Amherst superintendent backs new K-5 school, moving sixth graders in 2023

  • Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools Superintendent Michael Morris GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/22/2021 8:17:47 PM

AMHERST— Sixth graders at the three Amherst elementary schools should move to the Amherst Regional Middle School, but not until fall 2023, based on a recommendation from Superintendent Michael Morris.

In a presentation Tuesday to the Amherst School Committee in advance of an expected decision by the committee on Oct. 5, Morris said he is endorsing a plan that would allow the Elementary School Building Committee to move forward with a school building project that would have the aging Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools replaced or renovated in time for the 2026 school year.

The proposed 575-student school, to be supported by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, requires a K-5 model. The state agency otherwise will only support a 320-student, K-6 building at the current Fort River site, meaning that Wildwood students and teachers would remain in a deficient building, with limited natural light and poor air circulation, for another decade or more.

“For me, the MSBA project looms very large,” Morris said. “I can’t think of Wildwood going into the 2030s.”

Under the plan, Crocker Farm School, which was renovated in 2006, would also send its sixth graders to the middle school and become a K-5 school while continuing to accommodate pre-K children.

Morris said having sixth graders move to the middle school, which only has seventh and eighth graders, has potential benefits academically, including students accessing world languages at a younger age. But designing a new curriculum will take time.

“Having this summer and then the following summer to finalize changes is really important,” Morris said.

Morris told the committee that his recommendation, if followed, would mean sixth graders would have to remain at Wildwood, Fort River and Crocker Farm schools for the 2022-2023 school year, even though space crunches at the buildings are expected to remain. At Fort River and Wildwood, for instance, there will be no dedicated rooms for art and music because dividing walls in classrooms have been removed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

School Committee member Peter Demling told Morris that he supports the move, though he would like to have details about whether the elementary schools can muddle through almost two more years.

Morris said Wildwood benefited from needing one fewer classroom this fall due to reduced kindergarten enrollment.

Still, Demling said he understands the district leaders need sufficient time to plan the instructional model for the sixth grade program, and that feedback from parents showed concern about rushing the current fifth graders into the middle school next year.

The move of sixth graders has largely been supported by parents who have provided written and oral feedback, with the main concern whether such a move could be done in less than a year.

Former School Committee member Anastasia Ordonez said having a three-year middle school is ideal.

“This move makes sense to me from an educational perspective,” Ordonez said, adding that it would strengthen reading, writing and math skills.

Christiane Healey said she had been alarmed as a parent of a current fifth grader and fourth grader at Fort River of a sudden change. “I am very much supportive as long as you don’t do it next year,” Healey said.

The Amherst Regional School Committee is expected to make its decision on the move Oct. 12, one week after the Amherst School Committee’s anticipated vote.

Any move of sixth graders would only apply to Amherst students, with separate decisions needing to be made by school committees in Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham as to whether their students would also head to the middle school a year earlier than they now do.

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