Amherst Elementary School Building Plan: A Mega-School with Mega Problems

Amherst Elementary School Building Plan: A Mega-School with Mega Problems
(2-page hand-out, May 11, 2016; PDF available)

Amherst Elementary School Building Plan: A Mega-School with Mega Problems

The Amherst School District’s and School Committee’s plan to reconfigure grades in our elementary schools and consolidate neighborhood schools into a large new building at the Wildwood site has major problems, and each stage of the process raises more issues. Luckily, despite the District’s narrative, decisions are not final and other options remain possible. We can retain the community-preferred grade configuration (Pre-K through 6) within either the current three-small-schools or within a one-building-with-two-K6-wings structure. Many staff, parents, and community members oppose the District’s proposal to reconfigure and consolidate, but by gathering together and speaking with a clear voice, we can find a solution that works for staff, for parents, for the Amherst community, and most of all, for our kids. The decisions made today will affect our town for generations to come. Make your voice heard and get this project back on the right track!

I. Grade Reconfiguration:

The current plan sends all pre-K through 1st graders to a renovated Crocker Farm in South Amherst, and concentrates all 2-6 graders in a new, two-wing 750-student school built at the Wildwood site. This grade reconfiguration separates young siblings; complicates family scheduling; denies the youngest children the benefits of a stable, multi-year school community period; eliminates important mentoring experiences, both formal and informal, for the youngest children; and increases transitions to the detriment of educational success. Moreover, while the District proposed two wings that function separately after community objections to a single, larger school, the current plan backtracks on that promise, instead placing all 6th graders in one wing. Shared bus drop-off, entry way, cafeteria, gym, library and more move us still closer to a single, 750-student mega-school. This structure ignores extensive research showing that transitions and mega-schools are especially detrimental to kids from low-income families, kids from communities of color, and kids who have particular social, emotional, and cognitive disabilities, such as anxiety and attention disorders (https://saveamherstssmallschools.wordpress.com ).

II. Play Space:

The current plan significantly reduces large outdoor, open play space in order to fit the new building, and its much larger parking and bus zones, onto the existing Wildwood site. Wildwood’s big open play space is one of its great assets, heavily used year round during recess, by the afterschool program, and by kids and families from around Amherst. In the current plan, open space is lost, while the number of kids onsite doubles. The bigger kids (grades 2-6) who benefit most from open spaces are the ones who are concentrated onto the site. This is an important public health issue and flies in the face of all current research and educational trends, which are to increase access to nature and physical activity.

In response to these concerns, architects and the Superintendent suggested that a) the a sloped area between the parking lot and busy Strong Street will function as “open space,” b) the paved bus drop-off loop will double as outdoor play space, and c) they “hope to negotiate” access to the nearby Middle School fields. Unfortunately, these fields are further from the school and approachable only via a steep slope that would require construction of special, expensive, ADA-compliant ramp. And of course, access during and after school will be limited by existing uses by the Middle School and town sports.

Access to open space during the school day and afterschool clearly influences kids’ academic performance and behavior. Potential disparities in school discipline along racial/ethnic lines, already a concern, are unlikely to improve with loss of open space. Moreover, afterschool programs disproportionately serve children from lower income families and children from communities of color. Open space is directly linked to equity. The open play space issue alone raises serious issues of equity, pedagogy, discipline, and health.

III. Transportation:

Grade reconfiguration either will lengthen bus-ride times considerably or significantly increase bussing costs. Absent adding bus runs, the District estimated that average ride times would increase about 20 minutes per day, though average ride times tell us little about maximum ride times. The District suggested adding 4 runs to outlying neighborhoods, thus limiting maximum ride times. This would cost $220,000 annually, decreasing the estimated “operational savings” from consolidation by nearly a third. With these added runs, siblings in outlying neighborhoods would ride separate buses, leading to double bus runs in those neighborhoods. Bus routes closer to town still would need to travel to both the new school and Crocker Farm. It is hard to understand how this will not add time to these children’s commutes. Moreover, the District has yet to explain how they will manage to fit 23 buses at each school and the staggered arrival/departure times required. This too likely will add travel time to the children’s day. More time spent on or waiting for buses is less time spent sleeping, eating breakfast with family or simply beginning or ending the day in a calmer way. Additionally, fewer kids will be able to walk or bike to school, which raises further concerns about kids’ health and recreation time.

Families without access to a car will be particularly affected. An analysis of public transportation options shows that travel times for parent/teacher conferences and other school functions will increase greatly—a midday PVTA trip from Village Park to Crocker Farm will take 45 minutes, one way. From some other apartment complexes, bus-dependent travel times would be even longer.

IV. Parent, Staff and Community Opposition:

Opposition to grade-reconfiguration has been strong among school staff, parents, various community groups, and Amherst residents. A survey of staff and parents conducted in January 2016 found that only one-third of staff/parents were even “open to considering” grade-reconfigured options. By far the most popular option was a smaller (670-student), K-6, two-wing building. Notably, the survey did not even offer the option of renovating both Wildwood and Fort River, an omission noted by numerous respondents in comments. (See survey results and comments: https://saveamherstssmallschools.wordpress.com/what-do-parents-teachers-think/ )

Many staff, parents and community members feel that their concerns have been ignored or brushed aside despite attending meetings, writing letters and speaking about the issue. The survey, which spoke with a clear voice but which was effectively ignored, is a prime example. Many parents and staff express frustration and a sense of powerlessness as the District continues to push an unpopular proposal, with little concession to public concerns. Feeling ignored, many conclude: Why continue to fight?

V. What Can I Do?

The District’s assertions to the contrary, there is time and space to change direction and realign the Elementary School Building Project with the broadly shared wishes of the Amherst community without losing state funding. If the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) and the District are made to understand that the current design does not enjoy broad community support and that it will not be approved either by Town Meeting or by the voters, the MSBA and District will be forced to return to the community with a plan we can and will support. Here’s what you can do to make this happen:

Be sure to cc SASS, where we will collect and archive letters to bundle and send to the SC, Town Meeting, the District and the MSBA. This will ensure that community opinion is heard and taken into account.

Contact: AmherstSASS@gmail.com

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