BACK TO SCHOOL: Earlier start, bright outlook

By Jason Hawk -

School buses are ready to roll as Amherst gears up for the first day of classes on Wednesday, Aug. 17.

That may seem early —but it’s only a two-day bump from last year’s start date.

“It’s not really a whole lot different philosophically from the way it’s fallen in the past,” said district superintendent Sayers of the 2016-2017 calendar. “But we wanted to experiment with seeing whether we can have a schedule that allows our first semester to end prior to winter break.”

Moving up the back-to-school blitz will let the first semester end Dec. 20. For students at Amherst Steele High School, that means getting tests out of the way before the holidays rather than being thrown into tests after winter vacation.

And comparing it to college and university schedules, Sayers said the academic year calendar will mean summer recess before Memorial Day.

That’s important because teachers feel August instruction days are more valuable than those in June when students don’t feel as engaged.

The Amherst Schools are seeing more summer registrations this summer than in previous years, which is welcome news. Sayers said all-day, everyday kindergarten is especially netting more students, though lower grade levels still are much smaller than any of the high school classes that will graduate in the next four years.

Enrollment has been on the decline for more than a decade, not just in Amherst but in most Ohio public school districts. Projections show that trend may bottom out and start to reverse as early as 2022-2023.

“I wouldn’t be surprised though if it starts to go the other way a little sooner than that,” said Sayers, eyeing family-friend development at the Preserve at Quarry Lakes on Amherst’s north side.

Matching staffing levels to student numbers is a key to financial stability for the Amherst Schools, he said. Each fall, that means a balancing act of moving teachers to buildings where they are needed.

This year it means not replacing two retiring teachers at Nord Middle School and hiring additional teachers at Harris Elementary.

There will be two other big administrative changes: Longtime nutritionist and food services manager Wanda Warford will retire this December and veteran Shupe and Powers Elementary principal Debbie Waller will retire in June.

Sayers is overwhelmingly positive about the school year.

“I like where we are as a school district. We have great kids, we have great families, we have great staff,” he said. “I’ve had kids in the school district and I know first-hand the education they’ve received has been first class.”

He is perhaps most proud of the way staff has helped reduce costs in certain areas such as paper use and health insurance concessions. Those dollars have been plugged back into education instead of overhead.

“We’re not just financially stable, but we’ve been able to remain financially stable and enhance our programming,” Sayers said.

For example, the school system has in the past few years started an orchestra, launched all-day kindergarten, investment in technology, added electives at the high school, and partnered with Lorain County Community College to have college credit courses at Steele.

But there’s also been an increase emphasis on community service.

Both teachers and staff have doubled down on helping others by volunteering at food banks, chipping in during Amherst’s annual Pride Day, and other activities.

That’s something that can’t be measured on a report card. “It’s important to ingrain in our students what it means to be good citizens,” Sayers said.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

By Jason Hawk