Vogel to School Committee Feb 2 : Two Equally Sized K-6 Schools

Date: Tue, 2 Feb 2016 15:09:49 -0500

Dear School Building Committee (and I’m cc’ing the School Committee),

I am writing to ask, or suggest, that in your meeting tonight you consider a somewhat unexpected departure from the Wildwood school building project deliberation you have followed thus far – a different kind of compromise from the ones considered up till now. I ask you to vote to support the creation of a school building at the Wildwood site that would be, or at the very least some day could be, one of two districted PreK-6 schools, with approx. 550 K-6 students plus 50 PreK students. To make this possible, you/we would need to begin to plan how to build an addition onto Crocker Farm so it, too, could house half the district’s students.

Why this unexpected proposal? Among many other parents, I have been a strong advocate for keeping Amherst’s small, neighborhood, K-6 schools. I attach two of the documents I’ve prepared based on considerable research: 1) a paper highlighting some of the research-supported benefits of small, long-grade-span, neighborhood or community schools; and 2) a practical analysis of some of the problems and missed opportunities that the district may face in terms of transportation – which I show has considerable relevance to core Amherst goals of equity and building a healthy, active, and environmentally sustainable community.

In addition to my own research, I’ve talked to a lot of people, read the PDP’s educational plan in detail and a fair number of meeting minutes, and I think I have some sense of some of the constraints the district is facing. Together my research and my conversations have led me, sadly, to accept that having three K-6 schools may simply no longer be viable for a range of reasons. I also understand why the reconfiguration proposal, including the proposal for two 2-6 wings, has been proposed as an alternative – and I can see that it holds some real benefits.

Nonetheless I believe that a two-PreK-6-neighborhood-school district is better. It could provide the following advantages, among others:

  • It could reduce if not end many of the administrative headaches currently faced with three districts, and it could provide greater ability to manage the complexities of having special ed, ELL and other special services in one or multiple locations.
  • It could reduce costs of maintaining three schools so there are only two.
  • No school campus would have more than 550 K-6 students, and the number of students per grade at any one campus would not go above about 85.
  • It would protect and promote easy parental access to their children’s school, including low-income parents who do not have cars – a significant equity issue (see attachment)
  • It would provide continuity all the way from PreK to grade 6, promoting student and teacher relationships that support achievement, participation, etc. (see attachment)
  • It would provide strong continuity and connection from neighborhoods to schools, so the schools continue to strengthening neighborhoods, children’s and parents’ communities of support, and with these, Amherst itself. (see attachment)

You will know better than I whether this school configuration is possible at this point. I understand that it has not been an option that has even been on the table, it has not been proposed to the MSBA, we have no architectural plans or estimates for it, and it would require additions at Crocker, which could not be part of the MSBA process. It may be or seem completely impossible, at least in the current decision making process.

One way we might come as close as possible to this idea without requiring new construction at Crocker Farm at this point in time, would be to move the preschool to the new building at Wildwood. Then the preschool rooms at Crocker could be used as kindergarten rooms, the kindergarten rooms could be used as 1st grade rooms, etc. Then perhaps we could get close to 450 K-6 students at Crocker and have 650 at the new building, until such time as new construction can be funded at Crocker. But, I understand that this, too, has real challenges – among them, the considerable investment we’ve made as a town into a wonderful PreK wing at Crocker Farm, and the fact that 650 students in a school may seem to community members, reasonably enough, a whole lot like 700 students in a school.

If none of this is possible, then I would like to suggest that the most important thing you all can do at this point is to leave room for future administrators, school committees, and town citizenries, to choose at some later date to move toward this option, as a way to return to districted K-6 schools and all their advantages. The most crucial thing to make that possible is to ensure the new building has the structural flexibility in the future to be used as a PreK-6 school.

Thank you very much for all your hard work for Amherst’s schools, children, and community.

Eve Vogel
Amherst, MA
On sabbatical in Cambridge, MA for the 2015-16 academic year