Vote No on 5: Doing What Is Best For Amherst Schools
Submitted to the Amherst Bulletin October 30
I was a 4th grade teacher at Fort River School for ten years, served as Amherst District Mentor Teacher for two years, and have been an educator for over 30 years. I have always felt passionate about creating the best learning environment for children. While everyone agrees that Amherst must replace the Fort River and Wildwood Elementary schools, I, unfortunately, will have to vote NO on the current debt-exclusion override, Question 5, because I believe that the proposed grade reconfiguration is wrong for children, families, and education overall. With such a tremendous tax dollar investment, we only have one opportunity to get it right.
My main concern about Question 5 is that we will lose the K-6 schools that provide opportunities for children to build on-going relationships with significant adults in their school lives. K-6 education also provides parents with stability to build relationships in a supportive community throughout those vitally formative elementary years. A 1st to 2nd grade transition (all 1st graders will move from a K-1 Crocker Farm School to the new 2-6 school) is neither educationally nor psychologically sound. Changing schools is a big and potentially traumatic ordeal for a seven year old. Of course, we would do our best to make it right, but if we have a choice, why not explore alternatives?
Extensive research shows that there is a direct correlation between parent/guardian involvement and student achievement. Parent involvement is already difficult but will be made even more so for many parents when they have kids in two schools. This problem will disproportionately affect families without economic advantages, single parent families and parents without transportation. Parents will have to juggle their already busy schedules to attend open houses, teacher conferences, and school events with children in two schools. We need to make it easier for all parents to be involved, not harder.
Schools should be community centers where kids and parents are invested. That requires small, high quality schools that encourage a sense of belonging. This proposal works against that, and I cannot vote for it.
At a time when we need to decrease our carbon footprint, this plan requires that more buses will travel longer distances, emitting more carcinogenic diesel fumes and carbon. Every Amherst student will spend more time going to a school that is distant from their home for multiple years during their elementary school career.
It is regrettable that the school administration, under the leadership of former Superintendent Geryk, formulated a flawed plan that so many cannot support. In fact, when given the opportunity to voice their opinions in a school department survey, teachers and parents overwhelmingly favored keeping K-6 schools by nearly 3:1. The current plan was the top choice for only 4% of teachers and 6% of parents. When the state became aware of community opposition to the idea of separate K-1 and 2-6 schools, they expressed openness to funding this same project as twin K-6 schools at the Wildwood site, keeping Crocker Farm as a K-6 school. Why did the administration not further explore this idea and bring it to the public? How did all this happen without further community discussion? The process has been flawed.
I fully understand that if we vote down this project it will postpone building new schools. However, despite assertions that the current plan is our only choice, I am encouraged to learn that we can apply immediately for an alternate plan, which other Massachusetts communities have done in similar circumstances.
Now we must decide between waiting a couple more years versus the negative long-term impact to our elementary educational system. Many years ago, Amherst made a poor education decision to build two open classroom schools that don’t serve the best interests of student learning. Let’s not repeat the past by committing ourselves to a bad educational decision again. I am willing to pay more taxes for a school plan that will truly serve the best interest of our children and our community. This proposal does not do that.
I’ve learned a lot from the Save Amherst Small Schools website – https://saveamherstssmallschools.wordpress.com. I encourage you to check it out.
Rick Last has taught in Boston, Holyoke, and Amherst and worked as a professional development consultant at the Collaborative for Educational Services. He is a 21 year resident of Amherst.