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 9, 2009

Regional Meeting, December 8, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Middle School

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

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

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

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

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

High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

***********************

OK, I'm back now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

So, that took a really long time ... as you can imagine. We then stayed around to discuss a new policy on the Evaluation of Instructional Programs. The current policy can be read at: http://www.arps.org/policy/ILAA. The new proposed policy (which was based on policies in other MA districts, such as Longmeadow and Brookline) can be read at: http://www.arps.org/node/1073. As you can tell from reading those, the new policy is considerably longer and more detailed, and I believe will provide a much more regular and consistent review policy by which we evaluate curricula. This policy was unanimously recommended by the members of the Policy Subcommittee: Farshid, Andy, me, and Kathy Weilerstein (a member from Pelham).

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

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

Let me note a few things.

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

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

66 comments:

Anonymous said...

thank you. re: ARHS projected cut-does anyone know why are we waiting to stop graduation at the mullin center (cost savings $10,000)? Why not start right away and have graduation in the gym?

Anonymous said...

As I read your summary, Catherine (thank you for doing that for us) the question that keeps popping up in my mind is how many more years of cutting can we stand? I can't remember a year when there were no cuts. In other words, how low can we go and still provide our kids with a good education? Do you know what future years are looking like? Will we continue to cut and cut and cut ad infinitum?

Anonymous said...

What would be the savings if we totally cut the preschool program? Is this serving the high school students or preschoolers parents more? How many HS students are in the classes each trimester?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 1:07 - I have no idea why Mullins appears at the end. I'm sure it is nice -- but (a) is NOT core, and (b) could be fundraised for (e.g., if students/parents really like it, we could have a graduation fund option). I agree that this should be on the first tier of cuts (far better to do fewer teaching reductions, though $10,000 doesn't buy you much).

Anonymous 1:34 - I can't remember a year in which we weren't cutting either ... and that is depressing and demoralizing for families and teachers/staff. But if you look at the completion of my blog posting and see the numbers I'm presenting, the question I have is why are we spending so much more than other districts, yet our kids are spending less time in class and have fewer course options? To me, this speaks to how we use the funds we have.

Anonymous 3:23 - I was under the impression that the preschool was now totally self-sustained and didn't require additional funds (this was supposed to be totally cut last year in terms of budget implications). I think it either needs to be cut or it needs to be entirely funded by fees.

Julia R. said...

For the middle school, it seems clear that the Quiet Learning Center staff member should be in the first level of cuts, rather than the German/Russian language program. Teachers are encouraged not to send their students to the QLC.
In addition, it's not clear how the German/Russian language program at ARMS is a full position. Right now, the German teacher teaches German 1A and German 1B in one class (for a total of 20 kids). The Russian teacher also teaches one class for 7th and 8th grade. That's a total of two classes for all of German and Russian.
Finally, there are extra teachers at ARMS--ELL teachers sitting in classes all day where there are NO ELL students.

Joel said...

I urge people to click on the posted pdf of comparison spending per pupil by district. It should expand to your browser. Once you see these numbers, you'll have an extensive set of questions for our administrators and SC.

For example:

How on earth are we spending so much more per pupil than any other district in our region and so much more than the state average -- which obviously includes the higher cost Boston metro area -- and still have things like forced study halls? Other districts are spending significantly less money and have more classroom options and no study halls. How did this happen?

Also, are those numbers from before or after the most recent pay increase?

Anonymous said...

Are our costs-per-student high because we pay our teachers better than area towns?

Joel said...

Higher teacher pay alone cannot explain the extreme differences.

Let's look at how extreme the differences are:

Catherine gave us 6 separate districts (if you count Amherst-Pelham as one and ignore the independent Amherst and Pelham lines).

Rounding out, we have one district (ours) at $16,000 per student and 5 districts at between $10,000 and $11,500 per student. Average out that second range and you get $10,700, which is $1,730 below the state average, which is probably the difference in costs between the eastern and western parts of the state.

Amherst-Pelham is at $16,131 or $3,682 above the state average and $5,431 above a representative regional average. To be 34% higher than the regional average and 23% above the state average when you're in the low cost part of the state is simply inexplicable. (Feel free to check my math. I could be wrong, but I think I have the general trend right.)

Moreover, we are spending that much more and still have 2 forced study halls in the HS.

I'm happy we have well paid teachers. I don't think their salaries explain the extreme difference.

Do folks have any ideas how we became so out of whack with everyone else? How did we end up offering fewer classroom instructional hours and fewer APs for so much more money?

I'll happily support an override when we can have the same education as people in Northampton at something near what they pay for it. (Remember, we're not talking about taxes and tax bases, we're talking about per pupil spending.)

Abbie said...

It looks like the great anomaly is the "Per pupil specialist". In Amherst its more than 3x the average. I assume this applies to SPED, but yet Amherst % SPED (at 18.7 is not much higher than the aver of 17.1). Regional numbers are only a little better.

Certainly we pay our teachers more than most but Longmeadow and E Longmeadow pay about the same and their $/student is much much less ( > 29% less).

This has also always bothered me. My former school district (growing up) has 6000 students and their budget is something like 62 million, BUT offers a lot more with 23% FRL! http://www.westside66.org/ ). Where exactly does all our $$ go??

Joel said...

I agree with Abbie. I'll happily pay even more property taxes, but for the education that seems to be available elsewhere, but not here.

Avoiding questions of APs vs. other classes, why do we spend so much and yet have 2 forced study halls in HS? According to Catherine, no other district has even one such forced study hall?

EVERYONE, no matter their view of the curriculum, should be mad as hell about that.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Julia - I think the QLC change in staffing seems quite reasonable, and yes, could be an earlier cut. I did not know about the extra teachers in classes, but that would help explain our higher per pupil costs -- since the specialist costs are for non-classroom teachers (e.g., SE but also intervention, resource teachers, etc.). I know the German and Russian programs have been very strong -- but I'm not sure this is an area in which we can continue to spend money. I think we need to look at enrollment data and costs very carefully and then make a decision about how much we are spending per student for each language. I do note that in the HS, there are currently FAR bigger class sizes in German (22 to 24) than Russian (10 in one class, 7 in another).

Joel (at 4:08) - thanks for clarifying the need to click on my chart. I too have no idea why we spend so much more than other districts.

Anonymous 5:13 - teacher salaries don't really explain it -- our salaries are a bit higher than some other districts, but not much. The gap is too large to explain by teacher salary alone (e.g., we don't pay our teachers 25% more than other districts).

Joel (at 5:47) - I think your math seems very reasonable. Thanks for clarifying. I just don't understand how we spend so much more per student and have our kids in study halls more and have fewer AP classes than other districts.

Abbie - I don't know where the money goes. I'm trying to find out. It is a very reasonable question -- why does it cost more to educate students in Amherst than anywhere else (and the answer isn't that we have more course offerings or our kids spend more time in class or our kids have smaller classes)? The specialist numbers refer to ANY non-classroom teachers -- so, this include ELL teachers, intervention teachers, SPED teachers, etc.

Anonymous said...

Do specialists also refer to Computer, ARt, Music PE etc. at least in the Elementary school they are not considered classroom teachers but "specialists" I also would like to know why we spend more but sometimes different categories are defined differently in different districts. Just a question.

jm said...

I am not for an override or against it. I have way to evaluate the need for an override. My experience last year gives me no confidence in the schools' willingness to give taxpayers clear and relevant information.

I sat through many budget presentations to the School Committee last year and found the process utterly confusing. The budgets presented were sparse and unclear. Many of the doomsday scenario cuts presented never happened and cuts happened differently. For example, the Middle School librarian was to be cut and then, in the fall, there was a libarian. The middle school 8th graders did take a hit in larger class sizes but could this have been prevented by the cuts that Mike Hayes is now proposing for next year? Why can there be 2 guidance counselors next year on a smaller budget but only 1 counselor this year?

There was no information on per pupil costs per department or program (regular ed and special ed) in either the middle school or high school. Nowhere on any budget sheet was there any breakout of the costs of the SE Street and East Street schools. If they can be consolidated now, why weren't they consolidated last year? That cut probably could have prevented a 50% cut in the middle school music program and restored the 7th grade art classes. Maybe it could have prevented the extra study hall in the high school. If these two schools save the district money, why does this area of the budget see the highest growth? Are there ELL teachers in classes with no ELL students? If so, why?

What are the enrollments in each class in the high school now -- in each trimester? Does the trimester system lead to smaller classes or irregular class sizes that a semester system would prevent? I don't know and there's no one to tell me or anyone else.

And wouldn't it be great if each position in the schools had a job description that explained that person's duties? I went to a high school that was 600 students larger -- but with only 1 principal and 2 assistant principals. Amherst Regional has 1 principal, 2 assistant principals -- plus 2 deans of student for 600 fewer students. What do these assistant principals and deans of student do? I have no idea. I could support these extra positions if I understood them.

If the school system wants Amherst residents to keep paying the highest per pupil costs in the area, it must explain what exactly it is spending money on and why -- in detailed, clear budgets. I need to know.

Anonymous said...

jm,


Everything has been TOTALLY out of control for a longggg, LONG time... out of control, abusive-abused and MILKED for all that it's worth...

But the prozac... ohhhhh, the sweet, SWEEEEEET prozac of this happy HAPPY Valley...

How SWEET is it now, to see a tower of her imagined loftiness

fall

down

and

------>implode<------


Oh.

Rick said...

What JM points out is a big problem that needs to get fixed. A lack of clear communication of the facts is the root of so many problems.

Anonymous said...

Rick, It's not just communication -- it's information. School officials are communicating all the time, but they are not providing clear information. JM

Anonymous said...

The answer to the problem lies in SPED. How many of those comparison districts run two alternative high school programs in two separate facilities that require utilities, staffing, and separate bussing? How many of those comparison districts have a "Bridges" program to serve about 10 kids in the middle school? JM asks why there was only one guidance counselor at ARMS last year. That is because they decided to hire instead 3-4 new staff members for Bridges. I believe it cost our district about $120,000. They claimed that the "dean" position for Bridges would also serve "regular education kids." Has the School Committee received any information on how the program better served kids with the addition of those staff members?

At the elementary level, how many of those comparison districts have specialized programs for autistic kids or kids with Down's Syndrome? Any? Or a lock-down program for kids with behavioral disorders where kids are locked in padded rooms?

I think, given the fact that we spend increasingly less on "regular education" each year and proportionally less on "regular education" than the comparison districts yet a great deal per pupil above the state average, the answer must lie within SPED. Yes, our teachers might make more, but I agree that even with the large raises scheduled for the new few years, that still doesn't explain the entire problem.

I hope the upcoming SPED review will illuminate some of these items and provide some direction. If we want to continue to offer very individualized, very targeted SPED offerings for specific groups of kids (autism, etc), families will continue to choose to move to Amherst to receive those services in a free public school setting within their own town. Perhaps that is what our schools do best and how we should start to market ourselves, instead of trying to convince everyone that we have the best preparatory high school in the region. As pointed out, we already have less instructional time (on top of the forced study halls, how many of the comparison districts have late start days at the high school or early release days on Wednesdays in the elementary schools?) than other districts and now potentially larger class sizes.

Perhaps SPED is the one thing we do well? Perhaps to fund our schools we should start opening up our SPED programs to out-of-district kids whose home districts would then have to pay Amherst for their education? If we already have so many of these in-depth, specialized, individual programs, maybe we should try to get our money's worth of them and increase enrollments?

Anonymous said...

According to your chart, Catherine, the teachers in our district make $62,552 on average. And that is for 10 months of work? So it works out to be the equivalent of a $75,000 salary for those of us who work all year (and have to pay for day care for our kids all summer long). Sounds like our teachers are well-paid!

Anonymous said...

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

Second, I see the cuts at the HS as much worse"

Surprise, surpise.

Anonymous said...

Re:Anonymous: December 10, 2009 6:39 AM

Before suggesting that Amherst does SPED well, perhaps we should await the results of the upcoming analysis.

What is certain is that Amherst spends a lot of money on SPED. My judgement is that the funds allocated to Special Education are poorly applied. Rather than move to Amherst for SPED services, parents investigating the school system and its practices (for SPED and typical students) are probably running the other way. Anyone interviewing independent professionals working with Amherst SPED administrators will tell you that Amherst has a terrible reputation - the worst in Western Mass.

Our department is known for being litigious, oppositional, top heavy and opaque. Many parents fear speaking out due to experiences of retribution against siblings in the system. Parents I know comment that IEP meetings - where programming decisions are made for children with special needs - feel like legal encounters where lawyers are the not so silent partners of Administrators and professional opinions of staff are squelched.

Just ask Maria Geryk and JoAnne Smith how often they speak with their Boston based lawyers.

Full disclosure: I remain anonymous as someone who has a stake in both the SPED system and regular ed system that fears retribution for siblings in the system.

Anonymous said...

Also, in terms of confusing cuts. Last year we were told that one assistant principal would be cut from the middle school, but then a new position of dean of students was added. One guidance counselor also was to be cut but two guidance counselors are listed on the website, one counselor being therapuetic, I believe. I don't get it or how to believe what is being said now. Anyone else confused?

Anonymous said...

we need transparency at the high school, not only to better understand where the budget cuts are being proposed but to be able to effectively advocate. ARHS Principal Jackson needs to develop a specific list and face the fire. Being a leader means sometimes taking the heat. I'm embarassed that the middle school replacement principal was able to generate a list that parents could understand, but the high school list remains vague. The Supt should provide additional support to the ARHS to develop a specific itemized list.

Anonymous said...

Center of Resource Management (CRM) is actually a division of Public Consulting Group (PCG)

Confused taxpayer said...

Are Amherst students doing so much better with so much money being spent on them? I suspect they do about as well as East Longmeadow and Hadley and Northhampton. So why so much more being spent per student? What is the extra money being spent on????? Does anyone know?

Anonymous said...

Confused Taxpayer, most of the extra money is spent on special education.

Anonymous said...

The blogosphere, including this blog, has become the home of the disaffected "citizen" who believes that just about everyone is putting something over on him/her and doesn't have the courage and initiative to do something about it.

When I hear the endless calls for "transparency" in Amherst, my first response is: just get off your ass and look!

Rich Morse

Joel said...

Rich,

Ask Catherine, a School Committee member, how many times she had to "request" enrollment by class data from the HS. Other districts post those number on the web and we are entitled to them as public records. But, it took literal demands from an elected official to get them and they didn't come quickly.

Also, the data on per pupil spending was generated by Catherine and Steve. Our district has been extremely secretive about these issues. Think about the often mentioned claim that the last override's failure led to 55 cuts. Turns out that that isn't true, but it's what passes for transparency in Amherst.

The HS principal promised a study of the trimester system. How exactly can I get my hands on that? I've seen SC members ask for it, but they can't get their hands on it either.

Some of us have been asking, demanding, and pleading for information and we've been stone walled.

There is a bizarre culture of secrecy here. On the Social Studies Review I was told that anything any teacher said in his or her classroom was completely private, as if it were covered by FERPA. I had to argue with the administrator who made this crazy claim. He literally thought that something a teacher said to 25 kids in a classroom, e.g., an interpretation of Thanksgiving, was privileged and had to be kept secret from the community.

I don't think information flows as easily as you believe.

Abbie said...

Rich,

I am sorry but I have looked to the best of my ability and I think Catherine has as well. If you can tell us where to find the basis of spending ~16K/student for the product we receive is located I would love to hear it! As I pointed out earlier the school district I attended in HS spends about ~$11K/student. Assuming that our teachers make more than those in Omaha Nebraska (even 38% more) then I would expect that we could have a similar level of education those kids get. They get World language in all elementary schools and the HS curriculum and athletics is simply to drool over... I just want someone to account for where all OUR money is going, cuz it sure ain't regular Ed.

If you want to be depressed check out the HS course offerings. (http://westsidecs.whs.schoolfusion.us/modules/cms/pages.phtml?pageid=81884&sessionid=e587429936eb10329a348e5aee5a605e).

Anonymous said...

Hi Rich, I mostly agree with you, but I have a recent experience in trying to get specific budget information where I really was stonewalled. I wasn't asking for anything that isn't public information but I had to fight to get it, and even then received data that was unintelligible (not just to me!) Despite being (politely) persistent, I could never get my questions answered. That does erode my confidence in the budgeting.

Confused taxpayer said...

Many, many parents and many students are very happy with the high school. This is important and should not be dismissed in any way. At the same time, the high school administration and superintendent must be open and clear about where tax money goes and why. The per pupil costs are astonishing to me. I want to know why they are so high.

I hope that we all find out and that the administration and teachers don't retreat to a reflexive defensive position. We all want Amherst children do well and many want to understand the numbers behind our schools. These two goals are not opposed.

Anonymous said...

In the spirit of transparency, Mike Hayes has put proposed MS budget cuts on the ARMS WEb Site. It is clear he has done a thorough job of looking at cuts. Using paraprofessionals exclusively to support SPED students inclusion in the regular classroom may or may not be the way to go (depending on who you can hire for that small salary) however what is glaring is that the Bridges program does not seem to be cut at all. Dare I say that this is the program that we will find is unusual compared to the other schools in the area in terms of cost per student. I think most schools will have students who need help to be included in the classroom but having such a staff heavy program as Bridges (and the alternative high schools) are what will be unusual. I am not saying they are not wonderful programs but probably inflate the SPED costs the most and hope that they can be looked at as well. How many staff are in the Bridges program for how many students?

Anonymous said...

How is it possible that the mean salary is $62,552. If you look at teh contract, which can be found here: http://www.arps.org/node/907 you will see that very close to what a teacher with a master's degree and 13 years of experience in the Amherst system gets paid. It is hard to believe that that average teacher in our system has been here at least 13 years.

I wonder if the numbers CS posted include administrative pay?

Alison Donta-Venman said...

I asked about the Bridges program at a School Committee meeting last spring because I was shocked at the addition of $128,000 worth of staffing (representing 2 professional positions and one paraprofessional position) in the face of so many other cuts at ARMS. At the time (which is still the most current information I can find on the ARPS web site (under FY10 budget planning information), there were a total of 8 students with a staff of 4FTE (2FTE professional and 2FTE paraprofessional). I asked Maria Geryk at the meeting whether the population of Bridges was set to double for the academic year 09-10 since they were essentially doubling the staff. At the time, I was told that "they didn't yet know" the number of students who would be in the program this year. So, if student levels stayed steady (which is just an assumption based on the former 8th grade leaving and a new 7th grade coming in), there would be 8 students for 7FTE staff (4FTE professional and 3FTE paraprofessional). Of course, we were also told that the Bridges "dean" position would also be assisting the guidance counselor for "all students" but I suspect that didn't end up happening as Mike Hays is now moving a "School Adjustment Counsolr" position to a guidance counselor position (which I think is a good move).

Joel said...

Here's a modest proposal I'm sure our administrators will ignore:

The superintendent should direct the principals of the 5 schools to provide the absolute minimum number of classroom teachers they believe they will need next year. So, FR might have 3 classes at each grade level, so Ray Sharick's initial number is 21 teachers (K to 6 x 3).

Then, each principal can request as many additional teachers and other adults in the building. BUT, every single request must be justified. So, FR might need 4 ELL professionals, maybe it needs just 1 or maybe it needs 17. BUT, each and every teacher, coach, specialist, etc. beyond those who are projected to be in a classroom must be justified with reference to specific needs in that class and for a particular class level.

Do that and those per pupil spending numbers will drop faster than the NASDQ in 2000.

Joel said...

Let me add a few additional components:

Every request must be in narrative form (no spreadsheets) and must reference not only the assumed need, but also how the staffing request relates to state guidelines and best practices. Moreover, the superintendent should make available data on comparative staffing in other districts. All requests should then be placed into the context of staffing in those other districts.

All requests should be made public -- they would never refer to specific students, just numbers of students with special needs, etc. The School Committee, in open session, should review both specific requests and the totality of request.

If this is in fact a real crisis, then our administrators should act as if it is and forget about threatening parents with things like 3 forced study halls and instead justify our enormous per pupil spending in the district.

Rick said...

RE: what Alison speaks about above:

"Ms. Geryk explained that special education student placements are determined by their IEP. Because it can cost from $40,000 to $230,000 for an individual student to be placed in an out-of-district program, the numbers associated with operating the Bridges program represent a huge savings for the district."

From http://www.arps.org/node/806

So do we save somehow by adding staff so we don’t send kids to more expensive outside placements? This is one of the confusing things about SPED that ARPS needs to try to explain to all of us as simply as possible.

Anonymous said...

We live in a small town so just about everyone knows people working at all of the schools. What I hear from them is a reluctance to speak up about waste because it is administrative positions, and even they dont understand all of the position shifting and what the new people are supposed to be doing. One thing I hear mentioned over and over is the SSO. I think the teachers, etc. should be given a way to make suggestions without being identified. Maybe some decent ideas could come from the inside.

Anonymous said...

What is SSO?

Nina Koch said...

to answer Rick's question, yes, our out-of-district costs have gone down in absolute dollars since we started the ESAH program to bring kids back from out-of-district placements.

You can see the peak in 2003 in this data from the Department of Education:


Special Education Costs

The data also show that Regional spending on special education as a percentage of total expenditures has also dropped since a peak in 2005.

I am not sure how they are planning to combine ESAH and SAC but I hope it doesn't lead to any new out of district placements because that might wipe out the savings. Part of the problem with this budget planning if that you have to account for so many different sources of uncertainty.

Anonymous said...

One thing that is entirely clear from this and other threads on the SC Blog is that no one outside the administration has a handle on expenditures. There seems to be no financial control or accountability in Amherst.

Perhaps an investment in some independent forensic accounting might provide clues as to why we spend $16K - 37% more than Longmeadow. At least that will arm those of us interested in improving the system something coherent with which to engage parents, professionals and administrators. It may even provide a hint of transparency.

Anonymous said...

A forensic accountant for the Amherst schools to determine why our per pupil costs are so high? That is brilliant. How much would it cost? Maybe we could raise funds from families to pay for it!

Anonymous said...

No, the one thing that is clear from this is that SPED costs - mandated by federal laws - are insane. Upwards of 200K for ONE CHILD?

Anonymous said...

I'd chip in for that!!

Anonymous said...

A general question:
How can the most recent school committee meetings be accessed on actv on demand?
Thank you for your help.

Rick said...

http://www.actvamherst.com/Site/Meetings_on_Demand.html

Rick said...

Just got back from ARMS PGO meeting where budget was discussed. More impressed than ever at what a good job they did with it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the actv link, Rick. The last meeting I see posted is October 27, which is why I originally asked.
Have recent meetings been recorded?
Thank you.

Joel said...

To Anon 8:06

I know almost nothing about SPED, but I can see that there are tremendous differences in per child SPED spending by district, so let's not assume that what Amherst spends on SPED is somehow mandated by outside forces in Boston or DC. If there were the case, then spending per child would be equal across districts.

Joe said...

The expenditures per pupil calculation is allocated across 11 different expense areas. When you look at all 11 areas, not just the overall average you can get a better understanding of what drives the difference between Amherst's numbers and the state average.

Although the expenditure per pupil is greater than the state average in every one of the 11 expense areas, it is clear that the overall difference (16,131 vs 12,449) is not being driven by higher teacher salaries. Even though the average for Specialist Teachers is significantly above the state average, the Classroom teacher expenditure per pupil is actually below the state average and the combined expenditure for all teachers is only 9% above the state average. This 9% difference ranks the "Classroom and Specialist Teachers" expense as the lowest relative difference compared to the state average for all 11 expense areas.

The three largest contributors to the higher expenditures per pupil for FY08 were the following areas:

Insurance, Retirement Programs and Other
Operations and Maintenance
Instructional Leadership

All three of these areas for Amherst average 50%-60% more than the the state average. Until we can reduce costs in these three areas, we will not begin to approach the state average for expenditures per pupil.

Rick said...

"Have recent meetings been recorded?"

Yes but it takes them a while to get them up on the site sometimes.

Nina Koch said...

about the meetings on ACTV, sometimes they are available before someone gets around to updating the website. If you go to the ACTV home page and click on the link for Channel 15 (Educational), you will get a search box for the program schedule. Type "School Committee" into the search box and you will get a listing of available meetings.

November 24 is up there. Click on "View". It's a great opportunity to look at the back of Rick's head for several hours.

Abbie said...

Hi Joe,

you seem to have thought about this, I calculated that there we spend about $18 million more to educate our kids than Longmeadow/E Longmeadow/Noho (multiplied the number of students we have (4000) by the difference in per pupil expense ($4500).

Do you know how the Insurance, Retirement Programs and Other
Operations and Maintenance
Instructional Leadership come anywhere near to $18 million more than those other districts? I am wrong on something here?

Where did you get the info on those 11 areas?
thanks

Joe said...

Abbie,

You can find all the detailed info on this website:

http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/schfin/statistics/function08_detail.aspx

or if this link doesn't work directly just go to the Statistical Comparisons part of the website:

http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/statistics/

I think you will find the detailed information helpful and likely will not have a need to perform the type of calculation you suggested.

Hope this helps.

Joe said...

Sorry the first link didn't past correctly.

Here is one more try:

http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/schfin/
statistics/
function08_detail.aspx

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Re: Insurance, Retirement Programs and Other
Operations and Maintenance


When making comparisons with other districts, as you slog through all those delightful numbers at the state websites, do bear in mind that some school systems in MA charge things that we have in our schools budget to their town budgets.

For example, some school systems show little or no $ for snowplowing, because they just have a little blower they use around the building sidewalk and the rest is done by what we'd call the municipal side of town, with the dollars showing up there and therefore not in the state school costs. That's a little example, but a big one is that insurance and benefits for teachers, both active and retired, are definitely not kept/reported in one place throughout the state -- some communities have all the insurance/retirement stuff shown on the Town side instead of the school side, or they split it somehow.

So if something looks weird, it's probably an underlying difference in accounting practices, both of which are legal, but don't lend themselves well to comparisons.

Start with John Musante in Town Hall if you want to go deeper, than to Rob Detweiler in central office -- John's been doing this stuff longer.

jennifer said...

Hi, All,

I don't know if comparison information might help, but the NoHo major's office and the public school websites post the school budget detail:

A nice summary of proposed changes for 2010 at

http://www.northamptonma.gov/gsuniverse/httpRoot/mayor/uploads/listWidget/2619/doneSchoolsfy2010.pdf

While the line item budget (school by school) is available at:

http://www.nps.northampton.ma.us/budget.html

Joel said...

Alissa wrote:

"So if something looks weird, it's probably an underlying difference in accounting practices, both of which are legal, but don't lend themselves well to comparisons."

But the entire budget is out of whack. The whole thing looks weird. Is it possible that we spend that much more per pupil just because we account for spending in different ways?

I find it very disturbing that someone in Alissa's position in town doesn't really know the answer, but then uses a word like "probably" to try to assure us that the numbers aren't what they appear to be.

If it's true that we're just talking about accounting, I would expect our administrators to explain and prove that at the drop of a hat. If you're doing the budget and there are different ways of doing budgets, then you should be able to explain how and why you account for some things in different ways. I haven't heard any such explanations.

I worry that this very serious problem will be swept aside with unsubstantiated claims about budgeting techniques. The deficits we face and the calls for an override can't be shunted aside with unproven assertions of possible or probable accounting peculiarities. That's a bit too Enronic for me.

Joel said...

Oh, and two more things:

Alissa, how do you explain our spending being so much higher than the state and regional averages? Are we the ONLY district that accounts for spending in a particular way? That seems very far fetched.

And, continuing with your theme of terminology and categorization explaining the differences between Amherst and Noho, I guess Northampton High School also has 2 forced study halls per year per student.

Here's the trick, they call those 2 forced study halls, AP Chemistry, AP Statistics, 9th grade Biology, AP English, and on and on, and they actually give those classes rather than forcing kids to sit in study hall and have no instruction.

So, you know, it's exactly the same with some nomenclature differences. We shouldn't worry about it. No, no. Look away. Nothing going here, vote the override, everything is fine. . . .

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Quoting myself:

Start with John Musante in Town Hall if you want to go deeper, than to Rob Detweiler in central office -- John's been doing this stuff longer.
December 11, 2009 10:57 AM


I'm sorry that concluding point wasn't obvious in my original post: ask for more details, and ask the people who understand the intricacies, rather than asking the blogosphere.

No one is sweeping anything under the rug.

I suggested a possible reason for some of the discrepancy, and suggested people interested in the discrepancy ask people who understand this particular accounting process before making assumptions.

I don't assume we're the only special ones, and I don't assume we do our accounting the same way every other district does theirs, and I don't assume I can compare one set of data to another when I know I'm not familiar with all the possible variations -- variations not unique to accounting processes in general, but the specifics of how accounting is done within each MA school system and is then reported by the state.

I'm really flabbergasted that my saying it looks like we need some more background info to interpret this correctly means to anyone that I am ignoring the concern.

Abbie said...

Joel,

I don't see why attacking someone who suggests another reason why our numbers are so different is helpful.

IF we do the budget differently, ie put some costs into other categories and if that accounts for the large differences in $/student as currently calculated, then that is IMPORTANT.

I think thats unlikely to account for the differences btwn my school district growing up ($68 mill/6000 kids) because that district is responsible for the entire kit and kaboodle as there are multiple districts in Omaha. But lets looks at nearby districts.

Maybe the differences aren't so great! Maybe they are. Why wouldn't you want to know the ACCURATE numbers?

Joel said...

Okay, "flabbergasted" is a great word.

Let me be flabbergasted too.

Alissa, I believe you were on the School Committee for a number of years. You are on the Select Board, no?

So, how much confidence can I have in town govt. if you yourself have no idea whether or not we're using some sort of unique accounting method? This strikes me as a very serious problem.

My negative reaction to your comment was driven by the fact that every time someone questions some seemingly unique and often highly problematic aspect of how our schools operate, our town leaders on the SC or superintendent's office give us excuses, half truths, and outright lies.

Catherine provided some stunning numbers and the reaction is that they were "probably" wrong because of some externality, like competing accounting techniques. I found that comment flabbergasting.

But let me be generous, maybe you're right and we do use some sort of unique accounting method -- remember we're way ahead of our region and the rest of the Commonwealth in per pupil spending, so this has to be a very unique accounting method.

If we are unique and our numbers don't reflect reality in a comparative way, how much confidence should I have in anything I'm told by our town leaders about spendin? Would the standard accounting make me feel better about spending-- and if so, why on earth can't someone show that? OR, would it reveal an even WORSE situation. You're the one saying it's "probably" accounting. So, would standard accounting show the problem as being even worse? That's what happened when he govt. finally looked at Enron's books. Exactly how Enronic are we and shouldn't you be able to explain this given your role in approving these budgets over the years?

Anonymous said...

Joel- Once again ypu completely miss the point. Get off your soapbox and actually listen to what's being said: there is a lot of variation in what's reported to DOE by MOST districts in the state. How you get from that to Amherst is once again the outlier is beyond me.

Joel said...

Okay, start with the assumption that there is an equal distribution of alternative accounting methods. That's your claim, right? The statistical differences are roughly evenly spread out across the Commonwealth, right? You're saying we're not the outlier, we've one of many, many -- if not all districts -- with accounting issues.

How is it then that our demonstrably higher numbers are the product of unique accounting? Wouldn't we expect to find other anomalous cases? Where are the other outliers in our region?

People who claim it's all about accounting, but can't show that despite serving on the School Committee and Select Board and so having had access to the numbers, are asserting the existence of a perfect statistical storm that inflates our per pupil spending above regional and state averages and deflates Northampton's to the regional average and well below the state average. That's terribly convenient.

Okay, assume against all available evidence that that is so, HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN OUR TWO FORCED STUDY HALLS IN THE HS versus NONE ELSEWHERE?

Is that accounting too? How about the disparity in the number of true AP classes in Noho vs. Amherst? An accounting trick?

Anonymous said...

As this fog lifts, the true ~horror~ of what they do and what they've done will be understood.

DO NOT let them get away as they try to run...

...because it is ~YOU~ they have done it to.

Anonymous said...

a lock-down program for kids with behavioral disorders where kids are locked in padded rooms?

are you talking about Building Blocks????

That's not what they do there. I'm sad that information from the district is so unforthcoming that intelligent people do not know how wonderful BB really is.

Anonymous said...

I have read repeatedly in your blog that all of the proposed changes are ultimately for the benefit of the children. Here's my question: have you asked the children? What I see here is a group of adults (who are undoubtedly trying their hardest to find the right balance and provide the best education for their children and students), but still, adults, working through a sea of endless cuts. But if the goal is to enrich the lives of children and teens, why not try asking the children and teens? I, as a well informed senior at ARHS, have listened closely to the many unheard opinions of the students you are trying your hardest to cater to.

For one, after almost two years of discussing and evaluating the possible shift from trimesters to semesters, I believe I have heard from ONE student who supports the switch to semesters and from hundreds who do not. Though I respect and understand the support for a semester system coming from adults in the community, try opening your ears to the opinions of the younger generation. You may be surprised.

Regarding the "why are we waiting to stop graduation at the mullin center/have graduation in the gym?" If $10,000 "doesn't buy you much" then leave the momentous occasion that we look forward to each and every day of our high school career. A person's high school graduation is important, and have you seen the gym?!

ARHS prides itself on its expansive array of specialized electives, both in the arts and in the core curriculum. You would be surprised how many high school students get out of bed in the morning just to be there for their Ceramics class, their Gay & Lesbian Lit class, their Anthropology class, their Woodtech class. Think about all the children you'll be losing if you take that away. And yes, some people like math, but I know about three people who get up in the morning to set foot in AP Calculus.

You cannot only cater to the top 10% of high schoolers. These kids are the ones who will pull themselves out of the muck and get into the Ivies no matter how many AP classes you throw at them. The goal of a public school is to educate all students. By compartmentalizing students, you are reinforcing the idea that the smart get smarter and the dumb get dumber. Students who aim to achieve the highest grades and SAT scores and reach for those top schools will do so whether there are 11 or 12 AP classes. I don't hear anyone begging for another AP course in their schedule. If you really want to please us, give us an open campus at lunch so that we not only feel trusted, but we can stop sitting on each other's laps at lunch time, or hell, just give us more chairs!

As far as making it mandatory for students who enroll in AP courses to take the AP exam, this will not only perpetuate the feelings of distrust and lack of freedom at school, but it will deter hordes of students from even signing up for the course! I am currently taking AP Environmental Science, and I am not a science girl. I would have had second thoughts about taking this course if I knew I'd be forced to take the exam, and so would 50% of my peers. This is not taking the easy way out. AP courses, by definition, are not easy.

Our school's interesting, fun and diverse electives are what foster creativity and excitement in students. They are what get students up in the morning. They are what give students that spark that top colleges desire. These are the classes that give students the motivation, creativity, self-respect and desire to learn and think and feel and grow and actually do something meaningful with their lives. An art course can change a student's life; the bond a student forms with a teacher who works relentlessly to inspire them. Do you really expect a student's 12th AP course to change their life?

Also, colleges do not penalize prospective students because they see two study halls in their schedule. Students are not blamed for the economy of their school or for the choices of their school's administration.