I support raising taxes to support our schools. I recognize that Wildwood and Fort River schools are spaces with serious problems that require starting over or substantial renovation. I’ve also spent my career devoted to understanding inequalities, and I’m deeply committed to our ensuring the greatest equity for all students.
Based on the rhetoric around Question 5, it would seem that I would be firmly in the “Yes” category. But I’m not. As a sociologist who studies inequality and policy, I am convinced that moving forward with the school restructuring as currently planned will mean poorer educational outcomes, and increasing inequality, for our students. When faced with the challenge of receiving state funding to redress Wildwood and not (at the same time) Fort River, I believe we came up with a plan to ensure both populations could move to better schools, without researching the downsides of this plan, and thinking carefully about how to mediate those downsides.
Here is what I base my views upon:
(1) The proposed plan aims to create district-wide schools for pre K-1 (Crocker Farm) and 2–6 (new building), although research shows that additional transitions during elementary school for children create stress, and lead to poorer educational outcomes, which are exacerbated for vulnerable groups of children, such as racial and ethnic minorities, those from class-disadvantaged families, those with special needs.
(2) The plan for district-wide schools is also counter to most evidence that suggests that smaller, neighborhood-based schools, which children attend throughout K-6, lead to increased academic achievement, particularly for vulnerable groups of children. With increased engagement and longer relationships among parents, teachers, staff, and children, children who are traditionally disadvantaged are more likely to achieve academically, and less likely to drop out. Strong relationships between families and schools matter tremendously to ensuring positive academic outcomes.
(3) Some Question 5 proponents suggest that currently only the most privileged children walk to school, while others take buses. Yet a short bus-ride and a long one differ. The new plan would require all children from throughout the district to take long bus rides. By creating longer distances, parents from class-disadvantaged families will find it more challenging to develop relationships with their children’s schools. Indeed, the increased distance between school and home will lower parent engagement more generally.
(4) Current districting aims to ensure that each primary school has the same number of children from low-income families, leading to some children being bused to other parts of the district, and not in school with their neighbors. The current plan aims to remedy the situation by busing almost everyone out of their neighborhoods, rather than a few. A simpler fix might be to stop busing the few children who wish to be enrolled in their neighborhood schools, and ensuring that increased resources follow low-income populations if disparities arise.
(5) By creating a pre K-1 school at Crocker Farm, the district suggests it will be able to incorporate a larger preschool population. I’m deeply in favor of creating universal preschool in Amherst, but the plan will only add at most an additional 30 partial-day seats, making it far from universal, and having very limited impact. The benefits gained will not outweigh the costs.
(6) The plans for the co-located grades 2–6 elementary schools provide much less play space than the current elementary schools enjoy. Indeed, the only “grassy playscape” is down the hill, at the middle school. Amherst’s 2–6 students will have less space to exercise and play before and after school and at recess, impacting educational and health outcomes.
(7) More bus and car rides will pollute the environment, and limit the health gains of walking back and forth to school. It is regressive to argue that it’s more equitable for no one to be able to walk to school. Instead, we should seek to maximize the health and environmental benefits of walking for as many as possible, while also limiting the distances families must travel by bus and car.
By bringing children of certain ages to one space, the district expects to save money on teaching staff and by centralizing services for children with particular needs. Yet the staffing cost savings projected are relatively minimal — while the costs to children and our community are very high. Research about fewer school transitions and smaller, neighborhood schools suggest the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children will increase with district-wide schools. This is not a good tradeoff.
Alternatives do exist. We know that many towns have received funding from the state to replace or renovate two schools in the same district within five years of one another. Even absent additional state funding, Amherst could develop a plan with fewer negative outcomes. Insisting that the current plan is the only way to solve the (real) challenges of the deteriorating buildings at Fort River and Wildwood is simply wrong.
Good people with good intentions make mistakes. This plan is a mistake. The district chose a plan that will hurt our most vulnerable populations, lead to detrimental environmental practices, and undermine the health of our children and our community. We can do better for our children, and we can do better for our town.