Dwayne Chamble and Michelle Rodriguez

In a small but cozy office at the end of a back hallway in Amherst Regional Middle School, you’ll find the Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS) Family Center—the central hub between the Amherst community and the entire school district. For the past decade, it’s become a critical resource for local families and an immense undertaking for its handful of passionate staff. Entirely district- and community-funded, the Center provides comprehensive support for roughly 100 families, from individual counseling to multiple in-school, after-school and summer programs. As Dr. Marta Guevara (Director of Student & Family Engagement and founder of the Center) summarized it, “The goal is to change the trajectory not just for individual students, but for their families as well. We believe in the importance of community collaboration to build a stronger, more resilient future.”

In one recent endeavor, Collab for College (C4C), the Center has taken that objective of community collaboration to higher ed, with Amherst College playing a pivotal role. We spoke to two leaders at ARPS, Dwayne Chamble (Out of School Time Coordinator) and Michelle Rodriguez (Steps to Success Advisor), to find out what the ARPS Center does—and the impact of its partnership with the College. 

Q. Tell me more about the ARPS Family Center. What is the purpose of your collective work?

A. Chamble: We offer tiered support. From filling out a job application to helping the kids apply to college to homeless transportation to assisting with day-to-day needs. The caseworkers are here for the students as well as their entire families, and a lot of the work you don’t see because it’s behind the scenes. Our goal is for no family to feel constrained by any limitation—social, economic, etc.—and for their kids to have the best experience that they could possibly have, with access to all that the district offers. This means our success advisors are on the phone all the time; they’re making home visits; they’re accompanying families to appointments, helping them obtain documents and other essential services. We’re not giving up on our families whatever the circumstance is. 

A. Rodriguez: Tier one of our program is open to everyone. Families can access support through our website’s “doorbell” feature and any of us can help depending on the need. Tier two is allocated for referrals from teachers or principals who have identified higher-level concerns. Tier three, our Steps to Success program, is different. School guidance counselors and administrators will fill out a form we provide with a series of questions that help to triage the situation. If we decide the situation merits tier-three support, we’ll set up an intake meeting with the family and they will decide if they want to partner with us. We’ll work with the family until the student graduates high school or until they “graduate” from needing us. 

Q. What are the objectives of the Collab for College program?  

A: Chamble: The C4C program started two years ago with Amherst College. Professors Kristina Reardon and Kristen Luschen, along with Margo Pederson ’25 and Érica Ayala ’26, were instrumental in its setup. It’s a great example of a partnership—the goal being to bridge the gap between the school system and Amherst College, offering students a pathway to higher education. 

Rodriguez: The students we invited, in collaboration with guidance counselors, are students who normally would not have access to an institution like Amherst. It was harder to get the kids from my caseload to participate. They have jobs and a lot of other after-school responsibilities that most kids don't. But the kids we thought would really benefit from this program are first-generation students, immigrant students, students coming from challenging socioeconomic backgrounds—many of our kids live in complexes that people in the same small town don’t even know exist. In a lot of ways they’re unseen.

Chamble: We started with an immersive, eight-week college experience for high school students. They attended a class titled "Writing the College Experience," taught by Professor Reardon. It gave them a taste of college academic life.

In addition to the high schoolers, we’re engaging middle schoolers with College Access Day. Amherst College students led comprehensive tours of campus and our students engaged in workshops. At the end of the day there was a debrief session with everyone—professors, staff, students, coaches. We played games, had refreshments, discussed goals and aspirations. 

This year, along with the tours, there were interactive experiments. We got to electrocute a pickle and use the static machine. Everyone was going crazy shocking each other. The Amherst College students told us that they wanted to have more of a connection with the kids, so part of the process this year was actually tied to Professor Luschen’s “Race, Education & Belonging” class. As part of their coursework, the Amherst students attended our Morning Movement and Mentoring for a week and offered homework assistance. That made a huge difference. By the end of the course, the middle schoolers were hugging them and asking, “When are you going to come back?”

Rodriguez: The Amherst College students did a really good job of finding commonalities between themselves and the middle schoolers. Not only did they know their first names, but they were really engaging with them on a personal level. The kids were able to see themselves in them.

Chamble: President Elliott came and visited us, too, which was also instrumental. The students’ eyes were opened to this premiere private institution right down the road that a lot of them didn’t even know about. Now they can see it as a legitimate option. “The president told us we could go here.” That’s huge.

Q. What is your favorite part of this work?

A: Rodriguez: The most beautiful thing for me is hearing from our students down the road: “I got a house!” and they send you a picture. I've had students get their master’s in social work and send me a thank-you for inspiring them. 

Chamble: The word “equity” comes up a lot, and it sounds good, but when you have to actually implement it, it takes a lot of resources. It takes a lot of time. But it's also fulfilling work. Often, we don’t see the results until four or six years down the line. But on that graduation day in May, when we're looking at them and crying all over our shirts and all through our makeup? That’s what really makes it worth it.