The Amherst School Committee voted this week to move the sixth grade from the three Amherst elementary schools to the regional middle school beginning in fall 2023. The move is primarily driven by the Amherst elementary school building project and by space challenges at Fort River and Wildwood that resulted from Covid-related renovations undertaken last year.
Prior to the vote, the committee heard from the three elementary school principals about the space challenges and asked whether they think they can make it work for another year if sixth grade is not moved until fall 2023.
Crocker Farm Principal Derek Shea said he felt moving the sixth grade was the right decision but stressed the need for investment in both the Crocker Farm building and in items that would make it easier for specialist staff (like OT/PT, speech and language, reading intervention, etc.) who do not have a dedicated office to move around to deliver services to children. According to Shea, many specialists currently provide instruction or therapy in hallways, in the cafeteria, and in other spaces. “It becomes a bit of a daily grind to find appropriate space for those teachers,” he said.
In addition, Shea identified a number of issues in the building that need to be resolved including the gymnasium floor, which has become badly warped from humidity, and a number of playground issues. He also made a plea for basic building improvements that would make things “go more smoothly for staff in the mornings,” for example ensuring that windows open and close properly and that chillers come on and go off at the right times. A 2020 study estimated the cost of a base repair of Crocker Farm at $9.25 million.
For Principals Nick Yaffe at Wildwood and Michelle Hernandez at Fort River, finding space for classrooms and specialists will continue to be a challenge for the 2022-2023 school year but they believe they can make it work. “It’s really important to me that the sixth grade transition is done well and people have the time to plan it,” Yaffe said.
Although moving the sixth grade in 2023 will ease some of the space pressures, committee member Kerry Spitzer noted it will not be a silver bullet. “We’ve lost more classrooms than we’re going to gain back,” Spitzer said. “It’s not just next year we need to be thinking about, it is the years until we have a new building.”
The project to build a new school to replace Fort River and Wildwood is estimated to be completed by fall 2026. Renovations last year of the six open-classroom “quads” at both Fort River and Wildwood schools converted the 24 quad spaces into 12 large classrooms. Moving sixth grade will free up two or three classrooms at each school.
The Regional School Committee, which includes representatives from Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury, are scheduled to vote on October 12 to allow Amherst’s sixth grade to be located in the middle school building. It is up to the three other member towns to decide whether to move their sixth graders, but conversations to date have indicated that is unlikely.