Guest column Anastasia Ordonez: School buildings, dual-language program advance

  • Fort River Elementary School. gazette file photo

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

State lawmakers unveiled the Student Opportunity Act last week, legislation intended to add $1.5 billion to our state’s public education system over the next seven years.

This is great news to kick off our school year, and is the result of hard work by our local state leaders — such as Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Mindy Domb — as well as the Massachusetts Teachers Association, our School Committee, Town Council and others who tirelessly advocate on behalf of our public schools.

If passed, this legislation would greatly benefit children in our state’s neediest communities and offer some relief to the rest of us for things like charter tuition increases. It would also increase the budget of the Massachusetts School Building Authority by $150 million, a necessary step considering how many of our state’s public schools are in dire need of replacement while construction costs soar.

Here in Amherst, we’re waiting to hear back from the MSBA about our application that detailed a consensus plan to replace both Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools with one K-5 or K-6 school, and expect a response in December. In the meantime, several steps have been taken to prepare for acceptance by the MSBA into its building pipeline.

Our district formed a grade span advisory group to study whether to move our sixth-grade students to the Amherst Regional Middle School. In order to ensure we have enough room for all zoned students in a new school building, we are exploring the possibility of moving sixth graders to middle school, which is currently just seventh and eighth grades. The advisory group’s goal is to research the issue thoroughly with the help of students, parents, educators, administrators, community members and the School Committee.

Additionally, the Fort River Feasibility Study Building Committee finalized and presented its work last week in a joint meeting of the Amherst School Committee and the Amherst Town Council. Important questions about the site were answered and cost estimates for several possible building solutions — ranging from a new building to extensive renovation — were included. While there is no planned project yet for the Fort River site, we will be able to use this feasibility study to inform future decisions about where to build our new school.

Finally, a citizen petition earlier this year secured $40,000 in funding from the Town Council to study a possible expansion of Crocker Farm Elementary School, in the event that student overflow from a new building needs to be accommodated. The Amherst School Committee voted to formally endorse this process, and the district is working with the town to develop an request for qualifications process for a facilities-use study that will gather important information by next spring.

All of these initiatives represent a lot of time and attention from concerned community members, district staff, parents, students and elected leaders. As always, we’re grateful to the people who show up daily for the benefit of our students and betterment of our schools.

In addition to facilities projects, we’re excited about the new academic year and eager to jump into the good work of our district.

One special highlight is that our new dual-language program — Caminantes — has 39 kindergarten students enrolled, approximately 50 percent of whom identified as bilingual with Spanish as one of their first languages. Given that this is the first year of the program and we expect to learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t, the School Committee has asked the superintendent to establish evaluation goals for the program now so we can course correct as needed.

We’re also setting up new ways for engaging the community around key decisions, such as by creating a formal liaison with the Town Council and establishing committee agenda goals that we’ll be sharing regularly during public meetings.

Every public school district needs the combined efforts of its community to be successful. By working together, we can make sure that Amherst’s public schools remain a beacon of quality education, equity, and support for all.

Anastasia Ordonez is chair of the Amherst School Committee.