Tuesday, May 14, 2013

School Daze

 Amherst School Committee in the hot seat

While not exactly hostile last night -- and Town Meeting can be pretty hostile on occasion -- the questions from the floor about our Sacred Cow schools were a tad more probing than in years past.  Transparency is a good, although sometimes painful, thing. 

Declining enrollments are a major contributor to stress on a system that, like a big old aircraft carrier, was designed to carry a l-a-r-g-e population.

Is the decline simply a byproduct of a lower birth rate or consumers choosing alternative means of education like Charter Schools, School Choice or Homeschooling?  Because this is after all America, which was built on competition.

Interestingly School Superintendent Maria Geryk did acknowledge the rather obvious fact that Amherst "Is an expensive place to live," so perhaps families with children simply cannot afford to live here.  Thus we end up with single family homes converted to (college) student rooming houses.

And most college-aged youth do not have school-aged children.

Since the schools account for $50 million -- the lions share -- of our $68 million dollar municipal budget they alone are the number one factor pushing our tax rate to almost twice that of neighboring Hadley: In 2011 average cost of education at elementary level in Amherst, with a property tax rate of $20.39/$1000, was $17,116 vs Hadley, with a tax rate of $10.22/$1000 at $9,770 per child.

The budget Town Meeting passed last night for the elementary schools works out to a whopping $19,563 average cost per child to educate, so things are certainly not moving in the right direction

Hadley is home base to the Amherst elementary school's number one competitor,  the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, which currently has 54 Amherst children as customers.  Since Charter Schools receive revenues based on the "sending district" average cost per child, it's far more lucrative to attract an Amherst student than it is one from Hadley.

Kind of like UMass/Amherst now targeting more "out of state" students because the revenues are higher than in state students and UMass gets to keep the money rather than passing it through to the bloated bureaucracy in Boston. 

Currently the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School is the #1 competitor for Amherst Regional High School, attracting the vast majority of 67 regional children who attend charter schools at the expense of the Amherst Region.

But the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School has been granted permission to e-x-p-a-n-d through high school starting in September thus becoming a potential Death Star for our entire K-12 system.

Time to innovate!


Anonymous said...

from their website...

PVPA serves 400 children...from over 60 towns..."

So Amherst with 67 kids attending account for approx. 17% of the student population.

It is important to consider that going to a charter school far from home has its' costs and it's because we are an affluent community that we have so many kids attending there. Many families would not be able to handle the extra burden of such a commute every day because they either can't because they are working or it would be expensive to travel every day (versus public bus.) Something more extravagant than the local schools is often out of the question or doesn't become a consideration among all the things a working household must consider.

It is also a community like ours (an affluent one) that is able to expose our children to the arts and even encourage them to focus on the arts as a vehicle for learning.

My point being that this 67 number jumps out at me and speaks a lot to the declining enrollment over the last ten years or so. And I would guess they felt pulled there (PVPA) as opposed to pushed there.

Anonymous said...

Why are there only 4 SC members there? Where was Shabbaz? AWOL again or late again?

Michael Jacqeus said...

This was the best discussion I have heard on the school budget in my 5 years on town meeting.

There are a few other points that should be made. Maria Geryk said the total numbers of kids opting out to private school are up about 25 students more than 10 years ago. This would seem a small increase but it is not. Our enrollments have decreased in the region from 2037 students in 2003 to 1555 students in 2013, a drop of 482 students. Our current numbers of students opting out is 258. The ratio 10 years ago would have been 2037:233 or 10.3% and is now 1555:258 or 14.2 %. Given the resources it takes to drive and pay for private school I don’t think 4 percent or in this case 60+ student families choosing to get out should be considered insignificant.

Also it was mentioned by Maria Geryk that surveys were going out to families that were leaving the district and that information was being gathered. For my family and many others I know this never happened. You would think having served on both the Fort River School Council and Middle School Council and being very involved with the schools someone might care why I could not continue to send my own kids to the Amherst School system. It was nice to see another member of Town Meeting share a similar experience.

It was also mentioned that the people who are opting out of the schools to Home Schooling are doing so mostly for religious reasons. I spoke to a home school family that is well connected to many others home school families in Amherst and I was told that most if not all do not home school for religious reasons as was indicated at town meeting last night.

I personally think the highlight of the meeting was Kip Fonsch telling us all the wonderful things that are happening in the school and how much better things are going to get without telling us what those things are. He wrote an article in the paper last year with the same content or lack there of. I responded asking for specific information like who are we targeting, what do we hope to change, and how are we measuring success. The next week the response had none of my requested information just that I don’t know what is really going on behind the scenes and don’t understand. Well it is a year later and I still don’t understand and no one is telling me.

Anonymous said...

So then it follows that enriching the arts in the public schools may be an anchor for some kids/families in Amherst.

That is one area where innovation as well as funding is needed.

My guess is that if Amherst High School gave the same attention to the Arts and Humanities as PVPA, and if ARHS had very little sports offerings, and there was a fitness and athletics charter school nearby, many of our athletes would be pulled to that school and we'd keep the artsies.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Jacques,

I'd like to hear SPECIFICALLY what your kids are getting at their new schools that they were not getting at the Amherst Public schools.

Dr. Ed said...

Do not forget the impact of subsidized housing on all of this.

First, the Federal Govt considers UM Students to be "Amherst Residents" because they are in Amherst on April 1st -- and almost all of them are "low income."

Second, HUD distributes housing subsidy monies relative to the numbers of "low income" people in the communities -- the Amherst Housing Authority gets various monies (e.g. Section 8 Vouchers and the 504 money to build Watson Farm) to house the UMass students.

Third, unlike other "college town" housing authorities, the AHA does everything possible to avoid having the money intended to house the UM kids actually going to benefit them.

Fourth, this inherently means that low income folk from out-of-town (and out-of-state) move into Amherst. This is happening, and over the past 20 years, the South Amherst apartment complexes have shifted from housing UM Students to Section 8 tenants.

Fifth, in a rental market where supply has remained stagnant, this increased demand has created scarcity which has both inflated price and decreased quality. All the students who can't live in these now-occupied apartments instead are living somewhere else. And all rental rates are higher.

Sixth, modest single family homes formerly owner/occupied have instead become student rentals as potential owner/occupants are outbid by landlords able to pay more for the properties. (It must be noted that the landlords are only able to pay more because they know they will get it back in student rental income.)

Seventh, there is the 80%/20% rule -- HUD requires that 80% of the Section 8 vouchers go to "families" that are at 20% of the "poverty level." For the math-challenged, that is only ONE-FIFTH of the income needed to be above the "poverty" threshold, and memory is that school lunch subsidies go up to 200% of the poverty rate.

Eighth, the above three factors have forced young families out of Amherst. They can't afford to rent, they can't afford to buy, and are too "rich" to be considered "poor." With the refundable Earned Income tax credit, even a single mother who works runs into the 80/20 rule.

Ninth, the Amherst Housing Authority has exacerbated all of this by paying 120% of "fair market value." HUD determines what an apartment ought to cost in a market and the AHA has obtained permission to pay up to 120% of that. Well, of course the landlords are going to charge that, and they charge it to everyone.

Tenth, "medium household income" in Hampshire County is, I believe, $50-$55,000. These are the families with children who have been priced out of Amherst -- but who used to live there. And this is the demographic increasingly missing from the Amherst schools -- something that the school lunch statistics don't show.

What this means is that the children attending Amherst schools come from households that are at both extremes of the income spectrum, with fewer in the middle. Increasingly it is the children of professional parents and the children of single mothers -- and this is being missed.

Dr. Ed said...

It was also mentioned that the people who are opting out of the schools to Home Schooling are doing so mostly for religious reasons.

It depends how one defines "religious reasons."

Not wanting your daughter pregnant at 17 and being terrified that your son is going to get killed "in some stupid gang thing" could be expressed in terms of religious values -- or in terms of other values.

Nationally, the Home School movement has a certain perspective to the curriculum that clearly is at odds with the currently dominant perspective -- viewed objectively, the difference is pedagogical and not religious.

Anonymous said...

Cutting athletics in this town would be sacrilege. There are so many parents who are hoping that athletics boost the chances of getting into a specific university or maybe even a scholarship. The schools don't complain about the incredibly high fees either.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that as many students that leave for the arts at PVPA, there are just as many who will leave for the chinese charter for their emphasis on the basics (math, ELA, history, and science). I don't buy into the idea that art is what keeps kids going to school everyday (afterall that typically is once a week in elementary and maybe a couple times in HS). The quality of general education is what makes the difference- Teachers understanding their material and what makes its important and exciting.

I am one person who thinks we don't need to invest more into the arts (either in primary or secondary).

What we need is to address our very very serious weakness in math and sciences. Science in the elementary schools is largely absent).

It would be nice to hear an update of on the progress towards improving math and curricular alignment (no reports are posted on ARPS).

Irv rhodes said...

All of the comments received are good well reasoned comments. The schools have a wealth of data on all of the questions asked. What is needed is a comprehensive analysis of the data that already exist and conclusions from that data to guide us in the upcoming years. What is certain is that we cannot afford to keep doing what we have been doing. The old arguments for maintaining the status quo simply do not stand up to close scrutiny.
Irv Rhodes

Anonymous said...

Question: Is there any connection between declining enrollment and Amherst wanting to have Shutesbury Elementary and Leverett Elementary schools regionalize with Amherst? As an Amherst resident, I don't see any benefit in adding these two schools, and if I were a Leverett or Shutesbury parent of an elementary school child, I wonder if it would be doing a disservice to my kid(s) to join Amherst. The chances of the "region" closing one or both schools and also shutting down the arts programs in the interest of parity is something to think about. Once you are hooked up to a region it's damn near impossible to pull out if the region makes decisions on your behalf that you find unpalatable. Now that the Union28 superintendent is leaving for another job, Leverett & Shutesbury might want to rethink the whole regionalization thing.

Anonymous said...

It's too bad that the people on here who complain about the schools or talk about how they are maintaining the status quo don't o to the SC meetings or at least watch them on tv or on demand on the web. Those meetings are a wealth of information with many many in depth reports of what is going on. There are alot of new things happening in the schools to address many of the schools problems. It's one thing to complain about the schools from a stand point of knowledger and another to do so out of ignorance.

Anonymous said...

anon 12:49: agreed, my point was in response to Larry's call to innovate and figure out ways to compete with the positive attributes of the charter schools. i don't think it would be a good idea to spend a lot more on the arts right now.

and lots of kids get scholarships for arts and humanities anon 12:24! (as well as many other non-academic opportunities that result from achievement in the study of the arts.)

It comes down to priorities, I suppose. and math and science are obviously not things we could or should put less funding into in my opinion.

I also agree 12:49 that continuous teacher training and evaluation will result in a better education for our kids and could attract a few families on the borderline economically to stay or come back.

Anonymous said...

White Flight, anyone?

Larry Kelley said...

Umm, Anon 2:01 PM?

I believe Irv Rhodes ran the SC meetings for a number of years.

Anonymous said...

Umm, Larry. He is not there NOW and unless he is going to the meetings or watching them on tv he knows no more about what is happening NOW then anyone else.

Michael Jacques said...

Anon 11:27,

Since you asked. Higher standards, accountability, consequences for actions, textbooks in every class, non ideological teaching of history,to name a few.

I am not going to go into everything but I will give a few examples. At the Amherst schools my child would get behind in a subject. It would be weeks before I could see that on the computer system. It would be up to another week before a teacher could make contact via e-mail. Except for one teacher he got it done in a day. So now we are up to 3 weeks behind in most cases. There was no fallout from the schools. My child learned they did not have to worry about it. Everyone was more worried about my child's well being and how they felt.

The new school does not wait more than 24 hours to let me know there is a problem. My child now avoids getting behind because there are consequences and accountability.

My other child in 5th grade has gotten a broader and deeper knowledge of math than there sibling did in the Amherst schools by the end of 6th grade. The kicker is that the school that child is in uses Investigations

If you want to continue this conversation it would be nice to know who you are. Also if your agenda is to really learn how things are done elsewhere and how Amherst could improve I am happy to discuss it. If your agenda is otherwise then please move on.

Anonymous said...

Ed, not bad. Missing from your analysis is the greater tendency for more affluent white families with kids to move to a whiter community or move their kids into a whiter private school as the student population in the public schools becomes "more diverse".

That could explain the bump Mr. Jacques references; we are actually quite diverse compared to many other similar communities (Longmeadow for example).

Anonymous said...

Family Ties, Season 7 Episode 18 "All in the Neighborhood"

Anonymous said...

I don't think we should seek fault in Mr. Jacques decisions regarding his kids' education, it sounds like what he is doing is working for his family.

Nonetheless, Mr. Jacques comments seem less directed at the schools and its' leadership, than Maria Geryk personally, and a little bit toward Kip Fonsch. (It is tone and tenor again.) I also wonder what his motives are in his attacks when his children are doing quite well. Particularly as some of his data is purely anecdotal.

This is the best start to a discussion on the schools and budget on Larry's blog in a long time, and I really don't appreciate Mr. Jacques "guns-blazing" approach. That approach is a proven loser.

Anonymous said...

PVPA is a great school for arts but is quite weak for academics. Our family went back to ARHS because the school was just not serious about a demanding college-pre curriculum.

Michael Jacqeus said...

Anon: 2:38

Thanks for your comments:

Yes my kids are doing much better and it truly is a wonderful thing. Sorry for the tone. I will try and do better.

I will try some more anecdotal evidence to make what point I can. The math that one of my children did was in part using a text book but only in small part. What would come home where zerox copies of pages of problems? So let us say my child was having difficulty doing those problems. While I can do math reasonably well I have been out of school for a long time. The section in a text book before the problems can help an aging parent like myself refresh my memory and assist my child. Without it I must explain as best I can to my child, how to do the problem. While I usually could do this, it did not always match the teaching instruction given at the school and at times creates more confusion.

So for a school with a budget of $17,000 + per pupil shouldn’t we expect some of the simple things like texts books. Don’t those things enhance education for each student not just my kid?

Now onto the other subject, being concerned with statements made by many members of staff and School Committee. There have been many statements made by various leaders of our schools many who are gone now. The concern I have is it feels like flavor of the month. For years I did go to SC meetings and watch ACTV but I never heard anyone describe major programs in detail, who they were targeting and follow-ups with how they have or have not succeeded. While I would like each initiative to succeed I recognize that not everything works everywhere. I don’t mind if the schools fail or succeed in any given program I would just like them to tell us what is working and what is not. I would like to understand how those programs that do work give positive impact and understand the cost associated with that positive benefit.

I feel every time I ask that questions as I have in the paper, on blogs, etc I get the same answers, which are general and vague. Maria Geryk Mentioned ELL last night maybe that would be a good starting point. The administration seems to have a good handle on how many kids are in the program. Maybe we could open up a dialog about the benefits to the students, costs associated, and comparisons of our results to other districts.

As for my motives I guess they are simple. I worked with many people on staff to address issues I was having. I did this for years. Sometimes with good results sometimes not. In the end the situation was only getting slowly worse and many times I was always told not worry about it, it will all work out in the end.

This turned out to be true, but is it fair that I had to opt out to make it true. Is it fair that myself and other like me have to drive over the bridge two or more times a day and pay money to private schools and pay high taxes. Isn’t it my right to know how my tax dollars are being spent. Sorry if this feels like a guns blazing approach. I’ll try to leave the six shooters at home next time.

Anonymous said...

anon@2:38 PM

I'm sorry, but I think there must be something wrong with you to feel like or interpret Jacques remarks as "guns blazing". They were far from it... Yikes, get a grip.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Jacques, do you have any optimism that now that we have some stability in terms of our leadership that many of the issues you have and that are shared by other parents will be tackled/improved over the next 6 years?

I wonder if any of the issues you and others have/had with math homework can be/will be resolved as a result of the schools adopting the new math curriculum? (Although I too have heard the same thing from other parents about math homework in particular. Imagine speaking English as a second language and your kid comes home asking for help with some of the stuff they get these days! Compared to maybe the kid whose dad teaches a couple of graduate math classes at the University. Kids do indeed receive a wide range of quality of homework help and I agree with you that we need to figure out a way for all kids to be able to get the help they need.)

Anonymous said...

At best Michael Jacques unnecessarily sarcastic:

I personally think the highlight of the meeting was Kip Fonsch telling us all the wonderful things that are happening in the school and how much better things are going to get...

That does nothing to further the dialogue in a positive way. Thanks for serving on Town Meeting but if you're going to be a wise-guy when we're trying to discuss these important issues that affect our children that do attend the public schools in Amherst, that doesn't serve our community well. I expect the people who represent me to do so in a respectful and professional manner.

Anonymous said...

Ironically, Mr. Jacques was one of a long line of Amherst parents pointing out the many problems with the elementary and middle school the math curriculum. We tried and tried and tried and were shut out by many administrators, including the currrent superintendent. Only after the new curriculum director was hired (and the previous one disappeared) and the new math coaches pointed out the same problems, the elementary math curriculum was quickly changed. Last night the superintendent briefly mentioned the serious problems with the English, science and science curriculum. These problems are not news to me -- or many parents and students. Families leave the schools to get a better education for their children -- more than 17% have opted out. To charter schools, homeschool or private school. Will anyone talk to these families or try to get them back? We need serious conversation and detailed information, not platitudes or a pep talk.

Janet McGowan

Anonymous said...

Many parents go to PVCICS because of the Chinese but also because of the community atmosphere they have. Parents have also talked about the concentration on Math and how their child was falling behind at the Amherst schools. Students also feel that they have a voice and the teachers continue to push the students.

Michael Jacqeus said...

Anon 5:34

I think there is always hope, always. If I did not believe that I would not bother writing about my experiences.

I think it is very very important for parents to continue to raise concerns. Some will be answered some will not. No school can solve everyone's problems all the time. By not trying only one thing is guaranteed.

As has been sited the math program has changed. Maria Geryk has hired some very good people who can help improve the academics that I was concerned with. No matter what your opinion of Maria Geryk is, she is always approachable, friendly, and willing to listen, always.

I was a little bummed that Mike Hayes stepped down. I think he was headed in the right direction hopefully Betsy is continuing with his work.

I do think the Middle school was more challenging and has good opportunities for motivated students. I hear the High School is even better but unfortunately the issues that I was dealing with were unlikely to change in the short term for my first child. My other child would have done just fine in the Amherst School system. Maybe a bit under challenged at times but fine overall. Unfortunately once you put one in a different school and the other wants to follow you can't say no.

So for me it was not that hope ran out it was that time ran out to take corrective action. Decisions where made and we moved on. So as long as I live here and see things that are similar to challenges I faced I will speak up. I expect those who disagree with me to do the same. Somewhere between the push and pull Amherst will hopefully find balance that we all can live with.

Anonymous said...

So let's stop pointing fingers and complaining and have one, Janet.

I think you fail to take into account the racist factor when we look at who's leaving the public schools and why. Or is there no racism, or do people not act on their racist beliefs? I believe many white people in Amherst are following all too common trends that occur in areas where the schools become racially, culturally, and ethnically diversified, within the student body and faculty and staff. It's the same old story.

What say you, Janet?

Anonymous said...

I truly appreciate hearing that, Mr. Jacques.

Imagine if the people in this town were able to unite as opposed to divide over education. Somehow unite in disagreement, and figure out how to get more for what we spend.

Anonymous said...

A simple graph comparing the schools' growth in diversity to white families leaving over the last ten years would be a good start.

Dr. Ed said...

Ed, not bad. Missing from your analysis is the greater tendency for more affluent white families with kids to move to a whiter community or move their kids into a whiter private school as the student population in the public schools becomes "more diverse".


First, the race of the middle income families being forced out of Amherst is irrelevant -- and I have no doubt that two-parent minority households have the same economic struggles as their white counterparts.

Second, my experience is that wealthy minority parents tend to act like white parents -- and I suspect that you will find no distinction between minority parents with 6-figure incomes and white parents.

What you refer to as "white flight" is actually the flight of parents who care about their children's education and this really has nothing to do about race.

Have you heard what Bill Cosby is saying? Is he white -- or even a Conservative? And there is no shortage of black conservatives saying the same thing and more.

Of course, if you want to believe in racism, and that the white parents are taking their kids out of the Amherst schools, ask yourself how much longer the white taxpayers will continue to be willing to pay for the education of minority children? If Amherst is the bastion of racism you allege, why would these racists be willing to pay twice the Hadley per-child cost to educate minority children?

The Juggernaut said...

Anonymous 9:19,

With all due respect, it is this single-variable viewpoint that so many social justice minded folk that cause those more versed in math cringe. You can't dwell on this one variable. Income levels, town demographics, occupational shifts all change.

Do you think the worst to do part of the nation, rural Tennessee, is a minority community?

It's overwhelmingly Caucasian, so your simple graph would simply fail.

Amherst and the US needs to return to the basics, which regardless of race or ethnicity, provides every student a fair chance. Math, English, Music (or another art of their choice). I know I am oversimplifying to an extent but all fields stem from such.

Anonymous said...

My graph idea was stupid, and I'm glad you said so.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Ed. Said:

If Amherst is the bastion of racism you allege, why would these racists be willing to pay twice the Hadley per-child cost to educate minority children?

They're not, they're moving to whiter places like South Hadley and Sunderland.

Anonymous said...

We moved our kids out of the public school here after the elementary school experience. The academics and behavior standards are just too low in Amherst. No comparison to private school. Both my kids are in ivy league colleges and doing great. That never would have happened had we stayed in the public system here. Sit outside Amherst's middle school some afternoon as the closing bell rings. Don't stand too close to the doors tho, you might get run over by a teacher trying to race out. You'd never see that in private school. Never.

Anonymous said...

Alot of kids who go through the Amherst public schools also go to Ivy League colleges.
Private schools and public schools are vastly different! Private schools only teach a certain population of students..no SPED students there, no ELL students, no low-income students. You can't compare public schools with private schools. And yet, many kids who go through the Amherst public schools also go to Ivy League colleges. Oh, and by the way, attending an Ivy League college does NOT mean you will be a success in life or be happy in life. It is not the be all and end all. And just because your kids received an excellent education in private school does not mean that students are not getting an excellent education in the Amherst public schools. My kids are in the public school and I am very pleased with the education they are getting. Can the schools be better..of course. That goes without saying. Any organization can always improve and should always be improving. I bet your private school is always trying to improve. I'm glad for your kids that they are doing so well. Their excellence does not mean that those who continue to attend the Amherst schools are not also doing well.

Dr. Ed said...

With all due respect, it is this single-variable viewpoint that so many social justice minded folk that cause those more versed in math cringe.

Back in the 1990's, during the welfare-reform debates, the NAACP made an interesting point -- there are more White people living in poverty than there are Black people.

"Minority" (by definition) means "less-than-half" and while we can argue how the figure is calculated, we are talking 10%/20% of the population.

Hence even though a larger percentage of Black families live in poverty, since this is only 10%/20% of the population, the much smaller percentage of White families living in poverty results in a much higher number of individuals.

Which is the point that the NAACP was making, and they were making it because they feared that "Welfare" would be viewed as a "Black" thing when in reality the majority of the people receiving it were White.

Which is the point I am trying to make saying this has nothing to do with race and everything to do with the Amherst Housing Authority concentrating poverty (in violation of HUD regs), and all of the things that Dr. Cosby is saying about young people and education.

And Cosby makes the point of saying the same thing about Turners' Falls...

Tom McBride said...

The comment that the superintendent made about Amherst being too expensive was interesting. It looks like Amherst has actually over marketed and overpriced its schools.

I knew it was high, but I can't believe the budget numbers, assuming they are correct, 50 million for schools, out of a total budget of 68 million.

Dr. Ed said...

Why aren't there White single mothers in Amherst?

I didn't realize this until writing out that last response -- and I tend not to think in Nuremberg terms anyway.

Why is there a concentration of poor minorities in Amherst? It is not historical because they are residing in units that were occupied by UMass students a generation ago, and by cows a generation before that -- unlike Harlem or Roxbury, South Amherst historically was farmland.

The children residing in the South Amherst apartment complexes are all non-White. This is why Boulders and Southpoint had to be sent to different elementary schools to avoid racial segregation.

Why are there no White children down there?

Excepting those with connections to the university or family connections to town, why are there essentially no White single mothers in Amherst?

And why has this racially segregated ghetto been allowed to be created in Amherst of all places?

Anonymous said...

"Both my kids are in ivy league colleges and doing great. That never would have happened had we stayed in the public system here."

Right, kids from Amherst schools never get into ivy league schools. What data are you looking at?

I'm surprised your kids got into ivy schools with you as a parent because you clearly don't know what you are talking about.

Stop by the high school sometime and ask.

Oh, and what kind of job do you work that allows you to be standing at the middle school door at 2:20 every day so that you can make such a statement about teachers. Certainly you wouldn't make such a statement if you hadn't done a study of teachers leaving the building. I mean, how stupid would it be to say that if you didn't have the data to back it up?

Ask your ivy league kids if they could submit any work in school based on empty data. And ask them what their ivy league professors would think of such drivel.

Dr. Ed said...

Right, kids from Amherst schools never get into ivy league schools. What data are you looking at?

I am struck by a comment that a former Asst US Sec of Education once made -- "all parents home-school to some extent."

The problem of the Amherst schools is not for the children of professors and such who not only can tutor their children as needed, but also advise/shape them toward college -- and call in a few favors to get them into a good one.

The problem is for those parents without those abilities, and THEIR children.

Education used to be the great equalizer - the professor's kid and the janitor's kid both had the same chance at the good life.

Anonymous said...

I welcome more conversation and information, as anyone who knows me knows. I think Town Meeting members are looking for concrete information about programs, problems and successes. Last Monday night was good on budget numbers, but thin otherwise. I think the questions reflected the desire for more information, deep concerns at escalating costs, why children are leaving -- and whether the school system is sustainable.

Btw: the high school has many excellent art, music and performance programs. These departments are one of the great lights of ARHS. My kids have found the Amherst art and music teachers, almost without exception, to be committed, outstanding teachers. I am gratefull for their hard and creative work.

Anonymous said...


I agree that TM was thin on programs etc. But also thin on the budget as is the full description offered online at ARPS. What is VERY clear, however, SPED increases are going to continue to devour regular ed. One simple question unasked at TM, who/what do they do: 44 FTE district SPED positions (these are in addition to our SPED teachers and paras). We deserve a well articulated explanation as to why our district's SPED cost are so extremely high when our %SPED students is only a percent or two higher than the state. This, I believe, is where most of our inflated per/student costs come from. Just look at the budget...

Anonymous said...

Btw I forgot to sign my name.

My other (and hopefully last) thought is that we should probably start looking at charter schools as another form of public education. They are financed by our taxes, many work well for students and give families some options they previously available only to families of means. They aren't going away (and recall that the founders of Chinese Charter wanted to open up their school as part of Amherst schools system).

Are charters cheaper per pupil for Amherst and if so, why? Is it just lower salaries and overhead?

Anon 12:14 aka Janet McGowan

Anonymous said...

One of the reason charters could be cheaper is there are no or very few SPED kids or ELL. Again, like private schools, charters serve a particular cliental. Yup, that's the answer for Amherst -lets have more charters and really drain students from the public schools.

Anonymous said...

I would imagine that most charter schools and most private schools don't feel an obligation to educate children with severe physical or behavioral disabilities, nor kids who speak English as a second language, nor kids who live in poverty. My guess is that the care and education of those kids costs more than your average kid who wants to take honors classes and play squash.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes when a school system is known for caring for, and educating well, students with special needs, families move to that system's community as a plan for their child. The cost of transportation we are required to provide for even one child sometimes is enough to make your eyes spin.

Also, maybe our system is better at recognizing when a child has special needs and refers them for services more often, and that could explain why our percentage of kids receiving SPED services is higher.

I also wonder how serious many other school systems take as seriously as ours has, in the last year or so, the evaluation of our SPED (and regular ed) teachers' performance. That costs money and time.

We must also consider whether our community of SPED parents is more litigious than in many other communities, and what it costs to resolve those cases.

There's more.

Walter Graff said...

Funny thing is that administrative costs of charter schools are actually higher than public schools according to studies but 80+ percent of traditional public school expenditures are related to personnel costs being mostly salaries and benefits thus driving instructional costs up.

Anonymous said...

My kids are in the public schools now, but I do have concerns about how well the current curricula serve all children, including mine. If my kids do leave it will be because, like so many families before us, and notably more families in recent years, our concerns about the education our kids are and are NOT getting in the Amherst public schools will have grown to the point that they outweigh our interest in wanting to educate them in our local, Amherst public schools, schools which thankfully have more diversity (ethnic, racial, and economic) than most other schools in this area.

Walter Graff said...

"My kids are in the public schools now, but I do have concerns about how well the current curricula serve all children, including mine."

I'm hearing this so much from parents both concerned as you and others who have taken their children out and as someone said last night they are seeing major differences since they did. Our schools have some wonderful teachers who really add a lot of value to our childrens' education but unfortunately the public school system in Amherst as a whole has a lot to be desired. While there are many reasons for the decline in Amherst, clearly the better options outside of Amherst public schools are a major factor.

Anonymous said...

They are not necessarily "better" options; certainly not to families with children with needs that can't/won't be met in charter/private schools. The charter/private schools are better options for some who are attracted to the niche that they can provide, but not to people whose needs can only be met in the public schools.

And again, PVPA has 400 students and serves 60 communities; they only need to attract 7 kids from each community and they are in business. They attract 67 from Amherst. I simply don't buy that that can be explained by the Amherst Public Schools sucking so bad or being so dysfunctional compared to the other 59 communities. Not that some don't have that perception.

And it's also pretty clear by comments made on this post and over the last four or five years on this and other blogs that many parents resent having to share so much of our resources with special needs and ELL children and children in poverty, and seek out a more homogeneous culture in the charter and private schools. (And they are separate from the "racist" response.)

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know how many questions about students leaving the Amherst Public Schools were asked by Town Meeting members at Monday's meeting, and who asked them?

Anonymous said...

Has anyone ever considered the fact that the curriculum and pedagogy of the Charter Schools may be meeting the SPED needs of children who otherwise would be classified as SPED without ever having to stigmatize them with a diagnosis and label?

I've seen a lot indicating that the structured curriculum of the Catholic schools, complete with the "blessing of the hour", not only did a lot to help a lot of disabilities but is essentially identical to the SPED curriculum.

And any child with a behavioral problem isn't going to get that under control unless you have the parents on your side, and Charter Schools inherently have this.

I'm saying this enough places that some of you might actually see me quoted somewhere -- I honestly want an objective/blind study of the percentage of SPED students in the charter schools and in the districts they draw them from -- not the diagnosed children but an evaluation of absolutely every child to identify the undiagnosed ones -- and I think people will be surprised...

Anonymous said...

And then there are those families whose kids maybe are in wheelchairs and maybe have mental disablities on top of that; is PVPA or Chinese Immersion or The Common School prepared to transport that kid on a daily basis and provide a one-on-one para for eight hours a day plus maintain elevators and lifts, not to mention teachers with specialized training in educating these kids...

Again, for some families, the public schools are the clear choice. I wonder, anon. 9:02, if your definition of what a child with special needs looks like is too narrow.

And then there's the whole ELL issue; certainly these kids have special needs, and they will not be served under the current curriculum at the aforementioned schools.

Do the private schools provide breakfast and lunch to kids whose parents cannot afford to feed them completely each day?

The more I think about it the more I disagree with you that charter and private schools are equipped to properly educate most kids with special needs.

Anonymous said...

...but is essentially identical to the SPED curriculum...

There is no specific "SPED curriculum" in the public schools, each child identified as having special needs has an Individual Education Plan. None are identical and they are drawn up and agreed to by a team of educators and each child's parent or guardian. The "curriculum" runs the gamut from once a week speech therapy to get rid of a lisp, to incredibly detailed plans involving the child's daily transportation (which sometimes requires very expensive and specialized equipment that the schools are required to pay for,) in-school medical requirements sometimes involving a qualified nurse being available daily to catheterize a student, Availability of a staff person with specialized training in, say, educating children with severe autism...

Michael Jacqeus said...

The SPED discussion is interesting. I would like to take it a step further. During the meeting it was mentioned that we either have or will have an additional 23 to 25 more SPED students coming. I took this to mean our SPED portion of the budge will likely continue to creep up in terms of overall budget percentage.

I have always heard that many people consider our SPED program to be very good. So if our program is very good how long we actually afford to keep it good. Sure many of would enjoy living in a larger house with that large in-ground pool, but we don’t. Not for a lack of want or that it is not worth the cost, but because we simply can not afford it.

It was interesting that I had the opportunity to talk to Nick Young, then superintendent of Hadley. I mentioned at some point the great SPED program people think Amherst has. He took that to mean that Hadley’s was not as good because they don’t spend as much money. He quickly added Hadley has a great SPED program it just does not cost as much as Amherst.

Obviously the topic is very complex and there are different mindsets on it. The only question I would ask is what we can afford moving forward in the future. Is there a way, as Nick Young seemed to imply, that we might be able to deliver these services at a slightly reduced rate? How do we balance the needs of SPED, general ed., and an ever increasing medical and retirement costs.

Michael Jacqeus said...

I think lots of people in Amherst support a decent wage for teachers, I certainly do. From the per pupil study in Oct / 2012, “TEACHER COMPENSATION: With education as a value in the community, collective bargaining agreements over time have brought compensation to teachers in Amherst that are not enjoyed by teachers in many other western Massachusetts districts.” This certainly was the nicest way I have ever seen someone say your teachers are paid very well.

The question I think we can ask ourselves is can we afford to keep going in that direction. It is not a questions of what teachers deserve or are they worth it, it is can we collectively continue to fund the important job they do as we have been doing and at the increasing rate we have been doing it.

Let us look at the higher paid administrative jobs, superintendent, high school principle, curriculum director. They are all paid well, very well by western mass standards. I hear great things about all of these leaders in our schools. It is not a question of are they good enough, do they deserve the pay it should be a question of what we can afford long term.

There is a sentiment that Amherst is too expensive. We don’t have enough affordable housing to let others without higher paying jobs live in our wonderful town. It is sort of ironic because in some way the thing we value, education, and our willingness to fund it, have pushed us in this direction.

Sure you could say that state funding is down and if it were not this would be an issue. This is also true, but, state funding is not likely to come back we need anytime soon. I think this is a reality that the School committee and the administration need to strongly consider in future contract negotiations. Not what you want to afford or think staff deserve, but what you can afford.

Certainly I also don’t mean to imply that any of our current leadership put us in this difficult fiscal position. The long term solutions do unfortunately require action in the short term. Some actions have already been taken by the administration by reducing staff for the next year. These actions have reduced the rate of per pupil spending from 7% per year to 6%. Not enough to turn things around but certainly a good starting point. Your thoughts anyone?

Anonymous said...

actually, I think the data shows that state funding (ie ch 70) has NOT gone down as a proportion of student population (our student population has dropped substantially). Anyone can do the math, if they want. It has actually increased every year by about 2%/student since 2004. I think Andy Churchill's statement at TM was misleading. So stop buying the line that a big part of the problem is reduced state aid. The facts don't support that conclusion.

Michael Jacqeus said...

Anon: 10:41

Thanks for that. I have never had a chance to look into that. I have heard it from many other town leaders as well. Good to know.

Anonymous said...

So Shutesbury, Leverett and Hadley and Northamton (etc.) don't value education because they pay their teachers and administrators less?

It's an endless spiral of increasing expenses, declining student population and excuses here.

Dr. Ed said...

I am going to take a tough line on these two -- neither are "disabilities" and we are paying the price for being too nice:

And then there's the whole ELL issue; certainly these kids have special needs

No they don't -- their parents ought to have taught them to speak English, like all the other children's parents did. Even if the parents are immigrants, their children always learned English (and then taught it to or translated for their parents).

Do the private schools provide breakfast and lunch to kids whose parents cannot afford to feed them completely each day?

This is complete and utter bullshit -- the parents (i.e. "parent") may not be functional enough to do this, may make poor budget decisions such as renting a TV bigger than my car, but there is absolutely enough money provided to feed the children of the poor.

I will bluntly state that many of these children would be better off in a well-run orphanage, and that the problem many have is POOR PARENTING but that is not a SPED issue....

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether comparing Amherst to Hadley in terms of SPED will yield the information we are seeking.

I would guess that if the 10 Amherst students with the most involved special needs moved to Hadley, they would have a budget crisis on their hands.

Just like if public schools were required to provide a lighted, well maintained football field and coaches and uniforms and transportation for the team to other schools, and ten of our most motivated football players moved to Hadley... whoah, the cost per student in Hadley would jump.

And let's keep in mind the perspective of a parent sending their kid, who is maybe in a wheelchair and can't hear, to the ARPS's; they really don't want to hear the parents of children in the band or on the football team talking about how the kids with special needs are sucking up all of our funding...

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering: do people believe, that by offering teachers slightly better pay here in Amherst than compared to many other MA communities, that we attract and retain a better quality of teacher, on the whole?

Anonymous said...

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Can't wait to see what happens to Leverett & Shutesbury schools when they regionalize with Amherst. The votes happen in November. Such excitement! Folks: Do your research very, very carefully before you vote. Regionalizing with Amherst/Pelham may come back to bite you you-know-where.

Anonymous said...

I somehow doubt that Hadley would hire as many SPED administrators as Amherst has -- even if they needed to hire the hands-on people, I doubt there would be the Team Maria Adminstratum.

Anonymous said...

I keep hearing that Amherst has such high salaries for teachers but the reality is actually not necessarily the case. I am qualified to apply for a recently posted position in Amherst. The same position is available in at least 3 other towns w/in a 10-30 min commute. According to the contracts for the 2013-14 school year, each of those three towns would pay me more than the salary I would make in Amherst for the same position. The range of difference in salary is $3,000-$6,000 more. Amherst is not an easy place to work as a teacher. I'm thankful (for the benefit of my children attending the schools) that there are wonderful teachers that choose to work here. As an educator, I have to think twice about whether it is a place I would feel valued and fairly compensated for the dedication and hard work that I put forth.

Anonymous said...

If I were a Leverett or Shutesbury resident, I would definitely wonder how it's in my best interests to combine with Amherst into one elementary region. Even as an Amherst resident, it doesn't so good either. Everything I've seen says that elementary regionalization will cost Amherst more... and I'm not sure about the educational benefits either. I think Regional School Planning Committee is doing to have to do a lot of convincing and explaining before the towns vote on the new proposed region this fall.

Anonymous said...

We were having such a nice conversation and now here we go with the "Team Maria" stuff again.

Anonymous said...

Amherst is not an easy place to work as a teacher.

And why is that?

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:38 p.m. - "convincing and explaining?" Just call it what it is: A snow job.

Anonymous said...

So what do you believe to be the real motive of the Regional School Planning Committee, anon. 7:41pm?

Anonymous said...

the regionalization of our schools makes some sense to me theoretically & philosophically -- a regional system could be more efficient & have greater alignment across the schools, and more/better learning opportunities for all students... but I just don't think that it is the way it would work in real life. I am going to vote in favor of the K-6 regionalization unless I am convinced otherwise.

Anonymous said...

anon 9:34 p.m.: It has been a very long, very bumpy ride with the current (but soon to be gone) Union 28 superintendent. She was not a good fit for the particular schools that make up the union, and there have been a number of serious attempts over the years to not renew her contract but there just haven't been enough votes because of the particular makeup of the school committees. In my opinion, much of the regionalization efforts have to do with getting away from her and her management style. In other words, if she won't go, we will. I honestly don't think it has any connection with Union 28 itself. The four schools involved run exceptionally well(far better than Amherst these days), are rated very highly by the state, and, except for the negative feelings towards the superintendent, things run smoothly and efficiently. The schools have been able to retain all the various arts programs, librarians, etc., that seem to be under the gun in Amherst, and the budgets for the schools make sure that these necessary "perks" are part of the curriculum each and every year without exception. Now that the superintendent is leaving I can't help but think that the effort to regionalize is pure folly. Given the difficulties with other regionalizations (I'm thinking of Gateway and how Worthington chose to join that region and now wants out because their much beloved school was closed down, but the region won't allow them to exit so they are stuck), I believe that if Shutesbury and Leverett join up with Amherst they will come to regret it bitterly. Despite Maria's promises that nothing will change for Shutesbury & Leverett you can be sure that in the interest of "parity" there will be very unwelcome changes at some point in time. Besides, if nothing will change, why regionalize? Seems to me the Union 28 schools would be far better served by just getting a new superintendent who's a better fit for the Union. Simple, yes?

Anonymous said...

If Amherst regionalizes with Leverett and Pelham, it will cost Amherst more. It already has the same administrative team from K-12, so aligning the curriculum shouldn't be a problem. So why regionalize? What is the point?

Anonymous said...

I hate to be the bearer of good news but the amount of time Amherst ES students spend in art, music; pe and library have NOT been cut.

Anonymous said...

As a Leverett resident who put two children through the elementary school I would hate to see the school close down because the region might deem it necessary. Joining Amherst is kind of like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We're getting rid of the bathwater, finally. Let's not dump the baby too. Our elementary school is too valuable to put it in the control of an often dysfunctional region, and you can be sure, we will lose control.

Anonymous said...

8:01 a.m: That's great. It still doesn't make sense for Leverett and Shutesbury to regionalize. We will lose control of our schools. The much-despised Joan Wickman is leaving. Let's just get someone new in.

Anonymous said...

To anon 6:37am: Where can I find out about Gateway's refusal to allow Worthington to leave the region? Was there a vote taken?

Anonymous said...

9:35 am - There was an article in the Gazette in late April.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand... Wickman has an Ed.D., no? So what's the problem?

Anonymous said...

Academic qualifications have nothing whatsoever to do with personality or management style. Let's just say she's a micro-manager to the nth degree, a despot of sorts. She's made a lot of people - school committee members, principals, staff - very unhappy over the years.

Anonymous said...

Well, good luck with your search.

Anonymous said...

Leverett and Shutesbury elementary students have more time each week for "specials" than Amherst and Pelham students. If both/either of these schools regionalize with Amherst, would this extra special time be allowed to continue? ... and how would that be reconciled with the proposed curriculum alignment?

Anonymous said...

As the parent of Amherst elem. students, I am envious of the extra time that Leverett gives students each week for PE (60 minutes for K, 80 min grades 1-6, compared to Amherst's 40 minutes K-6) to promote student health and fitness; and of Leverett's science lab (grades 1-6) and Adventure programs (grades 4-6). According to information in the education report for regionalization, Leverett students have more than double the specials time each week that Amherst and Pelham students do.

Anonymous said...


But how come no one wants to talk about racism?

Anonymous said...

How has Leverett been able to meet the state's time on learning requirements when they spend double the time on specials and stop teaching at 1:20pm every Wednesday? (Amherst will nix early release on Wednesdays next fall in order to conform to state requirements more easily.)

Do you mean to say Leverett students spend between 2 and 3 more hours on specials per week than Amherst elementary students? What is their secret?

Anonymous said...

3:48 pm: It's not a matter of luck. It's a matter of doing damn good research into who you're hiring. You can be sure that if Union 28 continues to exist, the next superintendent will be quite different in nature from the one who's about to leave.

Anonymous said...

Happy damn good research, then.

Who hired your last superintendent, and why didn't they do any research?

Anonymous said...

You'll have to get that bit of info from those who attended the school committee meeting that voted her in. By the way, "doing your research" means going way deeper into references than what is given. Sometimes glowing reviews simply means the current employer can't stand someone and just wants them out, which won't happen without those glowing reviews. My take on Wickman's exit from Union 28 is that is exactly what happened. She's someone else's burden to bear now.

Anonymous said...

...preferred candidates have experience working in an affluent, rural and bucolic, racially and culturally homogeneous school setting...

Anonymous said...

The Amherst regional school district is currently running an ad to invite school choice applications for the MS/HS and the elementary schools. For the MS, the ad says that there are 18 openings in Grades 7&8. For the HS, there are no openings currently, but a waiting list is being maintained. For the elementary schools, there are school choice openings as follows:
K: Crocker Farm; Grades 2&3: all elementary schools; Grades 4&6, Fort River School. The ad doesn't indicate how many elementary school openings there are, but states that "the District welcomes the application of special education students with varied disabilities" in the grades listed. Applications are due this week.

Anonymous said...

"the District welcomes the application of special education students with varied disabilities"

I wonder if that had to be included, because it ought to go without saying.

Every individual child must have equal access to a quality education adapted to meet his or her needs.

It's the American Way.