Category: research

Survey of low-income and special needs families

A survey was conducted over the last few months of Amherst families in low-income apartment complexes, and families with special needs children. The survey led by Eve Vogel, a UMass assistant professor of political and environmental geography, is entitled “Equity, Transportation, Location, Configuration,” and can be read here:

It shows that our town’s current system of small, geographically-districted, (Pre)K-6 schools provide highly-valued benefits to low-income families, English language learner families, families of color, and families of special needs children.


Curious about our schools? How to get the facts.

There is a lot of confusion out there about our schools, and about the MSBA process. Are our schools segregated? Are they sick? Are they crowded? Are enrollments going up or down?  Where does Amherst rank in terms of its schools’ condition?  It can be hard in the midst of a political campaign to know exactly which competing claims to trust, and how to assess them.

We recommend going straight to the source of the data, rather than simply relying on Facebook, a newspaper, a friend, or even a local grassroots group of fellow parents who have spent way too much time digging into these issues.

DESE – Massachusetts Dept. of Elementary & Secondary Education
The first and best source of general information about our schools is the Massachusetts Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE.  The DESE website ( is a great source of information about our schools, and the statutes and regulations guiding them.

From the DESE website, you can go to “School and District Profiles” (, and see general state-wide reports or statistics. Or, click on Hampshire County and then Amherst to get to a page ( that links to all our local public schools (and two Amherst-based private schools). Here are our three elementary schools:

On each school page, you can click the “Students” tab to see the current enrollment, race/ethnicity, gender, etc.  To the LEFT of the tabs, you will see a year, and you can click to see previous years’ data. (That tip is GOLD. It took me many visits to the DESE website to find that.)

The “Analysis – DART” tab has more detailed information about a variety of topics; if you click this tab, then look on the left, you can see enrollment; curriculum; achievement gap; etc., with visual aids.


MSBA – the Massachusetts School Building Authority

The best place to learn about the MSBA process is the MSBA website.

The MSBA ( is a state agency that administers a fund to support Massachusetts school districts’ school construction costs. The MSBA has a dedicated revenue stream from the state sales tax.

Quick facts about the MSBA are here on the “About” page:

Check out the menu on the left, but to see everything you have to HOVER OVER the menu options to see the pop-up menu .

For instance, “Polices, Forms & Guidelines” — if you click it, it takes you to the “Guidelines” page, which has MSBA policies, including reimbursement rate calculations, green school guidelines, and a variety of other forms. . But if you hover over the “Policies, Forms & Guidelines” option, you see a link to the statutes; the vote requirements; and model contracts, among other topics.

(Curious why the language of the proposal is so long and hard to read? Because the MSBA specifies very closely the language that can be used for these votes.)

Check out “Our Programs & Initiatives” for some key points. The MSBA Repair Program, which has both “Major Repairs” and “Accelerated Repairs”, is described here: , and there’s some helpful charts about what kinds of repairs can go to which program. (The two major categories the MSBA has right now are the “Accelerated Repair Program” and the “Core Program”, for everything else. [1])

Another key resource is the “Building With Us” menu, which includes links to information about the statements of interest.

The School Survey is extremely valuable, because it tells us a lot about the condition of our schools, and what the MSBA bases its judgments on.  Check out the 2005 and 2010 needs surveys on the survey page at  A 2016 needs survey is being finalized now. The 2010 Needs Survey Report is a PDF (linked here), and you can easily search for “Fort River” or “Amherst”.  But don’t just look at the charts — read some of the other sections to understand the categories and rankings. The MSBA also created several short presentations that summarize state-wide data; these are listed under the “2010 Needs Survey Report”. Totally worth a quick review!

If you’re not sure what’s going on with the MSBA, still, the MSBA has a community liaison, Diane Sullivan.  Under the “About Us” link, if you click “Contact”, you’ll get the general email information; you can also call and ask to speak to Diane Sullivan.

Want to understand what went down with a particular school system?  You can click on the “Your School” link, and then dig down into school and district applications.  On any given school or district, you will see a list of schools, and a list of press releases about projects in those schools, and a link to “View Projects” for the schools. The “View Projects” link takes you into the MSBA database which lists projects and status. Unfortunately, you can’t quite a holistic picture of applications very easily from this method.

(We at SASS used a number of different sources of information to figure out what happened in any one school district. First, we used the data from the website. Then we contacted the MSBA and spoke with staff there at length, and got additional data from them directly. We also reviewed board meeting notes (under “About Us”, click the pop-up menu to see “Board Meetings”). For instance, if a press release dated August 6, 2015, talked about the MSBA board approval, then we knew that approval would be in an MSBA board meeting just prior to that date.  Last, we reviewed materials local to the school district — School Building Committee minutes and School Committee minutes — and talked to district staff to help put it all in perspective.)


ARPS – the Amherst Regional Public Schools

ARPS has a lot of information on its website (, but copies of the important documents and submissions in the MSBA process are not as easy to find.

They have been mostly published to Facebook (“Amherst Elementary School Building Project”), so are in reverse chronological order.

The project website set up by NV5, called the “Wildwood Elementary School Design and Construction Site”, is at . It’s very difficult to find the key documents on this site; however, meeting agendas and minutes, and public presentations, are mostly listed here.

Because it’s so difficult to find the key documents on the official project pages, we have stored copies and linked to original copies here on the SASS website (look at ARCHIVE and then “Official Documents”)  The key documents are:

  • The Educational Report, from fall 2015;
  • the “Preliminary Design Program” (PDP) from December 2015, which included the various alternatives then under consideration (including renovation, dual K6, etc);
  • the “Preliminary Schematic Report” (PSR), which spelled out in more detail the current proposal (February 2016); and
  • the “Schematic Design Report” (August 2016) which includes quite a lot of detail and is 700+ pages long.

If you want to understand something that is not clear from the Amherst system, you can file a Public Records Act (PRA) request with the District. There is some boilerplate language you can include, but the essence of the request is to describe, very clearly, what you want, and be sure to specify that this is a PRA request.


This post was written by a librarian [Laura Quilter], and has an agenda: To help you to be more information-literate and better able to fact-check claims you may hear.




MSBA funding probabilities

School Funding Probabilities by Maria Kopicki
published in Daily Hampshire Gazette 1/5/17; Amherst Bulletin 1/6/17

One of the main arguments given for accepting the current school reconfiguration and consolidation proposal is that Amherst’s chances of getting back into the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) pipeline is a long shot. We have been told that “there were 156 Statements of Interest last year for an approximate 10% success”, “projects take 5 to 7 years on average to be accepted”, and “we would simply lose this 34 million in state aid with no guarantee of ever seeing this money again”.

While no one can foretell the future, one can look at the data that the MSBA, the state funding agency, releases to assess these statements. This analysis has revealed a very different picture than what has been suggested.

For the past 4 years there have been about 150 to 225 Statements of Interest, essentially applications, each year. Of these, about half are “core” projects, that is whole buildings, either new construction or renovation. The other half are accelerated repair proposals and are not in competition with this group. Furthermore, of the remaining core projects, many applications are for multiple schools in a single district (like Wildwood and Fort River) and many more are for districts that are already engaged in an ongoing core project. But there can only be one core project at a time in a district so the number of projects actually available for acceptance drops to around 50 per year. Since 2009, an average of 35% of these projects have been invited each year.

While a number of factors go into inviting schools into the MSBA pipeline, a major component is the needs survey that ranks projects on building condition and general environment. The more appropriate question, then, is what are the chances of acceptance for schools with a ranking comparable to Wildwood or Fort River. The answer is about 60% and 40%, respectively – not 10%.

In terms of the time from application to invitation into the pipeline, over the past 5 years, about 30% of projects were accepted on their first try, another 30% on their second attempt and another 25% on their third (accounting for actual availability). This is certainly not a guarantee, but over 500 core and repair projects have been invited into the MSBA pipeline since 2008, providing relief to a backlog of schools.

The MSBA also does not penalize a town for having a failed vote, as evidenced by three other towns that had a different Statement of Interest accepted so quickly and a subsequent town-approved project shortly after that.

It is important to understand Amherst’s own history of Statements of Interest. The Amherst school district did not apply for Wildwood and Fort River as core projects every year prior to Wildwood being accepted in 2013. In fact, no Statement of Interest was submitted for either Wildwood or Fort River in 2011. Since Wildwood’s invitation, Amherst did continue to apply for a new building at Fort River but this was a futile exercise as this was not possible as a simultaneous core project.

All this information is readily available on the MSBA website and should have been presented to Amherst residents far earlier in this process.

The proposal before Town Meeting this January 30th is for the same problematic plan as before. Half the town and half of Town Meeting had many and varied reasons to oppose it. People of good will and the best intentions for our students, staff and community can disagree about those reasons, but to commit the Town and the schools to 50 years of those consequences because of an exaggerated fear of the money going away is not sound policy.

When one studies the available data, the outlook is much more optimistic that we, as other towns have before us, can go from a controversial and divisive plan to a successful school building project that accomplishes what a large majority of townspeople support.


air quality testing at Fort River and Wildwood

Janet McGowan did a Public Records Act request for air quality testing at Fort River. The PDF of the test results, from 2004 to 2015, is below. Marla Jamate and Maria Kopicki did separate requests for air quality and environmental testing at both Fort River and Wildwood.

Large schools harm kids with disabilities & kids from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds

This summarizes the findings of an important paper.

A 2015 study noted that school size has variable effects on different kids — but clear harms of large schools for kids with disabilities, especially learning disabilities, and kids from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds (who are disproportionately kids of color).

Seth Gershenson & Laura Langbein of American University note that “the benefits of larger schools [economic efficiencies and more specialized instruction] come at a cost, as larger schools have higher rates of student absences and social disorder that may hinder cognitive and social development.”  They note that these negative effects apply particularly to kids with disabilities and kids from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The first part of the paper is a helpful discussion the large literature on school size and academic achievement, noting that many of those studies are contradictory or inconclusive because they do not look at specific subgroups.  For instance, kids with no disabilities from socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds, show no particular harms from large schools, and can take advantage of the greater resources that may be afforded by economies of scale.  But other groups suffer harms — so a study that does not separate out these subgroups may show no real harms from school size.

The second part of the paper lays out their findings, which are based on study of an entire state’s public school system. The key finding is that “Specifically, the math and reading achievement of students with learning disabilities, and the reading achievement of socioeconomically disadvantaged students, are disproportionately harmed by increases in school size.” (p.151S) For the population as a whole, there are no causal effects on standardized test scores — but for these kids, there were real harms.

This paper is helpful, because it provides some context and helps explain the mixed data on school size: Studies that showed neutral effects of school size were only looking at the overall population, not relevant subgroups. Studies that have shown negative effects were looking at particular subgroups, and not the overall population.  This study helps explain that apparent contradiction.

What does it mean for Amherst?  In a town with a growing population of socioeconomically disadvantaged kids (disproportionately kids of color), and high numbers of kids with learning disabilities — it seems clear.  The large proposed school is likely to have measurably negative effects on those kids’ experience of school.  


For more information on related research, see our Research tab on this blog.