The only survey conducted to date showed that families and teachers alike greatly prefer a K-6 configuration. Although renovation of both schools was not offered as an option to the parents, it is clear that it would have been a strong contender.
- A significant number of people chose renovation or new Wildwood in order to maintain the existing K-6 structure
- A significant fraction of those who supported reconfiguration made it clear that the only reason they supported the megaschool was not wanting to “leave Fort River behind.”
- Numerous commenters noted that the survey was constructed to favor the reconfiguration model, and questioned why dual renovation was not offered as an option.
Beginning Fall 2015, parents began suggesting the District conduct comprehensive surveying of families, including those who have left the District; teachers and staff, anonymous; and the community at large. (For instance, see this sample survey by parent Simon Raine, proposed in October 2015.) School Administration resisted this, arguing publicly that a survey would give teachers the idea that they could make the decisions, and they didn’t know enough.
Nevertheless, considerable public pressure led to postponement of the School Committee’s reconfiguration vote from early November to January, and in late December, the School Committee agreed to commission a survey of parents / guardians and of teachers.
The results of the parent and teacher surveys were released at a January 13, 2016, School Committee meeting. In contrast to the School Committee, parents and teachers strongly favor protecting K-6 schools, despite a methodology that favored reconfiguration.
Methodology Favored Reconfiguration
Parents had advocated that the survey should put all the options on the table, including the Town-supported renovation of Fort River. School Committee member Kathleen Traphagen’s urged publicly in Fall 2015 that the School Committee and School Administration should also pursue a two-school renovation to not leave that option behind.
Nevertheless, School Committee Chair Kathryn Appy made the decision to only include the options for MSBA funding.
This created obvious bias in the survey, a fact that did not go unnoticed by commenters. Numerous commenters noted that the survey was biased for reconfiguration. Many others noted that K-6 was preferable, but that the only option listed that supported both Fort River and Wildwood was to reconfigure the entire District. In fact, as Assistant Superintendent Mike Morris noted, the vast majority of those who chose “reconfiguration” as their preferred option cited “equity”, strongly suggesting that the only reason “reconfiguration” did even as well as it did (the least popular of the three options) was because it was pitched as the only way to include both Fort River and Wildwood.
Parents, including social scientist Catherine Corson, had advocated for a longer lead-time to encourage access and a higher turn-out. The results were deemed reliable, a statistically valid sampling, but we would also have liked to have been able to reach out to all those families who have “opted out” of the District. What would have brought them back in?
We were also concerned about the lack of access to the survey among teachers. Teachers were given access to “anonymous” computers at school, but those machines were up for only a very limited time, in a publicly viewable space, and most of that time was during the school day. We thought it was particularly important for teachers and staff to be able to express themselves anonymously, especially given the District’s strong support for reconfiguration, and the statements by a number of teachers that they feared retaliation if they went public with dissent.
The lack of uptake of the survey amongst non-English speakers is also problematic. The survey was available in Spanish, but as one community member noted, the Spanish-version of the survey wasn’t even taken, signaling a real problem with outreach and access. Moreover, School Committee Chair Appy decided against including race and ethnicity self-identification questions in the survey, which are standard in the field and were recommended by social scientist Catherine Corson.
You can see the consultants’ summary of the results here: https://wildwoodpgo.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/2015jan-schoolsurvey-results.pdf. For over-all summaries see pp. 8 and 24. Option A and B would both maintain three K-6 schools, Option A by keeping the three current campuses, and Option B by building a larger double-size school with two distinct K-6 wings. Parent and teacher comments are also very informative and can be found here:
- Summary of Results: https://wildwoodpgo.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/2015jan-schoolsurvey-results.pdf
- Parent Comments: https://wildwoodpgo.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/2015jan-schoolsurvey-parentcomments.pdf
- Teacher Comments: https://wildwoodpgo.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/2015jan-schoolsurvey-teachercomments.pdf
Larry Kelley’s “Only in the Republic of Amherst” blog, which covers local politics, discussed the results in three posts:
- http://onlyintherepublicofamherst.blogspot.com/2016/01/our-survey-says.html – Here Kelley notes that options A and B, two K-6 options, were by far favored. (Note, the “megaschool” dual K-6 configuration is not what the School Administration has recommended. Instead, the District went with the unpopular megaschool reconfiguration option, option C, which abandons the favored K-6 configuration in favor of age-segregated schools and renovating Crocker Farm. It is clear from the comments that many, perhaps most, who expressed preference for the dual K-6 school were simply concerned with ensuring that both Wildwood and Fort River were addressed. If the survey had provided dual renovation as an option, it is likely that that would have been preferred.
- “Is Smaller Better” – Kelley discusses the teacher results at http://onlyintherepublicofamherst.blogspot.com/2016/01/is-smaller-better.html.
- “Smaller Is Better” – Kelly discusses the parent survey results at http://onlyintherepublicofamherst.blogspot.com/2016/01/smaller-is-better.html. “[T]hese numerous comments from concerned parents/guardians provide a fascinating glimpse into the exceedingly hard — and unpopular — choice the Amherst School Committee is about to make.”
Catherine Corson, a social scientist at Mt. Holyoke, worked with the School Committee to develop the survey.
- Letter to School Committee from Catherine Corson, Jan. 14, 2016: Release public comments and take them seriously.
Surveys were proposed since at least October 2015, including model survey instruments:
- Sample survey by parent Simon Raine, proposed in October 2015.
- Sample survey by parent Eve Vogel