Russ Vernon-Jones: Letter to School Committee, 2016 Jan. 19

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January 19, 2016

Dear Rick, Phoebe, Kathleen and Vira,

I have spoken to the members Amherst School Committee on at least two recent occasions advocating for K-6 elementary schools. I have not, however, publicly supported one of the options that is currently on the table. While I would prefer three K-6 elementary schools, located at three separate locations, I think we have regrettably arrived at a place where that is not feasible politically or financially.

I therefore strongly urge you to support building a building on the Wildwood site that will house two separate, “co-located” K-6 elementary schools, with a total of 670 students between them.

The proposed grade re-configuration is a flawed idea that is not in the best interests of the students, parents, educators, or community of Amherst. As I understand it the principle reasons given for re-configuring grade levels are 1) revitalizing and improving our education of very young students and 2) the need to provide equity for the large number of students of low-income families who live in South Amherst.

1). Revitalizing and improving the education of our youngest students is obviously a desirable goal. From my many years as a principal of schools including Pre-K to 1 students I can assure you that the key ingredients of such a revitalization are vision, leadership, and support with regard to professional development, materials, and time. Putting everyone together in one building will not automatically provide these ingredients. If the energy and commitment exist to provide these ingredients, having teachers and students in separate buildings will not be a significant impediment. So by all means, revitalized our early childhood programs, but remember that’s about people, not about buildings. If it would require a re-configuration to generate this energy and commitment, then there are problems in our schools’ commitment to young children that should be addressed immediately, without waiting for new building construction. Please revitalize our education of our youngest students now, with the students and teachers where they are.

2). Equity can be a complex topic. Even the most fundamental equity trainings often begin with an explanation that equality and equity are not the same thing. Treating everyone the same does not guarantee equity. Yet this flawed re-configuration plan seems based on the idea that if we provide the same situation for all students we will have achieved equity. Frankly, it seems more designed to protect the Superintendent’s Office and the School Committee from any criticism about fairness, than to serve all students in the best possible way.

Let’s assume that we want our schools relatively balanced with regard to their population of free and reduced lunch students, and that to do so we must either have our students all in one school or send students from South Amherst to more than one school. If we consider a single third grader, for instance, from a low-income family in South Amherst – under the grade re- configuration plan all of her neighborhood peers would be bussed to the Wildwood site. Under a plan to keep three K-6 elementary schools (with two of them co-located) some of her neighborhood peers would be bussed to Crocker Farm, while those from her immediate neighborhood would be bussed with her to the Wildwood site.

The benefit to our imagined third grader of having more of her larger neighborhood take the longer bus ride seem minuscule at best. The costs, however, are large. She would lose all the benefits of a K-6 elementary school experience – the research validated greater academic and social success of both low-income students and students with special needs, being part of a school that builds a sense of community with families and students over a 7 year period, avoiding a school transition in the middle of the elementary years, facilitating good communication between her second and third grade teachers and her kindergarten and first grade teachers, the sweet mentoring of young students that can be provided by fifth and sixth graders, and a teaching team that shares responsibility for the growth and learning of that child from kindergarten through grade six.

The real question is not how do we treat all the students in low-income families in South Amherst the same, but rather how to we give each and every one of them the best possible chance of success in all their elementary school learning and growing. If you truly care about every child, I urge you to reject grade re-configuration and back K-6 schools, even if for financial reasons we need to co-locate two of them.

Sincerely yours,
Dr. Russ Vernon-Jones, Principal, Fort River School, 1990-2008

PS. While I would urge you to do what is right by students regardless of public opinion, you do need to consider, of course, that any building plan will need the support of Town Meeting. As a Town Meeting member, my reading is that a proposal that keeps K-6 schools has a much better chance of being supported by Town Meeting than the flawed re-configuration plan. This seems increasingly true since both the parent and staff surveys have supported the K-6 option. You will only set education in Amherst back if you adopt something that Town Meeting will not support.