AMHERST – Children entering sixth grade at Amherst Public Schools will have their classes at Amherst Regional Middle School starting in the fall of 2023.
The Amherst School Committee on Tuesday voted 4-0, in the absence of Member Heather Lord, to adopt a recommendation from Superintendent Michael Morris that sixth graders – students who are currently in fourth grade in Crocker Farm, Fort River and Wildwood Elementary Schools – move to college for the 2023-2024 school year.
âThe fact that we know we can do this responsibly pushes me to the limit,â said Peter Demling, committee member.
Demling said the responsible approach will include significant outreach to families, students and staff affected by the move to a building that is already what he describes as an “amazing place” with “life changing teachers” .
âTo have the opportunity to take something that already has good bones and a great staff and improve on itâ¦ is pretty exciting,â said Demling.
Committee member Kerry Spitzer said she was thrilled that sixth graders could have new opportunities, including the ability to gain earlier access to world languages, sports and drama.
Before the move is finalized, the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, which includes representatives from Amherst, Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury, will need to hold a similar vote, and school officials will begin a process that includes the development of a curriculum and a transition plan. , formalizing an agreement between Amherst Public Schools and the regional entity that owns the building, and making physical improvements to the middle school to accommodate the new classes.
The vote follows a recommendation by Superintendent Michael Morris to relocate sixth-graders to college so that a new school building can replace aging schools in Fort River and Wildwood. The only plan backed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, to have these two buildings replaced or renovated by the 2026 school year, requires a school of 575 students with a K-5 model.
Morris said the stakes are high because the only K-6 model the state agency will support is a 320 student building at the current Fort River site. This would mean that as Fort River was repaired or rebuilt, Wildwood students and teachers would remain in a deficient building, with limited natural light and poor air circulation, until the 2030s.
âThese buildings won’t make it,â Morris said of Fort River and Wildwood.
Morris is convinced that moving to sixth grade could also help revitalize secondary education. The building has only housed seventh and eighth graders since the ninth graders moved to an expanded high school several years ago.
The Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury school committees are expected to take similar votes if sixth-graders in those towns are to take a similar step towards college.
Amherst’s three elementary school principals said their buildings faced space constraints, some due to precautions taken during the COVID-19 pandemic that included creating larger classrooms. In some cases art and music teachers have been relocated.
Wildwood principal Nick Yaffe said specialists who don’t have their own classroom, but go from room to room using a mobile cart, is not ideal.
âArt on a cart is really difficult,â Yaffe said.
Fort River Principal Michelle Hernandez said her building will continue to need additional classrooms for the continued expansion of the Caminantes bilingual program.
While Crocker Farm has been renovated more recently, it is also getting more and more crowded.
âWe’re pretty full to the brim. We’re pretty tight, âsaid manager Derek Shea.
Morris acknowledged that the move for grade six students will be similar to the challenges the district faced when Mark’s Meadow Elementary School closed at the end of the 2009-2010 school year. This involved the transition of students and staff to the other buildings.
Yaffe, who has been manager of Mark’s Meadow for its past six and a half years, said he feels the same level of excitement as then, but has noticed that colleagues who will be teaching in a different building will miss him.
Scott Merzbach can be contacted at [email protected]