingness of his teacher (Tom Chang) to go the extra mile and a parraprofessional who helps all students in the class with math and Liam in particular if he has trouble with the reading component Liam is in the regular classroom for much of the day. His self esteem is high, he is being successful, is with his friends etc. for the first time does not come home saying how much he hates school (given that both his father and I are educators used to kill us) is talking about going to college etc. the goal of special ed right? Well this change in delivery will probably mean next year he will be pulled, isolated and in tears again every day. So next year I will have to tell him that he is back in the pull out not because that is best for him but because there is no money to help him.....hard lesson for a 11 year old. So Catherine first I appreciate everything you do in your work on the SC, investigating issues, research and blog and I do not think that SPED is a scared cow but the big ticket items do not seem to be cut unless I am missing something. However before you and others start talking about how this budget is not bad because it does not cut music (Liam loves music so i am happy about that) and does not have a great impact on your kids or the majority at least recognize how catastrophic this budget is for others. I do not expect anything to change but please be a bit more sensitive about what this means for the kids who have the hardest time each and every day. I tell Liam all the time I can not imagine how hard it is to know how smart you are but not be able to be successful due to the way traditional school is taught. I have just shared more about my son than I would normally as I feel his information is private but however a little more sensitivity might be in order. I feel like my sons future has just gone out the window

Jan Kelly

Anonymous said...

I feel like the future of instrumental lessons and the children who will go on to play these instruments is being placed before the needs of the struggling/SPED child. This begs the question, is this a classist move??

Rick said...

Last night’s meeting was another piece of evidence that ARPS is doing a better and better job of managing its budget. We all thought the ARMS budget cuts were very well thought out. The elementary school budget presentation was even better. The sheet handed out that clearly showed a snapshot of what the three schools look like (personnel-wise) after the cuts – side by side – was just what was needed.

Couple of things on the cuts themselves:

1. As with the ARMS cuts, these cuts are generally hitting struggling kids worse than kids who are not struggling. There was no answer given to what really is going to replace the subtraction of intervention teachers. This is a real concern, and I hope we hear more on that in the future.

2. All other cuts do not appear to be “cutting off an arm” type cuts, but this gradual chipping away at things really does hurt over time.

3. It was made all the more clear what a great decision it was to close MM. As tough as that was, we really saw the benefits of doing so last night. (BTW revised estimate of savings was presented: $768,359 – we should see close to that full amount in 2012; in 2011 we have costs to close that subtract from that.)

I think Catherine made a good point here: “…regardless of the current funding situation, our responsibility is to make sure that we are making wise fiscal decisions with whatever funds we have” …and if you ask me, ARPS is doing exactly that - or at the least is moving far in the direction.

There is still lots to look into on comparison to other schools on the cost-per-pupil analysis, but as we try to get to the bottom of that, so long as we are making wise fiscal decisions with whatever funds we have that’s the important thing for now.

I am VERY impressed with the work that has going into 2011 budgeting so far.

I am also more and more impressed with Superintendent Rodriguez. What a difference it makes to have the right person in charge.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand enough about what goes on in intervention program now and what the "change in delivery" of services means. Re: Jan's moving post, I don't understand why her child will be pulled out more not less, if intervention is moved to afterschool and the summer. Some more detail please.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that Jan's post is yet another reason to look closely at the Investigations math curriculum. If I read her correctly, her son is good at math but is frequently struggling wtih the assignments because it has a large reading/writing component. If we were to switch to a less reading/writing intensive curriculum (one that, perhaps, focused more on the actual math SKILLS), kids like Liam would probabaly do just fine (if not great) at math. In addition, our ELL kids would probably also do much better at math.

I remain anonymous for my kids, but they also had investigations at Fort River and hated it. They didn't learn many basic skils and although they started out kindergarten loving math, they left that school hating it and feeling frustrated.

Anonymous said...

Rick, who is the WE in this statement:
"We all thought the ARMS budget cuts were very well thought out."

Abbie said...

Hi Catherine,

I am confused and I think a lot of parents that I talk to are also confused about "intervention" teachers. In my daughter's third grade class she tells me (and other parents kids tell them) that someone comes in teach (1) Math (2) Reading (3) Writing. These are often 3 different teachers. From what we hear they teach the entire classroom, not just struggling kids. Are these "intervention" teachers? If so, I think these are the types of intervention teacher positions that ought to be cut before those that work DIRECTLY with kids with special needs. Again, it is heartbreaking that anyone has to lose their job, but in thinking about kids needs these positions seem essential.

It is actually mysterious to a lot of us why the classroom teacher cannot teach effectively all these subjects. Probably like everyone of my generation, we had one teacher in the early grades (I think 6th grade is when we changed classrooms for subjects).

If we have teachers that are unable to teach on their own reading, writing and math, then there lies a REAL problem.

Rick said...

Sorry shouldn't have said "we". What I meant is that is the general impression I am hearing from most.

And by "well thought out" I don't mean the cuts are good.

Anonymous said...

The reason I am assuming (again an emotional assumption) that my son will be pulled out more not less is that until this year he was pulled out for SPED services much of the day as he was unable to keep up in the regular classroom. He still is pulled for ELA only but is in the classroom for math with a parra who helps all students but helps Liam and another boy the most. If Liam were to be in the regular classroom all day (particularly for ELA) he would be lost. If the parra positions go he MIGHT not be able to keep up in math due to the heavy verbal component and hence be pulled again.

Having help only after school and in the summer does not help the SPED kids, maybe the struggling regular ed kids who need a boost to pass MCAS. Also for someone like my son having to stay after school every day after a day where he works harder just to keep up would be seen as a punishment for him and would probably prevent him from doing what he loves best....after school sports. I would not support this model for him as he also needs to be a kid. He is so tired after school each day it is a struggle to get him to do his homework (but we do) and I do not want to totally turn him off to school. Also why would it be ok to have after school help for SPED kid but it is not ok to say that in the MS students who want to accelerate through extensions in math can stay after school for extra help? Regular intervention after school is not what he needs. I hope I am misunderstanding what its going to happen but feel that the SPED services (different from interventions ie reading recovery and math help for mainstreamed kids) are being severely impacted in both Regional and Elementary budgets. Again I am not saying they should not be looked at and cut if what we are doing is excessive but need to see more about what is proposed and what the teachers (not SPED but classroom teachers) and school building administrators feel about the cuts. It is hard to read that SC members were disappointed that language was not added at the same time services needed for kids to survive are being cut. It is just hard to see a kid start to believe that he is not stupid (which he is not just learns differently) only to see the rug potentially pulled out from under neath him. He was starting to be a real success story of the AMherst public schools. Obviously some of the principals share this concern.

I will now wait and see the details of how my sons IEP will be met under this new model.

I also have an interest in the regular education in AMherst and am not saying to continue to cut regular ed and add to SPED just asking for the same transparency that everyone else wants to see. What is spent, why and how to get the most for ALL our students for the least money.

Jan Kelly

Anonymous said...

I applaud Ms. Kelly for telling her story and putting a human face on all of these cuts.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Jan - thank you for your thoughtful post. I do think it is, however, too early to say what the impact of the cuts will be on a particular child or a particular model of service delivery. The intervention program that is taking the biggest hit (by far) is something called Reading Recovery, which is definitely a pull-out program and is highly expensive (one teacher works with 8 kids over the course of the entire year). A total of 8 SE paras are being cut, but this is across all of the three schools -- meaning each school would lose 2 or 3 for the entire building. At Fort River RIGHT NOW, there are 18 paraprofessionals working in special ed ... there would therefore still be 15 or 16 next year. So, again, will there be an impact of having fewer paras at each school? Sure ... but I think it is far too early to say that a particular child will have his or her needs met in a different way.

You also say that "the big ticket items do not seem to be cut" and I'm just not sure what these are! We could certainly increase class sizes -- I suggested that -- but the principals said that also reduces the ability of the classroom teacher to differentiate (as you describe Tom Chang has done this year), and thus can require MORE money ultimately, not less. I suggested cutting instrumental music but I also hear from teachers that that is where some kids with IEPS really shine (who struggle with other parts of academics). Similarly, we could cut art/music/PE, but I think those also play really important roles in keeping all kids engaged (including kids who need SPED help).

We could cut the added preschool classroom -- but the goal of that program is to DECREASE sped need later on -- again, not clear that this is a better choice.

The SC is interested in getting feedback about these proposed cuts, and if you believe positions should be taken from other places to keep SE and/or intervention support higher, let us know -- but it is most helpful if you can also identify what some of the areas you think these are so that we can produce a balanced budget.

Anonymous 7:21 - I'm really surprised to hear the accusation regarding saving instrumental music to be a classist decision ... it seems quite clear that parents with money can (and do) pay for instrumental music lessons outside of school ... so cutting this program would hurt lower income students who wouldn't have access to such lessons outside of the school day. Does that really seem like the right choice?

Anonymous said...

If I were to put a human face on what reductions are doing to my high-achieving kid, which are as painful to us as the possible changes for Jan Kelly's child are to her, how would that go over?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Rick - I agree that last night was very impressive -- it was the best budget presentation I've ever seen. Both the elementary and middle school budgets seem VERY, VERY well thought out (and I'm hoping we will see a budget at this level of though from the HS in January).

I agree that the cuts are going to impact struggling kids worse than kids who are not struggling -- but there didn't seem to be any way around that (e.g., larger class sizes, cutting instrumental music, reducing preschool, etc. all hurt those kids the most). I thought the superintendent made a lot of good points about more effective models of intervention support to make sure we are using the most effective services (Steve also made this point several times). More details on this would indeed be useful

2. I certainly agree that "All other cuts do not appear to be “cutting off an arm” type cuts" -- but I'm not sure why you think this is gradually chipping away? The class size numbers are just fine (well within our targets) and the kids have the same exposure to music/art/PE that they do now. I don't see the chipping away in this budget (with the possible exception of the intervention/SE support).

3. I also TOTALLY agree that this budget proves that closing MM was the right thing to do -- if you think about this budget and then cut another $700,000 from it, you are clearly increasing class sizes and cutting instrumental music and many other cuts (of the "cut of your arm" variety). I hope families who protested that decision earlier this year can now recognize its benefits.

I agree that we are seeing a much greater sense of fiscal responsibility and thoughtful budgeting on behalf of ARPS -- definitely moving in the right direction (and kudos to the superintendent AND all the elementary school principals for this).

Finally, I believe we really do need to continue to look into the cost-per-pupil cost analysis -- we owe it to the community to explain why it costs more to educate kids in Amherst than anywhere else! However, I believe the cuts we saw last night very likely would result in a big decrease in the per pupil expenses in Amherst (as does closing MM) -- because we are definitely getting more efficient. I would like to see this number because I bet it has already dropped a decent amount.

Anonymous 8:55 - you raise a good question (as does Jan), but I just don't think we have enough information to even make a guess on what intervention is going to look like yet. I can definitely ask the principals for more information about what type of service delivery we could expect, however -- I will ask for this to be reported at the January meeting.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Please have the administration document for all of us the amount of time each student K-6 is spending per week and per year in "specials" --

art, music class (not instrumental music), library (where actual teaching goes on, not just looking for books), and technology/computers

-- this current year, what FY11 looks like, and what 1999-2000 looked like.

I ask for that for a couple reasons. One, it's good to see where we are every 10 years or so, right? And specifically, it's hard for people to get particularly concerned about the scraping away of an hour here or there of K-6 specials until they realize how much less each child is getting than they did 10 years ago.

Remember that time spent in specials is usually time all the classmates are integrated, rather than in pull-out. I am probably not the only one who would like all kids to be getting at least as much time in specials as they did 10 years ago, if not more!

As I've mentioned in the past, as have others, the middle schoolers also had more art/drama/tech etc. five years ago than they do now, and it's important to recognize and document for the community how the current and proposed FY11 offerings stack up against 5 years ago.

I don't believe anyone thought 5 and 10 years ago that it we were spending too much time in specials; it's that we were short on funds and something had to go. We need to keep those losses in mind as we move forward, not so we can grieve or complain, but to understand what we are trying to provide. I'd rather have two or three more kids in the upper grades classrooms and get back more art/music/library/technology, others may disagree, but if we don't keep track of this info, we aren't recognizing the full picture of what Amherst's community values were and are.

Anonymous said...

I worked with Liam Kelly for two years and I can confirm everything his mother says. (I would NEVER say this except Jan's already gone public). I no longer work for the district.

I loved working with Liam and I miss working with him, but with the district in the shape it's in, once I got my teacher license I left to try to find a job elsewhere.

I'm gong to post some info here so people understand maybe a little better what SpEd is, anyway.

SpEd kids work very hard all day long at things other kids do automatically and effortlessly.

As a result some of them are played out by the end of the day for any more brainwork, just as Jan says. Ordinary tasks like remembering where a book is or to put a paper in a backpack require tremendous effort. It's exhausting.

These tasks come under the heading of executive function. Many kids with LDs have executive function delays or disorders. This is a significant part of the reason why kids who are obviously smart or of average intelligence cannot get their work done in an effective way, why they are so forgetful, disorganized, and unfocused at times.

The support staff (paras) function as the child's executive manager, keeping the child on task, explicitly naming and explaining task managements, and modeling how it works. Over time, between brain development, practice and maturity, things improve.

Many kids with LDs also have short term memory issues. A reasonable comparison is an elderly person who is still smart but no longer sharp. They get the big picture just fine, but the little things (keys, appointments, pill taking)get away from them.

School is all about the little things at the elementary level.

So there is a lot of humiliation on a daily basis, a lot of frustration and --fortunately -- also progress, which comes in fits and starts.

As Liam's para, I was able to be there for him in the best sense of that tired phrase. I learned his learning style, his sense of humor, and what kind of support he needed or didn't need. We were able to communicate very effectively. By the way, I also had many other kids I worked with, each of whom had different needs.

He could relax knowing that a para had his back, so to speak -- and focus on learning. And boy did he.

Many people contributed to his progress: Liam himself, his parents and family and many devoted friends, his teachers, his tutors and district specialists. And I'm sure his new para is doing a great job too.

I don't see how the elementary schools will have this kind of success w/o such focused para support DURING THE SCHOOL DAY.

The SpEd teacher cannot do it because he or she is teaching groups, writing IEPs, testing, attending meetings and otherwise unavailable for inclusion support at this micro-level.

Anonymous said...

I was very pleased to read the article in the paper about how well-thought out the cuts seem to be. I applaud the direction our new superintendent is taking us.

I do feel badly for kids like Liam and how they will be impacted by the para cuts.

Kids like Liam who have learning issues but not behavior issues need the support that they need. However, there is definitely the feeling amongst parents (like Jan said) that pull-outs are not helpful. We know of parents who are frustrated their SPED kids do not seem to be making any progress towards getting back into the mainstream classroom, and they're placed in a heterogenous group of kids of varying abilities/behavior issues (so they are not learning much there either).

Another issue seems to be the kids with behavioral issues. And I can't help but wonder how much of it can be avoided by stricter parenting, setting stronger limits (in school). We know of kids who have been biting and kicking children since kindergarten (who are now close to graduating from elementary school). Or you see parents who say "boys will be boys" when their over-the-top boisterous kid is running amuck. This one I'm thinking of has a para - so it's a very expensive way to keep one kid under control and out of the way of the main class' learning time. Really, is an IEP a substitute for lax parenting?

I understand that a para is needed to help keep a kid on track in the classroom - but wouldn't it be more efficient to group several of these kids together with one para instead of each kid getting their own? You don't need a one-on-one for behavior issues like you do for a kid with CF or in a wheelchair.

Anyways, hopefully the schools will think carefully about the best use of paras in the classroom now that they are cutting down on paras. Everytime you cut down on something, it makes you think about whether you are making the best use of your resources -so this is a good move for our schools. I think we are very para-heavy in our schools and some are working in more necessary positions than others.

And I agree with Abbie - a classroom teacher should be able to teach all the main subjects (reading/writing/math/history/
science) by themselves, instead of being a host for visiting "lecturers."

Anonymous said...

"Another issue seems to be the kids with behavioral issues. And I can't help but wonder how much of it can be avoided by stricter parenting, setting stronger limits (in school). We know of kids who have been biting and kicking children since kindergarten (who are now close to graduating from elementary school). Or you see parents who say "boys will be boys" when their over-the-top boisterous kid is running amuck. This one I'm thinking of has a para - so it's a very expensive way to keep one kid under control and out of the way of the main class' learning time. Really, is an IEP a substitute for lax parenting?"

Once again,someone talking about stuff they have no clue about. Until you have a child who needs SPED services, yes even services for behavioral issues, you have no clue how painful it is to see your child acting out and have no way to stop it. It's not bad parenting skills - these children have real educational and emotional issues. I had a child with behavioral issues (he is now in his 20s.) I was brought to tears time and time again as I tried to figure out how to help him as he lost control over and over. I can remember sobbing as we drove home after a particularly hard episode that happened while we were at a concert together. I kept thinking "I wish there was a pill I could give him to cure him", as I might be able to do if he had a biologically based condition, such as diabetes. The next day the school psychologist called me to say she thought I should have him evaluated for depression...that yes maybe there was a pill I could give him to help him. And yes, he did indeed have depression, among many many other educational issues. And the pill did help him.

I know - long story. But I want to impress that the behavioral issues are not caused just by "bad parenting." Please, I wish folkd would stop talking about stuff they don't know anything about. Many of these kids, and their families, are in alot of pain and turmoil.

Anonymous said...

11:25 I second that. Our family has been going through a similar situation and it is very frustrating and painful for all. It is very easy to blame it on parenting skills or call a child a brat when the issues are not seen by the eye. Good doctors, good teachers and time help, and thats about it.

Anonymous said...

Catherine,

you are correct I do not know how the delivery will change for Liam and other students., I hope that there can be more information about how it will work soon. To say there will be a different system but not to outline that system whether it be in SPED or regular education certainly can cause anxiety as evidenced by my posts. I reacted emotionally like others have in the past as we all want whats best for our kids (As you now I have two by the way so am not just invested in SPED) and the Superintendent and SC need to act in the best interests of all... a difficult task in difficult times and I applaud anyone who will give the time and energy to do so.

Anonymous 10:04. You should put your name and your childs name and post how the cuts this year will impact your high achieving child. The only way the budget process can be owned by the entire town is all voices are heard. I do feel in the past that all SPED spending has been vilified and hence wanted to speak for that population. Budget pain should be shared. If you read what I wrote I did not say do not cut SPED but do so with your eyes open.

Final post from me for quite some time .....I do think it is interesting that we are going to spend 50,000 for a SPED review when through the budget process we are recommending a change in delivery both at the Elementary and MS levels. AGain I am not saying not to change the delivery but the timing is curious to me....should we save the 50,000?

Jan Kelly

Anonymous said...

To all who read this blog. I just realized that in the past some post from this Blog have been quoted in other sources aka the newspaper. I really put my story out there and probably should not have (I regret using my son Liam's name) so I would ask that our privacy be respected ant that nothing from my posts be quoted in a secondary sources or media.

Thank you

Jan Kelly

Joel said...

Jan,

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Nick Grabbe from the Gazette reads the blog. Why don't you email him directly. I'm sure he'll handle your request professionally.

Anonymous said...

The reality is that the proportion of the budget going to regular education has been shrinking over the past ten years while the proportion devoted to special education has increased. This is the first year since my family has been here that there have been any substantive cuts to the SPED programs. I know it must be shocking to those used to receiving increases in SPED year after year, but this is how those of us who have only regular education kids have felt year after year over this past decade. It is tough when any cuts need to be made, but this year I am less upset because I feel like everyone is "taking a cut." Thank you, Dr. Rodriguez, for not being afraid of taking this on.

Anonymous said...

I just don't want our schools being the place where children's behavioral issues are addressed. It just isn't working for anyone. It seems like health-care reform should tackle this.

lise said...

SPED in Amherst has all the hallmarks of a process that is not working. It is too expensive, not delivering the results (widening achievement gap), and all of the stakeholders are unhappy. Kudos to Dr. Rodriguez for leading the charge to fix what is clearly failing. I don't mind the $50k if we get some good advice that helps fix the system. That said, it would help if the specific delivery changes were outlined in conjunction with the budget. Until the changes are detailed, most people will imaging the worst.

lise said...

imaging=imagine

Anonymous said...

"I just don't want our schools being the place where children's behavioral issues are addressed. It just isn't working for anyone. It seems like health-care reform should tackle this."

When I read this the first thing that pops into my mind is where do you want these kids to go? The schools must address the behavioral issues in order for the kids to go to school. So, if a child is having some behaioral difficulty while they are in school what is the school supposd to do? Ignore it? Then how does the child learn? The schools must address the behavioral issues in order for the child to attend school. Or would you prefer that these children be prevented from going to school?

Anonymous said...

No, I don't want them going elsewhere!! I want their parents and doctors and health care professionals to HELP them. They are not being served in our schools.
Please, don't go out of your way to misinterpret what I wrote.

Anonymous said...

From what I know of these situations, many of these kids are getting help outside of school. But, even with this help, they will still have behavioral issues inside school. It's not something they can turn off as they walk thru the front door of the school each morning. Many of these behavioral issues will be lifelong struggles for these kids.

Anonymous said...

I should add, the behavioral supports these kids are getting at school are the supports they need to function in school. The supports do not go beyond that. Many will need alot more therapy and help outside of school.

Anonymous said...

Much of what IDEA 2004 (the Federal SPED law) requires is NOT discretionary. In my judgment SPED spending increases when administrators within the system make poor decisions. For example choosing litigation over mediation (as has been discussed at SC meetings).

My experience as a SPED parent in Amherst is that senior members of the Administration, informed by their Boston attorneys, prevent the professionals who actually work with our children from collaborating with families to form a Team to educate special children.

They have created an opaque process based on fear - evoking silence from the professionals working with children in Team meetings who fear for their jobs, and exasperation and fear from parents fearing retribution should they object to administrator methods. The same is clearly true of outside support staff.

It would be very interesting to see:

1) How much the District spends on legal fees and consulting; and

2) How the education of our children could improve with a collaborative process (rather than one marked by hostility).

If the SPED administrators had the confidence of parents and professional Team members they may be able to come up with creative cost saving solutions to seemingly intractable SPED costs. If every parent and professional mistrusts the management of the SPED department this will never work.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Catherine, for the comment about the instrumental music programs.

The assumption that underlies all the discussion is that the musical child and the child who is high achieving academically is always a child from a wealthy family. Where's the evidence for that assumption?

I can tell you that, based on my acquaintance with 8th grade science teacher Jennifer Welborn's Science Fair teams, there was a fair socioeconomic cross-section represented in those teams. These were high-achieving science students who were white and black, who had some accomplished work in that competition in the spring of '07. Most of the Amherst teams from the regional competition in North Adams qualified for the state competition in Worcester. The representation from ARHS was large AND diverse.

Sometimes I think that we really don't realize what we have going here. We have a lot to be proud of happening in our schools. Try attending the Undergraduate Academic Awards Night held each spring at the High School Auditorium, and then watch, listen, and learn. The diversity in the names and faces of the award winners will take your breath away.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

If I were religious, I would say "AMEN" to Anon's December 16, 2009 1:29 PM post.

Since I am not (and we don't live in a town where one can go around saying religious phrases), I will say "THANK YOU" for voicing so eloquently what many of us felt when we read about this year's proposed cuts. Finally! The new super is ready to act, and act by getting SPED spending back under control. Act by NOT cutting regular ed as has been done (relative to COLA) every year for the past 10 years.

I am almost thankful that there is a budget crisis, because it at least makes us look hard to see where the fat is in our budget.

THANK YOU, Anon 11:29 again! And a big thanks to the SC for finding us such a great superintendent who is finally ready to act for the whole town, for all the kids. You guys did a great job finding us a leader who will take the schools in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

" I think we are very para-heavy in our schools and some are working in more necessary positions than others."

Based on what evidence do you make the above statement.

There are different kinds of paras doing different jobs in different programs. You cannot state "there are too many" because you looked at a school website, counted up the paras, and thought, "Wow 18 paras, that's too many."

There are instructional paras, classroom paras, general paras, sped paras, behavior support paras, one on one paras.

Instructional paras work for a Special Ed teacher, sharing the instruction and behavior management tasks.

General paras do things like prepping and photcopying curriculum materials and have lunchroom & dismissal/arrival duties. They pitch in all over the building when someone needs help. With Amherst's large schools there is quite a lot of work to be done that teachers cannot do.


Administration pitches in but surely you do not want the principal serving daily as a crossing guard or making photocopies. The office staff have more than enough of their own work to do.

Other (Sped) paras are assigned to programs or classrooms where there are children who require constant supervision, frequent adult supervised breaks, etc.

Classroom paras (mostly in the Kindergartens) take care of the hundreds of tasks that little children generate, from prepping learning materials, reading to kids, wiping noses, wiping bottoms, helping them eat, consoling a sad child, supporting their social interactions etc.

And apparently people don't accept that schools (not just in Amherst) function as family crisis centers, mental and physical health clinics, social service referral centers, and so much more than schools.

Nobody wants a school to have to play these roles, but can you suggest what other trusted public institution that serves families, available free to all, could serve in its place?

Please do not say that parents should take care of their family needs on their own. "Should" has no bearing on what IS. This is not exactly news: my 82 year old mother remembers a health clinic for girls at her NYC public high school (she was curious about what they did in there, but never went in).

Amherst,for all its bucolic qualities, has urban problems that require urban solutions. Very similar to Ann Arbor and other university towns.

There is always a solution if you don't like the role of the school system and where your taxes are going. You can move. I'm not being snide. People move all the time because they want something different.

And I do think the Amherst schools do many things very well and will continue to.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 6:19 -

In another state, one teacher taught a classroom of 30 kids with no paras. And the kids in that public school are learning more math than here in Amherst.

So, yes, it can be done. Not fun for the teacher, but it can be done.

And when you say "There is always a solution if you don't like the role of the school system and where your taxes are going. You can move." I agree, that is one option. Another is private school (which we are considering). Another is school choice, but that costs the town a lot more. And there is a fourth that I am hoping works - that we hired the right superintendent who will get the schools back on track to where I think they should be. To the school system I thought I was buying into when we moved to Amherst FOR the school systems.

And the only way to get that fourth option to work is to speak up about what we want. What's wrong with that? What's wrong with saying what you feel in a free country? Are you saying that I should move because I would like to see some changes? There are many people in Amherst who want to see a change in the school system but that doesn't mean they all have to move.

Anonymous said...

I must clarify a misunderstanding. Reading Recovery teachers do not teach only 8 students per year. There are no "Reading Recovery" teachers. There are Reading Intervention teachers and Title One teachers who teach it. Reading Recovery is a 1 on 1 intervention program for the most struggling first grade students. But it is only part of an intervention teacher's job. An intervention teacher may work with a limited number of Reading Recovery students per year while the rest of the job is spent providing support to all grade levels either in class or pullout instruction. Eliminating Reading Recovery should NOT be equated with eliminating intervention teachers. Every school needs to help the kids at risk for academic failure, give them the lift they need at the crucial time they need it so they can regain class-level abilities. If we cut intervention we will see SPED numbers increase and MCAS scores plummet. Children who with a timely boost could have moved on to success will be left behind. What will that cost us in the long run?

Anonymous said...

"In another state, one teacher taught a classroom of 30 kids with no paras. And the kids in that public school are learning more math than here in Amherst.

So, yes, it can be done. Not fun for the teacher, but it can be done."

Citation please.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 7:41 asking for the citation: My kid went to school there before we moved here. We still keep in touch with old friends and ask what they are learning in math. I don't list the actual school because I wish to remain anonymous.

But here are the rough details: It was in a similarly-sized district (4 or 5 elementary schools, ~3 classrooms per grade per school). It was considered to be a very good school district. School budgets in this state are abysmal, so no specials (no PE, librarian, music or art). Half-day, not full-day kindergarten. No bus transportation. No cafeteria. The library was the size of someone's living room. Parent group (AEF-like) raised money to pay for specials (to pay for the specials teachers' salaries who rotate through all the schools) so you don't get to have a "special" everyday except for Wed. Art and music don't start in kindergarten. Parent volunteers instead of teachers watch the kids at recess. Financially, this town was much wealthier than Amherst (5% FRL at the one middle school vs 20% at ARMS). 60% white, 15% hispanic there (vs 70% white , 8% hispanic in Amherst).

But the education is good. The kids are learning more math there in a room of 30 kids than my kid here. And the 30 kids are quiet, completely focused on the teacher, and she/he is the only adult in the room (from the few times I looked into the room when my kid was there). And yes, this is in America, not a foreign country.

So we are nowhere near cutting to the bone here in Amherst. And we can and should do a lot better with the money we do have.

Anonymous said...

Well, there is at least one family in town who would like to move but who cannot sell their house due to the downturn in the economy and housing values. We cannot afford private schools so we are looking into school choice. The increasing spending on SPED over the past decade and decrease in spending (and attention) toward regular education (especially in math) has put us over the edge. I am glad this year it looks like SPED will be finally taking its share of the cut, but if an override passes, I'll bet that is the first thing that will be restored spending-wise. I can't take that chance for my kids--they are already turned off by school here.

Anonymous said...

The School Committee must focus on the curriculum and teaching quality. Everything else will follow. If the curriculum is rich and strong, all kids will do better even with a a weaker teacher. If the teachers are strong, they will supplement a weak curriculum. If you have both, a rich curriculum and strong teachers the kids, at all levels, will rocket.

Anonymous said...

I have to say one element that is so lacking in this town is the expectation of parent involvement. There are so many children in this school system who regularly do not do homework, parents who don't even give $1 to parent council and parents who don't even come in for parent teacher conferences.

The homework piece is the most upsetting in my opinion. The rest of the class can not move on to new material unless the whole class understands the concept being taught (because apparently putting kids in level appropriate classes is in some way racist or elitist) and then, because so many kids don't do homework the class ends up covering the same material for days at a time. My child sits in the corner with a book because the teacher doesn't know what to do with him because he got the concept the first or second day it was taught and then did the reinforcing homework.

It is frustrating to say the least and I'm tired of being labeled elitist because I want my kids to be stimulated and challenged.

Anonymous said...

I agree with this previous post. My kids felt great frustration at the kids who didn't come to class prepared. It wasn't an option in this house to go to school not prepared. Parent involvement is a slippery slope. Parent involvement in the form of support is great. Sometimes you get parents coming into the school, I'm thinking the elementary school, and being too involved, being a constant presence in the classroom.

Anonymous said...

Parental involvement (or lack thereof) is a huge issue, I agree. For those of us who volunteer on parent committees, as room parents, etc. it is always the same faces around the table. Yes, it is hard to find time to be a volunteer but I, as a full-time working single mom, could manage to find time so I am not as sympathetic to that excuse.

If you cannot volunteer your time, I agree with the previous posters that you could at least make sure your child does their homework. Donating $1 to the Parent Council is also not a huge hardship but does show a committment to the schools.

Take Boxtops for Education fundraiser. That is a fundraiser that costs parents nothing. All they have to do is clip boxtops from food they use and send them in to the school. Last year, Fort River earned a record $530. Meanwhile, Hadley Elementary, which is smaller, earned $1000. Why? Becuase more parents in Hadley Elementary are directly involved with their kids' education.

Personally, after all these years I am getting tired of the same people having to do all the work for all the families. We help teachers, we fundraise, we force our children to sit down and do their homework every night. It is hard to do that when your kids come home and tell you, "I don't know why I even did the homework last night. Hardly anyone else did so we just had time in class to get it done."

Anonymous said...

To Anons 9:33 and 9:53 AM:

Been there and seen that, especially in the 7th and 8th grade: the child that has to sit and wait for the class to move on. So the child does her homework from another class or reads a book. And the parents are supposed to apologize if they think that this is unacceptable on a regular basis.

And, calling the parent "elitist" does the trick to shut down the complaining. And, then they call the School Committee member who speaks up about the problem "elitist", even though she's gotten tons of complaints about this phenomenon from otherwise isolated parents. And then the voters get the idea that that SC member cares exclusively about those highest achieving kids. And then we all assume that the highest achieving kids are wealthy and have some other options to enrich their education outside of the school setting.

See how it works? We could call it The Great Levelling Process in Amherst: a bit of misplaced democracy right here in our hometown.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

I thought the ARPS budget busters were overhead items like retirement & physical plant/maintenance costs.

Can someone explain again why SPED is the ruination of ARPS?

There was a lot of discussion (very informative, too) in another recent thread about how strangely Amherst keeps its books (those that are readily available) and how certain expense lines fall under the school budget that don't in other districts (the aforementioned retirement & physical plant).

I thought that was the single most compelling piece of information I've seen on this blog. While we may spend more on SPED than other districts, is that the ONLY or MAJOR source of the high per pupil cost?

And even if it is, doesn't SPED & tutoring money come from the state & federal govt as well as local funding? I'd love to see a breakdown of where the district's SPED funding comes from. Maybe that info's been widely disseminated and I missed it, for which I apologize.

BTW, is it so terrible to be bored in school? I helped other kids, read a book, got permission to help the librarian or in the kindergarten, workd on club (afterschool) projects or did extra classwork. There's something to be said for figuring out how to keep yourself busy.

"They" say that kids' lives today are so heavily scripted that they sometimes don't know how to take initiative. Are parents feeding into that?

And parents could come up with some ideas. What about chess teams for math class run by parents with flexible schedules. I know you're out there -- academics and the self-employed, for example. If kids finish their work they could play chess and have structured games once/week.

Or would that be discriminatory toward kids who need the whole work period? (In the name of differentiated learning, I say go for it.)

Anonymous said...

Oh, please! I don't send my kids to school to be bored! Yes, there is great value in "learning to amuse yourself" but in school I expect them to be learning. If they are sitting around bored, they will get turned off school. If they are sitting around because other kids aren't doing their homework, the message they will learn is "I don't have to do my homework either." By the seventh and eight grade, there is a pervasive culture of mediocrity among the students, largely because of what they learned both at home and in our elementary schools. Namely, "it is OK not to do the assigned work."

Anonymous said...

The great boredom debate is by no means closed. Whose responsibility is this alleged boredeom? The only subject where I am willing to cave is math, where progress is pretty linear and either you're at, below or above grade level fairly objectively. Boredom in math is time wasted, I agree.

But what do you parents say when your kids complain about it? Mine were unsympathetic, as were parents generally back in the day.

Being honest, is it possible that you are feeding into their complaints instead of finding solutions? DO you openly complain about "that school" and "the district" in front of your kids? Have you suggested or worked with other parents (and principals) to find ways around this?

I wouldn't call those things I did "amusing myself." Every single one of them has come into play in my life as an adult, as has the experience of looking out for my own learning and make my own opportunities. I was and am a self-starter, a go-getter, etc. Are your bright kids learned whiners or go-getters? I've seen both in the Amherst schools.

I don't recall realizing I was bored, or coming home and complaining that I was bored. I really LOVED the fact that I had free time to do my own thing. I felt incredibly competent and productive. Interesting. Could the difference be how mixed-ability learning was framed in a different era?

My husband, growing up in a large university community with faculty brat peers, was also always ahead. Like me he found ways to keep the ball going, mostly reading. At one point he and some pals started their own math group with a textbook borrowed from someone's older sibling before the teacher realized what they were doing. They did that for the rest of the year and had a blast.

Would that be allowed? Even once/week?

As for being discouraged by the lack of performance by other kids...that's another issue that can be positively handled by parents.

Anonymous said...

The grass is always greener over there. I'm hearing a lot of that in here.

I wonder why all of these people moved here? Didn't you look into the seriously troubled state of these schools? Didn't you bother to check what offerings were available in the high school?

Doesn't say much about your forward thinking or intelligence if you deliverately moved your kids into this school district when you knew full well how crappy these schools were compared tot he district you were leaving.

Even if you had to move because someone got transferred here, why would you move to any one of the surrounding towns that have better schools than Amherst?

I'm really puzzled by this. I don't see this as a love it or leave it attitude. I'm asking why did you even move here knowing that the schools did such a poor job?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, there's a plan, blame the kids who did the work and tell them to just buck up. How about the kids who don't do the homework, go to detention and do it there, and then the rest of the class can move on. Sooooo glad I moved my kids out of the schools here.

Anonymous said...

Some of us moved here for work long before we had kids so school wasn't even on our radar. So yes, please blame us for being unhappy about the current situation in our schools and complaining about it. You're right...we should have anticipated that at some future date we would have children and would not be able to afford private school and would not be able to sell our house and move so should thoroughly check out the entire public school curriculum from K-12 and assume that the state of the schools then would be the same as the state of the schools when we did have children in them. Silly us!

Abbie said...

I think it would be nice if Kathleen Anderson would share with all families the "instructions on dealing with the system" (or whatever her exact words were) that she wanted included in the "Benefits Package". I certainly haven't a clue what they are and so my family might benefit from her knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Can we be real here for just a second. THE ONLY GROUP OF KIDS THAT THE AMHERST SCHOOLS ARE TRULY FAILING ARE LOW INCOME CHILDREN OF COLOR.

Abbie said...

Just read this in an article about reducing medical errors and thought it fit perfectly for education (my parenthesis)

"You can standardize certain parts of care (education) based on clear evidence, which will free up doctors (teachers) to focus on those pieces of the health care (learning) puzzle where there is no data — those issues that are uniquely human and that require judgment, expertise and empathy."

This is what I expect our schools to achieve with curriculum choice and alignment.

Anonymous said...

How are the Amherst schools failing low income children of color? Please explain in more detail.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:20
I disagree, I don't think Amherst schools are failing low income students of color...I think their parents are. I see nothing but earnest dedication on the part of educators in Amherst. If parents aren't part of the educational puzzle ie requiring children to do homework, these children will have a much harder time achieving success in life.

Anonymous said...

I think many of the issues on this thread are related. My disgruntlement with the Amherst schools was all about the lack of rules or accountability for anyone in the system including students, teachers and administrators. For example, students are often not truly expected to do their assigned homework, and many times there are no consequences other than having the entire class do the homework assignment in class the next day. Lots of detentions for coming to high school late, but if you miss too many classes to graduate high school, that’s OK, it isn’t a serious rule. There are very few curriculum requirements by grade, and for the most part teachers teach what they want - some good - some bad. There is little transparency or oversight for budgeting, staffing, and program development; so we have positions and programs with no understanding of their cost or effectiveness.

In this arbitrary atmosphere the only group of kids that truly succeed in the Amherst schools are those with savvy and activist parent/guardians. These adults advocate for their children, make sure their kids take the right classes, get the right teachers, and do things like extensions and honors options. If necessary, these P/Gs get tutors or outside resources, or insist their kids stay for after-school help. These are the students most likely to live up to their potential, and the kids that go to the selective colleges from ARHS that people like to cite as evidence that everything is OK. It has nothing to do with race or class, just with the ability to navigate the system and get out of it what you need. However, certainly educated parents with financial resources have an advantage. Thus we have a system with a widening achievement gap, and a system where a student without an adult advocate can easily slip through the cracks.

I think everyone in the system is working hard and has the best of intentions. I don’t think the schools are "failing" any group of children, but they could serve everyone better by instilling a culture of accountability. Have administrators define, explain and justify programs, positions and budget numbers. Have strong curriculum standards by subject and grade; to make it less critical to get the “right” teacher. Expect kids to do their homework and show up at school, and have consequences if they do not. Clearly communicated standards, and expectations of accountability, are key to making an open and just school system.

Anonymous said...

Do not blame parents of color for the homework problem. It's across the board, in every kind of home.

Anonymous said...

In looking at why we have such high per pupil costs I would guess that some of the reasons are: that the teachers have by far the highest salary scale in the valley, that the administrators are probably the highest paid in the valley, and that we may have more administrators per pupil than anyone else around. I do feel that Mark Jackson and Dr. Rodriguez are well worth their salaries. Didn't HR review administrators' responsibilities in the business office, SPED, etc. a few years back and give most everyone significant increases?

Ed said...

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

Exactly how many secretaries do they need and WHY???? And four custodians????

And Catherine, how do you know that the students leaving the district are going school choice and not simply just members of families leaving the area because of the economy? The latter is happening, young workers hardest hit (wait until the layoffs happen at UMass) and hence I question the underlying claim.

Nina Koch said...

anon 10:50 pm
our starting salaries are very close to starting salaries in Northampton. their upper caps are lower than ours, so our average is probably higher. but I wouldn't be prepared to say that Amherst is the highest in the valley unless I had gotten information directly from each and every school district in the valley.

The average teacher salary that Catherine reported on a previous thread is incorrect. If you look at our salary schedule, you see that the number she quoted is very far down in the table and couldn't possibly be the average. For accurate information, she might have contacted our HR department but she chose not to.

Just one more offering at the buffet of misinformation.

Fed Up Parent said...

Nina,
I wouldn't call going to our state department of education web site for comparable district data the "buffet of misinformation!" That is where Catherine and Steve got their comparative salary data. That is what the state claims is the official repository for comparative school information and encourages people to use it. It is not the public's fault if HR reports something differently to the state than it keeps in its own records. Rather than insulting the attempts at comparison, why not enlighten us why the HR number is different than that available from the state?

Anonymous said...

Hey Nina- Just to let you know there are lots of folks out there who think it's worth having a great corps of experienced teachers and don't mind paying a premium for it. And Abbe- to be perfectly correct, if Im not mistaken, the numbers you are referring to that are on the DOE website are the cost per pupil not average teacher salary.

Abbie said...

to anon@731,

what are you talking about, when did I refer to numbers?

"the numbers you are referring to that are on the DOE website are the cost per pupil not average teacher salary"

ed said...

In fairness, the Amherst v. Framingham comparison ought to also include the rental housing market.

And what I mean by this is not "rental" per se but places socially respectable, well maintained and in good neighborhoods, with amenities.

These are communities of young adult professionals -- those aged 22-40, married or working their way towards that, but without kids yet. (People tend to buy a house when the first kid is expected.)

The Route 9 corridor -- Brookline, Natick, Framingham, Shrewsbury -- has a great deal of this type of housing. Amherst has none, excepting individual house rentals, there really is no place where the young professionals live.

Hence an Amherst teacher has to buy a house when a Framingham/Brookline teacher would still be renting. And that, in fairness, needs to be reflected in the starting salary.

I still think the human resources budget is way out of bounds in Amherst but in fairness you need to look at this. And the real issue is not the starting salary but the upper ends of the scale...

Anonymous said...

Sorry Abbe- my mistake, That should have been FeD up Parent

Fed Up Parent said...

Anon 10:06, ALL of that information is available on the state web site: http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/

Comparative teacher salaries, dropout rates, per pupil expenditures, etc. All are available for the public to see, and I can only guess that each school district is required to report this information to the state on an annual basis and are given specific instructions as to what can and cannot be counted so as to standardize the measures across the state.

Anonymous said...

Wherever the numbers for the average teacher salary in Amherst came from, they are incorrect. The number CS quotes, in the neighborhood of 63k, is way up the salary scale on the teacher contract in amherst. Check for yourself. The contract is public information avbailable here:
http://www.arps.org/node/907

If the 63k were correct, the vast majority of teachers would be at or above that number, meaning we would have a teacher work force that, on average, had been here 10 years and held a Master's degree.

I just don't think we have that many long standing teachers. We have a good number, but I doubt it's the vast majority.

It is possible that the state data base is wrong. Wouldn't be the first time a state govt had posted the wrong information.

P.S. the teacher contract is negotiated in good faith every single time a contract expires. This has been going on for decades. Two sides negotiate the package: the school committee, which reprepsents the town of Amherst, and the teachers, paras, adn clerical units.

The teachers don't demand and get whatever they want. The package we currently have has been hard fought on both sides.

If you don't like the package, run for school committee and get on the contract negotiation team.

To sit out in the bleachers and piss and moan about the teacher salaries without getting involved is cheap and easy to do.

You should also look at this school committee and vote someone else in if you don't like the current contract because many of the committee members who were on the negotiation are still SC members.

Anonymous said...

I am one of those who was referred to earlier who is willing to pay a premium to pay and hold on to experienced stimulating teachers. In fact, I would like Amherst to be the best place in the Valley for a public school teacher to work.

BUT I'm also a political realist. I don't think that voters are going to vote for an override that they perceive is then going to go immediately and primarily into salary increases for teachers. And we all remember prior instances of "oops, we found additional money we didn't know we had, never mind".

I think that the teachers might consider a gesture along the lines of "if you do X for an override, we will do Y in terms of concessions on a contract". I have no idea what the mechanism to accomplish that would be. It may not exist.

This is along the lines of what Ye Gods at The Bulletin suggested last week, without all their lofty condescension about how personally culpable we all are.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Why is music program not being touched, infact restored (Middle school now 3 days music, next year 5 days music proposed), while all other electives are impacted or eliminated at middle school and high school.

Is it because we have the loudest parents voice objecting music cuts?

Anonymous said...

I also just found out that being enrolled in a music ensemble is the only way for your kid to avoid a study hall in the middle school (unless they are in Math Plus maybe?) and to reduce the number of study halls your kid gets in the high school.

Not that I am against the option of having music every day in the middle school. I think that is a good thing but do wonder why music students do seem to be privelaged by getting out of study halls.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

1. My understanding is that the teacher salary data posted for the state includes people who are licensed as teachers BUT may be serving in another capacity (e.g., assistant principal, curriculum director, etc.). So, classroom TEACHER salaries are likely not fully reflective in the number I posted -- but of course that is equally true for salaries in Amherst versus elsewhere. And my point in posting those numbers was NOT to say that our teachers are overpaid ... it was to say that our teachers are paid more or less in line with other districts in our area, and thus I do not understand why our per pupil costs are so much higher. Relatedly, teachers get paid FAR more to teach in Brookline and Newton (like in the $70,000s), and they have the same per pupil costs as we do. Thus, I think we all should be asking, NOT why do teachers make what they make in Amherst, but rather how are we spending as much money per student as districts that pay teachers far more?

2. The music issue is very simple -- first, kids can take chorus (this is a music option) in the MS, so it is not just instrumental music. Second, teachers can teach chorus/band/orchestra to large numbers of kids -- David Ranen (MS chorus director) is WILLING to teach chorus sections as large as 80! You can't teach art to 80 at a time, nor can you teach computers to 80 at a time. So, we can complain about music availability ... but the choice isn't music or art or computers ... the choice (which is available for ALL students) is music or study hall. This has nothing to do with loud complaining parents and everything to do with the MS leadership team (Mike Hayes) trying to keep kids from having study halls -- which I think is a good idea!

Anonymous said...

Many, perhaps most, of the instruments for the high school program are from the 1970s. It's not like this program is deluxe! The music programs have been cut or at best level-funded for years and years.
As Catherine points out, if you want to be brutishly calculating, music classes are a really efficient way to handle many kids.

Anonymous said...

Ed said:
"each school will have a principal, assistant principal, 3 secretaries, and 4 custodians

Exactly how many secretaries do they need and WHY???? And four custodians????"

Can only speak about one school but FR office staff -- 2 sec'ys handle everything but Special Ed and one handles everything to do with Special Ed (huge volume of phone calls, meetings, legal stuff, paperwork, filing, all of it confidential, shredding, etc etc etc).

Other two secretaries do all the purchasing, keeping track of all personnel matters including making sure there are substitutes, stand in for nurse, typing of millions of things, receptionists for anyone who walks in, deal with mail (in and out), answer constantly ringing phones, help students, help teachers, help parents, help vendors, interface with the distict/central office, answer constant flow of questions from the second they walk in to the moment they leave, page people and forward calls, schedule appointments, distribute memos, and I'm sure I've left out dozens of other things they do very well and with great good humor and grace.

Please keep in mind that the building has over 65 staff and 450 or so students.

I can't speak as well to the custodians but I believe they do not work the same shifts so perhaps they are not all there at the same time. If you walked around the building counting all the light bulbs and toilets you might start to wonder how it's possible to manage with just the four of them. Remember they take care of the outside too (snow, litter, etc.) Not long ago each school had more custodians.

Kids make a huge mess. FR has mice; you want rats??

Rick said...

"This has nothing to do with loud complaining parents and everything to do with the MS leadership team (Mike Hayes..."

YES. Again, these cuts are not good but I have heard this ARMS budget presentation 3 times now and it's really clear to me that painstaking thought went into this. Also, they agonized over the cuts in intervention teachers and that will be the first thing that comes back if there is more money to work with.

Anonymous said...

I must say here the hardest and perhaps not the only group of children being 'failed' by the Amherst schools are indeed children of low-income families and children of color...It's true and the more you yell about it not being true the more time you take away from doing something about it!!!

Anonymous said...

Why not consolidate the 7th and 8th grade orchestras? That;s the way it was when Mr. Smith was the conductor.

Ed said...

Please keep in mind that the building has over 65 staff and 450 or so students.

That is a staff to student ratio of 6.93! This is simply not sustainable, and the issue is where we cut, not if we cut!

Anonymous said...

How many people total work in the Amherst public schools? (Total being everyone, not just teachers).

Anonymous said...

The combined principal for the middle and high school seems to be working; is that being considered for next year (and into the future)? We have good assistant principals holding down the fort and Mark Jackson has been great! This could save money and help with the curricular alignment. If our enrollments continue to decrease, it would also help smooth the transition if we do move to a combined middle/high school model.

Anonymous said...

There's plenty of conflicting info (what else is new??) about the merits of a low teacher-student ratio. What seems to matter the most is the QUALITY OF TEACHING in conjunction with reasonably sized classes (22 seems to be the generally agreed-upon upper limit in the earlier grades, esp in districts with many high-needs children).

It's fascinating how low ratios are viewed BOTH as a sign of quality and school/state commitment to its children AND as a sign of wretched excess and waste.

I guess which side of the argument holds sway depends on finances.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 6:14- Maybe it's working because all the players are working under the assumption that to is a temporary situation. mr. Jackson made it pretty clear back in Sept that he had no interest in being the principal of both buildings over the long term.

Anonymous said...

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.

Doesn't the CORE Company sell literacy material to schools? How can they be objective in their findings if their business requires that it sell such products in order to remain solvent and pay the visiting auditors' salaries?

And didn't our superintendent receive degrees from Florida International University, Nova Southeastern University and Barry University? And do not some members of CORE's staff also share the same educational experience?

And will not anyone reveal the cost of such an "audit" nor the process used to hire such a company?

Anonymous said...

anom 6:31 good point
hope someone looks into this!!!!

rick or catherin????

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to note that the teachers who do not have professional status are the first ones to get cut. Many of these teachers are the hardest working most dedicated teachers in the district. They also get paid significantly less than the average salary. Meanwhile, there are incompitent, outdated teachers making significantly more than the average salary. I hope that the teachers who are fortunate enough to keep their jobs teaching in this amazing town will face more accountability.

Abbie said...

to anon@1056:

it seems to me that the union makes this virtually impossible. Less effective teachers just get put into less damaging positions. When those positions get cut, they are put back into classroom.

Perhaps a teacher could pipe in here (anon) to explain what accountability exists (operationally) cuz I think this is mysterious to families.

Anonymous said...

There isn't really any accountability. Evaluations are done but teachers plan special lessons for the observations and principals have to rush to write up reports by a deadline. I think pricipals are scared to say anything negative about teachers because of what happened to Prince. Teachers do what they want in Amherst. I would suggest that parents make themselves more present in the classrooms, I know that having parent volunteers has always kept me on my toes!

Anonymous said...

Many of the teachers in the older grades (3rd or 4th grade and up) do not welcome parent volunteers in the classroom. Or perhaps they just want them for a specific project, but not on a regular weekly basis.

Some teachers have correctly pointed out that there are already too many other adults in the classroom (with the ELL para, the one-on-one para for one of the kids, the classroom para, and sometimes the reading/writing specialist too.)

But it sure would be nice if parental opinion could be used to guide placement of teachers (whether they be in the classroom or in a more specialized position).

Anonymous said...

The majority of classrooms do not have that kind of extra support every subject, everyday. Having a parent in the room working with children is the perfect solution to the challenge of differentiating instruction.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 6:31

You won't get a response to this one. Big can of worms to open.

Anonymous said...

According to administration, stimulous money was used for the CORE evaluation and there is additional money from the stimulous package that can be used for new curriculum materials. I think the reason this outside company needed to be hired is because principals aren't doing the job of evaluating. CORE will most likely report back what we already know, there is inconsistency and pockets of excellence. Unfortunately, thousands of dollars spent on a new curriculum won't change that. You'll still have teachers who refuse to teach in a different way.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why you're singling out teachers here. It's the same in many professions- medicine for example, tenured college professors for another.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 5:27

"Doesn't the CORE Company sell literacy material to schools? How can they be objective in their findings if their business requires that it sell such products in order to remain solvent and pay the visiting auditors' salaries?"

I read that to mean conflict of interest, or possible bias findings.

Anonymous said...

I read the post the same, surely their hope is to sell their materials. However, Amherst is paying CORE for the audit regardless and I like to hope there are still some honest businesses out there. The woman that observed seemed very nice.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:42AM, yes, incompetencies exist in any profession. The difference here, I think, is that our school system doesn't seem to have any serious professional evaluation being done on a regular basis to uncover these incompetencies. My kids have been in our system for over ten years now and I would say only 1/3 of their teachers have been truly excellent. And they were wonderful and really put their all into their classrooms. Unfortunately, most of these have now retired.

Another 1/3 have been really dreadful, uninspiring, critical, and did not perform their jobs (for example, never graded and passed homework back). Did I complain to the principal about this? Yes. Did anything happen? No. Except for the few who have retired since, they are all still in the classroom, teaching our children. Paid for by my tax dollars.

Yes, incomptencies exist elsewhere, but usually you have a choice of what doctor or lawyer to see; we don't have any choice as to who stands before our children every day unless we can afford private school.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:57

"what happened to Prince" had absolutely nothing to do with fair and effective supervision, just the opposite

Anonymous said...

I personally do not care to have parent volunteers in my child's classroom. Parents are not necessarily good or patient teachers, nor are they necessarily conversant with issues of equity & diversity.

And "differentiation" is more than reading a different book. Well-meaning people are no substitute for trained professional educators who understand different learning styles and issues underlying challenging behavior.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 6:31 Regarding CORE:

Great questions about CORE. Did this really happen? Dr. R. HIRED a company, CORE, to evaluate our language arts program. CORE SELLS their own language arts curriculum. Of course CORE's evaluation will include a recommendation that the district purchase CORE's product. Is our Superintendent truly going to waste money at a time when the budget deficit is critical?

Furthermore, some CORE staff attended the same schools as Dr. R. There is no way this is a coincidence. Dr. R has hired colleagues in the past as "consultants". He has just done it again, and he will continue to do so until the School Committee puts an end to it.

I hope Catherine gets back to us about this.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

I am glad to look into any number of things that are concerning to parents/staff/teachers in the district ... but I'm not going to do it via anonymous posters on my blog. So, people who want answers to the CORE stuff have two choices:

1. Send an anonymous comment to the "on line suggestion box" on the ARPS website where all SC members read it.

2. Send a private email to me with your actual name: casanderson@amherst.edu.

Anonymous said...

I share the concerns which have been raised about the CORE consultants, the manner in which they were hired, the source of the funding, the connections CORE employees might have to the Superintendent, and the huge conflict of interest of sales people "evaluating" materials produced by their competitors. And I would be happy to include my name. Tom Forester

Anonymous said...

Unlike some others on this blog, I do not want "answers to the CORE stuff". It is sufficient that a SC member has been informed and now we can see if anything happens.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Tom Forester/Anonymous 3:45 - again, I want to be clear: this blog is NOT the official forum in which to raise concerns about the Amherst schools that you'd like addressed by your SC representative. If you want me to act in an official SC way to look into the CORE evaluation or other issues, I'm looking for an official email to my private email from your email (with a name and an email address at which I can contact you). Alternatively, you can share these concerns with the entire SC by emailing the on line suggestion box on the district's website.

Anonymous said...

To: Tom Forester, Anon 6:31, Anon 3:45, Anon 11:33, Anon 2:04, Anon 7:08, Anon 6:44, Anon 4:31, and all of the others concerned about CORE. It would appear that Catherine is feeling somewhat defensive about the issue. But not to worry. She knows about it, we know about it, the Gazette knows about it, the Bulletin knows about it, and the Republican knows about it. The truth will surface.

Anonymous said...

I don't hear anything defensive in her post.
Ali