Vogel: Equity and community against consolidation (2016/09/29)

Amherst voters who are concerned but uncertain about the plan to consolidate Amherst’s three elementary schools should know that despite the district’s claims, it is likely to make schools less equitable, not more.

I have been a student, teacher and parent in four different public school districts in three states. I thought consolidation was a bad idea, but I didn’t assume. I spent winter break reading the literature. I crunched numbers from Amherst’s past enrollments and its transportation networks. This summer, I went out and talked to people in five low-income apartment complexes in Amherst. The following is what I found out.

Schools with large grade cohorts and short grade spans, those that are farther away from families’ residences and those that split up siblings in the younger grades – in other words, schools like the ones proposed for Amherst – are worse for low-income, minority, and English-language-learner students and families.

Why? Most importantly, students and parents have shorter-term relationships with teachers and administrators. Each transition moves students and families away from hard-won relationships of trust and understanding, vital resources for disadvantaged students.

The problem extends to the staff-student-family relationship as a whole. The proposed Crocker Farm K-1 school will have an entirely new population every two to three years. When turnover is rapid, teachers, principals and support staff don’t know students and parents as well, and they lose important understanding of long-term development.

Because school staff in Amherst as elsewhere tend to be white, native English speakers, and come from middle-class backgrounds, they need that deeper familiarity to best understand and address the needs of minority, low-income, and English-language-learner students and families.

That is not all. Security concerns and discipline regimes tend to be worse at larger schools, and discipline tends to fall most heavily on minority students. Importantly, research shows that the size of a school depends not on total school size but on grade cohort size. With school consolidation, grade cohort size will leap from about 50 to about 150 students per grade.

A larger school usually still has only one band or science fair. The resulting drop in participation rates is more pronounced for minority and low-income students.

School location also matters, as does keeping siblings together. The district recognizes it will need additional buses to transport students longer distances, and to transport siblings in different elementary grades to separate schools. My question was about the impact on families, especially low-income families without cars.

Several of the low-income housing complexes in Amherst are within walking distance of their neighborhood school. In North Amherst, a Village Park mom told me she can walk to Wildwood in less than 10 minutes. She can easily pick up her child for an appointment or meet with his teacher. If the district’s plan goes forward, her younger child will go to Crocker Farm. It will take her about 40-50 minutes and a two-bus transfer to get there. Meantime, her older child will be at Wildwood, unable to help.

In a South Amherst apartment complex, a Spanish-speaking mom from Puerto Rico told me she knows that she needs to be involved in her children’s school, so she can communicate her children’s needs to the school and the school’s expectations to her children. How will this work if one of her elementary-age children is in North Amherst, and one is nearby at Crocker Farm, I asked her? Not well – she did not know if she could double her investment, especially given the extra commuting distance to Wildwood, about 40 minutes each way by a combination of walking and PVTA bus.

Parental involvement will go down for low-income parents under these kinds of transportation challenges. This does not bode well for equity.

At Mill Valley Estates, I had a conversation with an African-American grandfather. Children at Mill Valley are bused to Fort River School, as a way to even out socio-economic diversity. Former Superintendent Maria Geryk, Acting Superintendent Michael Morris and School Committee member Katherine Appy have said this busing makes them “uncomfortable,” and have advocated for school consolidation to solve this inequity.

Yet this grandfather told me he hates the consolidation plan. He doesn’t like having his grandchild bused to Fort River, but says the solution is to re-district them back to Crocker Farm, where he would like his granddaughter to go until sixth grade.

The school district and other advocates of the consolidation plan seem to assume that bringing all children in a given grade to one location means equity. But their plan will worsen a range of deeper and wider inequities.

Eve Vogel lives in Amherst.

Originally published at the Amherst Bulletin, Sept. 29, 2016