Votes on moving sixth graders in Amherst set for October

  • Children board buses at Wildwood School in Amherst. If the school committees vote to move sixth graders to the middle school and build a new elementary school, that school would replace both Wildwood and Fort River schools. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2021

AMHERST — Whether to move sixth graders in the three Amherst elementary schools to the Amherst Regional Middle School could be decided by the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional school committees next month.

A timeline presented by Superintendent Michael Morris to the Amherst School Committee last week shows that the committee could vote Oct. 5 on having sixth graders in the middle school, followed by the regional committee vote Oct. 12. Favorable votes might mean current fifth graders would be the first sixth grade classes at the middle school in fall 2022.

The votes are necessary so the Elementary School Building Committee can determine the plan for an elementary school project to be completed for the 2026 school year. The Massachusetts School Building Authority will support either a 320-student, K-6 building at the current Fort River School site, or a 575-student school that would replace both Fort River and Wildwood schools, but requires a K-5 model.

If a 320-student building is pursued, Fort River would become exclusively a Caminantes, or dual language site with instruction in English and Spanish, with students not in the program moving to either Wildwood or Crocker Farm schools, if they can fit. Still, Fort River would also likely run out of space, requiring solutions such as redistricting or renting mobile classrooms, according to a memo from Morris.

If a 575-student building is pursued, renovation or replacement of both Fort River and Wildwood schools is likely.

At the first of two public forums, with the other scheduled for Sept. 21, only two parents provided oral comments, with both Cora Fernandez Anderson and Maria Varrriale wondering ifmoving sixth graders to the middle school in a year would be too rushed to have appropriate curriculum development.

Additional feedback will be solicited through an online tool that families and staff can access.

Morris has assured families and the school committee that six to eight curriculum models will be examined, that he will consult with experts in the field, and the proposed model will be shared in advance of its implementation. He notes that Northampton, with a similar student population, has a sixth through eighth grade model at JFK Middle School.

There is plenty of space at the middle school, exclusively home to seventh and eighth graders since the fall of 1997, and which once housed close to 1,000 students when ninth graders were in the building.

The written comments the committee has received are largely favorable.

“Careful study has indicated that moving the sixth graders to the middle school would be a good move. Please do the right thing for the young people in our care,” wrote Elizabeth Armstrong.

Sarah Marshall, who was part of the Middle School Grade Span Advisory Group, said without the move, either Fort River or Wildwood would remain, and “one group of kids will continue to attend a decaying, leaky, dated, worn-out school. I can’t imagine having to choose which kids get a new school and which are left behind.”

Parents Jaehyun Byun and Margaret Sawyer wrote that due to the pandemic and remote learning, it’s not right for the current fifth graders to not have an opportunity to be sixth graders at their elementary school in fall 2022.

“We feel strongly that this is not an appropriate action to take at this time for this cohort of children” they wrote.

The only written comment that was negative entirely came from parents Renata and Eloy Shepard, who wrote that their three children felt the middle school had a prison-like atmosphere and would be too grown-up a site for sixth graders.

“We have also heard from them reports of unchecked drug and smoke use, as well as sexual acts and bullying in bathrooms and other spots,” they wrote.

A favorable committee vote will set off a plan for working through the logistics of a move, including potential rental agreements, since the middle school space is owned by a different entity, developing a task force to determine programs, working with human resources on staffing shifts, and exploring infrastructure improvements such as having a makerspace and wayfinding signs.

The decision would come with uncertainty whether the school committees in Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury, whose middle and high schoolers are part of the region, would make similar decisions.