Sixth Grade Move To Middle School May Be Delayed

A plan of the middle school developed by JCJ architecture for the Facilities Use Study in 2019 shows sixth grade classrooms on the second floor. Photo: Amherst Public Schools

Results from a survey by the school district have led Superintendent Michael Morris to recommend waiting until fall 2023 before moving Amherst sixth graders (from Fort River, Wildwood, and Crocker Farm elementary schools) to the middle school. Previously, Morris and members of the School Committee had supported making the change in fall 2022.

The survey, which was distributed via the Superintendent’s weekly email to all families on September 3, asked about the following topics related to the potential move: 

  • To what extent should the program be integrated or made separate? 
  • Which electives would you support? 
  • What suggestions do you have about ways to support students’ social emotional development? 
  • What concerns do you have?  
  • What potential benefits do you see?
  • How long do you believe it should take to plan the program before the transition takes place?

As noted in comments by some respondents, the survey did not ask whether respondents support the move or not.

Of 81 respondents to the survey, many wrote comments opposing the move, especially if it was to happen next year. Recurring themes in the responses included:  

  • The contention that sixth graders were better served in the elementary schools where the current sixth grade model works well 
  • That there is insufficient time to properly plan for implementation next fall 
  • That the middle school leadership is unstable 
  • That sixth graders would be exposed to more risky behaviors at the middle school 
  • That the current fifth grade missed significant time in elementary school already due to COVID 
  • That sixth graders need recess — something that is not in the middle school schedule. 

Some wrote that if the move goes ahead, they will withdraw their child from the public schools.

Those expressing support for the change frequently noted the following:

  • The possibility of access to more academic opportunities
  • Freeing up space in the elementary schools 
  • Recognition that the sixth grade must move so that the proposed elementary school building project to address Fort River and Wildwood schools can proceed. 

A public forum on the potential grade change held during a School Committee meeting on August 31 drew few attendees. A second forum will be held during the committee meeting on September 21 and residents can participate via Google Meet at this link: meet.google.com/fsd-npgu-oxu. The agenda can be found here on the School Committee’s new platform, BoardDocs.

Presentation slides for the September 21 meeting posted to BoardDocs indicate that Morris will recommend to the School Committee that they vote October 5 on moving sixth graders to the middle school in fall 2023. Morris listed the following reasons for the one-year postponement to the timeline: 

● The need to use the summer months to plan the instructional model for the sixth grade program

● The challenges of doing this type of deep, thoughtful planning during a COVID-affected

school year

● The unanticipated reduction in classrooms needed at Wildwood School based on

kindergarten enrollment this year

● The feedback from the stakeholder survey tool administered this month.

At a meeting of the Pelham School Committee on September 15, Morris recommended that committee put off discussing a potential move of Pelham sixth grade to the middle school. “Right now, we don’t even have enough content to share with Pelham parents,” Morris said. “If and when a program develops, then we can say ‘do you like option A or option B,’ with a fully fleshed-out program of studies. There isn’t the pressure that there is in Amherst because of the other factors [space and the building project].” 

Morris also told the Pelham committee that he does not expect Leverett or Shutesbury to engage in discussions about moving their sixth grade anytime soon. “Right now it’s very theoretical. If the Amherst School Committee supports it, we’ll then develop the program, not the other way around,” he said. “My feeling is don’t rush things that don’t need to be rushed.” 

If the Amherst School Committee votes in favor of the move, current fourth grade students at Fort River, Wildwood, and Crocker Farm will be the first cohort to do sixth grade at the middle school. The decision would also steer the building project toward replacing Fort River and Wildwood with a single, consolidated 575-student, kindergarten through fifth grade school. The site for the consolidated school is expected to be determined in the next few months.

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