Jim Oldham: On school issues in Amherst, too much change, too little consultation

The district gets really involved in making a lot of changes at the same time, beyond what staff, and students and community can bear… I’m concerned about the details and the thoughtfulness that goes into changing so many things at once.

The above was part of the statement of one of the few parents able to spend a recent Saturday in a “Revisioning Summit” on the proposed merger of the middle school with the high school.

The Amherst and regional school systems are experiencing huge and rapid changes, poorly planned and poorly understood by the public. Changes underway encompass buildings, curricula, schedules and teaching methodologies.

They are happening much too fast to allow the affected community — parents, teachers, taxpayers, voters, students — to participate in any meaningful way.

Recent attention has focused on the proposal to create what might be called a double-wide school, to replace two of our three remaining elementary schools. Public pressure has delayed a decision until January on a plan for a grade reconfiguration that would send all prekindergarten through Grade 1 students to Crocker Farm and all Grade 2 to Grade 6 students to the proposed new school. A last-minute alternative has also been put on the table.

But a delay until after the holidays adds only a little more time for public input. Meanwhile, the regional school committee will also vote in January on moving Grades 7 and 8 to the high school, and discussions on regionalization of our elementary schools continue apace.

Those three proposals, which will determine the learning environment for students from four towns for decades, are just some of the transformations underway. In the five short years since Marks Meadow was closed and the elementary schools redistricted, some of the other changes include introduction of new math programs at all grade levels; major schedule changes at the middle school this year, with significant impacts on language and music programs, and at the high school next year; and the imposition of the “workshop model” of instruction and teacher coaching as described in two recent critical commentaries (Alfie Alschuler, Oct. 23, and Peter Demling, Nov. 6) that are must-reads for all who care about the schools.

In many ways these changes to programs and methodologies are the most insidious. Unlike decisions about buildings, these shifts are not decided by the elected school committee, and while some parents are aware of what’s happening, the rest of the community is largely ignorant.

Yet as Alschuler and Demling have observed, these changes are remaking the schools in damaging ways, driving out good teachers and degrading the quality of education.

Although Alschuler and Demling focus on the middle school, where the situation seems most extreme, teachers elsewhere in the system report frustration with the top-down imposition of methods and programs with little or no consultation.

Whatever one thinks about particular building plans, schedules, or curricula, the process of decision-making should raise concerns.

It’s not a question of whether particular changes are good or bad, but rather whether proposals are being adequately vetted, whether those affected are being given real opportunity to make their opinions heard and whether, once a change is made, there is any follow-up of results and impacts.

This question of follow-up is critical, since rationales presented and promises made prior to previous changes seem forgotten as new proposals are rolled out. However, due to space limits, I’ll address that topic next month.

Returning to the two big school building proposals, it seems clear that the superintendent and School Committee don’t understand community engagement. The committee has just approved the superintendent’s 2015-16 goals, including the following:

By September 2015, an engagement process that provides for input from a wide range of stakeholders will be developed for the elementary building project and the secondary revisioning/potential consolidation project, and will be implemented throughout the 2015-2016 school year.

How can one talk seriously about a public “engagement process” begun in September when critical decisions have been proposed for November (elementary schools) and January (middle/high school)?

The situations driving these proposals — respectively, deteriorating schools and a budget gap — have been known for years, so why only seek stakeholder input this fall, when time constraints make it impossible to consider real alternatives?

The late timing also distorts the issues and puts the wrong questions in front of the school committees. In the case of the elementary schools, rather than pushing an “educational plan” conceived in reaction to particular budgetary and building constraints, there should have been a multi-year public exploration of how to provide all students healthy, appropriate schools for the rest of this century given the known funding opportunities and limitations.

At the regional level, rather than presenting school consolidation as the sole option for addressing a structural deficit, what we need is a thorough exploration of the range of options for dealing with that budgetary gap.

Jim Oldham is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.