Columnist Catherine Corson: Engaging diverse views about school consolidation

Friday, January 27, 2017

Shortly after the November Town Meeting vote on the Amherst elementary school consolidation, I attended a parent session on the new student-created Wildwood constitution.

Children described to their proud and occasionally teary parents how they came up with a set of shared rules for Wildwood Elementary School. When asked what they had learned in the process, students replied: “To be respectful of others even if their ideas are not the same as mine,” “To reword things so everyone agrees,” and “To work it out without yelling even if someone else has a different idea.”

Sitting there in the Wildwood library, I wondered how these students would have negotiated the opposing views about consolidation. Proponents of consolidation might take a lesson from them about how to create effective dialogue across difference.

There is no question that Amherst citizens are deeply divided about the plan. In assessing the distance between the sides, it is important to remember that, while social media, petitions, and protests reflect the loudest voices, vote tallies and surveys provide more representative information. On Nov. 8, 6,825 voted for consolidation, 6,699 voted against. The subsequent Town Meeting was very similar to the popular vote: 106 for and 108 against.

The only survey conducted to gather public input, completed in January 2016 by 50 percent of educators and 450 parents/guardians, showed preferential support for retaining K-6 schools and parent preference for small schools. Yet, the School Committee’s unfortunate decision to ignore these results rather than discuss them at its subsequent meeting surprised and alienated many educators and parents who might otherwise have been supportive.

In an era in which many are condemning the divisive language that pervaded the U.S. presidential election, the divisive rhetoric surrounding Amherst school issues is equally disheartening. Innumerable teachers and parents who oppose the consolidation have confided their hesitation to speak out for fear of being labeled anti-school. Those who have had the courage to do so have lost friendships, received distasteful letters and faced pressure to recant their positions.

Those opposing the consolidation are not ill-informed; they are respected educators, parents and advocates for equity who are concerned about various problems and inaccuracies — from the lack of a sufficient plan to fund expanded pre-kindergarten at Crocker Farm, to the fact that Wildwood and Fort River have both passed their air-quality tests despite inflammatory rhetoric to the contrary, to the inadequate play space in the consolidated school and intended destruction of the community-created Wildwood “castle” playground. They have argued that much academic research shows that small schools better foster equity.

In short, the debate is not about being for or against the schools, but about different perspectives about what is best for our children, educators, citizens and town.

Last year, I attended almost all of the public events about the consolidation — then named the Wildwood Building Project — talked with district officials and Amherst School Committee members, and pushed for the educator and parent survey.

Despite having many colleagues and friends who opposed the plan, as well as a few who are for it, I did not join an advocacy group, but remained open-minded, focused primarily on advocating for public engagement so as to foster strong and long-term community support for the Amherst public school system.

One of the biggest failures of the process to date has been its domination by white privileged voices, despite the equity rationales being made. Well-intentioned efforts to promote equity can have the opposite effect if marginalized voices are not solicited and heard, and a climate in which dissenting views are silenced does not create the welcoming space needed to engage these voices.

As Ms. Jagadeesh pointed out in her column (“School project should unify Amherst,” Jan. 20), teachers are not in agreement, and it is vital to recognize the way that power plays out in silencing certain views and privileging others, not just in the schools, but in our community.

As we move forward from this point, I would encourage the district and elected officials to hold community forums in locations easy to get to by parents/guardians from disadvantaged groups so as to ensure their voices are adequately represented and to engage educators and community members from diverse perspectives in respectful dialogue and debate in advance, rather than trying to garner buy-in to an already decided-upon plan.

Especially at a time like this, we owe it to our children, who are learning to take the time and develop the courage to engage across difference, to do the same.

Catherine Corson, of Amherst, is the parent of children at Wildwood Elementary School.