Saturday, January 30, 2016

Mike Morris & Katherine Appy commentary in the Amherst Bulletin re: the elementary school reconfiguration

Here's the link to the Bulletin article:

Mike Morris is the Assistant Superintendent of the Amherst Regional Public Schools
Katherine Appy is the chair of the Amherst School Committee

Last week the Amherst School Committee voted 4-1 to reconfigure our schools. The plan is for Crocker Farm to become an early childhood center, pre-kindergarten through first grade, and to construct a new building housing two co-located schools, second through sixth grade. This vote came after much public engagement — including multiple community forums and PGO, school committee and small group meetings — and was based on an educational recommendation made by the superintendent and supported by the assistant superintendent, all three elementary school principals and other educational leaders.

In our view, this reconfiguration is the best option to advance educational equity and excellence. Research has consistently shown that an investment in early childhood education has a great impact on closing the achievement gap.
Our own local data tells us that Amherst students who do not attend pre-school are at a great disadvantage when entering our schools that lasts well into their academic careers. For all children to have the best chance to realize their full potential, they must have access to a high-quality pre-school education.

The reconfiguration does exactly that. We would be able to add two additional pre-school classrooms, which would provide an early learning experience for students who cannot now attend pre-school because of cost, space in our pre-school program, transportation or other factors.

Another advantage of the reconfiguration model is that students will no longer be bused away from their neighborhood peers based on their socio-economic status or their special learning needs. Currently, many low income students are bused to other schools to achieve socio-economic balance in all our elementary schools.

Children in specialized special education programs also attend schools outside their enrollment zones. The reconfiguration plan will eliminate the need for these practices.

The new second through sixth grade schools will offer high quality classrooms, thus overcoming the many structural problems plaguing the Fort River and Wildwood schools, which include an open classroom design that poses enormous challenges to effective teaching and learning.

By providing far greater acoustic privacy, the new classrooms will enhance education for all students and make possible the project based, interactive learning that our students deserve. Students with special needs and ELL students will be particularly advantaged by the new design.

We understand that there are some in the community who believe this will be one large school of 750 students. In reality, the new, or newly renovated, school building would house two distinct schools within it, each with around 375 students, which is smaller than the current population at Wildwood.

Each school would have its own principal, teacher teams, and culture. The only shared instructional spaces would be a gymnasium, which would be oversized for an elementary school, allowing for enhanced community use after school hours, and an oversized library, which would allow for a greater selection of books than would typically be available for elementary school students.

The schools would also include a “makerspace” — an indoor science and technology playground designed to promote creative hands-on play and learning.

Cost estimates show that reconfiguration will be roughly $20 million less expensive than renovating or rebuilding Wildwood using Massachusetts School Building Authority funds and renovating Fort River with town funds.

We firmly believe that this reconfiguration model promotes educational equity, provides a superior environment for engaged teaching and learning, will maximize achievement for all students, and gives us the most cost effective plan to resolve the critical structural issues facing two of our elementary schools.