Op-Ed: Amherst Should Keep Small K6 Schools

Originally published at http://www.amherstbulletin.com/Say-whoa-to-Amherst-elementary-school-plan-2999468.aspx

TO: The Editors – Daily Hampshire Gazette/Amherst Bulletin

FROM: Marla Goldberg-Jamate; Irene Dujovne; Amy Finlay; Lisa Cain

RE: Open Letter Concerning Overhaul of the Amherst Elementary School System

Date: June 2, 2016

As parents of Amherst public school pupils, we firmly believe that small, fully separate K-6 elementary schools provide the best means of delivering a superior education for all children in our wonderfully diverse town.

This fall, Amherst residents and Town Meeting members will vote on the Superintendent and School Committee’s plan to construct a 750-student elementary school campus, and to reconfigure grades town-wide. If approved, this project will cost at least $65 million. About half the total would be paid by Amherst taxpayers, and the rest by the state. Additional expenses would fall entirely on the town, including demolition of Fort River, possible remodeling of Crocker Farm, and moving costs for school libraries, educational equipment, furniture and supplies.

This may be the most expensive project ever proposed to Amherst taxpayers. Besides driving up property taxes, it would result in major changes to the delivery of elementary education, and to the social fabric of our town, for generations to come.

Under the District’s plan, all Amherst children in grades 2-6 would be consolidated into a two-wing, “co-located” Fort River/Wildwood campus on Wildwood’s current plot. The proposal, although intended to preserve a small-school atmosphere, calls for all 750 children to share a single library, cafeteria, gym, buses, pick-up and drop-off areas, entryway, and play areas. Numbers of students in each grade would grow from 60-80 pupils to about 140-160. Research shows that large grade cohorts make schools feel bigger to children and families. The Amherst schools typically operate under tight budgets, and it seems only a matter of time before the two wings would be forced to share a single administration and reduced teaching staff,.

Recently, we’ve become aware that large open play spaces at the proposed school would be drastically cut back, while the Wildwood neighborhood, and Wildwood children and staff are subjected to three years of non-stop, phased construction and demolition.

South Amherst families would lose the convenience of a K-6 school in their part of town, as Crocker Farm would be converted to an early childhood center serving only preschool, kindergarten and first-grade. After 1st grade, children would be shifted to the new Fort River/Wildwood, the second transition in as many years for some pupils. The plan would mean longer commute times for many South Amherst children, and the dividing of siblings between schools. Schools with longer grade-spans – like our current K-6 system – reduce the transitions that can cause a drop in academic achievement. Moreover, the funding to increase preschool seats in Amherst is not guaranteed, but is based on theoretical future “operational savings.”

One argument made in favor of school consolidation is that it would result in more equal education for Amherst children. This is a very important goal, but we disagree with how the District proposes to achieve it. Equity cannot be reduced to the simplistic idea of educating all pupils in the same facilities.

A large body of educational research shows that small schools are better for all kids, and the District has not provided research supporting the pedagogical merits of its plan. Small schools are more effective in reducing achievement gaps between high and low-income students, and pupils of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. In smaller schools, students are granted more individual attention, have stronger relationships with adults and diverse peers, and are able to build and sustain such relationships over time. This type of environment builds self-confidence, and supports awareness and respect for differences. Small schools also are safer and have fewer disciplinary problems.

Unfortunately, despite the strong, vocal opposition from many parents, staff and community members – including those on Town meeting – the District and School Committee have been unwilling to modify even the most deeply problematic elements of their plan.

We strongly believe it is not in the best interests of Amherst children, their families, or the community. A final schematic design and budget have not been approved by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, and the feasibility study period continues until March 25. We would like the District and School Committee to use this time to change course to a plan that could be supported by Amherst voters. Better options exist. If you share our concerns, please get involved. Strong, community-wide action is needed. The Save Amherst’s Small Schools website, https://saveamherstssmallschools.wordpress.com, is a helpful resource.