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.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Let's talk about the schools

By Joel Wolfe

Published on January 29, 2010 in The Amherst Bulletin

The election to the School Committee of Catherine Sanderson, Steve Rivkin and Irv Rhodes has caused a great deal of sturm und drang in town. There has been a lot debate but little agreement on issues such as per student spending, trimesters, the new ninth-grade science requirement, the two forced study halls per year that other districts avoid, and a possible override.

Let's be brutally honest, teaching is hard work for which teachers are underpaid. Let's further stipulate that the best teachers are those who react openly and honestly to suggestions and even criticism. But, contrary to everything you would assume about a progressive college town, folks who have offered even the mildest criticism or constructive suggestion are shut down with accusations of "teacher bashing" by some defenders of the status quo. Nothing should be beyond criticism. I am a teacher. Criticizing me or this column is not teacher bashing, so let's get beyond that sort of defensiveness.

It's time we evaluate what we're doing in Amherst. I've read in the Bulletin that every controversial aspect of our system was created by a committee of dedicated and thoughtful educators. The implication is that it's all good and we should just let the education professionals do what they think is best. Lots of committees of thoughtful and intelligent people have made bad decisions. The first and second U.S. constitutions were written by largely the same folks. That first one lasted about eight years. The second is still in use. Am I "Founding Fathers bashing" or just making a rather obvious point?

If what we're doing in Amherst is really the best way to go, shouldn't our administrators want open discussions about our practices? Northampton publishes its budget with every expense detailed down to the cost of copy paper in the middle school. If we have cut budgets "to the bone," shouldn't someone want to show us that with a detailed, line by line budget? We are also practically alone in Massachusetts in using trimesters, so shouldn't we be able to show it's better than semesters? The same can be said of our new ninth-grade science requirement. Is it good or better than what just about every other district in the country does? The best measure would be to see if our district's program appeals to others. But, many high schools are opting for physics in the ninth grade, and no one seems to be doing what we do now. If our models are so good, why aren't other high schools adopting them? I would have a lot more confidence in this new curriculum if an outside group of high school science educators, chosen by our superintendent, reviewed it. A lot of people would also like to hear from other districts about how they have avoided the forced study halls kids at ARHS have despite the fact that we have such high per pupil spending.

We do a lot of things that practically no other district does. Our education establishment should engage in an open and honest debate about how we differ from the rest of Massachusetts and the country. What's truly worrisome is the vitriol and defensiveness from some current and former teachers to fair and reasonable questions. If everything is so good, wouldn't they welcome the opportunity for outsiders to examine curricula, the forced study halls, the budget and trimester system?

How can a parent get honest answers to these sorts of questions if members of the School Committee are attacked when they pose them? Shouting down people undermines support for our schools. We want excellent schools for all the kids, and we can only achieve that by having real analyses of our programs by outsiders without a stake in the status quo. After all, if we're doing such a great job, those evaluations will convince more people to support the schools and a possible override.

Joel Wolfe is a University of Massachusetts professor of history.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Play, Then Eat: Shift May Bring Gains at School

Note: We've had a lot of discussion on this blog about "experimentation" -- and this article strikes me as a good example of the type of data collection and piloting that can reveal important findings for education.

January 26, 2010
The New York Times

Can something as simple as the timing of recess make a difference in a child’s health and behavior?

Some experts think it can, and now some schools are rescheduling recess — sending students out to play before they sit down for lunch. The switch appears to have led to some surprising changes in both cafeteria and classroom.

Schools that have tried it report that when children play before lunch, there is less food waste and higher consumption of milk, fruit, and vegetables. And some teachers say there are fewer behavior problems.

“Kids are calmer after they’ve had recess first,” said Janet Sinkewicz, principal of Sharon Elementary School in Robbinsville, N.J., which made the change last fall. “They feel like they have more time to eat and they don’t have to rush.”

One recent weekday at Sharon, I watched as gaggles of second graders chased one another around the playground and climbed on monkey bars. When the whistle blew, the bustling playground emptied almost instantly, and the children lined up to drop off their coats and mittens and file quietly into the cafeteria for lunch.

“All the wiggles are out,” Ms. Sinkewicz said.

One of the earliest schools to adopt the idea was North Ranch Elementary in Scottsdale, Ariz. About nine years ago, the school nurse suggested the change, and the school conducted a pilot study, tracking food waste and visits to the nurse along with anecdotal reports on student behavior.

By the end of the year, nurse visits had dropped 40 percent, with fewer headaches and stomachaches. One child told school workers that he was happy he didn’t throw up anymore at recess.

Other children had been rushing through lunch to get to the playground sooner, leaving much uneaten. After the switch, food waste declined and children were less likely to become hungry or feel sick later in the day. And to the surprise of school officials, moving recess before lunch ended up adding about 15 minutes of classroom instruction.

In the Arizona heat, “kids needed a cool-down period before they could start academic work,” said the principal, Sarah Hartley.

“We saved 15 minutes every day,” Dr. Hartley continued, “because kids could play, then go into the cafeteria and eat and cool down, and come back to the classroom and start academic work immediately.”

Since that pilot program, 18 of the district’s 31 schools have adopted “recess before lunch.”

The switch did pose some challenges. Because children were coming straight from the playground, the school had to install hand sanitizers in the lunchroom. And until the lunch system was computerized, the school had to distribute children’s lunch cards as they returned from recess.

In Montana, state school officials were looking for ways to improve children’s eating habits and physical activity, and conducted a four-school pilot study of “recess before lunch” in 2002. According to a report from the Montana Team Nutrition program, children who played before lunch wasted less food, drank more milk and asked for more water. And as in Arizona, students were calmer when they returned to classrooms, resulting in about 10 minutes of extra teaching time.

One challenge of the program was teaching children to eat slower. In the past, children often finished lunch in five minutes so they could get to recess. With the scheduling change, cafeteria workers had to encourage them to slow down, chew their food and use all the available time to finish their lunch.

Today, about one-third of Montana schools have adopted “recess before lunch,” and state officials say more schools are being encouraged. “The pilot projects that are going on have been demonstrating that students are wasting less food, they have a more relaxed eating environment and improved behavior because they’re not rushing to get outside,” said Denise Juneau, superintendent of the Office of Public Instruction. “It’s something our office will promote to schools across the state as a best practice.”

Children’s health experts note that such a switch might not work in many urban school districts, where lower-income children may start the day hungry.

“It’s a great idea, but first we’ve got to give them a decent breakfast,” said Dr. David Ludwig, director of the obesity program at Children’s Hospital Boston. “A lot of kids skip breakfast and arrive at lunch ravenous.”

And for a seemingly simple scheduling change, it can create some daunting logistical problems. Children often have to return to hallways and classrooms after recess for bathroom breaks and hand washing and to pick up lunch bags. The North Ranch Elementary School regularly fields calls from schools in colder climates with questions on how to deal with coats, hats, galoshes and mittens. “In Arizona, we don’t have to deal with that,” said Dr. Hartley, the principal.

Many school districts say such problems make them reluctant to switch. A 2006 study in The Journal of Childhood Nutrition & Management reported that fewer than 5 percent of the nation’s elementary schools were scheduling recess before lunch.

But at the Sharon Elementary School, the principal, Ms. Sinkewicz, says the challenges have been worth it. In the past, children took coats, hats and mittens with them to the lunchroom, then headed outside. Now they have time to return coats to lockers so they don’t have to carry them to the lunchroom.

“For some reason, kids aren’t losing things outside,” Ms. Sinkewicz said. “The lost-and-found mound has gone down.”

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The public is watching

Amherst Bulletin
Published on January 22, 2010

In response to the Jan. 8 commentary by Catherine Sanderson and Steve Rivkin, I assert that the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001 and the Bush administration's subsequent repression of civil liberties are events to which there are no comparisons in the history of the United States. Comparing dialogue about the goals of the Amherst area schools to the Bush administration's covert and frequently illegal suppression of information does not warrant School Committee members Rivkin's and Sanderson's inflated metaphor. Moreover, they toss around the notion of ideology as though their own views have no ideological basis.

However, my disagreement with their views is not the point of my letter. Rather, my point is that the assertions made in a series of Amherst Bulletin commentaries by Rivkin and Sanderson appear as though they are the statements of a collective School Committee as they have ignored the School Committee ethics policy that reads: "Clarify when outside of a School Committee meeting and expressing his/her opinion concerning any committee business, that he/she is speaking only for himself/herself and not for the entire School Committee. Accept the office as a committee member as a means of unselfish service with no intent to 'play politics,' in any sense of the word, or to benefit personally from his committee activities."

The moral and legal danger of their violation of this policy is that since their assertions as elected officials are accusatory of citizens who disagree with them, they run a high risk of suppressing democratic dialogue. The ironic twist is that they purport to feeling their opinions have been suppressed.

As democratically elected officials who are bound by law to conduct business in open meetings, their accusations could suppress the democratic, public participation that the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law is designed to protect: "The requirements of the Open Meeting Law grow out of the idea that the democratic process depends on the public having knowledge about the considerations underlying governmental action, for without that knowledge people are not able to judge the merits of action taken by their representatives. The overriding intent of the Open Meeting Law is therefore to foster and indeed require open discussion of governmental action at public meetings."

Catherine Sanderson's blog also raises questions about violations of School Committee policy and the state's Open Meeting Law. While the activity of blogging is an exciting electronic mode of democratic dialog for people who have access to computers, Sanderson's specific blog raises several questions about conflict in her role as an elected public official. Regarding electronic communication, School Committee policy states: "School Committee members must use it carefully in order to avoid conflicts with the Open Meeting Law and the Public Records Law. A School Committee member's use of electronic messaging must insure that the public and the other members of the School Committee can trust that any deliberative discussions about School Committee business always will occur at public meetings."

Since there are a high number of anonymous postings on her blog, when Sanderson is conversing/blogging with anonymous participants on her blog about items such as which curriculum to adopt, teaching methods and closing a school, how can she be certain she is not communicating with a quorum of School Committee members? Some of Sanderson's practices could easily appear to violate, or inadvertently violate the portion of the policy that states that, "Electronic messaging should not be used to discuss committee business that requires public discussion under the Open Meeting Law."

Furthermore, certain postings on her blog have been disrespectful and slanderous to school personnel. Why would a public official want to establish a forum that tolerates disrespectful communication? Rivkin and Sanderson should be put on notice that the public to which they owe service is watching, and expects more of them.

Patty Bode is a former Amherst teacher and is a faculty member in the Tufts University Department of Education.

Note from Catherine: Given that this piece is entirely a criticism, not of my/our ideas, but of our voicing those ideas (precisely the point we made in the now infamous column in which we dared to compare residents of Amherst to members of the Bush administration), I want to clarify two important points.

First, Ms. Bode is entirely correct that our column should include a disclaimer that this represents entirely our own views, and not the views of the School Committee (though I'm not really sure anyone was confused about this issue). Interestingly, this should also apply to Andy Churchill's In the Center of Amherst column, which he writes with two other members of the public -- a point Ms. Bode fails to note in her piece.

Second, my blog is entirely legal according to federal and state law, and indeed is in compliance fully with the Open Meeting Law. This blog is public, meaning anyone could read it and post on it, and anyone can see these postings. It would be entirely legal for other members of the School Committee to post on it (using their names or anonymously) since their thoughts could then be read by all members of the public. What would NOT be legal would be for members of the School Committee to communicate on a private listserve in which members of the public could not read our thoughts (and potential deliberations). In fact, before beginning my blog, I called the head of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) to confirm that this blog would be legal (and Steve and I again called before starting our column). As one might expect, First Amendment rights extend even to School Committee members in Amherst.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Four school committee candidates step up in Amherst

Hampshire Gazette
Saturday, January 23, 2010

AMHERST - Incumbent School Committee member Kathleen Anderson is running for re-election, while incumbent Andrew Churchill is not, in the upcoming election in March.

Anderson, of 49 Deepwoods Drive, faces three challengers for the two School Committee seats. They are: Ernest Dalkas, of 170 East Hadley Road, Richard Hood, of 69 South Pleasant St., and Rob Spence, of 16 Bayberry Lane.

The election is March 23. The deadline for filing nomination papers is Feb. 2.

Anderson, 58, is an artist and educator. Her children, who are 35 and 33, attended Amherst schools, and her grandchild is currently at Crocker Farm School.

"I am interested in being a voice for many students whose issues and concerns sometimes get overlooked," she said in an interview. "I know many people are concerned about the redistricting decision, and some people's desires were unable to be met. I trust the voice that I bring will ensure that students who have had attachments to a particular school will feel that their needs will continue to be met."

Anderson said she contributes "a voice outside the mainstream" to the conversation about education.

Dalkas, 61, is a retired Vietnam veteran, and has children who are in fourth-grade and ninth-grade. He is a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the school budget, and has been on the Crocker Farm Governance Council and a Town Meeting member.

He said he's running because he "wants to give back to the community."

"I'm very concerned about budget cuts and the direction our schools are going," he said. "I feel we are lowering stands for our children, and they are paying the price. It's the obligation of our community to educate our children, even though it's tough financially."

Hood, 52, has a Web design business and works out of his home. He has two children who are 23 and 21 and went to Amherst Regional High School. He is a Town Meeting member.

He is a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee, where he has pushed for greater budget transparency.

"What I really have a passion for is good communication," he said. "I feel that too often people inside the school system think everyone else knows what's going on just because they do. I want to foster a culture where people are always asking #What do we know that folks out there need to know?' Likewise, I think parents often communicate poorly with the schools and too often assume something they have heard is true, when it's not."

Spence, 40, is an emergency-room physician who works at Wing Memorial Hospital in Palmer. He has two children at Fort River School and a third younger child.

He has been a member of the Fort River School Council and Town Meeting. He has served on the board of advisors of Amherst Committee on Excellence, and said he favors the School Committee's increasing reliance on data.

"I'm running because I felt like I could help the Amherst schools be a model of academic excellence," he said.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Amherst school panels, principals grapple with proposed cuts

Hampshire Gazette
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

AMHERST - The four elementary school principals told the School Committee Tuesday that they are not comfortable with cuts that have been proposed and want to avoid further reductions.

"As painful as these cuts are, they will allow us to continue programs," said Matt Behnke, principal of Wildwood School. But additional cuts that would result if the Amherst schools don't find more money to spend would "hit bone," he said.

The School Committee has identified $1 million in cuts to the elementary schools, including $582,997 from the closing of Mark's Meadow School. In addition, there are $210,341 in school-based cuts, mainly from a reduction of four classroom teachers, and $278,431 in central office reductions.

The reduction in teachers would raise the average class size from 19 to 20, said Michael Morris, principal of Crocker Farm School.

The principals want to save the equivalent of almost 10 positions that could be cut if voters reject a tax override March 23, if teachers decide not to give back negotiated salary increases, and if there is no unanticipated state aid.

These "second-tier" cuts would mostly affect struggling students. They include psychologist, special education, intervention and English Language Learners positions, as well as instructional technology.

"I can't think about what it would look like having those things missing," said Ray Sharick, principal of Fort River School.

Despite the cuts, the budget includes new money for preschools targeted at low-income students. School Committee member Steve Rivkin said Amherst should have been offering these preschools long ago, but asked if in a tough budget climate they are a higher priority than the at-risk positions.

The Regional School Committee also met Tuesday. Members looked at options for restoring physical education positions previously on the cut list, and discussed whether small increases in class size could save some elective courses that are on the chopping block.

Several members favored the option of cutting music to every other day in the Regional Middle School and finding $67,000 in additional cuts, in order to save phys ed. Rivkin said that most schools don't have music every day.

At the high school, classes currently average 21.6 students. If budgets are cut as much as administrators fear, that number would increase to 25.

Several members said they favored a smaller increase, if that meant saving some electives. On class size, "we don't want to break the dial, just turn it a little," said Chairman Farshid Hajir.

Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez cautioned the committee that small increases in class size wouldn't produce significant savings. He said he wouldn't want members to become so comfortable with this option that average class sizes of up to 30 adversely affect interaction between students and teachers.

Nick Grabbe can be reached at

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thank You, Blog Readers

I am still out of town on a business trip so this will be short -- I've been in meetings all day and thus have had little time to respond to any of the many posts that have been made in the last 24 hours. But I've just read them all, and I want to really, really thank EVERYONE who responded today with such polite and respectful tones towards me and others (even when there was disagreement or concerns about my goals, closing Marks Meadow, etc.). I think this blog can be really, really useful if a lot of voices can be heard in a constructive and respectful way, and I want to thank everyone who posted today -- I literally saw not a single nasty comment about me or anyone else, and I appreciate that.

I know there are going to be areas of disagreement about our town and our schools -- about what courses we teach and when, how to spend our limited dollars, whether to support an override, etc. But I fully believe that everyone shares a common goal -- and that is to make this town and our schools be as good as they can be for all kids. We might have different priorities and strategies -- but the goal is really the same, and that is important to remember. I promise to respond individually to each post later tonight sometime, and thanks again for the very thoughtful and positive words you all have chosen to use today.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Changing the Culture

I am out of town right now on business, but after the events of this week (e.g., heavy media coverage of me, my column with Steve Rivkin, my blog, etc.), I am going to take a few minutes to share assorted thoughts I've had. I hope to post my summary of the meeting on Tuesday (January 12th) tomorrow sometime, so check back if that is what you are looking for.

1. My first thought is about the goal of this blog -- which is to increase dialogue about education in Amherst (between parents and teachers and staff members and community members and students). That is the goal, and I think there are times and issues that this blog has worked very well for (I think there was a lot of good and helpful discussion regarding the Marks Meadow closing and redistricting, for example).

But it is MUCH harder to accomplish that goal when people choose to simply engage in personal attacks and slams that oppose the person, and not their view. So, I'm not having this blog so that people can attack me, or teachers, or other SC members, or the superintendent, or other posters (anonymous or not). I've been asked repeatedly by some to eliminate the anonymous posting option, and ultimately, I really don't want to do that because I know there are people who have questions or thoughts or comments they want to share, but just don't feel comfortable posting with their name. And I would rather have more constructive and thoughtful posts than fewer ... so I've kept this option.

However, I'm making two requests. First, when you post, please give yourself some random name so that people can identify you which can either be your real name or not (e.g., as Rich Morse does when he posts, as ACR did recently, or "puzzled parent" and so on). Second, please speak to the ISSUE the person is addressing, and do not engage in personal attacks (whether you are speaking to me, or the other poster, etc.). It is much easier for more voices to participate when people don't feel as if they will be slammed for expressing their views, and I really hope people can respect that. Remember, everyone who posts on this blog (and indeed even the author this blog) has friends and family members who love and care about them -- and it is very hard to read such personal attacks about yourself or those you love (just ask my husband, who posted on this blog last night in anger; or ask my 11-year-old son, who read the Bulletin and said sadly "why do people hate you, Mommy?"). Try to remember the many readers of your words when you post -- and, for those who post anonymously, make sure to think whether you would use the same words if you were using your real name (and if you wouldn't, then don't post).

2. I also want to clarify a real misconception about my goals/priorities: What I am interested in changing about our schools is NOT what they do (e.g., what they teach in 9th grade, what math curriculum they use K to 5, whether AP chemistry is offered, whether the high school is on trimesters/semesters, etc.); it is about HOW decisions are made in our schools. That's it -- and yet, that seems to be a huge change in Amherst. And there are two very important pieces to this change.

First, I believe that decisions in our schools should be made based on objective data, and not on anecdote and intuition. So, I believe instead of just saying "our schools are great" we should actually measure that. And that measuring will certainly show that some things in our schools are really great -- we have very likely the finest music program of any public high school around (and that can be measured by the number of different opportunities for music in the HS, the presence of instrumental music in the elementary schools, the recognition our music groups get in terms of national awards/opportunities to present). That measuring will also likely show that other things in our schools aren't as good as they could be -- I'm highly concerned that many of our elementary schools failed to make AYP in the math MCAS in 2009, and I'm also concerned that we have lower high school math/science requirements than most other high schools in our comparison group.

Second, a very wise attorney (and parent of an ARHS student) in town created a name for what I observe that I feel is very apt: Amherst exceptionalism (he posted this on my blog a week or so ago using his name so I am giving him due credit). And the idea here (one I spoke to repeatedly in my SC campaign two years ago) is that for some reason, we seem to believe that Amherst is totally different from all other places in the world, and thus whatever we are doing is inherently better than what other schools are doing ... and we couldn't possibly learn from what is going on anywhere else. I believe that we have many dedicated, smart and caring teachers in Amherst -- my own kids have experienced outstanding teachers for 7 years now in Fort River, and I hear great stories about teachers at all of the other schools -- and we are lucky to have so many fabulous people working in our district.

I also believe that there are great and caring people working in other districts ... and that it is possible that other districts are doing some things really well -- perhaps even better than what we are doing in Amherst. And there is no shame in looking to other districts to see how we can make our already good schools be even better for all kids.

When I look at what we are doing in our district, I see many, many things that aren't being done in other districts -- such as extensions in 7th grade math, ecology/environmental science in 9th, the absence of AP chemistry and statistics, the trimester system, and so on. And given that these approaches are unique, I think we have to be able to take a really careful and objective look at each of these to make sure that our choices of how we do education are in fact BETTER than the choices that other districts are making. I believe we owe it to our kids to really assess what we are doing and its effect -- and not simply assume that if we are doing it in Amherst, it must be perfect. In other words, I believe we need to be actively and diligently evaluating what we are doing to make sure that we are doing as best as we can for all kids - not just good enough, and not just good enough because some parents/kids/teachers say "our schools are great -- every year someone gets into Harvard!"

3. My final point is that I'm really, really discouraged by the events of this week, and in particular the really hostile and attacking pieces in the Bulletin and the Gazette. These pieces all focus on criticizing me (and Steve Rivkin) for raising questions about what we are doing in Amherst (and how much it costs for us to do this) ... and seem designed to stifle crucial debate about what our schools are right now and what they could be. It is fine if you disagree with us -- but if so, say why -- why do you think the trimester system is BETTER than the semester system, why do you think 9th grade ecology is BETTER than biology or physics (as is seen in many other districts), why do you think it costs $4,000 more to educate a kid in Amherst than in Northampton, why do you think it is BETTER for us not to offer AP Statistics and AP Chemistry (when these courses are standard offerings at most of our comparison high schools)? I'm willing to debate these issues anytime -- on my blog, in person, via private email ( But attacks in the paper accusing us of calling the schools substandard, and beating teachers (until morale improves), and championing the elimination of wood technology and jazz ensemble (which are factually inaccurate), and being elitist/racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-Semitic/anti-Special Ed/anti-environment/anti-pet ownership, etc. don't move us along in the debate about how to make sure our schools are living up to their full potential.

One final thing (promise): I've been accused of bad-mouthing the schools in the press this week by a parent, another SC member, and a HS teacher, and I've been accused of creating bad feelings about our schools and in fact, turning families off of our schools. But here is what I've been told by many, many parents (and kids, and even teachers/staff in our schools) -- that our schools aren't doing as well as they could for all kids, and yet they are afraid to speak out because they worry that criticizing the schools will lead them to experience personal attacks (as I've experienced this week), and thus they really prefer to express their concerns quietly (and I've been told now by many parents that although they share our beliefs and admire our courage, they fear supporting me/Steve in a public way would be harmful to them in some way -- their ability to get clients for their real estate practice/medical practice/law firm, their ability to effectively teach INCLUDING in our very own schools, their ability to get letters of recommendation for their kids from high school teachers, etc.).

So, what's my point here: it is that I didn't create the dissatisfaction that some people are experiencing with some aspects of our schools -- I'm just the one brave/stupid enough to openly and honestly raise questions that MANY parents (and kids and teachers) have about our schools and how we do education in Amherst. I would hope that people could remember that -- and perhaps listen to the message, instead of just shooting the messenger. Remember, I have three kids in the schools - ranging in age from 11 to 5. I don't want our schools to be "substandard" -- I want our schools to be excellent. But I don't think the way to have our schools be truly excellent is to simply pretend they already are excellent (e.g., let's pretend the naked emperor is wearing fabulous clothes), and thus to engage in personal attacks on those who raise questions about whether our programs and curricula and approaches are in fact as good as they can be in a clear attempt to quell all dissent and debate (which, ironically, was the entire point of the column Steve and I wrote last week which people then reacted to by doing precisely what we said occurs happens in Amherst whenever questions about our schools are raised).

There is much that is good about the schools in Amherst. There are also things that could be better. And we can only move towards being better by admitting that we are not perfect, and being willing to engage in open and honest self-reflections about the strengths AND weaknesses in our schools. To again quote a very wise lawyer, "we have to keep moving the ball down the field." I hope all readers of this blog will join with me in a positive way to engage in this type of critical self-reflection so that our schools can live up to their true potential -- which would benefit parents, teachers, and, most importantly, kids.

On this weekend in which we celebrate the life and spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, I want to share a quote (by Dr. King) sent to me recently by a good friend who told me to buck up and keep asking the tough questions: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." I could not agree more.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Amherst Bulletin
Thursday, January 14, 2010

Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez has taken a stand on which cuts to the regional school budget would be manageable and which would result in drastic changes to the quality of education.

On Tuesday, he will present his recommendations for cuts in the elementary budget to the Amherst School Committee. Next Thursday, Jan. 21, there will be a public forum on both budgets at 7 p.m. at the high school library.

Rodriguez's recommendations, if adopted, would put next year's regional school spending close to this year's. But they would still require cuts of about $1.9 million from a level that would keep services constant, largely because employee expenses are due to increase because of negotiated contracts.

The superintendent - who spoke at Tuesday's Regional School Committee meeting - is seeking to hold the line on cuts to academic departments, which would result in bigger class sizes. To limit the cuts in this way, there needs to be some combination of a tax override, more state money than expected, and/or union givebacks of negotiated raises.

"I want to tell taxpayers that this is not pain-free," he said of the manageable cuts. "We are compromising the range of offerings, student supports and professional development. It is a downsizing of services to children. However, this is, in my opinion, the number we can cut to and still maintain the kind of educational services we need to provide."

His recommendation is for a high school budget that is $871,776 lower than it would be with "level services," and middle school spending that's $430,893 lower. In addition, he has identified $620,609 in reductions to the central office budget, including a decline in health insurance costs, consolidation of the East Amherst and South Amherst alternative school programs and transportation savings.

At the high school, the biggest hits would be to special education, which would lose 2.4 positions, and the Family and Consumer Science Department, whose 2.8 positions would be eliminated. But he wants to preserve the academic departments and the technical/business/computer department, which had been thought to be at risk.

Rodriguez's plan would cut some special education and physical education spending at the middle school. It would accept some cuts but seek to preserve some funding, and thus limit class size increases, in team teaching, world languages and music.

Anything beyond his recommended cuts would put the school system at what Rodriguez called "a point of no return."

"This would decimate our school system, greatly increasing class sizes and doing nothing but the bare essentials, basically stripping it down," he said.

A worst-case scenario - stemming from a failed override, less state aid than expected and no union givebacks - would require an additional $700,000 in cuts, a contingency for which Rodriguez has planned. "It became clear that cuts of that magnitude would undermine our ability to provide a rigorous and enriching academic education for all students," he said.

At the high school, the cuts Rodriguez wants to avoid include the technical/business/computer department, positions in the academic departments, one guidance position and the Individualized Reading Program.

At the middle school, these over-the-line cuts include further reductions in world languages, music, special education and team teachers.

On Tuesday, the School Committee had its first chance to react to Rodriguez's cut list.

Member Andy Churchill praised the superintendent for putting central office cuts ahead of classroom reductions; Kathleen Anderson expressed concern over cuts affecting struggling students; and Tracy Farnham spoke about cuts to physical education.

Member Steve Rivkin presented data showing that enrollment has declined by 9.9 percent since 2003-04 and the number of teachers has dropped by 12.7 percent during that period. He said this represents a total of four teachers in both the middle and high school, adding that this is not evidence of a substantial decline in resources and that cuts have not led to radically larger classes.

Principal Mark Jackson said, if the worst-case budget moves forward, class sizes at the high school would increase, the ratio of students to professional staff would go up, and the number of social studies classes, English electives, world languages and performing arts ensembles would decrease.

Five speakers at Tuesday's meeting defended electives in art, music and wood technology. "We can't lose these courses; they are what makes a person whole," said Victoria Shaw, who said her son benefited from a wood technology course.

In other news

Rodriguez also announced Tuesday that ads for a new middle school principal will be placed immediately.

"Mark Jackson has been principal of both the high school and middle school since Glenda Cresto resigned in September. He will continue in the dual position for the rest of the school year," Rodriguez said. The deadline for applications is Feb. 26.

Starting Feb. 2, meetings will be held at Town Hall so that they can be televised live, with a new starting time of 6:30 p.m.

Minutes of meetings will be posted on within 24 hours, Rodriguez said.

Hundreds of parents whose children have left the school system over the past five years have been contacted about their reasons, and there will be a report next month, he said.

No teachers have applied for sabbatical leave next year, he said.

A consultant is concluding an evaluation of the middle school and will report to the School Committee in February, he said.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Amherst pro-override group launches Web site, petition

Hampshire Gazette
Thursday, January 14, 2010

AMHERST - A group that supports passing a Proposition 2½ override to alleviate some of the townwide impacts from a projected $4 million budget shortfall is collecting signatures from residents in an online petition drive.

Vote Yes for Amherst, which just launched its Web site, currently has a petition aimed at the Select Board and School Committee to demonstrate the values the community holds, said Kevin Collins, a member of the group.

"The idea is to listen to everybody and to give everyone a chance to speak," Collins said. "The petition is so that the elected representatives can vote with a clear conscience and know they are respecting the wishes of everyone."

The petition, which aims to collect 1,000 signatures, reads, in part, "The federal and state governments have cut our schools and town funding. We can't control that or the economy. But we do have control over our local dollars.

"We need to save the worst from happening with a sensible Proposition 2½ override. There have only been two overrides in 30 years."

The Web site will serve as a means of educating the public about the override, the first attempted since a failed effort in 2007, and the possible cuts that would result.

"The override is about the people who will be losing their jobs and the effect that will have on the value of people's homes," Collins said.

Andy Churchill, spokesman for the override group, said organizers are already speaking to those who helped successfully achieve an override in Northampton last year.

"We really see this as an opportunity for community building," said Churchill, who is also a member of the School Committee.

Churchill observed that the Facilitation for Community Choices Committee in 2008 recommended a combination of cuts and an override to get the town through the fiscal crisis. Many of these cuts and cost savings, including the closing of Mark's Meadow School, getting givebacks in health insurance, layoffs and regionalizing the emergency dispatch operations, have already taken place or are in progress.

The override is a time for residents to decide what kind of town they want Amherst to be. "We can protect against the worst of the cuts," Churchill said.

Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O'Keeffe said she sees the Yes for Amherst petition more as the beginning of a conversation about the override, as it has already been certain for several months that the municipal election scheduled for March 23 would feature it as a question. Her board is responsible for crafting the text of the override and then submitting it to the town clerk's office by Feb. 16 at 4 p.m.

The Budget Coordinating Group, which includes representatives from the Select Board, School Committee, Jones Library trustees and Finance Committee, will receive an executive summary of the budget proposals from each of the departments and outline of cuts at its meeting Jan. 21. At that time, group members will begin discussing the size and structure of the override, and the following week will vote on its draft recommendations, and then present and approve these on Feb. 4.

At its Feb. 8 meeting, the Select Board will discuss the override question and get it ready for the ballot.

Residents will have an opportunity to provide feedback that night.

If the discussion is not completed that night, the board will continue the meeting Feb. 12 at 8:30 a.m.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Education Matters: Deep probing of schools needed

Amherst Bulletin
Published on January 08, 2010

Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, President George Bush brought the nation together in a shared sense of grief and patriotism. Yet over time the meaning of patriotism appeared to devolve into one of unfettered support for the policies of an ideologically driven administration that insisted it knew the right answers. Those who criticized political or military decisions were providing aid and comfort to the enemy; those who questioned claims about weapons of mass destruction were unpatriotic; those who highlighted inconsistencies in administration arguments or the sordid histories of some Iraqi ex-patriots were deemed anti-American.

It appears that this aggressive approach to quell dissent led to far less questioning on the part of politicians and reporters, even some from our most esteemed newspapers. And though we surely do not all share a common perspective on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is little doubt that people around the world have borne substantial human and material costs from major errors in U.S. policy following 9/11 that may have been avoided with a more unfettered debate and the type of hard questions most likely to lead to good decision-making.

Although the consequences of any problems in the Amherst schools surely pale in comparison to the human and financial costs to the U.S. of more than 4,000 killed, 10 times that many seriously wounded, and over $1 trillion spent on the two conflicts, we find unfortunate similarities in the attitude toward dissent and criticism from many in our schools who adhere to strong beliefs, often grounded in ideology, about education. Those who question the merits of an unprecedented required ninth-grade science curriculum, our unique approach to differentiated instruction, or the lack of challenge in particular subjects and grades are branded elitist; those who question the grouping of children into elementary schools on the basis of language spoken at home or ethnicity are called racist; those who question the merits of the trimester system, the desirability of reform mathematics in the elementary school, or the intellectual content of the middle school curriculum are deemed anti-teacher. This hostility to dissent seems entirely out of place in an academic community in which critical thinking should be particularly valued.

Rigorous questioning and criticism of current school policies, practices and curricula is uncomfortable for both the questioned and the questioner, and this discomfort is surely magnified in a small community in which teachers, administrators and elected School Committee members are often neighbors, colleagues, our children's coaches and friends. And the desire to come together in support of our schools and other public institutions - particularly during very difficult economic times - provides a powerful force against rocking the boat.

Yet it seems inexplicable to us that evidence on the Massachusetts Department of Education Web site showing we spend far more than the state average and surrounding districts can be dismissed so easily as merely a reporting anomaly. It seems inexplicable to us that there has been so little investigation of our decision-making processes, particularly given the uniqueness of many of our programs and the poor performance of many of our students most at risk. It seems inexplicable to us that the $1.5 million our regional schools pay each year to vocational and charter schools for students living in Amherst who chose not to attend our schools has not prompted an investigation. It seems inexplicable to us that so few questions have been raised about the recent School Committee practice of not reviewing detailed, line item budgets.

As uncomfortable as it is to raise these tough questions about our school system, we strongly believe that a lack of public scrutiny by parents, community members and particularly elected officials and reporters has real and lasting consequences for our children and our community. We feel this failure to ask probing, uncomfortable questions about the unique ways we do education in Amherst damages the quality of our schools and strength of our public institutions.

Catherine Sanderson and Steve Rivkin are Amherst College professors and members of the Amherst School Committee.

School spending scrutinized

Amherst Bulletin
By Nick Grabbe Staff Writer
Published on January 08, 2010

A group of citizens is meeting twice a week this month to learn about how the school system spends money and then provide the School Committee with feedback as it ponders up to $4 million in cuts.

Last week, each of the 10 members of the group came up with 10 questions, which have been sorted and presented to school administrators. School Committee member Irv Rhodes said the questions seem representative of the concerns the public has as it confronts both cuts to existing programs and a tax override vote on March 23.

The Regional School Committee is due to consider a more detailed list of possible cuts at its meeting Tuesday, and the Amherst School Committee will have a similar discussion about elementary spending on Jan. 19. A public forum on the budgets has been scheduled Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. in the high school library.

The citizens group is scheduled to meet Friday, Jan. 8, at 5 p.m. in the Regional Middle School's Professional Development Room. It is chaired by Alison Donta-Venman and its other members are Rick Hood, James Chumbley, Joe Cullen, Ernie Dalkas, Becky Demling, Jennifer Holme, Joe Gensheimer and Amy Brodigan.

Some of the 100 questions address fundamental issues: Why does Amherst spend more on public education per pupil than Northampton? Could the high school save money by switching from a trimester to a semester system? Has school staffing decreased proportionately with a decline in enrollment over the past 10 years?

The group wants to know what percentage of time teachers at various levels spend in classrooms. It wants to know why there are so many secretaries and whether two dean positions at the high school could be consolidated. It wants to know the cost of "step" increases in employee salaries.

The citizens have many questions about special education, which has represented an increasing percentage of the school budget. They want to know if there has been a legal review of its practices and whether two alternative high school programs in separate buildings could be consolidated.

"Will services to the neediest students be cut or is the plan to address their needs in different, more cost-effective ways?" asked one citizen.

Several suggested ways for the schools to raise money, such as charging fees for busing and charging high school students for parking and for participation in after-school clubs. One suggested allowing residents of other towns to send their children to Amherst elementary schools.

Most of the questions were inquiries about spending policies, but some challenged basic assumptions.

Member Stan Gawle asked, "Why do Amherst parents expect their children to receive a private school education funded with public dollars?" and "Why does the School Committee approve benefit contracts that are fiscally unsustainable and which automatically either force layoffs or tax increases?"

At a meeting Monday, Gawle said a lack of information on school spending makes citizens more likely to vote against tax increases. He decried "elitism" and "arrogance" in urging greater transparency on budget details.

The citizens' questions boiled down to "what are we spending money on and why are we spending it that way," said Amherst School Committee Chairman Andy Churchill. Rick Hood, a member of the citizen group, responded, "You can't find out why until you find out what."

Friday, January 1, 2010

Executive Summary of Parent Surveys for Amherst Regional High School

Description of Survey Respondents

The high school population is predominantly white (69%), with somewhat fewer students of color (African American: 9%; Asian: 8%; Hispanic: 10%; Multi-Race, Non-Hispanic: 4%). Compared to these demographics of students, respondents were somewhat more likely to be white (73%) or multiracial (9%), and somewhat less likely to be African American (4%), Hispanic (9%), Asian (5%). There were 1,201 students in the high school, and 284 parents completed the survey (parents with more than one child in the school were asked to only complete one survey reflecting their oldest child’s experience).

Core Learning
Of those who responded, a clear majority (75% or above in virtually all cases) felt that they knew the course expectations, that their child was prepared to meet the course expectations, that there was adequate support available to their child, that their child has made some or significant progress over the past year, that their child receives meaningful homework, and that report cards accurately reflected their child’s progress across each of the five major academic disciplines (English, math, science, social studies, world language). A somewhat smaller number of parents felt that their child received helpful feedback on assignments (between 50 and 68% -- except for 77% in 9th grade social studies) and felt regularly informed of their child’s progress (42 to 67%) in the core disciplines.

Of those who responded, the majority of parents (49 to 70%) felt that the level of challenge and expectations for their child’s learning was adequate across all five of the core academic disciplines. However, there were substantially differences in responses to different disciplines. Fewer parents reported expectations were somewhat low or much too low in social studies (8%), science (10.25%), or math (10.75%), than in English (20.5%) or world language (17.25%). In contrast, more parents reported that expectations were somewhat high or much too high in social studies (34.25%), math (27.5%), and science (26.75%) than in English (15.75%) and world language (21%).

Of those who responded, forty-one percent of parents reported that their child spends more than 2 hours a night on homework, with sizable portions also reporting their child spends 1 to 2 hours (35.5%) or 30 minutes to 1 hour (30.5%), and very few parents (9%) reporting their child spends less than 30 minutes a night on homework.

Of those who responded, 87% felt their child feels safe at school, and 90% reported having no areas of concern in terms of safety. However, only 6% reported that concerns about safety were not addressed in a timely manner. Almost half (49%) felt their child was adequately supported on emotional and/or social issues.

Of those who responded, a clear majority report their child has a strong, positive relationship with at least one adult in the building (85%), their child is positive about his/her experience in the high school (77%), their child’s teachers are welcoming when they come to school or call (75%), that the office staff is welcoming when they come to school or call (79%). A somewhat smaller majority, and that the school staff respects cultural/ethnic/gender differences (63%).

A clear majority of parents feel that the school’s discipline policy is clear to them (76%), the school provides information about upcoming events (88%), they know how to get the answers to their questions about the school (79%), the school offers them opportunities to be involved in committees (Family-School Partnership, School Council, etc.; 80%), and the school offers them opportunities to be involved in school activities (69%). However, only 50% feel welcome to volunteer at the school, and only 37% believe they receive enough support to be an effective volunteer.


These responses point to many areas of strength. Most parents (75% or more) report feeling:

  • they knew the course expectations
  • their child was prepared to meet the course expectations
  • there was adequate support available to their child
  • their child has made some or significant progress over the past year
  • their child receives meaningful homework
  • report cards accurately reflected their child’s progress
  • their child feels safe at school
  • they have no areas of concern in terms of safety
  • their child has a strong, positive relationship with at least one adult in the building
  • their child is positive about his/her experience in the high school
  • their child’s teachers are welcoming when they come to school or call
  • the office staff is welcoming when they come to school or call
  • the school’s discipline policy is clear to them
  • the school provides information about upcoming events
  • they know how to get the answers to their questions about the school
    the school offers them opportunities to be involved in committees (Family-School Partnership, School Council, etc.).

In terms of areas for improvement, only some parents (37 to 68%) felt:

  • their child received helpful feedback on assignments
  • they are regularly informed of their child’s progress
  • their child was adequately supported on emotional and/or social issues
  • the school staff respects cultural/ethnic/gender differences
  • the school offers them opportunities to be involved in school activities
  • welcome to volunteer at the school
  • they receive enough support to be an effective volunteer.

Finally, a minority of parents feel expectations are somewhat low or much too low in some disciplines (English or world language) and somewhat high or much too high in other disciplines (social studies, math, and science).