“Major Equity Issue” May Not Be Resolved In New School Building Project

Photo: Toni Cunningham

Contrary to previous visions for how elementary school specialized programs would be configured with a new, combined, school building, Superintendent Michael Morris is now proposing a centralized plan that would continue to rely on bussing vulnerable students. 

At a visioning session on January 13 on the educational program for the school building project, Morris said that, in a scenario whereby Fort River and Wildwood are consolidated into a 575-student school, the plan is to centralize the district’s three programs for students with intensive special needs at the consolidated school. This would mean that such students who reside in the catchment area for Crocker Farm would have to be bussed to the new school rather than attend the same school as their siblings and neighbors.

The district currently offers the Intensive Learning Center for students with multiple and complex disabilities in three classrooms at Wildwood, the Building Blocks program for students with social and emotional needs in two classrooms at Fort River, and the Academic Inclusive Mainstream Support (AIMS) program for students on the autism spectrum in one classroom, also at Fort River. Students in these programs are bussed to the respective school even if it is different to their districted school, thus sometimes dividing siblings between schools. 

In the previous iteration of the school building project, the elimination of bussing for special education students was lauded as a key benefit. In information about the project provided to Town Meeting in May 2016, a question on the implications for students in specialized education programs was answered as follows: “The current model of moving some of our most vulnerable students outside their districted school, a major equity issue, would end.” Similarly, in a September 2016 forum about the project, Morris said, “there are 18 students in our most intensive special needs programs who do not attend school with their neighbors, and oftentimes have to change schools mid-year as services dictate. This is an opportunity to resolve some of these challenges.” In the previous plan, all three programs were to be offered at the new school building and at Crocker Farm.

This week, however, Morris proposed centralizing all three programs in the new school. Morris said that he had discussed this plan with staff in the specialized programs and they advised that the programs should remain centralized rather than be split between two schools. It is unclear if families of students in the programs have been contacted about the plan. (In June 2021, the School Committee discussed revising the sibling enrollment policy to let families choose whether to have children without special needs attend the same school as siblings in one of the specialized programs. A revised policy was to be presented in fall 2021 for implementation in fall 2022, but has not yet been brought forward.)

A second visioning session on the educational program for the new school will be held at 6:00 PM on Wednesday January 26 via Zoom. The recording from the first session is expected to be made available on the building project website shortly, and the public is invited to provide input on current and future educational goals and priorities, as well as “blue sky ideas” that they would like to see in a new school facility.

An article on the educational programming dimension of the new school project was published previously in the Indy.

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5 thoughts on ““Major Equity Issue” May Not Be Resolved In New School Building Project

  1. Great article. Such an important issue and at the heart, I think, of what’s divided the community over schools. This particular equity issue was resolved with the first schools plan but many residents felt what they called other equity issues – which they defined around issues of loss of “neighborhood schools” i.e. ability to walk to your school, maintain a smaller, closer “neighborhood” community for our younger children and not have to make some kids take longer bus rides – kept so many Amherst residents from supporting it. It’s important to note that we’ve been bussing low-income kids out of the Crocker Farm district to better integrate Fort River for many years. That equity issue would have been addressed in the first school plan and I wonder if with this new plan those kids will now able to go to their “neighborhood” school. I’m imagining that still won’t happen because of the density of low-income black and brown children who live off Mill Valley. I feel for Mike Morris and the School Committee for having to balance these issues. Mr. Morris’ comments noted in the article still hold true. It’s a difficult and sometimes sad balancing act.

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Nina.

    This particular equity issue (district wide special education program access) could be resolved with this building project by locating all three programs at both school buildings. It could also be partially mitigated if one or two programs are available at both schools, and the enrollment policy is changed to allow families to choose whether to keep siblings together if they are not all in one of the programs. This would likely mean that the preschool program would have to be moved out of Crocker Farm to make room for special education classrooms. Given that both the preschool and elementary programming are already in need of more space at Crocker Farm, this move can actually be a win-win.

    When this project is complete, there will be a vacated elementary school building that could potentially be used for a more comprehensive and accessible early childhood center for 0-5 year olds, a need demonstrated by consultants and discussed in these articles [https://tinyurl.com/0-3care and https://www.amherstindy.org/2021/06/25/12782/%5D. The COVID-induced renovations at both Wildwood and Fort River have already created twelve 2000 square foot rooms with natural light and good ventilation, and there are the three kindergarten classrooms.

    You raise a very important point about the priority of keeping neighborhoods together in this new project (rather than splitting them up to balance socio-economic status). I wholeheartedly agree.

    When the district was studying enrollment zones for the dual language program (Caminantes), one model they explored was two enrollment zones and they found they actually best balanced socio-economic status, as well as other factors. That would indicate it is possible to do this, and I would love to see the School Committee pushing to begin that exploratory enrollment map work now.
    Where would the lines be drawn to create the 60/40 enrollment zones that will exist as a result of this project, keeping in mind enrollment in Caminantes? The new school will be home to about 60% of elementary kids while Crocker Farm will host about 40%. (This expanded proportion of families districted to Crocker Farm rather than Wildwood and Fort River is also important for the community to understand.) And could Caminantes be expanded to three classes per grade since there are expected to be five classes per grade in a school of 575 K-5 students?

    At the heart of many residents’ opposition to the previous plan was the grade reconfiguration that would have put all kindergarten and first graders at Crocker Farm, and 750 kids in grades 2-6 at Wildwood, and the size of the 2-6 school, both of which will be addressed in this plan, but that is water under the bridge.

    It is good to see you engaged and it would be great to have more people send their educational priorities and goals to the Superintendent/School Committee/Building Committee now. This educational plan will be completed in just a few weeks time and will then dictate the design of the building. It’s imperative that the decision makers hear from a broad swath of the community this month.

  3. It would be helpful to have an open and thoughtful, sharing conversation between the educators and parents. These programs are fantastic assets in this district but it has long seemed to me that one of the advantages of reducing to two elementary schools (which otherwise is painful for families that need strong community connections, easy access by public transit or walking to their kids’ schools, and teachers that know their children well over time) is that the district could then afford to pay to have these programs at both schools, ending this siblings-being-bussed-separately conundrum. Are the educators in these programs voicing opposition to that idea for a reason other than cost? What is the content of their input?

  4. I am the parent of a child in one of these programs. I also wondered at first why the program could not be in more than one school. Five years later, I understand why it is much better housed in one school building: (1) strength of supervision and on-site oversight, (2) flexibility of programming and staffing within and across programs (in the case of BB and AIMS), (3) continuity of familiar, expert staff with wide experience (both within the program and throughout the building), (4) overall school management, including successful integration of the programs into the entire educational and community program. I believe that each of these essential factors could easily be compromised if the programs were not consolidated in one place. While it is a challenge for our family–we can see Crocker from our kitchen window, and watch the other neighborhood children walk there, while my child has to travel to Fort River–it is well worth it for the strength of the excellent services he receives. They make all the difference.

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