A Crowded Future for Amherst Elementary Students

by Sarah Marshall

With distance learning disallowed for the 2021-2022 school year, all of Amherst’s primary and secondary school students will attend school in person.  However, students will find that all three elementary schools, which were reconfigured last summer to allow improvements to HVAC systems and at least six feet of distance between students and teachers, feel crowded.  How can this be, when enrollments are dropping?

At Wildwood and Fort River schools, the infamous quads, with their incomplete walls, poor ventilation, and spaces with no windows, were transformed into two classrooms each, with floor-to-ceiling walls, amped-up ventilation, windows, and desks widely separated.  This reconfiguration cut the number of classrooms in half. During the spring, some students attended class remotely, meaning that the schools hosted less than 100 percent of the student body. 

Next year, as 100 percent of students return, spaces such as cafeterias and specials rooms will be turned into classrooms, and many support services will operate out of the libraries.  There will be no dedicated art and music classrooms, and instructors will take their carts from room to room, with obvious limitations to their curricula.  Students will eat lunch in their classrooms.  At Fort River, the successful and growing bilingual  program, Caminantes, also affects space allocations, as each grade level offering Caminantes needs three classrooms, two for Caminantes and one for the standard program.  Crocker Farm was not built with quads, but space was also reallocated to improve ventilation and spacing within all teaching areas.  The unique space pressure at Crocker Farm comes from the growing preschool program, which enrolls all of the district’s special-needs 3-to-4-year-olds.

What can be done to get all elementary students back in true classrooms, restore the art and music rooms, and leave cafeterias for diners?  Some options have been mentioned at School Committee meetings and others can be imagined, but the feasibility, timeline, and cost of each option must be determined.  However, it is probably not possible to solve the problem for the 2021-2022 school year.

For the 2022-2023 school year, we can: (1) Do nothing, and live with the current space plans. (2) Buy or rent modular classrooms for some of the elementary schools. (3) Rip out all of the changes made to the buildings last summer and let the schools revert to their prior states.  The changes made to prepare for teaching during the pandemic did not cost Amherst taxpayers a dime, since federal and state relief funds paid for the construction. However, reversal of these changes would be paid for entirely by Amherst.  (4) Make the Middle School a 6-8-grade school, a common grade configuration in Massachusetts and throughout the U.S.  The Middle School currently hosts about 425 students, but as recently as 2000 hosted about 725 students.  The Middle School can easily absorb all of Amherst’s 6th-graders and ease space demands at all three elementary schools.

The possibility of reconfiguring our elementary and middle schools has been contemplated for years.  In 2018, Regional Schools contracted for a study exploring the feasibility and potential costs of creating a grades 6-8 Middle School and a grades 7-12 High School.  The second option was estimated to cost at least $40 million, whereas the cost of the first option was deemed to be essentially zero.  In 2019, and in light of the study, the Regional School District authorized formation of a Middle School Grade-Span Advisory Committee, tasked with exploring the factors, impacts, and potential pros and cons of moving 6th-graders to a Middle School; the committee was not tasked with developing a recommendation, which falls to the elementary school committees of our region (that is, Amherst, Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury).  The Advisory Committee was about to issue its report in the winter of 2020 when the pandemic struck, upending all plans.

With the pandemic receding, the Grade-Span report was released this past April, and the Regional School Committee began discussing the matter in May.  The only decision yet taken at the Regional level was to allow the elementary school districts to begin their own deliberations, if interested.  The Amherst School Committee has decided to study the pros and cons of moving our 6th-graders to the middle school, and in the fall will begin a community engagement process in which information, options, and feedback will be shared and gathered.  The goal is to arrive at a decision before the December holidays so that teachers and administrators can begin planning how to best design and accommodate the chosen programs beginning in the 2022-2023 school year. The crowding of the elementary schools described above (as well as the need to define the size and scope of the new elementary school building project) now gives urgency to the question but is not the original impetus for considering the move.

Some families are alarmed at the possibility that ARMS might become a 6-8-grade school.  I served on the Grade-Span Committee with outstanding, thoughtful elementary and middle-school teachers and administrators, as well as other parents.  I am confident that, should the 6th-graders move to ARMS, they will do so only after a well planned curriculum, environment, and support systems are developed that are appropriate for these young people’s educational and social/emotional needs.  I do not believe they will be tossed into the current 7-8 program and left to make their own way.  However, as our community begins the discussion about where to best locate 6th grade, it will be important to have an understanding of the alternative – what the elementary school environments will be like during the next several post-covid years.

8 thoughts on “A Crowded Future for Amherst Elementary Students”

  1. I served on a committee assembled by the superintendent a couple of years ago that was charged with studying moving the 6th grade to the middle school. We were essentially responding to plans developed by an architectural firm that was exploring the options for such a move. We looked at both the middle school and the high school as options for the move, and the impact that each would have. I will say up front that I was in support of moving the sixth grade to the middle school and I am a professional designer. I am not an architect but I am a student of architecture and have designed numerous interior spaces. Two things that I already knew were amplified by my experience on the committee. The first was that the middle school is a depressing building. The library is a banal cavernous box that is anything but inspiring. Hoses hanging from the ceiling and emptying into buckets on the floor were present in some of the hallways. Some classrooms did not have windows, and the hallways, devoid of natural light in some instances, were more akin to a prison. I am not exaggerating.

    The architects also studied moving the sixth grade to the high school. They showed us plans for the existing high school building and I was aghast. I have never been a fan of the high school with its crumbling exterior and decrepit landscaping, but what became clear when shown plans of the building was that it was a series of patches or band-aids tacked on over the past 70 years. Instead of demolishing the building at some point and starting over, the decision was made to construct a series of haphazard additions that made the circulation through the building very inefficient. We were also informed by the superintendent that the cafeteria, located in the newest addition and completed in 1998, did not work well. Add to the poor layout the underwhelming main entrance (think low ceilinged tight space designed in 1948), and you have an uninspired place for learning.

    You have to ask yourself why Amherst has some of the worst school buildings in the Pioneer Valley. We have failed at planning and designing and at maintaining our educational buildings.

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  2. Let us never forget that the reason we do NOT have modern schools with modern ventilation is a small, self-elected group un Town Meeting overturned a fair and legal election in which the voters approved an override for two new schools. All of this would have been avoided. NEVER FORGET, please. http://www.tallyvotes.org/tmVotes.php?articleSelection=specific&sessionSelection=36&memberSelection=allCurrent&attendanceSelection=3&sortSelection=3&preferenceSelection=manual&ref=&refWeight=

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    1. Hi, Kevin. I (Sarah) certainly haven’t forgotten the failed schools project, but we will never know whether a successful project would have permitted in-person education during the pandemic. Even with better ventilation, distancing might still have been required, and the covid metrics might have forced closure. In any case, I hope we put our energies into the current effort!

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  3. I think this is a fine column but there is no identified author, even though the pronoun “I” is used in it. Or did I read too quickly?

    Elisa Campbell

    On Thu, Jul 8, 2021 at 3:06 AM THE AMHERST CURRENT wrote:

    > The Amherst Current posted: ” With distance learning disallowed for the > 2021-2022 school year, all of Amherst’s primary and secondary school > students will attend school in person. However, students will find that > all three elementary schools, which were reconfigured last summer” >

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  4. Hi Sarah, I’m 100% in support of moving 6th graders to the Middle School. As a parent of a former middle-schooler, I can attest to how carefully the transition to the Middle school was done in her elementary school (Fort River), and how well the teams system worked for my child and her friends in middle school. I firmly believe that 5th graders are ready to transition to the Middle school in 6th grade, and this move would be a great way to use the physical and human resources available at the Middle School, while at the same time taking the pressure off the elementary schools. About the possibility of transitioning Wildwood and Fort River back to their pre-pandemic configuration, that is a hard no for me. My daughter has attended Fort River, and although her teachers and the school staff were wonderful and able to make the best use of a poorly designed building, I don’t believe it’s in our best interest to revert to quads in those schools. Thanks for your great post!

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  5. Morning,

    Just read the article below and wanted to offer up a little feedback. There are some parts of the article that are offered up as fact or an implication of fact

    – there seems to be an implication that students will continue to be 6 feet apart – spaces such as cafeterias and specials rooms will be turned into classrooms – many support services will operate out of the libraries – there will be no dedicated art and music rooms and teachers will take carts from classroom to classroom – students will eat lunch in their classrooms

    I have not been watching school committee meetings recently so perhaps these are facts that have been decided at those meetings or somewhere else? If not, they should be presented as speculation or opinion. If so, it would be incredibly helpful to point out that these are decisions that have been made at x meeting on x date to allow the reader to go and listen to the discussion to fully understand what is being proposed and why. School staff, parents, and others who are reading your article are likely not watching school committee meetings either and statements like the ones above are likely to generate confusion, worry and other emotions that are definitely not needed after the past year of teaching and learning through the pandemic.

    I appreciate your efforts in starting this blog and working to create a place for Amherst to be informed. Thanks for your consideration.

    Alex Lefebvre she/her

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    1. Hi, Alex, and thanks for you comment (Sarah here). All the statements about the elementary schools are based on the recorded meetings of the Amherst and Regional School Committees of May 4, May 11, May 18, June 1, and June 8 of this year. Floor plans showing how the elementary schools will be used next year were displayed and discussed at the Amherst School Committee meeting of June 8, and people can find the video on Amherst Media’s YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlC2UrUO2iA&t=9502s. A member of the School Committee kindly reviewed this post in advance. Statements about the Middle School Grade Span Advisory Committee are based on my own experience and statements of the Superintendent.

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