Space crunch in elementary schools pushes Amherst to consider speeding sixth grade move to middle school

  • Claire Fortin, Karena Krouch, Oscar Reich, Noa Long and Anna Everett, all fifth graders at Fort River, attend class Thursday in the classroom created as overflow space in the cafeteria. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michael Morris, Amherst schools superintendent, sits on the desk in a second grade classroom at Fort River Elementary School that went from being a quad to a “halfsie.” Originally four classrooms with a half wall, the room now consists of two classrooms with a full wall, and is why the school now has the need to create a classroom in the cafeteria. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/13/2021 7:47:22 PM

AMHERST — A space crunch at two of Amherst’s elementary schools, caused by physical changes to the buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic, is prompting school officials to consider speeding the timeline for moving sixth graders to the Amherst Regional Middle School.

Superintendent Michael Morris informed the Amherst School Committee this week that the recent reopening for in-person instruction necessitated changes at both Fort River and Wildwood schools, which has created what he calls a “real quandary” for space to accommodate 15 or more classroom sections.

“We will just have too many students for 15 classrooms,” Morris said, adding that the acute issues include taking over cafeterias, moving art and music classes from rooms to carts, so teachers roam the buildings to instruct students, and eliminating small group spaces.

At Wildwood, for instance, the entire cafeteria is needed to fit the 21 sections of classes from kindergarten through sixth grade

“The reality is, from a space perspective, it means art and music are going to be on a cart for the foreseeable future at Wildwood School,” Morris said. “That’s a problem.”

Morris said there is also likely to be no cafeteria for children to eat lunch in for a few years.

The same issues, on a smaller scale, exist at Fort River, where Morris said the Caminantes dual English and Spanish language program continues to add grade levels each year.

At both schools, classrooms were improved for teachers and students by taking the “quads” and converting them into “duos,” or “halfsies,” by constructing permanent walls and removing partitions that normally separate the teaching spaces. That allows for better ventilation, reduced noise and more natural light.

Sixth-grade move

While the idea of expediting a long-discussed move of sixth graders to the middle school has been considered by central administration, and appears to have support from members of the Amherst School Committee, the possibility of doing it as soon as this fall would be challenging, Morris said.

Morris said there are bureaucratic hurdles, since the middle school building is owned by a regional entity made up of the towns of Amherst, Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham, and there would be fiscal implications to work out, such as payment for nurses and administrators working in the building.

“We’d need some level of legal agreement between the region and in this case the Amherst public schools that would allow for that, which is not easy,” Morris said.

In addition, Morris said he didn’t feel it would be right or respectful to the current fifth graders to rush them into the middle school. He observes they left as fourth graders in March 2020 and returned only last month as fifth graders, and might lament not being in the elementary schools for sixth grade.

“I got really stuck thinking about that particular set of kids,” Morris said.

Morris said another issue is giving teachers more time to plan, including the sixth-grade teachers who would have to leave Fort River and Wildwood and the third elementary school building, Crocker Farm.

New school planning

This topic will also need to be addressed in planning for a new elementary school building that is beginning to go through the Massachusetts School Building Authority process. Morris said only two paths are being considered for a new building that could be brought to voters in the coming years.

One is to construct a new building for 320 students at the Fort River school site on South East Street, the other to build a school for 575 students that would automatically necessitate moving sixth graders to the middle school to make the numbers work.

Amherst School Committee member Peter Demling said decisions should be made soon. “I don’t think we should wait as long as we can because that’s the MSBA requirement,” Demling said

The Middle School Grade Span Advisory Group has been discussing such a move for a few years.

Morris said he and others went to the JFK Middle School in Northampton last year to talk to students, teachers, guidance counselors and others.

“It felt like our schools, the curriculum felt like our schools, but the difference is that they had sixth graders there, and they had a model where sixth graders had a substantively different program than seventh and eighth graders,” Morris said.

The Amherst middle school has plenty of space; even with the addition of sixth graders, it would house a smaller population than when ninth graders moved to the expanded high school in the late 1990s.

Shutesbury representative Stephen Sullivan said he is comfortable with the move, but it would be “a long time before the Shutesbury sixth graders come down the hill.”

“Shutesbury is more than happy to have any other town send their sixth graders to the middle school,” Sullivan said.

Leverett representative Gene Stamell said the door should be open for discussion, but the town has no position on the matter.

Morris said a final challenge is to identify how quickly a transition can happen and be successful.

“I’d rather try to problem-solve our problems for a year,” Morris said.

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


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