Bringing the Amherst public schools to the table
February 2014—story by CCE staff writer Jenny Morgan, photo by Sandra Costello
There’s no such thing as the back to school blues for Kimberly Stender.
Of course, it’s hard to have the blues when you’re in charge of throwing the annual back to school party for the Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools (ARPS). “It’s kind of like a pep rally for the schools,” Stender says. The event is held every year on the Amherst Town Common the night before the first day of school. Stender doesn’t just invite students or teachers to the celebration, either. From the Amherst Fire Department to State Representative Ellen Story to the Lord Jeff, she more or less tries to get the whole community together to support the schools.
This happens to be exactly what Stender does every other day of the year, too.
As the Community, Partnerships, and Volunteers Coordinator, Stender has the broad task of representing the ARPS in the community. “I work as the conduit,” she explains. “I facilitate partnerships and relationships.” Stender represents the district and its approximately 3,000 students on town and human service committees, to the Five Colleges, and groups within the schools. “I’m always raising my hand to be involved on behalf of the schools,” she adds. Stender also manages the 150 volunteers the district takes in each semester, hosts Voices from Our Schools, an educational round table television show, and helps to organize major conferences, including the recent national student conference of the Minority Student Achievement Network. Stender describes her position as “flexible and kinetic,” which allows her to adapt quickly. “The needs of our schools keep changing,” she explains. “This position is integral to the success of the schools.”
ARPS superintendent Maria Geryk couldn’t agree more⎯and it’s why, in 2010, she first designed the position Stender holds. It was a difficult time for the schools, as high turnover in the administration gave way to plummeting public confidence. “[Geryk] saw that partnerships in the community would strengthen the schools,” Stender explains. With consultation from Center for Community Engagement director Molly Mead, Geryk created a volunteer coordinator position and secured three years of funding for it from Amherst College. Stender began as the volunteer coordinator in early 2011, and it wasn’t long before the scope of her work expanded into what it is now. Today, the school district has affirmed Geryk’s call for the position, as it’s now a part of the annual ARPS budget.
For Stender, a typical day is “whatever is happening,” which is to say, no two days are alike. On a recent Friday, Stender punctuated her day with morning and evening town meetings at the Amherst Community Health Center Advisory Group and the Amherst Human Rights Commission, respectively; in between, she met with the ARPS Family Center and had lunch with the Pioneer Valley Citizen Summer internship program at Amherst College. Seemingly indefatigable, the long and often irregular hours don’t appear to faze Stender. “My favorite part of any day,” she says, “is that sense of accomplishment. When the meeting goes well, when something you’ve been working on for a long time happens, or when you get to see people benefit.”
From the beginning, Stender has been thrilled by the community’s enthusiasm to work alongside schools. “I think everyone was waiting for this to happen,” she says. “People were ready to collaborate to make the schools stronger.” For Stender, working with community organizations and the colleges means expanding the network of stakeholders in public education. She points to her relationship with the CCE as an example. “I can call up the staff and tell them what we need, and we can design or tweak a program. We work very closely together. We think ahead. It creates this web of support, and it means that our schools can’t miss.”
Stender’s work has transformed her into a champion for public education. Stender says it was “eye-opening” to learn that around forty percent of students in the ARPS are “income-eligible,” meaning they live at or below the poverty level. That reality, however, has bolstered Stender’s commitment to equity in- and outside of the classroom. She’s helped coordinate Project Backpack, a community donation drive for school supplies and backpacks. She’s also part of the ongoing conversations on closing the achievement gap. “We have to give all children the best academics and the best opportunities to succeed,” she says. “Every single student. The future of our children is in the public schools.”
While there’s always work to be done in the schools, for Stender, ensuring the schools’ success will always mean inviting the support and collaboration of the community. “It’s bringing the public schools to table,” she says. “We’ve all come out of our silos, and we’re working together now. We’re all out there on that town common every September, and it’s an amazing thing to be a part of.”