Welcome & Overview (January 2017)

 

Welcome to the website and blog of SASS, Save Amherst’s Small Schools.

WHO WE ARE: A group of parents and educators from Amherst, MA who love our town’s elementary schools – Wildwood, Fort River and Crocker Farm. We came together because we are concerned by the School District’s elementary school reconfiguration / consolidation proposal and are fighting to retain our outstanding K-6 neighborhood schools that have been the norm in Amherst for decades.

WHAT IS THE AMHERST ELEMENTARY SCHOOL RECONFIGURATION / CONSOLIDATION PROPOSAL AND WHERE DID IT COME FROM? The proposal is to close Fort River school entirely and turn Amherst’s three elementary schools into two “unified” schools. The plan was prepared in the name of fixing problems with the Wildwood building, and the state has promised to pay for about 50% of the cost. However, when discussions became public in fall 2015, the “Wildwood building plan” had turned into a  town-wide elementary school reconfiguration plan.  Under the plan, all preK-1 students in Amherst will go to Crocker Farm and all 2-6 students will be at a new building at the current Wildwood site. The planned new 2-6 building would have two twin schools in one building. Crocker Farm would add two new PreK classrooms.

WHAT’S THE TIMELINE? The Amherst School Committee and Superintendent’s Office have already approved the proposal. They needed approval from Amherst voters and Town Meeting to fund the Town’s portion of the costs with increased property taxes. Amherst voters narrowly approved the measure on Nov. 8, 2016. However, on Nov. 14, 2016 Town Meeting voted it down by 108-106.  It needed 2/3 of the votes but failed even to get a majority. A Town Meeting re-vote has now been scheduled for Jan. 30, 2017. If approved, the new building will be constructed in stages next door to the current Wildwood building. Wildwood students would move into one wing of the new building in fall 2019; the old building would then be demolished and construction would be completed on the second wing. School consolidation and grade reconfiguration would happen in fall 2020. All 2nd-6th graders would move to the new building, and all K-1 students would move to Crocker Farm.

WHAT’S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW? In January, we are considering how best to inform the community about the re-vote scheduled for Jan. 30, 2017 and how to work productively if the re-vote fails to craft a new proposal a large majority will support.

OUR NUMEROUS CONCERNS . The tabs and pages on this website provide background about our many concerns, our research, community input, the decision process, and an array of commentary.  Below is a summary:

  •  School size and grade size. It is not clear to us that two twin schools in one campus will feel small – especially since they will share key spaces like the entry way, gym, cafeteria, library, play structures, fields, and parking lots. Even with twin schools, grade size will go up in each school, because there will be two schools instead of the current three elementary schools. In the twin 2-6 schools there will be about 80 students per grade (about 160 students per grade in the building). At Crocker Farm, there will be about 160 students per grade. Research shows large grade sizes make schools feel big and more alienating for students, teachers, and parents, and often reduces the percentage of students from each grade who can participate in all-school activities. Smaller schools and smaller grade sizes are also safer.  Read more at “School Size Matters”.
  • Shorter grade spans. Consolidating all students from one grade into one school (PreK-1 into Crocker Farm, 2-6 into the new campus) allows developmental specialization. However, the benefits are outweighed by the costs. This will add a major transition between 1st and 2nd grade, and transitions have been found to be harmful for students. In contrast, longer grade spans support students with long-term relationships with many adults. These relationships are especially important for students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds as well as those with social and emotional challenges. Also, longer grade span schools keep siblings together longer; this supports kids and eases logistics for parents.  Read more at “Transitions Hurt Kids.” 
  •  Threats to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Equity should not be reduced to having identical resources at everyone’s school. Equitable outcomes, and deep sociocultural awareness and respect, are more important – and research shows they are delivered better by diverse small schools. The proposed reconfiguration is likely to cause disproportionate negative impact on low-income, minority, and English-language-learner students, as well as those who struggle with emotional and social challenges:
    • Participation rates in all-school special activities go down for students as grade size increases; this is more pronounced for minority and low-income students.
    • Long-term relationships with trusted adults – often teachers from prior years – are especially important resources for minority and low-income students and those with emotional or social challenges. With shorter grade spans, students have fewer and shorter-term relationships with adults.
    • The communities of diverse students who today share each of Amherst’s small K-6 schools gain deep mutual familiarity and understanding. This will be reduced as grade size increases and grade span is shortened.
    • Low-income parents who do not own a car will be unable to get to their children’s more distant school quickly and easily, causing hardship for them and diminishing their involvement in their children’s school.
    • Discipline regimes and statistics tend to be harsher at larger schools; these tend to fall most heavily on minority students.
  •  Loss of small community schools. These schools are nearby. While they are not within walking or biking distance of all students’ homes, they are close enough that parents can get to their children’s school with a short drive or a moderate bike or bus ride. Yet, they have wonderfully diverse students, partly because they draw on students from geographically diverse neighborhoods. What are the advantages of neighborhood schools?
    • When children go to neighborhood schools, they have friends who live nearby. This provides accessible friendships for our town’s youngest schoolchildren, and helps them develop independence. Neighbors get to know one another through their children. It is partly thanks to our long history of neighborhood schools that Amherst’s neighborhoods are rich with inter-family friendships and mutual support, and are safe places where neighbors watch out for each other.
    • Proximity to schools also means greater access to schools for families that do not own cars; and support for healthy and active child and parent lifestyles, especially as Amherst continues to connect its village centers with sidewalks, bus routes, and bike lanes.
    • Read more at Neighborhood Schools Research.
  • Transportation: cost, time, equity and sustainability. School consolidation means that all students will go to a more distant school for at least part of their elementary school years (K-1 or 2-6 or both). This poses multiple transportation problems:
    • School bus time and/or cost. Either students will face considerably longer bus-ride times or the Town will pay significantly higher busing costs. The school district proposes adding 4 runs to outlying neighborhoods, at a cost of about $220,000 annually. This will reduce by about one third the predicted savings from school consolidation.
    • Low-income parents without cars will have a harder time getting to their children’s school. For example, parents in Village Park who can now walk to their children’s school at Wildwood will face a 45 minute two-bus-and-walking trip to Crocker Farm to get to their child’s kindergarten and 1st grade.
    • A less sustainable Amherst. More buses, longer bus runs and the loss of neighborhood schools mean more consumption of natural resources, more carbon emissions, and less opportunity for students to learn to walk or bike home from school or from their home to friends’ houses. These undermine Amherst’s efforts to become a greener, more sustainable city.
    • Read more at “Transportation and Equity”.
  • Costs. We still don’t have a full picture of the costs of building a new twin 2-6 school and reconfiguring Amherst’s schools.
    • Construction cost estimates are about $67 million. Of this, about $34 million would be paid by the Town. However, this figure does not include other construction-related expenses that will be borne by the Town, including decommissioning Fort River, and renovating Crocker Farm from a preK-6 to a preK-1 facility. Cost estimates for alternative building configurations (see below) have been approximate at best and nonexistent at worst. This means we don’t have sufficient information to make a sound decision about building options.
    • Annual operation costs are expected to go down somewhat with consolidated schools. The School District claims it will save about $580,000 per year by cutting five teacher positions, one assistant principal, and three custodians, and reducing food service costs.However, over $200,000 of this will be consumed to increase the school bus fleet and provide longer runs. Other costs will come into play, including increasing transport of non-car-owning parents who cannot get to their children’s school easily for events and meetings. Research shows larger consolidated schools are not as economical as often assumed often because of unforeseen costs. Read more at “Dollars and Sense.”
  • Teacher collaboration & experience. Dissemination of district initiatives and professional “best practices” will be better if all teachers in a grade are at one school. However, deep partner collaboration, teachers’ sense of agency and ownership, and inter-grade articulation will all be better in small PreK-6 schools.
  • Student experience. In a new double-sized twin school under school consolidation, students will have a new state-of-the-art building, equipment, resources and programming. But with a shorter grade span and bigger grade sizes, precious things they have now will diminish: a deep sense of ownership, agency and belonging; and a close and long-term identity with their school, in which they can grow deep roots and slowly mature with self-confidence.
  • Loss of outdoor open space. The current plan significantly reduces outdoor open play space in order to fit the new building, and its much larger parking and bus zones, onto the existing Wildwood site. Wildwood’s big open play space is one of its great assets, heavily used year round during recess, by the afterschool program, and by kids and families from around Amherst. This flies in the face of research and current educational trends, which are to increase access to nature and physical activity.
  • Less preferred configuration by teachers and parents. Many community members have recognized these and other concerns and spoken out. Community members have written letters to the School Committee and to the newspaper. A survey of staff and parents conducted in January 2016 found that only one third of staff/parents were even “open to considering” grade-reconfigured options. By far the most popular option among those given was a two-wing K-6 building that could house both Wildwood and Fort River Schools. Notably, the survey did not even offer the options of renovating both Wildwood and Fort River, reducing to two neighborhood K-6 schools, or using the middle school as an elementary school building.  Read more at “What do parents and teachers think?”
  • Lack of an open decision process. The plan was prepared in the name of fixing problems with the Wildwood building, and the state will pay for about 50% of the cost if the plan is approved. However, when discussions became public in fall 2015, the “Wildwood building plan” had become a town-wide elementary school consolidation plan. As community opposition increased, the School District brought in new issues. It became clear that district leadership had been interested in school consolidation for several years, and used the building problems and state funding as a route to achieve this otherwise unpopular goal. In School District meetings and materials, concerns about neighborhood schools, grade cohort size, sustainable transportation, and equity concerns that would be negatively impacted (see above) were largely ignored or dismissed. A particularly disturbing part of the process was that although “equity” was repeatedly invoked as a goal, there seemed to be little effort to bring the voices and participation of parents from low-income, minority, and English-language-learner communities into decision making.

WHAT OTHER OPTIONS COULD THERE BE? 

  • Building options. There are real problems with the Wildwood and Fort River buildings. However, there are several options for school configuration that would allow improvements to Amherst’s elementary school buildings, while retaining neighborhood K-6 schools. These include:

    • Renovate Wildwood now; go back into pool for state funding for Fort River – likely to come through in 10-20 years.
    • Renovate Fort River now (building problems seem to be worse there than at Wildwood); go back into pool for state funding for Wi;dwood – likely to come through in 10-20 years.
    • Build a twin K-6 school at the Wildwood site to house Wildwood and Fort River.
    • Convert the Middle School into an elementary school, once the middle school is moved to the high school building.
    • Use state money to renovate Wildwood, while the Town renovates Fort River.
    • Reduce from three to two neighborhood PreK-6 schools, by using state funding to build a new PreK-6 school at Wildwood and having the Town build additions at Crocker Farm (could be modular classrooms until further funding is secured).
    • Read more at ALTERNATIVES.
  • ADDRESSING OTHER ISSUES: How can Amherst address other issues brought up by the school district personnel as rationales for school consolidation, as well as still others that are probably behind their decision but they have not emphasized publicly? (more coming soon)
  • Equity and differences between schools. The school district administration argues that bringing all students in a grade into a single school improves equity, because there will be identical resources at everyone’s school. This assumes that a) everyone in the same campus will have the same access to resources (highly unlikely, as stratification is often worse when school populations get larger), and b) sameness is required for equity (not true). A more significant way to define equity is actual access to resources and opportunities, and whether outcomes for traditionally disadvantaged groups are improved. Research shows smaller schools – specifically, schools with smaller grade cohorts – have more equitable outcomes in metrics ranging from academic achievement, to disciplinary action, to participation in school activities. Among the most important things the Amherst school district could do in relation to school configuration: a) bring the voices of minority, low-income and other families more centrally into the decision process; b) ensure schools can provide students with long-term relationships and support from trusted adults; c) nurture students in small communities in which different kinds of students get to know each other well over many years, and gain mutual understanding and respect; d) evaluate objectively and fully the effects of any new school interventions in terms of equitable outcomes, including academic success, participation in school activities, parental involvement, disciplinary actions, minority students’ sense of belonging and self-esteem, and students’ mutual respect.
  • Complications of districts and redistricting; changing demographics of neighborhood school districts. It has not been emphasized sufficiently in public statements and the press, but one of the drivers of the school consolidation proposal is to escape the problems of districts and redistricting. If the Town is split into three neighborhood schools, it has to deal with the spatial separation of different kinds of residents and neighborhoods – low income, high income, minority, mainly white, college-student-dominated, etc. This is a real challenge. Yet Amherst has successfully created three diverse and high-quality neighborhood schools. This should be recognized as a major, and wonderful, achievement, an ability and success that is rare and of which Amherst should be a proud model. It’s not there have been no difficulties. There are districting “islands” and demographics are changing again. Redistricting once again may be required. Nonetheless, problems can be minimized or mitigated. There may be ways to project future demographic changes across the Town’s neighborhoods so that a new redistricting could produce longer-lasting districts. Perhaps districts could be drawn with more mixing of different sections of town – at least one study in Urban Education, by Sinha, Payne and Cook 2005, suggests this can be particularly beneficial for achievement gains. Alternatively, or additionally, there may be ways to allow some amount of choice and flexibility in directions that would help even out numbers or diversity, and put less burden on vulnerable students and families.
  • Long-term town demographics and budget concerns. The School District notes that the public school population in Amherst has been declining. At the same time, school budgets have been declining. The School District seems to  expect both trends to continue.If projected out into the future, they suggest that school consolidation makes sense. However, both assumptions are suspect, and further declines can be fought. School consolidation, however, is likely to amplify K-6 population declines – and the current school consolidation plan is unlikely to solve budget woes.
    • K-6 population declines suggest a reversible shift in choice, not an irreversible demographic trend. We looked at K-6 population from FY ’08 to ‘FY ’16, as reported in the Wildwood Building Project Preliminary Design Plan (FY ’11-’16) and in Town annual reports (FY ’08-’11). Although the average  K-6 student population declined by an average of 27 students per year over these 8 years, much of that drop happened between ‘FY 10 and ‘FY11 (82 students in one year). This was the year Marks Meadow School closed. This suggests a change in parents’ choice about where to send their children  after the closure of a beloved school, not a demographic shift. In contrast, in the past 4 years, from ‘FY12 to ‘FY16, K-6 student population has declined at a much slower rate, about 6 students per year. Meantime, Amherst is busy building new housing, and UMass has been expanding. There are reasons to think more families may be coming back. Closing more beloved schools is a good way, however, to push more families to make other choices and continue our K-6 population decline.
    • Budget woes may not be forever. Budget woes in Amherst are directly connected to declines in revenue collections at the state level since the late 1990s, and the resulting declines in state support for local governments. The loss of families and some businesses from the town has impacted the municipal tax base as well. Changing cost structures within the schools have added to the budgetary challenges. Systems of school choice and charter schools likewise have siphoned money away from the Amherst school budget, forcing Amherst to pay large sums to other districts. Several proposal in Massachusetts and locally, if adopted, would provide more money to town budgets and to schools. A state “Fair Share Amendment,” strongly supported by Massachusetts legislators and residents, would tax income above $1 million at a higher rate than other income, and would dedicate the new revenue to transportation and education. The state’s funding formula for offsetting district losses to charter schools also may be adjusted. Closer to home, Amherst could follow Northampton’s new Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program which asks large tax-exempt property owners (like private colleges and hospitals) to make voluntary payments to the town equal to 25% of what their property tax bill would be, in recognition of core municipal services like schools, roads, police, and fire safety. Finally, economic development in Amherst’s downtown and village centers could bring in more local tax revenue.
  • Dissemination of district initiatives and best practices; directing curriculum, teachers and principals. The School District has argued that teacher “collaboration” will be enhanced by same-grade consolidation, but what they seem to want to ensure is more effective dissemination of district initiatives. Like consolidation, a growing array of curriculum and scheduling mandates have been imposed on the elementary schools in the name of equity. We cannot help but wonder whether the District leaders want consolidation in part because in separate schools, teachers with longstanding effective practice may be more resistant to accept imposed new district direction. There is an alternative to this vision of equity. Teachers working in small teams at individual schools can use federal, state and district learning goals and standards, principles and best practices of equitable treatment and of developmentally appropriate teaching, to develop their own unique lessons and pedagogical style. This can help create a sense of shared agency and creativity, as well as a unique school community and identity, that can motivate teachers and students, including students from more vulnerable groups. If the district and same-grade teachers want more collaboration, teachers in the same grade can be brought together on teacher planning days to share best practices – and yes, hear about district initiatives.
  • Special programs at one school for all Amherst students
  • Uneven class sizes between schools, and resulting budget inefficiencies and personnel uncertainties
  • Risks that one outlier school might have poor standardized test scores

WHAT CAN YOU DO IF YOU SHARE OUR CONCERNS?

  • Follow us on this website, and offer your thoughts on the blog page.
  • Write an op-ed for the Amherst Bulletin (propose it and then send to dhgnews@gazettenet.com)
  • When you write letters, be sure to cc us at AmherstSASS@gmail.com. We will collect and archive letters to bundle and send to the SC, Town Meeting, the District and the MSBA. This will ensure that community opinion is heard and taken into account.
  • Speak to your neighbors and friends and ask them to do these things.
  • Stay tuned – we’re working on next steps.