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.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Education Matters: Listening is key to success of district

Amherst Bulletin
Published on May 14, 2010

Effectively leading a school district requires carefully setting priorities and making tough choices. In some cases, all School Committee members and the superintendent will agree on particular budget priorities, goals and policies. In other cases, School Committee members may have different views from one another, and/or from the administration. Ultimately, the School Committee, as the elected representatives of the community, must carefully consider all available information and make often-difficult decisions.

In February of 2009, interim Superintendent Helen Vivian proposed eliminating the elementary instrumental music program and reducing intervention teachers to avoid closing Mark's Meadow. The School Committee spent considerable time last spring hearing from parents, teachers and community members who strongly urged us to keep the school open. Yet ultimately the School Committee prioritized maintaining small class sizes and the instrumental music program over continuing to operate four schools when all students could easily be accommodated in three.

In December of 2009, high school Principal Mark Jackson's budget proposal included a recommendation that in light of dismal budget projections, high school students would move from two to three required study halls a year. This would avoid small increases in average class size, which he stated would lead teachers to rely more on multiple choice tests and assign less writing. However, the Regional School Committee opposed requiring all high school students to spend 20 percent of their school time in a study hall, and thus recommended maintaining only two required study halls (which has now been reduced to one following the passage of the override).

Other districts have made very different decisions on this issue, particularly in light of data suggesting that slightly smaller class size is less important in high school than in early grades. There are relatively few classes at Amherst Regional High School with more than 25 students (14 percent in English, 13 percent in social studies, 15 percent in science, 26 percent in math), but all students take two required study halls. In contrast, in the two public high schools in Newton, a higher percentage of classes have more than 25 students (4 percent in English, 37.5 percent in science, 32 percent in social studies, and 34 percent in math) but students have no required study halls, meaning that Newton students spend 14 percent more time in class than students in Amherst.

Last month, the Amherst School Committee voted unanimously to develop a policy requiring the introduction of a Spanish language program at all elementary schools. Such a program will require additional resources, and thus School Committee members will need to decide whether allocating resources to teaching Spanish is indeed a better choice than increasing the number of technology teachers and intervention teachers as interim Superintendent Maria Geryk has recommended.

In all of these situations there is no choice that will make every parent, teacher and administrator happy. For example, some parents feel adding Spanish will take away from math, science and music instruction time, and that those subjects are more important than adding world language. Others feel strongly that Spanish should be added as both a core academic subject and as a way to promote the multicultural mission of the Amherst schools. Based on the feedback from the community to me and to the School Committee as a whole, I am supporting the elementary Spanish initiative, particularly since world language was taught in the Amherst elementary schools until 1992, and has been continually discussed over the last decade (including 200 signatures on a citizen's petition in 2000 and a recommendation from a committee appointed to study the issue in 2008). However, I do believe we should implement this program with a plan to evaluate its impact over the next several years.

But in all of these cases, there are not "right" and "wrong" answers - there are simply choices that different people would make in different ways. School Committee members must therefore listen carefully to all voices (parent, teacher, staff, community member, student, superintendent) and ultimately make decisions that reflect what they believe are the best priorities, values, and goals for our district.

Catherine A. Sanderson is a professor at Amherst College, and a member of the Amherst and Regional School Committees. This views expressed in this column are hers alone, and not those of the School Committees.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Catherine for this article. I think you often get accused of not listening and thinking that your way is the "right" way. When, what you are doing is coming to a decision and strongly defending your decision with evidence. I continue to appreciate your willingness to stand by your decisions and not be swayed by vocal minorities - which I think, in the past, has prevented us from getting things done and making necessary changes.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 10:12 - thank you for your kind words. I really appreciate them.