So, now to the meeting itself (which, for the record, was a really great one).
First, we had public comments from a number of people. Joel Wolfe expressed support for both the elementary Spanish program and for looking into the Union 26 agreement. Abbie Jensen expressed support for looking into the Union 26 agreement as well as her enthusiasm for the world language program (and a desire that the impact of this program be evaluated). Mike Jacques expressed his support for looking into the Union 26 agreement as well as his concern about the increasing % of the budget over the last 10 years that is going to SPED/intervention coupled with a decreasing % that is going to regular education (and 80% of the students). Sue Borden expressed support for the new world language program, support for looking into the Union 26 agreement, and support for placing on the regional agenda making the 9th grade environmental science class optional as opposed to required. Then Farshid Hajir, Chair of the Regional Committee, delivered a critique of the Amherst School Committee's handling of the Union 26 agreement.
Irv then responded to this critique at some length (clarifying the nature of the communication between the various chairs), as did Maria (more briefly).
I then read aloud an email that was sent to the entire Amherst School Committee by Irv Rhodes after last week's meeting (with Irv's permission). I am pasting the statement in its entirety:
I want to make the following pledge to the Amherst School Committee: Irv Rhodes
I PLEDGE TO:
- To be open, honest and transparent about any and all matters that come before the Amherst School Committee and keep you informed about any events that directly or indirectly involve the work of the Amherst School Committee
- Seek your input on all meeting agendas
- Work collaboratively with the School Administration
- Provide leadership and guidance on all critical issues facing the committee
- Manage all school committee meetings effectively and efficiently so that the members time is respected
- Seek guidance and advice from School committee members as appropriate
- Represent the will of the committee to the administration, school community and the Amherst Community
- Keep a clear focus on how to advance student learning
- Working with the School Committee in identifying strategies to promote organizational effectiveness of the school district through the policies and decisions of the school committee*
- Working with the School Committee on establishing a process of periodic goal setting and assessment to promote the work of the district and guide the superintendent as the administrator of district policy*
- Working with the School Committee by guiding its work in fulfilling its mission as the guardian of the public treasury by establishing a budget that fulfills the district's goals and monitoring the financial operation during the year to ensure the integrity and clarity of fiscal management.*
- Working with the School Committee on establishing and clarifying the purpose of the school district through its mission and vision statement, policies and actions at the meeting table.*
*MASC SERVANT OF THE ASSEMBLY
I expressed my appreciation for Irv's statement, in that I believe it really shows respect for all members of the Amherst SC and his desire to serve and represent all of us. I also noted that although as Vice Chair of the Regional School Committee I participate in meetings at which the agenda is set, the decision by the Chair of the Regional School Committee to add an item (the discussion of the Union 26 agreement) at the request of the Chair of Union 26 was not discussed with me at all, which I thought was unfortunate. There was then some brief discussion by Rick and Rob about the process the Amherst SC went through involving the Union 26 agreement.
Next, we turned to a report by Sean Smith, head of world languages, on the planning for the elementary world language program. He reviewed the 2008 World Language Report (he co-chaired this committee), and its recommendations and discussed next steps (this report will be posted on the ARPS website soon and I've already posted it on my blog earlier this month). These next steps include forming a "steering committee" (including parents/teachers/staff) that will meet starting in June to plan the specifics (e.g., how will this program be implemented next year, in which grades, etc.). There will be an announcement on the ARPS website later this month/early next month about how to express interest in participating in this committee. I thought Sean did a great job reviewing the relevant literature, and I'm looking forward to hearing updates on the planning of this new program later this year.
We then turned to the "first read" of the policy on world language, which I've pasted below. The process of approving policies is that we have a first read at a School Committee meeting, and then get comments from SC members (as well as parents/teachers/staff/administration), and then the policy subcommittee meets to discuss revisions, and brings a revised policy back to the SC for a "second read" and then approval. So, if you have comments on this policy, send them to Irv Rhodes (chair of policy subcommittee) at: email@example.com.
Policy X (number to be determined) on Elementary World Language
Evidence finds substantial benefits from the study of a foreign language in the early elementary grades. These include better cognitive acquisition and pronunciation, more rapid acquisition of vocabulary, an understanding of the structure of language that fosters learning in English language arts, and the acquisition of knowledge about other cultures which should help our students develop a better understanding of themselves as members of a global community.
Given the evidence, the long-standing desire for an elementary school world language program in Amherst that is summarized in the 2008 World Language Report, and the fact that Spanish is by far the most often non-English language spoken at home by our elementary school children, a Kindergarten through sixth grade Spanish language program will become part of the Amherst Elementary School curriculum. The program will adhere to principles consistent with the Massachusetts Frameworks and National Standards and will be integrated into the elementary classroom curriculum. Instruction will be differentiated in order to engage and meet the needs of all native and non-native Spanish speakers.
The overarching program objectives are
1. To develop a level of oral proficiency in Spanish that enables children to enter middle school language study at an advanced level;
2. To gain an understanding of the diverse cultures and traditions in Spanish speaking countries; and
3. To increase the school participation and involvement of families in which English is a second language.
We then had a brief discussion about some issues related to this program (e.g., staffing, budget, etc.). Rick raised some concerns about whether we would have the funding available for the full implementation of this program (that would be 5 or 6 teachers, compared to the 1.5 dedicated for this fall). Steve then noted that he felt we actually had much more funding than is often portrayed. In particular, he went through a list of items that are being described as "cuts" that don't actually impact the education we provide at all. These included saving $30,000 by moving the science coordinator position from the budget to a grant, $81,000 saved due to a decrease in actual health insurance premiums below expected increase (with no effect on coverage), $43,300 saved due to a decrease in health insurance costs due to lower employee enrollment, $30,000 saved due to no teachers taking sabbaticals ($30,000 budgeted), $24,000 saved due to a reduction in cost of utilities, $18,000 saved because the school bus no longer stops at all houses (children must walk to corners), $15,500 saved due to the elimination of busing to maintain language and ethnic clusters, and $18,000 saved because the substitute teacher coordinator has been replaced by new software). The superintendent stated that she disagreed that we aren't doing a lot of cutting.
Next, we turned to the superintendent's update. This update included a lot of really useful information, including the status of the K to 12 math review (Dr. Chen has been hired, will start now and submit a report in September), the equity/social justice initiative (Dr. Ray Taylor will visit and create an action plan on student achievement), the end-of-year surveys (Debbie Westmoreland and I are working on drafts of these), Response-to-Intervention efforts (IDEA funds - grant - will be used to increase our use of RTI to reduce behavioral issues and increase achievement), afterschool programming (there is a desire to have LSSE run the afterschool programs at all schools to provide a more consistent approach for students at all of the schools), and the curriculum director search (finalists will come this week, hopes to have an announcement next week).
We then had a few questions from the SC. Steve asked about whether we should require summer math of all students, as we require summer reading, to reduce the achievement drop that occurs over the summer for some kids. I noted that a number of 6th grade parents had questions about math placement issues for the middle school, and I wondered whether the superintendent could discuss whether there was a plan in place, or when there might be a plan in place, regarding this issue. The superintendent asked Mike Hayes to speak to this issue. He noted that he has heard from some parents that they are concerned with how to get their child to be able to skip 7th grade math and move into honors algebra in 7th grade, and that there seemed to be a lot of anxiety about this issue. He stated that a letter will go out to all 6th grade parents in May describing the different math options and how kids get into the different levels.
I raised three topics regarding this issue. First, I noted that there was anxiety about getting students into honors algebra because this placement both eliminated the year spent doing extensions (since these kids move directly into honors algebra as 7th graders) and resulted in these kids having a very small math class (about 10 kids in geometry) during their 8th grade year. I therefore wondered if thought was being given to eliminating extensions, given that this approach has concerned some parents and is unusual (as was noted in the Beers report). Second, I noted that in my review of other districts as part of my work on the Math Curriculum Council, I couldn't find any other districts in which only "honors algebra" was taught and not "regular algebra." I therefore wondered whether some students might be ready for "algebra" in 7th grade but not "honors algebra." Finally, I wondered why the decision has been made to give the math placement test in the fall as opposed to the spring, when what research shows is that many kids lose math skills over the summer (per Steve's earlier point) and therefore more kids might place into math in the spring than in the fall.
Mike stated that he was interested in hearing the outside consultant's report on extensions, and noted that extensions had been successful in increasing the number of kids in honors algebra. He also noted that only 2 to 3% of kids are "gifted and talented" and therefore able to handle honors algebra as 7th graders. He also stated that the placement test was really two parts, and the second part was quite difficult and was only given to a small number of kids, and that giving this test in the spring would be demoralizing.
I will finish updating the rest of the meeting tomorrow -- it was a long one!