Joanna Morse: Amherst’s existing small elementary schools serve a purpose

Published in Amherst Bulletin / Gazette at http://www.amherstbulletin.com/commentary/20395379-95/joanna-morse-amhersts-existing-small-elementary-schools-serve-a-purpose

By JOANNA MORSE

Wednesday, January 6, 2016
(Published in print: Friday, January 8, 2016)

I am concerned about the proposed reconfiguration of grades of the Amherst elementary schools. Research shows that smaller schools that maximize grade span benefit kids through their elementary years.

I urge Bulletin readers to contact the Amherst School Committee, which will soon be voting about whether or not to reconfigure the grades of the elementary schools into prekindergarten-1 and 2-6. I support keeping our schools K-6 due to the benefits of small schools, the negative effects of school transitions, the benefits of inter-age relationships, and the benefits of long-term relationships among kids, teachers and staff.

I have taught in both large and small public schools. I now teach in a small school, and I know the benefits of kids really knowing and being known by staff. These relationships are invaluable. Kids do better when they are not anonymous and have a consistent community of peers and adults. In addition, research demonstrates that smaller school sizes especially benefit impoverished students. Research also shows that student achievement drops during years of transitions between schools.

Amherst is considering a transition between the first and second grades when students have just started to settle into their elementary years. This is not backed by research-based best practices and the district has not made an educational argument that supports this transition.

I also highly value the relationship between older and younger kids. My son, who is at Crocker Farm, has benefited tremendously from the relationships he has with older kids — on the bus, as reading buddies, as modelers of behavior on the playground, as mentors, as performers in assemblies.

These moments of inspiration and guidance are critical to helping many younger kids develop senses of how to be good child citizens. As a teacher, my middle school students are different beings when they are with their K/1 buddies. They soften, teach, communicate, show compassion — all critical qualities for seventh and eighth graders to cultivate.

In the proposed grade reconfiguration, there may be be no opportunity for inter-age mentoring to our youngest students. Community and extra-curricular involvement are also crucial to strong schools. Research shows that parent-guardian involvement, as well as extra-curricular involvement by students, is greater in smaller schools.

I strongly urge you to support K-6 schools in Amherst and oppose grade reconfiguration. The district has failed to provide research-based evidence for why grade reconfiguration would benefit our kids, and having done research myself, the evidence points clearly to small schools.

Big schools, divided ages, lack of longer-term relationships with staff, lack of inter-age relationships: these are not what I want to see for my children’s schools, and are not research-based best practices. Small, community schools benefit our kids best.

Joanna Morse lives in Amherst.

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