Back to School: Amherst

Amherst Regional eyes students’ social, emotional well-being

  • Amherst Regional custodians Ron Gamache, left, and Mike Riley stand at the far end of the newly refurbished gymnasium on Wednesday, Aug. 16. The facility has new bleachers and a new floor after a water pipe break last year buckled the old floor. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional custodians Ron Gamache, left, and Mike Riley stand at the far end of the newly refurbished gymnasium. The facility has new bleachers and a new floor after a water pipe break last year buckled the old floor. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Amherst Regional High School emblem anchors the center of a new floor in the school’s refurbished gym. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

AMHERST — If there’s one word to describe what’s new this year at Amherst schools, it would be “health.”

The district has put in place several programs that seek to look more at students’ social, emotional and mental health when devising policies around things like homework.

At the elementary-school level, a “homework working group” has been created, and the middle school and high school will be participating in Challenge Success — a program aimed at bringing balance into kids’ lives.

And on the subject of physical health, Amherst Regional High School students will also finally have access to their gym, which closed after flooding in the summer of 2016 when a pipe burst in one of the bathrooms at the top of the stairs near the school’s athletic offices.

Homework changes?

Interim Superintendent Michael Morris said the elementary school homework working group met three times this summer, and have drafted a document that will soon be shared with families to gather more feedback on how to potentially alter the way homework is given.

“It’s really around development strategy to promote healthy, engaged kids and strong schools,” he said.

Working group member Victoria Munroe, a first-grade teacher at Wildwood Elementary, said the focus is really answering one question: “What’s the best use of children’s time outside of school, knowing they have lives outside of school?”

“For me personally, homework wasn’t the answer for grade one,” Munroe said.

That’s not to say, however, that no homework is the answer for every grade. After receiving comments back on their draft proposal, the group will then draft something more permanent, she said.

Some of the ideas being kicked around include additional focus on reading for earlier grades, and better communication with parents about what works and what doesn’t, Munroe said. The group has also looked at recent research to figure out to what homework actually accomplishes.

There are many things to consider about homework, she said, including the fact that it provides a connection between parents and what their kids are doing at school.

“I think that there’s going to be an effort to make connections with families about what’s happening in the classrooms and what they’re learning, but it may not necessarily be in a worksheet,” she said. “We want to value what parents do with kids and what they do outside of school as the big picture of their learning.”

Challenge Success, gym 

At the middle- and high-school levels, the district will hold trainings as part of the program Challenge Success, which on its website bills itself as working “to identify problems and implement best practices and policies in areas such as curriculum, assessment, homework, school schedule, and a healthy school climate.”

Morris said that the program is also part of asking the question, “What’s the role of promoting family experiences that aren’t homework for our students?” The district has already eliminated homework during December vacation, and Morris said teachers give little take-home work during breaks in the spring.

When students are in school, the new gym will perhaps provide further balance between work and other activities. Water poured onto the gym’s floor last summer, where it sat for a long period of time. 

Amherst Regional Principal Mark Jackson spoke about the gym at graduation in June, using it as an example of how the “moral arc of the universe” bends toward justice over time. He said the more than 60-year-old space was built in an era when most people didn’t think about access to public spaces; the bleachers did not have aisles, handrails, shallow steps or wheelchair ramps.

“Fast forward 60 years, and access is now the central consideration in the gym’s redesign,” he said.

The school year will kick off in Amherst with “First Day on the Common,” which will be Tuesday, from 5 to 6 p.m. 

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.