Amherst School Committee to decide in May when sixth graders will move to middle school

The Amherst School Committee could decide in May when the town’s sixth graders will move to the Amherst Regional Middle School.

The Amherst School Committee could decide in May when the town’s sixth graders will move to the Amherst Regional Middle School. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 02-23-2024 12:01 PM

AMHERST — The Amherst School Committee could decide in May when the town’s sixth graders will move to the Amherst Regional Middle School, and whether they might be accompanied by sixth graders from the other three towns that make up the current grades 7-12 region.

With sixth graders from Amherst’s elementary schools having to relocate to the middle school no later than fall 2026, when a new K-5 elementary school opens at the site of Fort River School, the school committee is asking Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter to provide extensive information in March or April so a decision can be reached.

The committee’s decision will identify whether the move takes place in fall 2025 or fall 2026, as well as whether to pursue a 6th Grade Academy model, in which Amherst sixth graders would be in the middle school but separated from seventh and eighth graders, or attempt to fully regionalize sixth grade with Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett.

“This school committee needs to make a decision as soon as possible,” Vice Chairman Irv Rhodes said at the committee’s Feb. 15 meeting, at which he and Chairwoman Sarah Marshall unveiled a memo titled “Advancing work on the relocation of Amherst 6th-graders.”

The timeline for when decisions have to be made on the future of sixth-grade classes is being sped up after being put on hold for the past year. In February 2023, the committee voted to delay the anticipated September 2023 creation of the 6th Grade Academy and to mandate that a decision on when sixth-grade classes move to be made by November 2024. At the time the new school opens, both Wildwood School and Fort River School will close, though Crocker Farm School will remain open.

Slaughter is being asked to provide details about the educational and staffing model, the net financial impact to the elementary and regional schools and a list of pros and cons.

Slaughter said with the fiscal year 2025 budgets for the Amherst, Pelham and Regional schools being developed, and state-mandated reporting requirements related to the Student Opportunity Act, he likely won’t be able to get the level of detail the committee will need right away, suggesting flexibility to provide information later in the spring, rather than by mid-March.

“It’s going to be a little difficult, to be honest,” Slaughter said of the March deadline.

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While 6th Grade Academy could launch in either fall 2025 or fall 2026, adding sixth grade to the regional agreement would likely only happen if the move is in fall 2026, depending on action in the other towns.

School Committee member Jennifer Shiao said her decision would be based on whether the structure is the academy or regionalized, and also to apprise students and families this spring if the move is happening in fall 2025.

“I agree with informing fourth graders before the end of the school year, so May or June,” Shiao said. “What I don’t want is for fifth graders to start and not realize, or not know, this is going to be my last year in the school. They should know that for that whole year of fifth grade.”

Rhodes said he believes the main question students and families have is when sixth graders will be going to the middle school. But Marshall said they may be just as concerned about whether the school will be stand-alone for Amherst’s sixth graders or whether they will be with their peers from the other towns.

School Committee member Deborah Leonard said she is bothered that a decision has to be made. “I have a lot of trouble with the move entirely,” Leonard said

Leonard said the new school building, rather than an educational model, is driving the decision and foresees a lot of problems in negotiating a regional deal, which would be the most cost effective, but seems like a big step for Leverett and Shutesbury.

School Committee member Bridget Hynes said her concern is the problems uncovered at the middle school in recent investigations, showing that trans youth were harmed in recent years by actions of counselors, may mean parents and guardians of younger students are uncomfortable with having them in the building.

“There needs to be healing at the middle school, there needs to be leadership at the middle school and there needs to be a sense of renaissance, of rejuvenation, at the middle school, so people will feel safe to send their children (there),” Hynes said.

Shiao said she is leaning toward wanting regionalization, rather than a 6th Grade Academy, due to its unusual nature. “It’s an odd model, it’s hard for people to understand,” Shiao said.

Slaughter cautioned that negotiating regional changes in fiscal year 2025 could happen, but that the process for making any change to the regional agreement and mechanics of review by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education are challenging, with the need to submit a plan by the beginning of December to have a decision rendered.

“We don’t dictate how fast they work,” Slaughter said.

It’s unlikely that the district would know by the end of the calendar year whether changes to the regional agreement are acceptable.

“I would be shocked if we would be able to go through that by December of 2024,” Slaughter said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.