In Amherst, focus is on future success of students

  • A new playground is being constructed for preschool children at Crocker Farm School in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • At Pelham School, parents, teaches and other volunteers have installed new garden beds that will be used by children from PK-6. This raised bed is in the interior courtyard play area for younger children and has posts to hang netting to keep curious fingers out. According to Pelham School Principal Lisa Desjarlais, there are plans to plant the gardens this month in time for a fall harvest. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

  • A new playground is being constructed for preschool children at Crocker Farm School in Amherst. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

  • A new playground is being constructed for preschool children at Crocker Farm School in Amherst. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

  • At Pelham School, parents, teaches and other volunteers have installed new garden beds that will be used by children from PK-6. Hay has been delivered to this set of raised beds on the west side of the school buiding in anticipation of a planting this month. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

  • A new playground with a rubber surface is being constructed for preschool children at Crocker Farm School in Amherst. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

  • A new playground with a rubber surface is being constructed for preschool children at Crocker Farm School in Amherst. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

Staff Writer
Published: 8/16/2016 7:52:37 PM

AMHERST – As Amherst Regional High School students and teachers adjust to a semester schedule, administrators say they will ensure that more focus is placed on courses that promote the future success of all students, whether they intend to head to college or immediately pursue a career.

Michael Morris, assistant superintendent for the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools, said the science, technology, engineering, arts and math classes, collectively known as STEAM, will be emphasized at the high school.

“We've added more courses in computer sciences and engineering, particularly in having a more diverse group of students in STEAM work,” Morris said. “We want to make sure there is an access point for all students to be involved.”

Too often these areas are underrepresented in terms of socioeconomic, gender and race, Morris said, and the hope is that these changes will open doors for more students.

These courses are also being enhanced through the district’s work with Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The college is providing technical support to develop programming and a long-range plan for STEAM classes in both the middle and high schools, Morris said.

With the schedule change from a trimester system, Morris said administrators are working with teachers to adjust their courses and provide a more consistent educational experience for students.

The belief is that the semester schedule will mean better quality education, with more depth to each course, and a more comfortable educational pace. 

In the trimester system, five courses were taken by students, each for 12 weeks, with 15 courses over the school year. Under the semester system, students will have seven courses over 18 weeks, and 14 courses over the school year.

At Amherst Regional Middle School, promoting equity remains a goal, with every seventh grader assigned a Google Chromebook, a laptop on which to complete assignments and work on presentations collaboratively. Morris said these devices allow an extension of learning, no matter the location, through what are called interactive whiteboards.

“It promotes much more student use of technology, and I think it mirrors the reality of the workplace,” Morris said.

But these devices are not going to replace the traditional learning environment. “It’s enhancing the program they’re able to offer students,” Morris said.

Amherst and Pelham elementary school students are already familiar with Chromebooks, as they are assigned to every third- through sixth-grade student to promote equity in learning. The difference is seventh graders will now be able to bring these home with them.

An infusion of arts into the secondary curriculum continues, with Morris arguing that students in Amherst spend more time in non-core academic subjects than most other districts. The schools are continuing partnerships with the University of Massachusetts Department of Global Arts and Asian Arts Program and the Amherst-based Family Diversity Projects.

At elementary schools, there will be the continuation of Expeditionary Learning, in which students seek to build deeper connections to their peers and teachers.

“When students are engaged in curriculum, their achievement goes up,” Morris said.

There will also be more focus on home-school family partnerships, with help from the Family Center, but also a lot of work being done by principals, teachers and guidance counselors, Morris said.

“Our goal is to support the work that happens in school with our children,” Morris said.

The Wildwood School building project, in which Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools would eventually share one site, will become before voters this fall and cost estimates will be released in September.  

Though there will be a lot of talk in the community about the project, Morris said he doesn’t anticipate it will affect the school climate.

Acting principals

Meanwhile, acting principals are in place at two schools. At Fort River, Diane Chamberlain, who has been the assistant principal, will serve as interim principal, following the departure of Bobbie Finocchio, while Kris Griswold, a long-time teacher, will assume the role of assistant principal.

At the middle school, Patty Bode, a former teacher, will be interim principal after Marisa Mendonsa left the position, with Alicia Lopez, who will remain halftime in the English Language Learners program, and David Ranen, who will remain halftime music teacher, dividing the assistant principal role, which had not been filled previously.

Longtime Wildwood Assistant Principal Linda Gianesin retired and guidance counselor Yaldira Brown will become assistant principal.

No leadership changes are happening at Crocker Farm School, but a new playground for the preschool is being installed and more parking spaces were added to the parking lot.

At Pelham Elementary, a school garden program that is already in place at Amherst’s elementary schools will begin. Morris said each grade, from preschool through sixth, will have its own garden to tend and this will be part of the curriculum.

“That’s an exciting thing for Pelham,” Morris said.

Morris said he is confident that even with changes in the district, veteran teachers will continue to provide good education for students. “I’d like to think our system is preparing our students for the greater world,” Morris said.

A food services visioning group involving teachers and community members continues its work to help students make healthy choices when breakfast and lunch are served. 

Lunch prices, meanwhile, are increasing from $2.75 to $3, with milk rising from 50 cents to 60 cents.

In addition to replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day on the school calendar, the schedule also includes no school on Election Day, in part because it is disruptive to education. Instead, that will be a professional day for teachers.

The school year starts with three-day week Aug. 31, followed by a four-day week (given the Labor Day holiday) and then a five-day week.

“That really eases the students back into the routines of school,” Morris said.

Project Backpack will again be held Aug. 18 and 19, with around 200 backpacks filled with supplies handed out to students.

A First Day event will welcome back students on the Town Common on the evening of Aug. 30. 

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


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