Vogel: Review of options; recommendation to preserve K6 and small schools

(link to PDF version)  (see follow-up letter from January 14)

NOVEMBER 2015

Dear Amherst School Committee members Ms. Appy, Ms. Cage, Ms. Hazard, Mr. Hood, and Ms. Traphagen (and I’m cc’ing Superintendent Geryk and Assistant Superintendent Morris),

I am a parent of a Wildwood student. We are living in Cambridge, Mass for one year while I am on sabbatical from UMass, but my son went to Wildwood Kindergarten through 4th grade and will return for 6th grade. I am writing to offer my thoughts on the school reorganization plan.

To begin, I want to say that I have loved our experience with the Amherst public schools. I grew up in Cambridge, and went to the public high school here, taught in public schools in Oregon and Washington, and have talked with many friends around the country who teach in public schools or who have kids in public schools. And my son this year is in school in Cambridge. Based on my knowledge of schools elsewhere, I have said many, many times over the years that I simply cannot imagine a better public school or better public school experience than my son has had in Amherst. My son is anxious, and has a 504 plan, but is also bright, creative, and highly engaged. He has thrived at Wildwood. There are a number of elements that have stood out as making his experience extraordinary:

  •   The high quality of teachers – not just their knowledge and instructional abilities, but their understanding and support of the individual needs of different kids.
  •   The high quality and availability of a range of non-classroom staff – I know my son has had particular personal support, connection and learning from the principal, assistant principal, counselor, psychologist, librarian, music and computer teachers, and custodians – and probably others have provided special support and caring of which I’m not even aware.
  •   The range of topics and subjects and experiences available in the school, from wonderful writing and social studies curricula, to a terrific music program, to great PE and recess athletics, to innovative computer classes… and much more.
  •   The wonderful sense of continuity and grounding created in a community school, where kids enter as 5-year-olds and can grow roots, interacting with a whole range of other kids and teachers, and gradually growing up and becoming the mature upper-elementary students they looked up to years earlier.
  •   The joys of a neighborhood school, in which my son got to know his neighbors in his classroom in first grade, and suddenly the closed doors of the houses on our street opened, and we became a neighborhood community of kids who all knew each other, could play together at home as well as at school.
  •   A surprising and wonderful diversity of students, and a consistent, warm-hearted, bringing- together of kids to appreciate and accept each other, to live diverse inclusion as an assumed, natural practice. This includes regular, every-day times when kids work together, lots of awareness-building through social-emotional curricula and support, the kind of familiarity that comes from knowing others who are different kids as you grow up together, and school-wide events to celebrate diverse kids’ traditions, background and experiences.
  •   Wonderful kids and committed parents, many of whom have invested considerable time into the school and our classes.
  •   Small class sizes, and lots of support for teachers, including extra teachers in the early grades and lots of support staff through all the grades.

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With this as background, I ask that as you consider the reconfiguration plan, you start from a place of recognizing what a wonderful thing we have in Amherst’s elementary schools. The proposals you have before you all seem potentially to risk losing much of what makes Amherst schools exceptional places for kids to grow up. The proposals may also leave room to protect most or all of it – but it seems that none of your three options do that by themselves. Therefore, moving forward with any of the proposals simply should not be done without some accompanying commitments that will ensure the continued nurturing and sustenance of the wonderful kind of schools we have today.

Two things seem to be at risk, and need protection as you move forward:

  1. Small neighborhood community schools. If at all possible, there should continue to be three neighborhood schools. Two is too few for a town Amherst’s size; one should not be considered. Continue to district so that each school brings in a representative diversity of the Town’s kids.Why do small neighborhood schools matter? I’m sure many of you have read the research far more than I. I offer my personal experience. Neighborhood community schools were life- changers for both my son and me. Having all the kids on our street go to the same school, and half the time be in the same classroom with the same teacher, being able to compare and share information about teachers and opportunities with parents of just-younger and just-older kids – these have been incredible community-building experiences. My son and I were much more socially isolated when I was driving him to preschool and his friends were in different towns – we simply never saw them outside of school. I am very much missing this now in Cambridge, where kids are bused to elementary schools all over the city, and we don’t know our neighbors. Neighborhood schools are far more than convenient, and they needn’t be exclusive or elitist. They nurture community, outside of school as well as in, and this helps kids and families thrive.Also, it’s important to have a small enough school that kids associate routinely with kids who are different from them. This happens in a small school, because they are simply part of a shared community in which everyone knows everyone else and associates with everyone else.
  2. K-6 schools (or a close variation like JK-6, K-5, or JK-5).It’s a mistake to split up the younger and older elementary grades. Again, you probably know the research better. Here’s my experience. Having kids from K through 6 in the same building, and being able to stay there for the main years of my son’s childhood, has been an incredibly important experience for him. When my son was in K and 1st grade and had reading buddies in grades 4 and 5, it really helped him feel connected – and he looked forward tremendously to being in 4th grade, when he could be a mentor for a kindergartner. He heard about the Geography Bee early on and was thrilled to reach 4th grade and finally participate. Having experiences with different aged kids in the same building is invaluable for giving kids perspective on their lives and trajectories and possibilities. Later, it helps older kids to be kind and sensitive to the younger ones – such a life lesson! – because they remember what it was like.It was also so valuable for my son that he was able to be in the same place year after year. He needed stability. He was depressed and anxious in preschool, when we were moving and he went to 3 preschools in 3 years. Repeated change meant repeated loss and disorientation. Once he settled in Wildwood in kindergarten, he grew roots, felt grounded. This grew year after year. He truly loves the place. It feels like home. You just won’t get that in the same way if kids are split up by grades.

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So, what to do? Honestly, I do not think I can fully advise because I do not think the public has been fully informed about all the issues and constraints at hand. I am a single parent, and, except for this year, normally work 50+ hours/week at UMass, so simply cannot be involved enough to go to meetings, listen to presentations, etc. I cannot go to evening meetings because I have no other parental support for my son, and he needs time with a parent after a long day of school and afterschool. I cannot go to daytime meetings because I have work. I knew that renovating Wildwood was under consideration, but not until I read the Wildwood PGO blog last week did I have any inkling that renovating Wildwood might result in dismantling all three Amherst elementary schools!! So there is a side issue here, which is also important – the school committee, and the district, need to find ways to bring these issues to families where they can actually think about them and engage. I think you have people’s attention now. If you can delay this decision a month or two or three, and have some community forums – what about half-hour meetings inside the schools, right at the end of the school or work day? What about some virtual forums we could join via the web or phone? – the community might be able to really grapple with all that’s going into this decision.

As I understand it you have three options in terms of physical infrastructure: renovate Wildwood, rebuild Wildwood, or build a new school that could be big enough to house the equivalent of Wildwood plus Fort River. I suggest you keep the question of physical infrastructure separate from school configuration. Your goal must be to find a way to address physical infrastructure needs while still providing neighborhood, community, K-6 schools – if at all possible, three neighborhood, community, K-6 schools, but at least two.

Here are the issues and some of the ways I suggest this might be done, given the options for physical infrastructure laid out in the Amherst Bulletin and reorganization facebook page. Together I develop 4 physical-institutional options. In many cases I am unsure and have included questions for you to answer or consider. These are examples of issues that it would be helpful to communicate better with families in the Town, and discuss, before a decision is made.

Physical infrastructure options 1) and 2): Rebuild or renovate Wildwood. I agree with the public presentation of the basic benefits and costs here. Either way, the good thing is that Wildwood gets replaced. It’s a building with some known problems, and students and teachers would benefit. The problem with renovating Wildwood is that Fort River students and teachers get stuck in Wildwood’s twin building, with no offer from the state for renovation.

One comment here. Open classrooms don’t seem so problematic in my experience. From what I have seen walking through classrooms and understanding my son’s experience, Wildwood teachers and students navigate the open classrooms wonderfully, and I think it helps to create a sense of interconnected classes in each grade, which I have really liked. I have seen my son really stepping into the sense of shared community the open classrooms provide, both literally and figuratively – each year, he has toured me through all 3 classrooms in his grade with a sense of ownership and familiarity. I am sure there are genuine frustrations for teachers from repeated distractions, but I think they are mitigated by some pluses, too. In my opinion, this is not reason enough to spend millions of state or Town dollars.

Mold and other kinds of health and safety problems are, however, worth serious investment and change. I cannot judge the merits of these issues, but will trust that the problems are real.

I suggest three options here. I’m not sure all of these are possible. Questions follow each suggestion.

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Physical-institutional Option 1: Build Wildwood to about the same capacity, while the Town – the school district, the school committee, and the Town’s residents – commits to fundraising to replace or renovate Fort River. Some of the funds would surely have to come from a local bond measure. But perhaps there might be some other possible sources of funds. Finding money might not be easy, or quick, but it would be essential. The School Committee’s and Superintendent’s next job, along with Town Meeting’s, would be to find ways to build support and options for this.

Questions to consider: How much would the Town have to raise? What is the chance the state might help fund another school renovation, 5 or 10 years from now? Are there other kinds or sources of funding? Are there buildings in existence in the town that might be purchased and renovated for less than a new structure? Once a range of cost figures is known, compare this cost to past large bond measures. How much out of range is it from past Town major expenditures? How has political support for this kind of investment been built in the past, and how might it be in for this?

Physical-institutional Option 2: Build Wildwood big enough to accommodate Fort River students as well. This would be unfortunate, as Wildwood would become very large, but it would at least still provide two community neighborhood schools.

Questions to consider: I did not find this information in the newspaper, but one blog I read said the state would fund only a renovated/rebuilt Wildwood building for 300- some students. Is this true? This seems an arbitrary restriction. If so, can the Town push back on this requirement, and ask for a waiver? What if we work to get many letters from Amherst families asking for this – would this be persuasive? Is there a chance of pushing for an exception through our political representatives? Or – is the requirement only a limitation on the funding the state will provide, rather than an absolute constraint on building size? If so, can the Town use the state money, but then provide the difference in cost to build a larger building? This still might be less money than funding a third school on our own.

Also, is there a chance that we could fund some additions at Crocker Farm so its capacity could be increased, so if the Town has to reduce to two elementary schools, they could be equal size, neither as huge as Wildwood + Fort River would be?

Physical-institutional Option 3: Use the current money to renovate or rebuild Fort River instead. Fort River is the newer school, but only by a few years, and the health problems there seem to be worse. One former employee there told me the school was built on a wetland and this is a source of many of the problems. In this case, maybe it is Wildwood, rather than Fort River, that could more readily bear a construction delay. Rebuild Fort River now, and then proceed with Option 1 for later reconstruction of Wildwood.

Questions to consider: Would the state go along with this? Would Amherst families and citizens? Surely it would require some public information, forums, and discussions. How could time and support be built for this?

Physical infrastructure option 3) Build a new school, big enough to house all the Town’s 3rd through 6th graders. Again, I agree with the basic pros and cons as presented in public media, etc. The good thing here is that Amherst is able to take advantage of the State’s offer of funding for a new school, and

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extend that money to meet the needs of a greater number of students. The bad thing is that it’s an awfully big school. The school reorganization team has come up with an innovative idea about how to deal with this: build it as twin schools sharing a single campus. Then we could retain a sense of smaller schools while still taking advantage of the state’s funding, and perhaps saving some money on shared facilities. The other bad thing is that for some reason, this building proposal has been tied to a truly unfortunate institutional proposal – to break up the K-1 kids from the 2-6 kids.

I suggest one major option here. I’m not sure this is possible. Questions follow.

Option 4: Build the proposed double-sized school, under the twin school plan, but have each school be a K-6 school (or K-5 or JK-5 or JK-6). If possible, name the twin schools Wildwood and Fort River. Keep the districting the same or closely aligned with what it is now. Have Crocker Farm remain JK-6.

Questions to consider: One buried tidbit I found was that the state required that if a new, larger school were built, it had to be 2-6 not K-6. I found no rationale for this. Once again, this seems an arbitrary restriction. And again, I ask: can the Town push back on this requirement, and ask for a waiver? What if we work to get many letters from Amherst families asking for this – would this be persuasive? Is there a chance of pushing for an exception through our political representatives? Or – is the requirement only a limitation on the funding the state will provide, rather than an absolute constraint on number of grades? If so, can the Town use the state money for grades 2-6 students, but then provide the difference in cost to build extra classrooms or facilities to bring in the younger grades?

I also had concerns about the proposals for shared facilities like a cafeteria and gym. It’s a bad idea to have only one of each. One kitchen could work. But the cafeterias even at Wildwood are already so big and noisy and messy that my son wouldn’t even eat there in kindergarten and 1st grade. And one gym? I’d like Amherst to be moving toward having two PE classes per week – kids need this. Can this be done with one gym for 750 kids? In short: could this plan still provide two cafeterias and two gyms, ample exercise and fresh air and breathing space for all kids?

Finally, just one more plug. It’s very, very important that whatever school plan is followed, all the Amherst elementary schools need to be reachable by foot, bicycle and public transit. Would this be harder or easier with an extra-large school?

Based on my limited understanding of the four options I have laid out above, I think the choices in order of preference are:

  1. 1)  Physical-institutional Option 3: Use the current money to renovate or rebuild Fort River instead, and fundraise for later reconstruction of Wildwood.
  2. 2)  Physical-institutional Option 4: Build the proposed double-sized school, under the larger twin school plan, but have each school be a K-6 school (or K-5 or JK-5 or JK-6). Keep Crocker Farm JK- 6.
  3. 3)  Physical-institutional Option 1: Build Wildwood to about the same capacity, while the Town – the school district, the school committee, and the Town’s residents – commits to fundraising to replace or renovate Fort River.
  4. 4)  Physical-institutional Option 2: Build Wildwood big enough to accommodate Fort River students as well.

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Having lined up the above options, I realize that none of them are actually options you have considered. However, all of them seem to be viable ways to deal with the infrastructure issues and funding constraints at hand, while still protecting the things that are most special about Amherst schools, the things that nurture our kids and families so well.

If the boxes you’ve gotten yourselves into are so restrictive they won’t allow us to retain small neighborhood community schools, it’s time to think outside your boxes – or at least to stretch their sides into some non-perpendicular angles that might work with the material given but still incorporate our deepest needs and values (a metaphor that my son’s math and writing teachers from K through 4, and art teacher from all four years, might all appreciate). The options and questions I’ve offered here are possible guides of ways that boxes could be stretched to do this. I’m sure other people have other ideas too.

I urge you not to move forward until you are sure that not only the physical infrastructure, not only the finances, will be addressed, but the most important thing of all: keeping the basic institutions, values, resources, and benefits of our amazing Amherst neighborhood community schools.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Eve Vogel

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Vogel: Unanswered Questions in Proposal, and Benefits of Small Schools (Jan. 14, 2016) | Save Amherst's Small Schools

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