McGowan : Delay Decision, Consider Other Options Including Middle School

Letter to School Committee

January 18, 2016

An easy and welcome choice would be for the Amherst School Committee to delay their decision and take some time to listen to the parents, teachers and town residents. There is very strong support among parents, teachers and I think within our community to keep our 3 elementary schools as K-6 (mostly) neighborhood schools. I think most will want to see preschool education for all kids. How can we do this and utilize state money targeted at only one school?

Another school survey showed very little parent and student support for moving the 7th and 8th graders to the high school. I don’t know what the teachers think about it but a survey with their thoughtful individual comments would be useful to know. At the last Regional School Committee the cost estimate to adapt the high school for the middle school students was north of $900k as I remember it. Partly to give the middle school a separate entrance and keep them apart from the older students–a worrisome sign in itself.

And then there sits the middle school building, with its nice classrooms, an office by the front door, a big gym, cafeteria, art rooms, auditorium and stage, music practice rooms big enough to fit the band or orchestra, courtyards, a greenhouse, pool, and so on. It’s in good shape but will need a new roof. The middle school sits below Wildwood, is well under its capacity, and is about to be emptied of its students and leased out.

In the fall, some elementary school parents — just alerted to the fact that Fort River would likely close and Crocker Farm was no longer to be Pk-6–offered up the option of using the middle school or going to a K-8 school. As far as I can tell this option has never been looked at. I’ve suggested a K-8 school for the middle school instead of moving the 7th and 8th graders to the HS and I don’t think this idea got a serious look either.

Here’s my suggested option: build or rebuild a new elementary school with a preschool at the site of Fort River School. Split the cost with the state. Then make the middle school into a K-6 or K-8 school by putting a wing on for younger elementary kids and preschoolers. The wing could go where the boggy baseball field now sits. Amherst could pay for this addition and lease space from the Regional School District. Or the town could just buy the building (which will be basically putting money from one pocket to the other and then back, since Amherst paid for most of the building to start with and pay most of the current regional school bill). The current site of Wildwood could be made into what may be the only dry sport fields in Amherst.

In this way, all the elementary schools will have a preschool and preschooler won’t have an extra transition into an elementary school. Keeping the 7th and 8th graders in a K-8 setting makes them into role models and school leaders, will cure many of the social problems there, keep them focused on academics and, as someone at Bement told me, “Keeps them young longer.” No need for separate corridors. It also can ease the hard transition for the hilltown elementary students who will go from very small schools to a 1200 student 7-12. If the elementary schools regionalize, then all the region’s elementary students will attend neighborhood schools with the same grade configuration and common experiences.

Repurposing the middle school may be both an economical and environmentally sensitive option. And it utilizes the middle school for what it was built for–our students.

Several times, I’ve asked whether the middle school can be used by elementary students and have gotten different answers. The building can or can’t be used for elementary students. Either the Regional Agreement says or doesn’t say that the building is only for regional students. Or it can be used by anyone taking LSSE, GCC or vocational classes. Or it can be used as swing space for elementary students (with modifications for younger students). Or no one knows because it’s owned by the regional district. The regional district shares a superintendent with and has the same 5 Amherst school committee members as the Amherst Elementary schools. Somebody should be able to answer this question accurately.

Using the middle school may be a great option. Or there may be a way to renovate Wildwood and Fort River economically or a way to convince the state to put the money it would have into one big school into both schools. The district’s preferred option may be best. But we won’t know until we look at each option carefully, with thought, budget numbers and time–and as a community working toward the common goal of doing what is best for our children — and our town checkbook.

As a community, we need to make the time. The community and parents have had very little time to participate in these decisions that have been in the works for years. Let’s finally break our district’s pattern of spending years looking a problem, making a decision, then pasting a bit of public “process” in at the end. The result? Creating a sad and large and pointless amount of anger, tension, angst and wasted time as parents try to mobilize and have their ideas and concerns heard and addressed. Few parents engaged in this public process feel it is sincere or that it will have any impact. Is it any wonder that so many families opt out of our schools?

Let’s create a school community where the voices of teachers, parents and students are heard. The surveys have many eloquent voices. Let’s take the time to listen to them.

Thank you.

Janet McGowan
Amherst parent and Town Meeting member
January 18, 2016