Columnists Michael Morris and Doreen Cunningham: Successes, challenges for Amherst schools

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The greatest asset of the Amherst Regional Public Schools is our incredible students.

Hearing about their accomplishments in academics, athletics, the arts, and social justice causes at last week’s Amherst Regional High School graduation was inspiring, and we thank keynote speaker Congressman Jim McGovern for offering words of wisdom to our graduates.

As we reflect on our first year working together in support of the ARPS’ students, families and staff, we are pleased to share some highlights of the districts’ efforts.

There is much to be celebrated from the 2017-2018 school year. For the first time in many years, the number of students from our districts attending charter schools declined, reversing a common trend in school districts in Massachusetts.

At Amherst Regional High School, an annual school climate survey was administered to ensure that our students’ opinions and feedback are regularly considered in determining the school’s direction. When compared to a survey offered three years ago along three key dimensions — feeling safe in school, having a trusted adult and being treated with respect — students reported significantly higher scores in the aggregate.

Additionally, disparities between the responses of students from different races/ethnicities that were present in 2015 were either dramatically reduced or eliminated altogether. We are proud of the ARHS faculty and staff for providing such a nurturing environment for all students.

Amherst Regional Middle School students were highly engaged in advocacy this year. They wrote compelling letters to Congressman McGovern about gun safety in schools, which he read on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

A group of over 30 ARMS students attended the spring Amherst Town Meeting and successfully advocated for a resolution about climate change. This high level of civic engagement is engendered by the dynamic approach to teaching and learning our students are fortunate to receive throughout the academic year.

Our Amherst and Pelham elementary schools are thriving, with an increasing number of families from other towns expressing interest in joining our district via school choice.

Students are empowered to be more active in the learning process; school gardens are integrated into the curriculum; and we are developing a deeper, unique identity for each school. This includes potentially implementing a Spanish/English dual language program in one of our elementary schools for fall 2019.

At the district level, we transitioned to an “in-house” food service program after more than a decade with a food service management company. Thanks to our creative food service staff, our food is nutritious, staff is responsive to student feedback and an increasing number of students are purchasing school meals.

We were awarded a grant to support expanding our summer food program, ensuring that more families have access to food when school is not in session. We were also accepted into the Farm to School Institute for next year, which will expand our ability to integrate local produce into school lunches.

As a district, one of our top priorities has been around diversifying our staff members so they better reflect the growing diversity of our student body. Over 30 percent of new staff hired for the current school year identify as people of color, which is double the average of the four previous years.

Additionally, our retention rate of staff of color exceeded 90 percent, which is higher than our aggregate retention rate and our highest rate in the past five years.

While we are pleased with this progress, the work is in no way complete. To maintain this momentum, we partnered with the Northampton, Holyoke and Springfield school districts, as well as Five Colleges Inc., to successfully apply for a Paraprofessionals Pathways grant so we can support para-educator staff from underrepresented groups in completing the steps necessary to attain licensure and teaching positions in our districts.

A number of concerns have been raised recently about the licensure status of ARPS staff. While we are above the state licensure average of 97.2 percent, we acknowledge that this is an area for improvement on which the district has been working throughout this school year.

As a result of this work, 100 percent of our administrative team will have full licensure for the 2018-2019 school year, and our teaching staff will continue to be above the state average as we work with them toward our goal of full licensure over the next two years.

ARPS is a vibrant learning organization with a bright future. As we close out this school year, our talented and creative faculty should be celebrated for their outstanding work in supporting our students to achieve their goals and dreams.

Michael Morris is the superintendent of the Amherst Regional Public Schools, and Doreen Cunningham is the assistant superintendent for diversity, equity, and human resources.