The following Op-Ed ran in the Hampshire Gazette on January 15 (on line January 14). Published version at:
Eve Vogel: Let’s not lose neighborhood elementary schools in Amherst
The public deliberation over the possible consolidation of the Amherst elementary schools into a single PreK-1 school and a single 2-6 school has been rushed and deeply inadequate. It has finally become clear that many in the Amherst school administration were interested in “grade reconfiguration” well before the so-called Wildwood Building Committee proposed to dismantle the Town’s K-6 neighborhood elementary schools. We have only just begun to have a full public explanation of the issues that motivated a push for consolildation. We have not had an open discussion about the other ways we might address those issues, much less a full assessment of what would be lost in relation to these and other goals, with the end of our small K-6 neighborhood schools.
Time is now ridiculously short – the School Committee is due to vote next week on grade reconfiguration, on Tuesday January 19 – but it is essential to have these discussions.
Here are three of the most salient issues and considerations that have been framed too narrowly in the push for school consolidation. When considered more fully, they point to the profound advantages of the current system of three small K-6 neighborhood schools.
- Small diverse schools are matchless resources for equity and inter-group understanding. The school district administration argues that bringing all students in a grade together improves equity, because there will be identical resources at everyone’s school. However, a more significant way to define equity is actual access to resources and opportunities, and whether outcomes for traditionally disadvantaged groups are improved. Research shows smaller schools have more equitable outcomes – in metrics ranging from academic achievement, to disciplinary action, to participation in school activities.Moreover, Amherst has created something that many communities cannot: not equal, but equitable, neighborhood schools, with a comparable diversity of students. There are still challenges, including districting “islands” and changing demographics. However, there are other options – redrawing some borders, or allowing some choice in directions that even out numbers and diversity. And it turns out that small schools that are diverse – like Amherst’s neighborhood schools – are particularly good at achieving a key goal of diversity: increased inter-cultural, inter-racial, inter-class, inter-ability, etc. understanding and respect.
- Amherst’s neighborhood schools bring a cascade of benefits. Proponents of reconfiguration have portrayed neighborhood schools narrowly as schools that students can walk or bike to – and they conclude we do not have neighborhood schools, because most students take the school bus. But Amherst’s elementary schools are neighborhood schools. They are schools where everyone in the same neighborhood goes to one school, and thus both school and neighborhood are tied and strengthened. They are near to students’ homes, within range of a parental walking or bike or city bus pick-up. They provide numerous benefits that extend well beyond children’s school experience: greater access to schools for families that do not own cars; accessible friendships for Amherst’s young school children; increased family connectedness and mutual support within Amherst’s neighborhoods; and stronger attachment of young families to Amherst’s neighborhoods, and through them, to Amherst itself.
- Longer grade spans strengthen student and teacher agency, parental involvement, and outcomes. Consolidating all students from one grade into a single school allows developmental specialization. However, it means more transitions for students, and large annual student turnover for schools. Transitions are harmful for students, causing drops in academic achievement and increased anxiety and alienation, and they impact especially students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Large turnover makes it more difficult for teachers and administrators to get to know well as many of the school’s students. Longer grade spans, like those found in Amherst’s K-6 schools, have positive effects: students have strong relationships with more adults; students feel more deeply connected to their school; schools are safer; younger and older students learn content and emotional awareness from one another; parental involvement remains strong in higher grades; and teachers gain job satisfaction, and can better understand students’ needs, because they watch students grow over many years.
In short, the issues raised to promote consolidation instead make an overwhelming case that Amherst should maintain three neighborhood K-6 schools.
If you agree, please write the Amherst School Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org beforeJanuary 19 and tell them, “Please protect our three small, neighborhood, K-6 schools.”