McGowan: Improve Wildwood & Fort River

A thoughtful analysis of Question 5 by Janet McGowan, a member of Town Meeting.

I’ve spent many hours trying to help parents with kids in the elementary schools get the Central Administration to look at other options, and to ask Town Meeting to fund a deeper look at the costs of options. I’ve also struggled in the past weeks to figure out how I am going to vote on Question 5.

Bottom line, I can’t get out of my head that the great majority of elementary school teachers and parents surveyed did not support this option. Why was it pushed forward, despite the beliefs and experiences of most teachers – the experts that make our schools run? Let’s keep our three K-6 school communities intact, supporting the teachers, staff and parents that make our schools such warm welcoming places–and make needed changes that fit.

Other considerations, in my mind:

1. Fort River and Wildwood Schools are not unhealthy places. The air quality problems people refer to are from years ago at Wildwood and the district takes many steps to keep mold, etc. at bay. I’ve asked for and never gotten any documentation supporting former Superintendent Maria Geryk’s remarks in the Statement of Interest filed with the state. The comments included that Wildwood is “in a condition seriously jeopardizing the health and safety of school children,” and has “severe overcrowding.” I found both statements startling. The Statement of Interest goes on to describe “mold growth and poor ventilation are chronic problems at Wildwood School,” and claims that “student and teacher absences are elevated due to severe allergic and asthmatic reactions, especially on Mondays…” and that the classroom “partitions…exacerbate asthma and mold related illnesses.” If these statements were true, it would have been a call for immediate remedial action..

2. The classrooms at Wildwood and Fort River are not “deplorable” or terrible or poor learning environments. The open classrooms make little sense, but the teachers make it work. The classrooms and buildings need to be fixed and can be fixed in other ways. My kids were at Fort River for 7 years and I never heard the school described as it is currently.

3.The new school ties our elementary schools into a Prek-1, 2nd-6th grade configuration for many, many years. If we are spending so much money on a school for the 50 years, the building should be flexible. What if this idea, like open classrooms, turns out not to work, what then? What if the new superintendent wants K-6 (or preK-6) schools? The architect has said that converting the new buildings for younger students would be expensive.

4. It’s more sustainable to use and renovate existing buildings, yet these options were not carefully examined. Wildwood, Fort River, the middle school and high school are all under-enrolled. East Street School stands empty. Let’s use and improve what we have. (If Fort River needs a new roof, for example, add skylights for light and fresh air.) Also, it would be great to add solar panels to any renovation or new construction.

5. I can’t support closing down three K-6 elementary schools for hazy, unsupported reasons. I understand the equity argument in terms of logic, but I’d like to see actual data on whether the split of the East Hadley Street students between Crocker Farm and Wildwood actually depressed the academic performance of low- income kids. The goal in busing was to have all the schools include a mix of kids from different economic backgrounds, thinking that this would improve the academic performance of the low income kids that were concentrated at Crocker Farm. Did busing help or hurt? Do families or students actually feel stigmatized? How many families want to change to the Prek-1 and 2-6 model? So far, I’ve only heard parents comments in meetings who are against grade reconfiguration and that want their kids to attend the same elementary school. These speakers preferred keeping siblings together, fewer transitions, easier logistics, and having older kids as role models.

6. Taxes will go up, not down, making Amherst less affordable to families. Also, if fewer families with kids are choosing to move to Amherst, we should figure out the real reasons, not guess at them. In my experience, families will pay a lot to live in a town with excellent schools. There are many towns in the state with high home values and increasing student populations, if Amherst isn’t one of them, it’s worth figuring out why before we reach for expensive solutions.

I know this is a lot, but I’ve thought a lot about this issue. I want to see Wildwood and Fort River improved as school buildings and school communities-not destroyed. I am happy to work toward, and to pay more for that goal.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: We can, and should, do better for our kids and our town. | Save Amherst's Small Schools

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