“Little towns can easily get overrun by Amherst,” said Sarahbess Kenney, one of two Pelham representatives on the Regional School Committee, during a discussion on whether to allow towns to have their sixth grade students attend Amherst Regional Middle School starting in fall 2023. The vote passed 7-1 in favor with one abstention (Kenney opposed and Leverett representative Gene Stamell abstained).
Amherst accounts for about 75% of the students in the middle school while the three small towns — Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury — account for about 8% each. This size differential, coupled with what committee member Peter Demling characterized as a “funky” governance structure whereby four different school committees govern grades K-6 in each town, and another governs the grade 7-12 regional district, further complicates the change.
Superintendent Michael Morris has said that he is not proposing to modify the regional agreement and absorb sixth grade into the regional school district. This means the sixth grade students, teachers, and the curriculum would remain governed by the respective elementary committee, even if they are physically located in the middle school building. Towns that choose to send their sixth graders to the middle school would pay the regional district a rental fee for use of the space, and pay a portion of the salaries of any shared staffing (nurse, custodians, etc.). Since a middle school model for the sixth grade has not yet been developed, many questions remain unanswered.
At the Regional School Committee meeting on October 26, Kenney had specific questions about how Pelham students would be impacted, even if they don’t choose to send their sixth grade. For example:
- Would there be more competition for classes in seventh and eighth grade (i.e., if Amherst sixth grade students were permitted to take classes with the other grades)?
- Would preferential treatment be given to students who had taken a particular class in sixth grade? (For example, if an Amherst student had taken Spanish in sixth grade, would they be treated differently in securing a spot in a seventh grade Spanish class.)
- Would there be more sports offered and more teams?
- Would the sixth grade curriculum be the same for all students? (Each town currently has a different sixth grade model/curriculum.)
- Would Pelham students be fully integrated with Amherst students?
Stamell asked about School Choice, a program that allows families to enroll their child in a school district that is not the child’s home district. (The home district pays the receiving district $5,000 per student per year. In a town of Leverett’s size, retaining students in the district can be critical to their budget.) Stamell wanted to know whether Leverett students would be able to “choice into” Amherst for sixth grade at the middle school rather than remain at Leverett Elementary School. “It is a concern of ours,” he said. Morris answered that the decision to accept choice in sixth grade would be up to the Amherst (elementary) School Committee.
Shutesbury representative Steve Sullivan has shared in the past that his town is not interested in sending their sixth graders to the middle school but he supports Amherst’s right to send theirs. “We’re pretty stuck in our ways and we are not afraid of losing our sixth graders to Amherst at this point,” Sullivan said. “If sports and drama take off, then in two or three years I might be worried about it, but right now, I’m not.”
Margaret Stancer of Pelham wanted to make clear that her vote in support of the motion was not a vote to move Pelham sixth grade students to the middle school. “I’m going to vote in Pelham the way the community wants me to vote, and that’s not the vote that’s happening from me tonight,” Stancer said.
At the Pelham School Committee meeting on October 20, Morris again recommended against Pelham exploring a move of their sixth grade at this time since they do not have the pressure of a building project and a space crunch that Amherst faces. Committee members, though, felt it was a good time to begin discussion with the community, including around possible alignment of Pelham’s sixth grade curriculum with Amherst’s. Chair Sarah Hall reported that Pelham families had been emailing the committee asking questions and expressing opinions about the potential change.
At a meeting of the Leverett School Committee on October 27 that Morris attended, members of the committee and the public asked many questions about what the sixth grade curriculum and teaching model would be, and what supports would be in place to help Leverett students adjust to the larger environment of middle school. Kip Fonsch asked, “What are you going to do to make the social, emotional, and psychological transition relatively problem free for our kids?” Morris acknowledged the same question had come up in Pelham and that he did not have “a ready-made answer.” “It comes down to, can we guarantee that every student is known?” Morris said. “When something happens, do they have an adult they can go to that they trust?”
Morris told the committee that much work would be done over the next year to develop the program for sixth grade. “At that point, the town can weigh the options a little more clearly,” Morris said. Whether it would be a two- or four-teacher team model is yet to be determined, for example, but Morris did say it is unlikely that the sixth grade teachers would “loop” with the students (i.e., remain with a cohort as it progresses through the grades), as is the case currently with seventh and eighth grade.
The vote on October 5 by the Amherst (elementary) School Committee to move Amherst’s sixth graders to the middle school in 2023 clears the way for the school building project to result in a 575-student K-5 school, to be located on either the Fort River or Wildwood site.
Previous reporting by Toni Cunningham on the sixth grade move: