Diversity Issues Arise as Amherst-Pelham Interim Schools Superintendent Michael Morris Takes Stage, Seeks Permanent Job

Editor’s note: This article has been updated  (9/28/17) to include additional information regarding standardized test scores.

Michael Morris, the interim superintendent of the Amherst Regional Public Schools, gave a public “job talk” last night (9/27), to demonstrate why he should be granted the permanent post when the combined regional school committees meet again on Oct. 10.

Morris did not specifically reference the controversies which plagued the district under his predecessor, Maria Geryk. However,  at the Amherst-Pelham Regional and Union 26 committee meeting, he touted recent initiatives to make the schools more welcoming and inclusive. Morris, who appears to have broad support on the committees, also spoke at length about how he, as a white man, strives to be alert to the needs of minority communities.

Although members of the public have spoken fondly of Morris and urged his hiring, there has been some protest about the lack of a full-fledged superintendent search. “Conducting a national search is the right thing to do when it comes to living our commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion in our school community,” stated Amherst resident Jennifer Shiao Page.

An 18-year employee, Morris said the district must aggressively recruit and fight to retain a diverse faculty, and cited studies showing that children of color are more likely to graduate from high school if they had a teacher who looked like them earlier on.  “This is a civil rights issues for our kids,” he said. Morris said that Doreen Cunningham, whom he hired this year as assistant superintendent for diversity and human resources, is working to redefine the district’s recruitment mission.

“It is critical that all of our staff have the cultural competency to work with all of our students,” Morris said, adding that he has revived a mandatory equity and diversity training program for 2nd-year teachers.

Morris has launched an “ALANA Cabinet” of teachers and staff.  (The acronym ALANA is often used to refer to those who are African-American, Latino, Asian, and Native American.)

The district’s history of racial issues includes the incidents leading to a $180,000 settlement with former high school math teacher Carolyn Gardner in 2015. Gardner was the victim of racial harassment, including graffiti and vandalism, and maintained that the district failed to take necessary steps to prevent recurrences of it. She filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, alleging gender discrimination and a hostile workplace environment.

Morris, who attended Amherst College and later got graduate degrees from UMass-Amherst and Boston College, rose through the ranks of the Amherst system. He taught 6th grade at Fort River before becoming an assistant principal and principal at Crocker Farm, and then being tapped as director of evaluation and assessment, and assistant superintendent.

His goals include developing a plan for “diverse student learning needs,” along with  monitoring achievement gaps, possible changes to middle and high school schedules, stronger teacher/student connections,  and “authentic learning experiences,”  including nature exploration.  Morris said if funds were unlimited, he would increase course offerings, and staffing so teachers could spend more time on planning and collaboration.  Ideally, therapeutic spaces and programs would be provided at all schools, to reduce the special needs students “who have to travel to get their needs met.”

Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Phoebe Hazzard asked Morris what he learned from the recently-failed $67 million Wildwood School Building Project, which would have led to consolidation and reconfiguration of the town’s three K-6 elementary schools, and did not win the 2/3 majority vote needed for passage.

Morris, who chaired the building committee,  said he “learned a tremendous amount,” including that better communication was probably necessary. While Morris did not address the project’s details, he said there were residents who “felt the solution came before the problem.”

“I’ve learned a lot about how to move forward,” Morris said, adding that he has greater clarity on working with town officials. He also cited the newly-formed Enrollment Working Group as an example of a positive process which has engaged residents with many different perspectives.

School Committee member Vira Douangmany-Cage, who has spearheaded the School Equity Task Force, said there are several reasons why she would offer him the superintendent’s job instead of advocating for an open search. Douangmany-Cage said she doesn’t want to jeopardize positive initiatives underway, including the task force, which just had its first meeting with the regional school committee. Morris is nonetheless “going to be the white guy who assumes the top leadership position,” Douagmany-Cage said, asking how Morris will “enhance the work of equity.”

Morris said he aware of his privilege and understands that he will be responsible for speaking up for those who don’t have it. “It’s often left to the oppressed group to raise the flag of concern,” he said, adding that he “doesn’t want teachers of color to always have to be the ones to say the uncomfortable thing.”

Morris’ presentation touched only lightly on the personal. He recalled how as a teacher years ago, he wrongly assumed that a child with a history of acting up had hit him with a paper airplane, when really it was the practical-joking teacher next door. Morris said that was a “horrendous” mistake from which he learned about false assumptions. “I spent a lot of time repairing that relationship (with the child),” Morris said.

The presentation did not include exploration of the schools’ performance on standardized tests, or the four-year high school graduation rate, of 87.5 percent. Rather, Morris talked briefly about the limitations of testing for judging student performance. He referred several times to discussions with an Amherst teacher who is studying the Finnish educational system, which is considered among the world’s best and has scant standardized testing.

The Massachusetts Department of Education’s data on the Amherst schools paint a mixed and perplexing picture, showing that on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the most favorable, the elementary schools are a 2 in meeting “gap-narrowing goals” while the middle and high school are a 3, cited for “low assessment participation.”

The elementary, middle and high school “did not meet targets” in closing achievement gaps for several student populations last year, according to state reports, including among children classified as high needs, low-income, and those with disabilities.

The state found a “need for special education technical assistance or intervention” at both elementary and secondary levels.  Nonetheless, the state’s four-year “Composite Performance Index” for the upper schools shows them consistently above the average.

The state’s report card for the Amherst elementary schools is here: ELEMREPORTCARD

And the state report card for the secondary schools:  MS&HSREPORTCARD

Although in the early years of Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) testing in the 1990s, Amherst was reliably among the top-performing districts, in recent years those slots have been dominated by charter schools, and Amherst typically sits lower down. Below is a chart depicting statewide MCAS performance by district, based on 10th grade test scores. It shows that in Amherst, 96 percent of students were advanced or proficient in English; 86 percent in math; and 80 percent in science. Numerous charter schools and some standard public schools can boast of 100, 99, or 98 percent in the advanced and proficient category, predominantly in English, with fewer districts attaining those numbers in math.  (By clicking on the column heads, the data can be displayed in a variety of ways, including the percentage of students in each district who are advanced and proficient -“A&P”-, in descending or ascending order:) 2016MCASDISTRICTSREPORT

Morris said he believes in “distributive” leadership, where tasks are shared across an organization, instead of the “charismatic” style driven by a single individual. “It’s much easier to be an autocrat, but it’s not as successful,” he said.  Morris cited a recent Homework Working Group initiative as an example, where his role is the “facilitator-empowerment piece.”

He highlighted steps taken in the year-plus he has served as acting and interim superintendent, including those to protect immigrants and children who are transgender, saying it is his goal to develop a “culture of organizational safety.”

Morris noted the declining enrollment of the Amherst public schools, including loss of students to area charter schools, and said an effort is needed to publicize the system’s many positive qualities. “As educators, we don’t think of ourselves as marketers,” he said, adding that staying competitive “has to be a priority.”

Morris’ predecessor, Geryk,  resigned with a $309,000 buyout in August 2016, following controversy over her barring of a Pelham mother from the town’s elementary school. The mother said her six-year old daughter was being bullied over her skin color, and that she was merely trying to advocate for the child. Following heated arguments among school committee members and in the media, Geryk claimed she was wrongly tarred as racist, and the district faced potential lawsuit.

Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee member Vira Douangmany-Cage, right, said she has supported the idea of  making Michael Morris permanent superintendent, so as not to risk scuttling important initiatives now underway.  To her left is committee member Audra Goscenski, of Leverett.

Geryk, who earned $158,000 a year, became interim superintendent in 2010, following resignation of Alberto Rodriguez, who was selected via a national search but was on the job for only eight months.


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