A public forum about a likely move of sixth graders from all three Amherst elementary schools to the Amherst Regional Middle School in fall 2022 drew only seven attendees.
The virtual public forum was one item of many on the Amherst School Committee’s August 31 agenda, their first meeting since July 1. A number of residents had submitted public comments by email in advance to committee Chair Allison McDonald, 10 of which were supportive of the grade change with three opposed. In addition, one resident left a voicemail expressing concern about the change.
Superintendent Michael Morris gave a 20-minute presentation on the primary drivers of the proposed grade configuration change — the prevalence of grade 6-8 middle schools nationwide, space issues in the Amherst elementary schools, and the elementary school building project — before opening it up to discussion and public participation. (Presentation slides from page 7 of the meeting packet here).
Cora Fernandez Anderson, the parent of an Amherst fifth grader, said that it is “a bit rushed” to develop a pedagogical model for fall 2022. Anderson also expressed concern that the forum had only 14 participants (seven of whom were panelists), and reported that she had not received any advertising about the event but only heard about it from a friend. “I hope future forums will be better advertised,” she said.
Morris defended the district’s outreach efforts saying that he had mentioned the upcoming forum in his weekly email update sent to families on August 27. (A notice was also posted on the school district’s Facebook page the day before the forum.)
The meeting was broadcast on Amherst Media’s web stream and on cable channel 15, but the Google Meet link to participate in the public forum had to be accessed via the school committee’s agenda, found only on the district’s website.
The district’s outreach falls short of recommendations made in February 2020 by the Middle School Grade Span Advisory Board for optimal ways to inform the community and seek feedback on the issue. These ways included creating a website with a frequently-asked-questions section, surveys, direct mailing, staff forums, interviews with ARPS stakeholders, focus groups, an academic working group, and a column in the Amherst Bulletin.
The next speaker, Amherst parent Maria Varriale, asked if the change would apply to all three elementary schools, which Chair McDonald confirmed. Varriale shared Anderson’s concern about having insufficient time to develop a curriculum for next fall and added that she is partial to sixth graders remaining in elementary schools. “It feels a little safer,” she said.
Pelham parent David Keiser wondered if Pelham Elementary’s sixth grade would move too. Morris responded that the school committees of Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury will decide separately whether or not to move their sixth grades, with the Pelham School Committee scheduled to discuss the issue at their meeting on September 15. Keiser followed up with a question about the academic impact, for example with language education, if Amherst students were in middle school for sixth grade and Pelham students joined in seventh grade. Morris replied that since those implications relate more to the regional school district (grades 7-12) and to Pelham elementary, this was not the right forum for him to address the issue.
The last person to speak was Deborah Rosenbloom who said she wanted to make sure that intensive needs specialized programming was factored into the decision making. Rosenbloom said the middle school’s Essential Skills Program (ESP) is very different from that in the elementary schools. She also stated that both programs have had significant staffing changes during the COVID pandemic.
A survey on the grade change will be sent to families and staff next week, Morris said, and a second virtual public forum will be held on September 21. A vote by the Amherst School Committee on the issue is scheduled for October 5, and the Regional School Committee, composed of majority Amherst members, will vote on October 12. If the votes are affirmative, Morris outlined the next steps: form a task force to determine a program for sixth grade at the middle school, work with school committees on logistics/rental agreements, work with Human Resources on the resultant staffing shifts, and explore infrastructure improvements.
Previous reporting on the move of sixth grade to the Amherst Regional Middle School can be seen here, and here. A compilation of the work of the Middle School Grade Span Advisory Board can be seen here from page 48.