Budget cuts close Mark’s Meadow elementary school
Just to the north of the University of Massachusetts campus sits Mark’s Meadow elementary school. In the 1990s, UMass used Mark’s Meadow as a laboratory school for their graduate education students. Since then, UMass gave use of the school to the Amherst school system for free. At the conclusion of the school year, Mark’s Meadow will be closing its doors for good, having fallen victim to shrinking budgets.
“What I like about Mark’s Meadow,” is written in large handwriting on a manila envelope taped to a desk located near the front entrance. On top of that desk, there are markers and colored pencils available for anyone who might want to put down their thoughts. The idea is to have students, parents, teachers and staff record the ways that this school has affected their lives.
Mark’s Meadow is the smallest school out of the four schools in the Amherst elementary system – less than half the size of the two biggest schools, Wildwood and Fort River, each of which have a capacity of 460. Class sizes here vary, and are smaller – between 15 and 17 – for grades that have two classes and larger – about 25 students – for the fifth grade, which only has one classroom.
What is distinct about Mark’s Meadow, however, is the diversity of the students – racially, the student body is less than half white. Mark’s Meadow principal Nick Yaffe, who on the day of his interview wore a No. 2 pencil tie, said, “All the schools in Amherst are diverse, our diversity, there is a kind of breadth to that. If you looked at our families’ homes, typically there would be between 30 and 40 home countries.”
Directly outside of the main office, there is a wall-sized map of the world with pictures of students below the names of the countries from which their parents originate. There are two students from Vietnam, three from Mexico, one from Zimbabwe and another from Barbados. Yaffe himself is from Latvia and there are two other students from Armenia.
Celebrations of diversity are everywhere. After entering the building, you can go right toward the younger grades or left to visit the fifth and sixth graders. Down the hall to the right, there are paper cut outs of multi-ethnic hands that students have made prominently displayed along large lengths of the hallway walls. A light brown hand reads, “Isabela helped me pick up my crayons.” Another hand – white this time – says, “Marco’s desk tipped over accidentally and Declan was the first to hop up from his desk and assist Marco.”
Until someone walks though the halls and talks to some of the staff of the school which will be shutting its doors, the personality of a school like Mark’s Meadow is missed. I attended the Amherst school system and went to elementary school at Wildwood. It struck me how much smaller Mark’s Meadow was and how different the school community felt in diversity, culture, and most acutely, in its size and the level of intimacy.
Amherst Public Schools estimate that, in the first year after closing Mark’s Meadow, there will be $406,000 in savings. The following year, the town believes that number will increase to $671,000. School performance was not a problem and did not figure into the decision to close the school. The decision was purely budgetary. The closing of Mark’s Meadow is an example of a larger debate surrounding ways in which to achieve cost savings in the school system.
Area school committee members – who are in charge of making budget and policy decisions for their perspective area – will see in Mark’s Meadow, what closing a school that has a very local flavor will be like.
“So many of our families are from UMass graduate family housing,” Yaffe said. “Also, the apartment complexes along North Pleasant neighborhoods across the street can walk here. We have set up a special culture of welcoming families who come for a year or three years to study and then leave. That has been an important part of Mark’s Meadow, welcoming kids and also saying goodbye to them.”
According toYaffe, more than half of the students who attend Mark’s Meadow live less than a mile away. The children of UMass faculty attend the school alongside those in the community that live in Puffton Village and other nearby apartment complexes. Having a diverse student body attending the school together is what, according to Yaffe, Mark’s Meadow is all about.
Diane Travis, the art teacher at Mark’s Meadow, received a grant to do a three-year tile project, decorating the pillars outside the school. Every student makes a tile for the project. Out of the five pillars, three are covered with tiles and two more are still waiting to be completed. The project is scheduled to be completed at the end of this school year – the same time that the school will be closing for good.
“[The tile project] has become this kind of memorial project,” Travis said.
In an interview, Travis echoed a lot of Yaffe’s sentiments, namely that the school was a special community and its closing would be a huge loss. Travis talked about how after UMass stopped using the school as a laboratory for their education majors, the Amherst school system did not have to pay anything to use it as an Amherst school. To this day, maintenance and utilities are not paid by the Amherst school system, whereas in all the other elementary schools they have to be paid.
“We want to make this school year a celebration year,” said Travis.
Yaffe echoed her sentiment that celebrating the closing of the school would be hard but remembering the community in a happy and helpful way was important.
The hallway that leads to the classrooms for the older two grades is home to pictures of families. Four by six photos of all kinds of families are on display. If anything, these photographs show passersby how many different backgrounds are represented in a school that has to deal with 25 different languages being spoken in the students’ homes.
According to Yaffe, the closing is not easy for anyone. He said that students have come up to him asking how to raise money themselves so that the school does not close. Parents are confused, younger teachers might be laid off and nobody really knows what to expect next year. There is not yet a determination about who exactly those teachers will be but it will be done according to seniority across all four elementary school so that Mark’s Meadow’s staff does not suffer disproportionately.
At the end of October, the Amherst school committee will vote on the redistricting plans for the town’s elementary schools. The proposal currently available shows that almost all of the students will be going to Wildwood. Class sizes there are probably going to be in the range of 22 students per room. According to Budget Planning Information for Fiscal Year 2010, the region is trying to keep class sizes under 23 for Kindergarten through third grade, 25 for third and fourth grade and 27 for fifth and sixth.
Mark’s Meadow’s closing means the following cuts: removal of four classrooms for a savings of $216,000, no more need for a principal and an assistant, saving $135,000 and another $336,000 in savings from such actions as firing 1.5 custodians, a librarian and other staff.
The loss of Mark’s Meadow will make it harder to deal with an unexpected population increase in the future and will mean longer bus rides by about 10-12 minutes for some of the children. Yaffe, who will no longer be a principal after this year, ending his six years as head of Mark’s Meadow, will be offered a teaching job because of his seniority. The real loss, according to him, is the kind of place Mark’s Meadow provided for its students.
On the wall near the entrance to the school are the responses to the previously mentioned question as to why they like Mark’s Meadow. One read, “I like Mark’s Meadow because there is at least one person from the country you are from, so you don’t feel left out.”
Speaking about the culture of Mark’s Meadow, Yaffe said, “To me, Mark’s Meadow represents our hopes and dreams of what a community is. For our children, I think it does represent what we would hope for in the world in our society – a mini United Nations. In terms of people, children and families to get along, to understand each other, to have their differences but also to celebrate those differences, it’s like this vision of what we want in the world.”
Next year, that vision of a small Mark’s Meadow community will have to shift focus. This neighborhood is losing its school. It will be much harder next year for a UMass graduate student to pick up their child from school. No longer will the school be located on campus and children will not be able to quickly walk home after the school day ends. Losing a school has had a profound effect on those involved not only inside the school itself, but also its influence is felt by those who are set to plan what is next for the region.
The proposed map for the remaining three Amherst elementary schools splits students in two main ways: the geographic closeness of students to a particular school and the proportion of need for free or reduced lunch among students to be equal in all three remaining elementary schools. This was done in order to make sure that some schools would not have a higher number of students who are struggling, as there are often higher percentages of struggling individuals who receive free or reduced lunch than those who do not.
In the end, the impact of a school closing its doors for good will be felt by those who will now have to send their child to an unfamiliar place. School age populations are declining and the students of the Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury elementary schools will be able to see a local example of what occurs in a community when they lose their local elementary school.
Michael Phillis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org