Guest columnist Allison McDonald: Grading a great high school

  • Submitted photo—Sarah Prall Photography

Thursday, May 06, 2021

What makes a high school great? I’m sure that many things come to mind.

Great teachers are tops on the list. Teachers who inspire and motivate student learning and growth, who challenge and support students to achieve more than they think they can achieve.

Up there on the list is also the offering of many opportunities — opportunities in academics, athletics, the arts, and activities that match each student’s need and passion and prepare them well for life beyond high school.

And many of us place great value on a diverse student population and being part of a community with strong local support for its public schools.

All of these are reasons why so many of us consider Amherst Regional High School a great high school. Indeed, the report card on ARHS from Niche gives it an A+ overall, based on its data analysis across many of these dimensions. Niche is an organization that provides in-depth profiles of schools and school districts to help families find the right school and neighborhood for their students. It combines publicly available data with reviews from students, families, and teachers in their analysis and development of the profiles.

Beyond the excellent academics that ARHS offers — with social justice embedded in core academic curriculum, and multiple Advanced Placement course offerings — there is an array of electives in engineering/technology, art, music, and theater, support for English language learners and special education students, and a variety of athletics, clubs, and performing arts opportunities. There are also programs to support student mental health as well as support and outreach to enhance connection and engagement with families across the school community.

Not all ratings and rankings are created equal, however, and not all will go beyond the most easily accessible data points to tell the full story about an individual school. While sometimes helpful as one among other data points, reports such as the recent U.S. News “best high schools” ranking that was reported in the Gazette on April 28 can be misleading in their oversimplification of what constitutes a "top" high school and their blurring of substantive differences between schools and the communities they serve.

Though the MCAS data that underpins ratings reports of Massachusetts high schools reflect some of the educational debt within schools (including ARHS), especially with economically disadvantaged students and English language learners, ARHS students outperform the state within nearly every student subgroup as well as overall. And, since the last MCAS two years ago, we moved to change the math curriculum beginning in the fall of 2019 for grades 6-12, and have made other changes to our math program to address that educational debt.

A high school such as ARHS is a great high school not just because of its test scores, but because it provides for the whole needs of every student on their learning journey, investing in the teachers, staff, and programs to do so.

The pandemic presented multiple challenges over the past year and we need continued, appropriate funding to meet the needs of our richly diverse student community — not just the one-time pandemic-related funds from the federal government, but also the ongoing funding of level services from our towns and the state.

We have been fortunate to have strong support from our towns, and their continued support in the coming year ensures that ARHS will continue to be a great high school.

Allison McDonald is the chair of the Amherst School Committee and the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee.