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, September 30, 2010

Tell Me What YOU Think on

To try to gage the broad sentiment of the community, I've posted a link about the Union 26 issue on the website. This is a new website that is genuinely trying to tap into community feelings about political issues in towns in an objective way (e.g., it is "agenda-free"). I've provided objective information about Union 26 on this website, and I want to now hear what YOU think. Please go to: to register your vote (you will have to sign in and use your name), and please send this information to your friends/neighbors/colleagues. It best serves the School Committee IF we hear from many voices -- not just a few -- so I really hope the community will weigh in on localocracy on this very important issue. Thanks!

One correction: apparently you can vote anonymously on this site -- that is an option. But you have to be an Amherst resident to log in to register a vote.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Amhest and Pelham Joint Meeting, September 28, 2010

We had two separate SC meetings tonight -- at 7 pm, a joint meeting with the Pelham SC, and at 8 pm, an Amherst only meeting (so I will do two separate blog post summaries).

The joint meeting started with statements by Debbie and Irv, chairs of the two SCs. These statements generally expressed willingness to work together and find common ground in a positive way.

The floor was then open for general comments on two distinct topics - cost sharing of central office and governance.

In terms of cost sharing, the key information is as follows:

1. There is currently no written or standard formula determining how costs are divided between Amherst, Pelham and the Region. In contrast, all other superintendent unions seem to have written formula for how to distribute central office costs among member towns. For example, Union 28, in which Leverett and Shutesbury participate, computes enrollment figures each October 1st and then divides all central office costs based completed on enrollment for the next year (starting July 1st). I

2. There is substantial variation both over time and among items in the central office budget with respect to the assignment of costs. For example, last year the superintendent’s salary was paid 50% from the Region, 48% from Amherst, and 2% from Pelham, whereas this year the Region will still pay 50% but Amherst will pay 47% and Pelham will pay 3%. It isn't clear how decisions are made about how to allocate costs in any given year, or who makes that decision.

3. The rule of thumb according to our administrators (according to business manager Rob Detweiler) is that Amherst pays 94% and Pelham pays 6% of the elementary school share of central office costs. In actuality, however, Amherst is paying 96.5% and Pelham is paying 3.5%. Thus, even based on the rule of thumb calculation, Amherst is over-paying right now and Pelham is under-paying.

4. Pelham is paying far below its share of elementary school enrollment which is roughly 10% (not 6%). It is also not clear whether enrollment is the right way to calculate costs. For example, some districts allocate costs based on number of buildings or principals, which was suggested as the best solution in a memo sent to all Amherst and Pelham SC members yesterday by a member of CBAC (this would mean Amherst pays 75% and Pelham pays 25%).

The good news is that all members of both SCs agreed that we need to settle on a clear, consistent, and fair way of allocating costs between Amherst, Pelham, and the Region. I look forward to hearing suggestions from the Budget Subcommittee about such allocations in the near future, and to voting on a policy so that at least this aspect of Union 26 can be settled.

We also talked about issues of governance, and in particular the fact that Amherst and Pelham are in the most inequitable union in the state of Massachusetts -- and how according to state law, there is nothing we can do about changing the nature of the equal voting given to each town.

Steve, Rob, and I all expressed concerns about the nature of this governance, and the impossibility of doing anything about it while staying in the union. Steve indicated he would be bringing forward a motion on this issue in the future, and would like to get the state involved in examining alternative arrangements. I noted that an easy fix to this governance issue would be forming an elementary regional agreement with Pelham, in which case we could have a single SC that would jointly influence decision-making for all 4 elementary schools (a regional agreement would allow the division of representatives in some way other than 3 to 3).

Members from Pelham noted that they were currently studying (as part of a larger "visioning" process) options for the Pelham school moving forward, which they expected to bring to Town Meeting in May for a vote. They asked for the Amherst SC to give them time to complete this process.

Some members from Amherst expressed concern about waiting until May to move on a decision involving Union 26, and noted that it might be in Pelham's best interest to know if a given option (e.g., remaining in Union 26) was off the table before they had moved too far along in their consideration of various options. I noted that it seemed odd for Amherst to simply wait and do nothing, given the possibility that in May we could then learn Pelham wanted to exit the union.

There was also a fair amount of dialogue about whether bringing the state in to help advise on this issue was a good or bad idea. Some members of both SCs (Debbie, Irv) expressed concerns that the state would come in and take control and thus we would lose local control. Other members from Amherst (Steve, Rob) noted that the state would get involved if we chose to exit Union 26, and it would be better to have the state involved earlier so that we wouldn't pursue a path that ultimately would be rejected. They also noted that state law clearly gives SCs the right to make these decisions, and that asking the state for advice clearly doesn't change the state law about local control.

I think this is an important topic for both Amherst and Pelham to consider, and I believe there are solutions that may well benefit both towns. I look forward to a discussion at the next Amherst SC meeting (October) about potential steps for us moving forward on this topic.

One final note: I'd be interested in hearing what my blog readers think about this topic -- but will remind people to be respectful in their comments, which will help us have a more productive discussion about the content of this issue (not motives/personality/tone of those on either side).


One quick update: Here is a link to the Gazette story on this meeting:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

City Schools Revel in AP Success Stories

I'm posting a link to a Gazette story on the recent AP test successes experienced at both Northampton High and Easthampton High ( I congratulate the leaders of both of these schools in the tremendous success they've experienced in terms of increasing the number of kids taking AP tests AND at increasing the passing rate! In these communities increasing AP participation and success is seen as a positive, an indication that students are reaching for and achieving significant academic goals. Some in Amherst have expressed that AP classes have negative connotations of elitism and grinding down of creativity. However, many high school students across the river, and across the country, experience AP classes as intellectually challenging and engaging. They feel very proud of their accomplishments, and save money and time in college by gaining college credit and/or placing out of intro level classes. That is not to suggest that AP classes are the ONLY, or even the MOST, rewarding classes. It is just to acknowledge that very strong, good high schools offer such classes, and in many other communities, having these classes, and having students succeed in these classes, is a point of pride. Perhaps we can find a way to offer more AP classes for those in Amherst that want to take them, in particular the most commonly offered classes such as AP Statistics and AP Chemistry. I am confident our talented teachers could find a way to teach the curriculum of these classes without making them boring or teaching to the test. It would give our academically oriented students a more even playing field with their peers when they get to college.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My Thoughts on Hiring a Superintendent

There is a big story in tomorrow's Gazette on the most recent Regional School Committee drama: here's the link to that piece (

I just want to add a few additional thoughts about this very important issue.

I was really disappointed in last night’s meeting, and in particular the extent to which all of the hill town School Committee representatives voted to halt the hiring of the superintendent search firm (the bid would have expired in 5 days, so any delay would have meant we lost this contract -- the only offer we received). This topic was not on the night’s agenda and other School Committee members were not given the courtesy of learning of this monumental motion prior to the meeting (which initiated as a motion by Ms. Luschen from Shutesbury -- which was seconded by I believe Kip Fonsch from Leverett -- to simply hire Ms. Geryk permanently and conduct no search). Also, since there was a unanimous vote at the last meeting to hire a search committee to assist with hiring a superintendent, there was no reason for School Committee members or the general public to expect that any discussion involving making an appointment without a search would be proposed. It felt a bit like an ambush political tactic rather than a sincere desire for an open discussion.

Some people have noted that the Amherst SB just appointed John Musante without a search, and suggested that we should follow that lead. However, there are three key differences between these two situations. John has a long tenure as the key assistant to the Town Manager, he was a finalist in the previous search four years ago, and finally, the Select Board made this appointment only after a significant public process to solicit input from the community. So, these are really not comparable situations.

I have no idea whether Maria Geryk would or would not emerge at the best candidate in an open evaluation process. But I would expect any qualified candidate for superintendent would welcome, and in fact insist on, such a process where he or she could demonstrate to the community their qualifications. This is how a candidate gains broad support from not only the School Committee but the broader community (not just teachers and principals, but parents and community members as well).

Members from the hill towns spoke passionately about Maria’s excellent performance over the last 7 months. Certainly she appears to have support from the staff of the school system who appear to see her as bringing stability to the schools. Personally, I am impressed with Maria’s communication skills and her ability to build bridges to the community (such as the coffee with the superintendent and the hiring of the ombudsman). However, virtually all of the improvements and evaluations around instruction and curriculum accomplished recently were started well before Maria’s tenure. Programs such as the improvements in the middle school, creation of the First Day event, expansion of the preschool program, hiring a staff person to assist with Five College collaboration, the hiring of Dr. Chen for the math review, and implementation of the afterschool and summer school intervention support were started before she was appointed interim superintendent (and initiated with former superintendent Dr. Alberto Rodriguez). She has yet to go through a planning cycle for developing district goals, or develop any specific plans in response to external evaluations such as the special education review or math curriculum review. I believe it is fair to judge people on their body of work, and unlike John Musante, Maria’s work as superintendent has occurred over a very short period of time. She has not had the chance to demonstrate her effectiveness.

On the other hand, Maria has been in charge of the special education program for many years. The recent external review of this program raised a number of serious issues (as have been noted by many parents of children in special education for years). Whether these concerns reflect on Maria’s ability to serve as superintendent would be clarified by a real search process. Many parents, including parents of children in special education, have expressed concerns about Maria as superintendent. She does not at this time appear to have the unanimous public endorsement that John Musante received during the public comment on his proposed appointment.

Moreover, I have never seen Maria Geryk’s resume, and to the best of my knowledge neither has any member of the School Committee. She has never been through an interview process, there are no answers on record as to her views on critical issues to the school such as academic rigor, social justice, and budget priorities. This is due diligence we are obligated to do as a town and as a School Committee. It is also the best possible way for any candidate to win the support of the community.

I believe hiring a superintendent is the single most important thing a School Committee does, and believe the community should have an opportunity to share their thoughts about the qualifications for such a hire. Do we want someone with experience as a classroom teacher or principal? Do we want someone with a doctorate? Do we want someone with experience on budgets and finances, or curriculum and instruction, or hiring and mentoring teachers/principals? Do we not care about experience and just want someone who is a strong communicator or is supported by current teachers? I believe the way to make the best hire is by going through a fair and open process in which both internal and external candidates are given full consideration and evaluated on their merits, experiences, backgrounds, and ideas. I believe that is how we will end up with a superintendent that reflects the values of the community and has the broad support of the community. I hope that members of the Regional School Committee who represent the hill towns will allow such a process to occur so that the entire community can have confidence in the person we hire in January, and that we can provide that person with the support and respect he or she deserves.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

September 22, 2010, Regional Meeting

So, it is late, and I teach in 9 hours, and hence this will be relatively brief. But tonight was truly one of the oddest meetings we've had, and thus I wanted to get a quick update out to my blog readers.

There were two key votes taken: one selecting a superintendent search firm and one selecting a lawyer for the district. The first was supposed to be a quick vote to approve a superintendent search firm (we only received one bid from the four firms that we requested bids from). However, Kristen Luschen, from Shutesbury, made a motion (with absolutely no warning to other members of the SC) to appoint Maria Geryk superintendent, effective immediately, without conducting any search whatsoever. This motion was discussed at length -- and I encourage you to watch the meeting on ACTV - but briefly, all members from the hilltowns strongly supported simply making Maria permanent superintendent and not conducting any type of search (and they reported that this was the message they were receiving from members of their community). I was frankly shocked at this motion, in part because no members of the SC were given any notice about this motion, but also because this type of decision seems like one that clearly should have been announced on the agenda so that members of the public could have shared their views (this topic was NOT on the agenda). I was also quite surprised that members of the SC would feel comfortable appointing a permanent superintendent without any opportunity for public comment on such an appointment (which is precisely what my concern was in March when Maria was appointed for 16 months without any public comment). Moreover, no members of the SC have even seen her resume, and she has never undergone any sort of review of her performance; hence I am uncertain about our ability to evaluate her qualifications for this job and make such a major decision.

This motion was discussed at length, and ultimately was voted down, with all 5 members of the Amherst SC voting to conduct a search (and acknowledging that if Maria was the best candidate, surely she would be selected), and all 4 non-Amherst members voting to make Maria the permanent superintendent without any public comment or notice that this was even a possibility (NOTE: I have a correction to this statement below).

We then turned to discuss the legal representation of the district. Again, I encourage you to watch the whole meeting, but briefly, all members from the hilltowns spoke in favor of retaining our current counsel for all legal matters (special education and general counsel). Several members from Amherst (Steve, Irv, me) spoke about concerns with the current counsel (including concerns expressed by parents of students in special education, concerns about legal contracts such as the contract giving away control of the HS schedule and requiring spring parent-teacher conference in the elementary schools and including an invalid clause in the most recent superintendent contract). However, ultimately the vote was 5 to 4 in favor of hiring the Dupere law firm to represent us in special education (another vote with all Amherst members in favor, all non-Amherst members against), and then 5 to 4 in favor of retaining the current counsel for general counsel (all hilltown members were joined by Rick in the majority; the other 4 Amherst members voted for Deutsch & Williams).

Those were the "highlights" ... will do a more thorough update tomorrow sometime. But in conclusion, it was very clear at this meeting that SC members from the hilltowns are quite comfortable supporting the status quo -- maintaining our current interim superintendent permanently and maintaining our current law firm. And you see that members from Amherst are pushing for more change and a more open process -- requesting an open process by which we choose a superintendent (all Amherst members) and requesting a change in our legal counsel (all Amherst members with respect to special education counsel, 80% of Amherst members with respect to general counsel). The differences in view and perspective between Amherst SC members and non-Amherst SC members seems quite stark, and something I think we all need to take note of.


I am just adding a few other items of business that occurred last night.

First, we appointed a subcommittee of the three chairs to create the superintendent's goals and evaluation (Irv, Rick, Debbie). That system worked effectively last time and I believe will be useful again.

Second, we learned from Rob Detweiler that the regional schools had paid an additional $150,000 to charter schools for reimbursement ABOVE our projections, again showing that some families continue to opt out of our public schools (and more than we expected).

Third, we learned from Rick Hood that members of the CBAC group aren't so interested in continuing their work on budget stuff, which is disappointing. I've heard from members of this group that they were frustrated with the lack of support they received from the administration, which made it difficult for them to compile the data they needed.

Fourth, we agreed to appoint a task force to study whether school times should be changed (either delaying elementary and regional start times OR delaying the start times of all schools). There will be an announcement on the website for those who are interested in serving on this task force.

Fifth, we conducted a first read of several policies (attendance, anti-bullying) -- these policies will be posted on the ARPS website soon for public comment. Policy meetings are also open to the whole community for those who want to attend in person.

One final note: I will be posting a summary of the last Amherst meeting in which the Union 26 arrangement was discussed soon -- look back here if you are interested in learning more about this unique agreement!

************************************************************************************************* One more note: I wrote the initial blog posting last night after midnight and was exhausted, and thus didn't fully describe the relatively lengthy proceedings, and so I want to correct something for the record: the unanimous support from the hill town representatives was NOT to hire Maria permanently without public comment -- it was to suspend the hiring of the search firm so that we could hear from the community regarding whether a search should be conducted. However, the effect of such a vote to suspend the search would, I believe, largely be the same as simply appointing Maria for several reasons.

First, the motion initially made by Ms. Luschen (and seconded I believe by Kip Fonsch from Leverett) was to hire Maria as the permanent superintendent. Clearly at least these two people supported the immediate hiring of Maria without any public comment (although neither member from Pelham supported this motion). Second, the bid we received from the search firm expired in 5 days, and it was the ONLY bid we received to do this work. Thus, had we lost thet bid (and certainly there is no SC meeting planned in the next 5 days at which we could have voted to accept the bid), we likely would have lost this search firm -- and at the prior meeting, both Ms. Luschen and Ms. Gould (from Pelham) spoke passionately about the importance of hiring a major firm to assist us with recruiting candidates. In turn, voting to suspend hiring this firm would have led, even if the search continued, to losing this firm and thereby having to do the search on our own, which all parties had agreed was a bad idea in terms of recruiting qualified candidates at the last meeting (and is a particular bad idea when there is an internal candidate). I believed last night, and continued to believe, that even if Maria is the best candidate, she will be far better served (and in turn, our schools will be far better served) by going through a fair and open process in which her abilities/experiences/ideas are demonstrated than by being appointed in a highly controversial and clearly split vote (as it was very clear the majority of Amherst members weren't comfortable appointing her without a search).

Friday, September 17, 2010

Assorted Interesting Education Articles

I've read (and received from blog readers - thanks!) a number of articles on education that are very interesting -- and, in some cases, have clear implications for Amherst. I've posted links to all of these, so you can click on any of these to read the whole piece.

First, here's another piece (from the New York Times) on the efforts to evaluate teachers ( This is clearly a key topic that many districts are facing, and I look forward to hearing more about the pros/cons ... and seeing the results in districts that have attempted to use this model (which is certainly being pushed by Arne Duncan/Obama).

Second, here's an article from the Boston Globe on "what makes a great school" ( I found this piece really interesting because it focused on the relative lack of importance of money -- and instead on the benefits of good teaching and a rigorous curriculum!

Third, there was an interesting article on race differences in suspension rates, a topic which the RADAR group at ARHS has discussed for many years ( This article reported that in middle schools, black boys and girls are suspended at a much higher rate than white students, which is similar to the data that RADAR has shown from ARHS. I would be interested in seeing similar data as a function of student income (e.g., are these races differences really a reflection of class differences?), and I'd also be interested in learning about strategies used by districts in which such disparities don't exist.

Finally, the New York Times published a fascinating blog piece on the link between exercise and cognitive performance ( This article describes a number of very interesting studies showing not only that physical fitness is associated with cognitive abilities, but also why this association might exist.

One final note: tonight's SC meeting will take place in the high school library at 7 pm and will NOT be shown live on ACTV. I'll do a brief blog post after the meeting to catch people up on the major decisions -- which should include hiring a lawyer (or two) to represent the district and choosing a search firm to help with the superintendent search.

Math Consultant To Visit

There has been a lot of discussion on my blog (and in the community, and by the SC) about math, and we are looking forward to hearing the report by the outside consultant Dr. Andrew Chen in October. As announced on the ARPS website, "Family and community members who have not yet had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Andrew Chen (MIT), the consultant conducting the K-12 math program review, are invited to do so on Monday, September 20, from 6:30 - 8:00 p.m., in the Professional Development Center at the Amherst Middle School." I would strongly encourage parents to attend this meeting to share their views on this important topic.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Education Matters: ARMS principal taking steps for improvement

This is the first week of my semester, so I've been swamped - but will finish the summary of the last Amherst SC meeting this weekend. In the meantime, here's a link to my September Education Matters column in the Amherst Bulletin (

One more note: the Regional SC meeting for next week (September 14th) has been cancelled -- we will meet next on WEDNESDAY (so this is the HS library, not town hall), September 22nd, at 7 pm. That meeting will include the district improvement plan as well as the law firm vote (and will not be shown live, since it is not at town hall).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Regional SC Meeting, August 25, 2010

First, sorry for the long delay in this post ... my semester starts in less than a week, so I've been swamped with course preparation and the newly arrived first year students (and of course with getting my own three kids ready to go back to school). I'll have the posting of the Amherst Meeting from last night up soon.

So, this was a VERY long (4 hour!) but I think extremely productive meeting -- and I'd encourage blog readers to try to watch it on ACTV (or at least portions of it) to really watch parts that interest them, as I'm going to hit the major business that we did. The bulk of the meeting was spent hearing the school improvement plans from the MS and the HS (these are typically presented in June, but were delayed this year), as well as a discussion on the superintendent search process (the law firm discussion was on the agenda but was delayed due to time pressures).

The school improvement plan for the MS was presented by Principal Mike Hayes (and you can see the whole report at: As I said at the meeting, this was the single best school improvement plan I've seen presented at any SC meeting over the last 4 years. It was extremely detailed (lots of data provided -- both about the current state of the MS and goals for the future), covered each academic discipline, and included information on both strengths and areas for improvement. Specifically, it included goals around instruction (lesson planning, alignment, assessment), homework and grading policies, family-school communication, and academics (math, social studies, English, science).

I would really encourage readers to check out the whole plan on line, but I'll just give a few key things I noted in terms of areas for improvement we can look forward to in the upcoming year -- a greater focus on higher expectations for reading in English (as noted as an area of concern on the parent survey), a greater focus on consistent assessments across teams in social studies (as of now, only 2 of 11 assessments are common across teams), a stronger focus on experiments in science (with 48% of 8th graders not reaching proficient on science MCAS), and requiring all kids to do honors-level work in math for the first trimester (which is a shift from the past, in response to requests from parents). These all sound like great areas to work on, and I look forward to seeing how well these goals are accomplished later this year.

Mike also presented very interesting data on algebra in 8th grade. Briefly, 39% of all 8th graders take honors algebra, but that percentage really masks major sub-group differences: only 37% of girls (but 52% of boys) are in this class, only 15% of Hispanic and 12% of African American kids (but 46% of White kids and 50% of Asian kids), and only 9% of low income kids. This is extremely important data to examine, because it really shows that our current approach to allowing students to choose whether to complete extensions isn't really eliminating the achievement gap (and of course, kids who take 8th grade algebra are basically the only ones on track to take calculus in high school). As I've noted before, I would really prefer for us to require all kids to complete honors level work in 7th grade math (which has been shown in other districts to lead to a major reduction in the achievement gap), and I'm encouraged that all kids will complete this level of work at least for the first trimester this year. I will be interested to hear how this plan works out, and whether it increases the % of kids (from all backgrounds, but particularly girls/low income kids/kids of color) in 8th grade algebra.

Mike also noted that he would prefer to see 6th grade in the middle school (you can read the Gazette article on this topic at: I believe this is an idea that we definitely need to examine, particularly since moving to a three-year school was recommended by not only former superintendents Hochman and Rodriguez (and in the Hamer report last summer), but also was suggested by each of the superintendent candidates we interviewed in January of 2009. I hope we can form some type of a task force/subcommittee to examine the pros/cons of such a move this year.

The SC then voted unanimously (and I would say very enthusiastically) to approve this school improvement plan.

Next, we heard the school improvement plan for the high school from Mark Jackson. This plan included 4 goals: preparing for the NEASC accreditation (which will occur this year, and involves a fair amount of work/self-study), social/emotional needs and school climate (which was prompted by an increase in the number of students harming themselves), school/family partnership (largely focused on having parents have greater awareness of students' grades via an on-line system), and inclusion (better implement ion of special ed plans). You can read more about the frequency of self-harming in the Gazette (

Compared to the middle school improvement plan, the high school plan was significantly less detailed (with almost no data provided on the current state of the school or numerical goals for the upcoming year), and also included no specific goals related to any of the academic disciplines. The SC therefore requested some revisions to this plan before approving it (and will hear this plan again, and hopefully approve it, probably at the September 14th meeting).

We then turned to a discussion of the superintendent search process, and in particular how to go about hiring a search firm to assist with finding good candidates. There was a pretty lengthy discussion (mostly involving the issue of time-line and legal requirements in soliciting bids/requests from various firms), but ultimately the SC agreed unanimously to appoint a subcommittee to write a proposal to submit to four search firms. The members of this subcommittee are Steve Rivkin, Debbie Gould, and Irv Rhodes. They will submit a proposal to the entire SC for review at the next meeting. We also approved a timeline for a search, which starts with an application deadline of November 1st, semi-finalists interviews in December, and finalist interviews (in public) in January (with an offer out by late January). This timeline is a bit earlier than the one we used the last time, both because it was our experience last time that some candidates took offers prior to our interviewing finalists and that was the recommendation of the Union 28 superintendent.

We then conducted a few brief items of business -- agreeing to reconstitute the CBAC group (probably to examine per pupil expenses), accepting gifts, discussing goals for the upcoming year (which will be discussed/presented in September), and planning items for upcoming meetings.