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.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Amherst school board urges schools to limit required study halls

Hampshire Gazette
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
By Nick Grabbe

AMHERST- The Regional School Committee voted last week to "strongly recommend" that Amherst Regional High School students have no more than one required study hall over the next academic year.

Member Steve Rivkin said he wanted to "make a statement" that Amherst should use its high per-pupil expenditures to enable students to take full advantage of all their opportunities.

"It's untenable for school systems like Amherst to tell the community that as high the property tax is, we need two study halls after passing an override," he said.

School Committee member Catherine Sanderson said she hasn't been able to find another high school that spends as much as Amherst and has two required study halls per year.

Now that the region is receiving an extra $950,000 from the override, teacher union givebacks and state aid, it should be possible to restrict study halls, even if class sizes have to increase slightly, she said.

Rivkin, an Amherst College professor, said he has 35 to 40 students in some classes. "We're not going to be a fancy private school and we can't have class sizes that are ideal," he said.

The vote was 6-3, with members Irv Rhodes, Rick Hood, Rob Spence and Kristen Luschen also voting yes. Chairman Farshid Hajir voted against the measure, as did members Tracy Farnham and Kathy Weilerstein.

Hajir said there could be "a cascade of consequences" if schedulers have to limit students to one study hall next year. He said the extra money should be used to restore positions that were at risk.

Parent and teacher Amy Brodigan said she favored keeping class sizes small, saying there is an "enormous difference" between having 21 and 23 students. "I'd rather see a child in study hall than in larger classes," she said.

Interim Superintendent Maria Geryk said the committee should "trust the people who are the experts to make recommendations." Principal Mark Jackson said he can use the extra money to reduce the number of students who have two mandated study halls, starting with seniors next year.


Anonymous said...

I think that the nub of everything going on with School Committee is encapsulated in Maria Geryk's quote that the SC should "trust the people who are the experts to make the recommendations."

I'm not ridiculing what she said. I understand why she said it. But as a hard and fast rule for governance, it doesn't work.

Her comment gets us to what I would submit is the chief problem of jurisdiction looming behind all of the turmoil swirling around both the Regional and Amherst School Committees: just what is the province of the school administration and what is the province of the School Committee?

For starters, I don't think that "the experts" get to decide whether we have language instruction K-6. I think that a majority of the Amherst SC gets to decide that. The views of residents and of "the experts" would seem to be of equal importance here. I see language instruction in a second language for 21st century children as as "core" or "basic" as math or science. Is it too much to expect that we would evolve into a school system that produces children as fluent in a second language as they are in math (for example)? Are we saying that the K-6 years are simply superfluous in reaching that goal? How much longer can we as Americans bumble around the globe expecting others to speak our language?

On the other hand, I really don't know where the line that would define School Committee micro-managing is, but some people seem to think that this SC, especially the Amherst SC, is closer to it than any previous one.

I think that those of us who vote need to decide just what we think about all of this, because this problem is approaching like a freight train.

Rich Morse

LarryK4 said...

Yes Mr. Morse, remember that the mighty US Military who are indeed the "experts" are controlled by a civilian government elected by THE PEOPLE.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly that we should not have two required study halls. That is an abomination in my view. Class size does not matter that much in high school, it is as simple as that-- seniors are months away from being in classes with 100 students in college. Reduce the study halls to zero is what I say.

Students need teachers to be teaching them in order to learn. That does not happen in study halls.

If Maria Geryk does not agree then she is not qualified to lead this district in my view. This is an easy one people. If she is not on board with this, then it is obvious that she is more about maintaining the status quo than doing the right thing for our kids.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Morse's comments highlight an important issue.

The only thing most of us know about Ms. Geryk's experience is her management of the Special Education department. It is clear that that was and is poorly run. So why should we accept her "trust the people" remark?

The residents of Amherst elected the School Committee to inform school policies. The SC is responsible for directing District Administration on policy and the Administration should follow the SC lead. Administrators who do not should be encouraged to leave in no uncertain terms.

The current administration ceded its rights to self determination through a concatenation of poor decisions (made with the encouragement of the last SC). What these administrators don't seem to understand is that when past SCs let them run the show they made such egregious mistakes that our kids education costs more than a private school (per pupil) but with many fewer options.

Our kids are paying the price for long term administration mismanagement. Unfortunately the primary actors are still in place and clearly wincing at the SCs efforts to take back the schools.

I support the current committee in its efforts to wrestle back control from an administration run amok. I am incensed by the petulance of Jackson and Geryk and would be surprised if I were alone in this sentiment.

That senior administrators feelings may be hurt if they are given general direction by our elected officials is too bad. If they don't like the direction of the new SC they should leave. The administration (not the teachers) are overpaid, spoiled and need to be held accountable for a large portion of the degradation of our schools.

Anonymous said...

The model that makes sense to me is one in which the experts (school admin) lay out their proposals to the SC, including their decision making process and its research-based underpinnings, then the SC makes its decisions based on how well admin makes its case.

Otherwise we end up with, for example, a pilot elementary school Chinese language program that sounds pretty cool -- but we don't know what it accomplished.

Before that program was started, what were its stated MEASUREABLE goals? How were they going to be measured? When?

Anonymous said...

Rich Morse, I am with you about the world language instruction in K-6. Let's do it Amherst, it will be enriching for our kids. That's what we all want as parents, more enrichment for our children, more opportunities to learn more. If the budget allows it, I am 100% in agreement with K-6 Spanish instruction in Amherst. This is a very fine idea and I applaud and salute whoever came up with it.

Anonymous said...

The best thing about the Amherst public schools is the teachers. They are on the most part, an amazing group of passionate and qualified people. Let them have more time with our kids, not less. No required study halls, please. How did this ever come about anyway?

Anonymous said...

Other districts are requiring 3 years of science in high school. We are requiring study halls! Oh my goodness, have we got it all wrong. (For those who don't know, we only require 2 years of science in our high school.)

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Thank you to the School Committee to be pushing to reduce the mandatory study halls in the high school. As a parent of high schoolers, I can attest that putting a large number of teens together in a room for over an hour a day largely unsupervised is a disaster waiting to happen. Teenagers and free time can be a volatile combination.

Now that the district has a significant increase in funds, I don't see how the School Committee can justify even one mandatory study hall let alone two! I realize that this will create more work for those who create the master schedule, but that is their job. If nothing else, they should produce three master schedules for next year (based on the class choices students have already made--including up to six electives) and present that data to the School Committee. The three schedules could demonstrate potential class sizes with two study halls, one, and no study halls. The administration and School Committee would then have information on the potential minimum and maximum class sizes under these scenarios to make an informed decision.

This is shaping up to be Maria Geryk's first big challenge as our Superintendent. I hope she remembers her motto that it is "all about the kids" and makes the right choice.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous 10:10 re: Our kids are paying the price...

I was just browsing through the HS website and found the amazing accomplishments that follow - I'm not sure what price you think kids are paying. Two study halls or not, they seem to be doing well by any standard. I heard at the school committee meeting that everyone (Ms. Geryk and Mr. Jackson included) would like to eliminate study halls, but it's not as simple as snapping fingers to make it happen - building a schedule that works for everyone is a complex task. Also, I think people are forgetting that the money that was voted in the override and with teacher givebacks is to keep cuts from happening - adding something is a whole new tier of funding. I did not hear anyone say they were opposed to eliminating the second study hall - in fact, I heard they would do everything they could to try to make courses available to kids who wanted to fill up their schedules.

College admission statistics:

National Merit Scholarships

Other accomplishments:

Anonymous said...

So- we entrust teenagers with the right to vote, to drive cars, to hold jobs, to get married, to get killed in wars not of their own making, but we can't let them weigh in on issues like school start times? or whether they prefer semesters to trimesters?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Rich Morse - well said, as always. It seems to me that the SC represents the community, the voters, and I certainly hear from parents all the time that they'd like (a) no required study halls, and (b) K to 6 world language. We passed an override, state aid is better than expected, and the teachers did a give-back -- so we have extra funds. The only choice is therefore whether we use these additional funds to do something the community sees as educationally important.

And at a certain point, if we are truly just going to "trust the experts" on all matters, do we really need a school board? The school board represents the only way the voters influence the direction/priorities of our schools -- and I think it is the board responsibility to convey those priorities to the administration, as I did with my motion on adding K to 6 world language and Steve did with his motion on reducing study halls.

Anonymous 9:55 - I have called a number of other districts, and I haven't found a SINGLE district that requires two study halls a year of all high school kids. I really think our kids deserve to be in class in front of a teacher throughout the whole day -- as is the norm in other districts, and in our district historically (this is the FIRST year of 2 study halls).

Anonymous 10:10 - I really agree with this statement: "The residents of Amherst elected the School Committee to inform school policies." Yes, that is right! And we could in fact create policies that include K to 6 world language and could include no required study halls. I've heard from many parents that these would be desirable -- and I believe it is the SC's responsibility to communicate these as priorities to the administration (as I think we've now done).

Anonymous 10:20 - I completely agree with this statement: "The model that makes sense to me is one in which the experts (school admin) lay out their proposals to the SC, including their decision making process and its research-based underpinnings, then the SC makes its decisions based on how well admin makes its case." That sounds like the ideal model of SC-administration interaction to me.

Anonymous 10:21 - I agree that this is a great idea -- and actually, the idea was from a K to 12 Foreign Language Committee, which was presented to the SC in November of 2008. This committee included teachers/staff K to 12 in our district. This committee recommended a more intensive model than I proposed (they recommended the model now used at WW for Chinese, and they recommended Chinese in two schools -- WW and MM -- and Spanish in two schools -- FR and CF), and that may in fact be a better way to go. However, this model also is much more expensive, and requires much more time out of class -- thus, my thought is to focus on implementing SOME language K to 6 (and Spanish seemed like the best choice for reasons I've laid out earlier), which then could potentially expand if time/money permitted.

Anonymous 10:30 - two required study halls resulted from a budget crunch. According to HS administration, reducing a study hall requires $330,000. So, we now have a lot of additional funds (override, teacher give-backs, better state aid than anticipated). Why in the world wouldn't we use SOME of this money to let kids be in class more?!? And I agree with your statement about the teachers in Amherst!

Anonymous 10:37 - you should note that not only do we only require 2 years of science, we also only require 2 years of math. That puts us in the lowest in the state for each of these.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

More from me:

Alison - this is a great point. I'm wondering, since you used your name in this post, if you'd be willing to send this recommendation to the entire SC so all members could consider it? This seems like a great approach to me.

Anonymous 7:06 - it always seem odd to me that a push to increase time spent in class is accompanied by a long list of accomplishments of kids in our high school. First, the kids this year are the FIRST to have to take two required study halls, meaning we have no data on the consequences of this decision. So, the accomplishments you listed are from students who've attended the high school and taken NO or at most 1 required study hall each year. I can't imagine less time in class leads to greater accomplishments, nor can I imagine that this list on our website proves that they are "doing well by any standard". Second, building a schedule that only includes one study hall is exactly what the HS did last year, and the year before that. Surely if it was possible then, it is possible now? And what I'm hearing people say (on SC and off) is that we could use the money from the override in different ways -- and simply restoring from the cuts list is maybe not the best way to go -- that maybe reducing the number of study halls would in fact be preferable.

Anonymous 7:26 - I think students could and should weigh in on many issues -- and I believe their opinions should be considered along with other information.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 7:06.

Gee.... Imagine what this talented group could do with a system that was managed well.

Two sad notes:

1) The kids who are not on the top of the ziggurat - those in the middle or bottom who aren't winning the prizes you cite; and

2) The opportunities lost by those high achievers who could have made even more progress before heading out into the world had they had more math or science or other elective lost through simple mismanagment.

Rick said...

I agree with Anon 10:20. I would add that the role of the SC includes offering suggestions and advocating for them, such as K-6 Spanish and limiting mandatory study halls. However, they are not education experts and so need to listen carefully to arguments presented by people who are. I see comments above that show no interest in doing so.

The role of the school committee is:

“The school committee in each city and town and each regional school district shall have the power to select and to terminate the superintendent, shall review and approve budgets for public education in the district, and shall establish educational goals and policies for the schools in the district consistent with the requirements of law and statewide goals and standards established by the board of education.” (MA laws, Chapter 71: Section 37)

The “establish educational goals and policies” is pretty broad and certainly allows for and expects input from the school committee on both broad and specific issues.

For this to work effectively, ideas and questions should be put forth by the SC, and logical, reasoned answers to those should be received back in a way that is respectful of both the question and the answer.

For the questioner, that means not just listening for whether or not you got the answer you wanted, but listening carefully to and understanding the rationale for the answer given. For the answerer, it means not ignoring the question, and devoting the time to answer the question fully and effectively.

In doing so, we are going to run into differences of opinion on the rationale given for an answer. Class size is an example. Where possible, all data available should be brought to the table, so that data can be used instead of opinion. But sometimes that data is not available, and so to fully understand what’s going on requires that one goes into the classroom to see what is happening “on the ground”. This is not easy to do. Because it is not easy, we too easily fall into the trap of opinion. We need to be careful about that.

Anonymous said...

Catherine, you write: "We passed an override, state aid is better than expected, and the teachers did a give-back -- so we have extra funds."
The override and state aid change (less is being cut from state aid than initially thought) do not mean we have 'extra funds.' They mean only that our shortfall is not as bad as it would have been.
In other words: The schools are still making cuts, but now - thanks to the voters - they won't have to cut AS MUCH.

Rick said...

We should keep in mind that the money received from the override is not “extra” money, but rather reduces the amount of items we need to cut; so we do not have extra money for going to one study hall with. And remember the two study hall situation happened this year as a result of cuts last year.

The right way to look at this is something like this: “voters showed support of the schools by voting yes on the override; therefore, please work hard to reprioritize where money is spent to address voters concerns (like study halls).”

So it’s not about extra money; it’s about how we use the money we have.

Anonymous said...

To Rick on the role of "education experts":

I don't disagree with your sentiment, but the fact of the matter is that Amherst does a lot of things that the vast, vast majority (95-99%) of other districts don't do.

So, the vast, vast, vast majority of "education experts" in the Pioneer Valley, in Western Mass., in the entire Commonwealth, in New England, and indeed the entire nation believe things that run counter to what we do in Amherst (e.g., the advantages of forced study halls, the trimester system, the required ecology class with no AP Chemistry, etc.).

The question that someone on the SC like you has to answer is why are our "education experts" such outliers? Is there any evidence of any sort (e.g., other towns adopting what we do) that our experts are right and everyone else is wrong?

If not, maybe we need some new experts.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't eliminating forced study halls and slightly increasing class sizes put the high school back to where it was 5 years ago? Why are administrators clinging to 2 forced study halls?

Joel said...

Actually, don't the Amherst & Regional SC's have quite a few "education experts"? There is one Hampshire prof. who works on education, one Amherst College prof. who works on education economics, a retired principal (I think Irv was a principal) and then an HS teacher and two other college profs. (one from UMass and one from Amherst College) who deal with the products of high schools within the state and beyond. That's just off the top of my head. I may be missing someone.

There's much more education expertise on the SC than in the past.

Also, I think that all of the SC members either have kids in our public schools or kids who graduated from them. That wasn't true in the past.

On some issues it's fair to say the SC has more expertise than our administrators. They don't have the on the ground knowledge of what's going on in our buildings, but this is a highly educated and extremely accomplished group with a lot of expertise in k-12 education.

I have a lot of confidence in the current group.

Anonymous said...

C- I'm glad you think teens should weigh in- sorry- my post was meant for the thread about start times.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 10:21 and Rich M: I would like to wait on adding a world language to K-6 until the general community is satisfied that we have a good basic core of education in the elementary schools. At my child's school, reading and writing are excellent, but the math program needs vast improvement - both in terms of getting everyone up to a higher level of proficiency (mastering the basic math facts) and differentiation. In reading, a child is allowed to read any book of his/her level, whereas in math, you can never go above grade level.

Once we get the basic education settled to the community's satisfaction, then we can think about adding NEW enrichment programs. For now, why not shore up the instrument program (to include 3rd grade again) if there is extra money?

Also - before adding a world language to K-6, we should study other schools to see if this is a growing trend or if it's merely another item on the list (like 2 study halls, trimesters, ecology in 9th grade) that makes Amherst even more of an educational outlier, a do-your-own-thing town.

I also don't want another "special" (world language) to take time away from the basic curriculum of math, reading, writing, science and social studies. So if it took the place of say, computers, that might be OK with me.

Also - if 7 years of elementary school spanish gets you to advanced spanish 1 in 7th grade (and thus, spanish 2 in 8th grade) - I don't think it's worth all that time spent in a language class that is mostly about exposure. You can get to spanish 2 in 8th grade just by taking regular spanish 1 in 7th grade.

The 45 minutes of spanish exposure a week for 7 years in elementary school can be better spent on shoring up the basic core education of our kids.

TomG said...

Maria Geryk advice to the School Committee, that they should "trust the people who are the experts to make recommendations" is a good starting point for a conversion about how policy should be debated and decided.

Clearly the board does trust Geryk's "experts" (more accurately called the administration and department heads running the schools) to make "recommendations". Geryk is implying more. She is implying the school committee should decide based on the recommendation and should defer to their "expertise."

I disagree. They should be sure to be informed by the recommendation but they must evaluate it and judge it on its merits. That is the nature of executive decision-making, which is why we elect the smartest, most experienced board we can to make these decisions.

I'm surprised Geryk does not appreciate the give and take between operations and executive decision-making and how one is informed by the other, and how policy should be decided by the elected officials on the School Committee not the teachers and administrators folks who run the schools, in all matters that affect the budget, the curriculum and the accountability for the success of the schools to tax payers.

Anonymous said...

We have no way of knowing whether Maria Geryk has the expertise or the experience to make major academic decisions. Requests to the Chair of the Regional School Committee to have resume posted have met with silence. We are left with the sinking feeling that it is very likely she has never taught a regular education class and that she has never been a principal. When will there be transparency in this district? Why not post her resume on the website if she has the qualifications to be superintendent.

Anonymous said...

I would also like to see the full resumes of the three middle school candidates posted. Currently all we have available is a brief summary of their experience. The HR office obviously has their resumes--why can't they just be posted? What is the problem?

Anonymous said...

Why no resume? I agree, this is something that is concerning.

I seem to remember that the SC didn't see a resume either?

that's a bit scary.

Harry T.

kevin said...

In response to Maria Geryk's quote that the SC should "trust the people who are the experts to make the recommendations",

I would add [Maria], 'to carry out the goals and policies outlined by the School Committee.'

And I would not call them 'experts', that is too broad a term, and it includes many, many more people, like most of Amherst. Who consider themselves 'experts', whatever that means.

How about, "trust the people we hired to present us with the best options"?

To which I would add, further, "from which our elected representatives choose, based on our values". Which is what we elected them for.

Not their 'expertise' but their values.

How did a bunch of farmers in Hadley land one of the best Superintendents in the state? By their 'expertise'? No way.

No wonder Alberto only lasted eight months -- no one seems to know their job. Not the SC, and not the SI, and not the Admins.

Let's not put the horse in front of the cart.



Abbie said...

The only argument with any weight (IMO) that I have heard supporting trimesters is that it offers students the opportunity for more variety of classes (most likely electives). It seems to me that a compromise that might satisfy everyone is a return to semesters but with NO mandatory study halls. I understand this probably could not happen next year as the teachers (who currently have THE say in the matter) seem very resistant to semesters. I hope that the contract can be negotiated that takes this important decision back into the hands of the Administration.

I believe that a return to semesters but NO mandatory study halls offers students the same # of slots for courses as the current trimester system (with one study hall). It would then be up to students whether or not taking a variety of classes was a high priority. If not, then they can take an optional study hall.

I have heard from several parents of current and past HS students how very disruptive a trimester intervening break can be between sequential courses. Do we really WANT to make things harder for these kids, when it doesn't have to be??