Designing for education

By Allison McDonald

Allison McDonald chairs the Amherst School Committee. She speaks here for herself, as this post has not been approved by the Committee.

The Amherst elementary school building project is at a critical and exciting phase with some key decisions to be made in the coming week. Much of the last two months has been spent developing the educational plan for the school that is a requirement of the MSBA at this phase of the project. The educational plan is a critical component of the project because it describes the activities and the people that make the building a school and is the basis for the detailed space plan.

By starting with the educational plan, we ensure that we are designing to support our educational mission. We ensure that the building is designed to support our commitments to diverse curriculum and 21st-century learning, including project-based learning, art, music, and technology, smaller class sizes, special education programs that enable students to remain in our school community, and a collaborative professional culture. We ensure that the building is also designed to support the professionals who guide our students’ learning.

The Amherst School Committee (ASC) spent the last two meetings carefully reviewing the educational plan and the space plan, and will vote on both on Tuesday, March 8. (The two plans will be submitted to the MSBA by March 15 as part of the Preliminary Design Plan; they are subject to possible revision by MSBA and DESE before we can proceed to the next phase.) We asked questions of nearly every line-item in the detailed space plan to understand how every square foot of space connects to and supports the educational plan. ASC members made clear during that discussion that our goal is to thread the needle of designing for what we need without going too large or too small.

I encourage anyone who is curious to watch the video of that discussion and the thoughtful responses from Superintendent Mike Morris, designer Donna DiNisco, and special education district leaders Dr. Faye Brady and JoAnn Smith. The Superintendent described the hard compromises made to reduce the space plan to the current proposal of 105,750 sq. ft. — including reducing classroom sizes to the minimum possible size per MSBA standards, reducing the gym to a size similar to the gyms in our current schools, and requiring some programs to share spaces. Dr. Morris also said that further reductions in space could not be made without having a significant negative impact on student experience and education.

Still, some are asking us to shrink the space even further. Comparisons are being made to other projects, including the previous Amherst project and a recently completed project in Lexington, suggesting that the proposed space is more than we need. Though total square footage is an important metric for sure, it can’t be evaluated without also looking at the people and the activity (the educational plan) behind the metric.

So, what is behind the difference in size as compared to the previous Amherst school building project? It is the difference in the education plan for these projects, specifically as follows:

  • The current proposed education plan centers project-based learning in all grades, so the space plan has added pull-out project areas within classroom “neighborhoods” to support that (1800 sq. ft. in total)
  • The grade span has shifted from 2-6 to K-5. Kindergarten classrooms must be larger than grade 6 classrooms, so the overall average sq. ft. per student is now larger. (MSBA standards require 1,100-1,300 sq. ft. for kindergarten vs. 900-1,000 sq. ft. for older grades.)
  • With the grade span shift, we also need dedicated space to support the provision of Title 1 academic support and services for children from low-income families in the younger grades. And, because more of our students are from low-income families now (39% vs. 28% in 2016), we have added three rooms for Title 1 services (2,300 sq. ft. in total)
  • The number of students receiving special services has increased (23% with disabilities vs. 18% in 2016) as has the level of need, so there’s increased space to support district-wide special education programs and other services for individual students (2,300 sq. ft. in total).

Excluding these differences, the total square footage per student is almost equal to the previous project.

The differences between the proposed plan and Lexington’s Maria Hastings Elementary School are due to differences between the education plans; more specifically, the difference in students for whom the buildings are designed. For example:

  • 39% of Amherst students are low-income and our elementary schools are considered Title 1 schools; 10% of Maria Hastings students are low-income and it is not a Title 1 school. Our plan includes dedicated space to provide Title 1 services for our students (2,300 sq. ft. in total).
  • Twice as many students at Fort River and Wildwood have disabilities than do those at Maria Hastings. (23% vs. 13%, or approximately 160 vs. 80 students). Our proposed plan must have space to accommodate the special needs of a much larger number of students than Maria Hastings.

This table summarizes the differences among the three school plans:

Factor2016 Amherst2022 AmherstMaria Hastings
Grade span2-6K-5 (K needs more space)K-5
Title 1 need28% of district students39%Not a Title 1 school
Students needing special services18% of district students23%13%

Some have asked about reducing space that is “for adults.” Our education plan describes a collaborative professional culture and deep family engagement to support the high-quality education we provide. So, the plan includes space for educators and staff to work directly with individual students, to collaborate with each other in supporting individual students, and to meet with families and caregivers.

The attention to the space plan is important since it is a significant contributor to the total cost to the town and its taxpayers. But space is just one factor — where we build, how we build, how much the MSBA will fund, when we build, and how we finance the project are other critical contributors to overall cost.

The ASC can help by ensuring we are not “over designing.” We also need to ensure the building is sized for our students, the educational programs they need, and the staff who support them. In other words, a building that supports the high-quality education we currently provide for our richly diverse student community for the next 50 years.

Editor’s note: The Amherst School Committee posts meeting notices, packets, video links, etc. at