BY TOM DALTON
---- — Salem Superintendent Stephen Russell has proposed ending the extended-year program at Saltonstall, a “break-the-mold” public school that opened with much fanfare nearly two decades ago due to its longer school day and year.
In its place, the superintendent wants to offer an array of “high-interest” summer school programs that would be open to several hundred elementary students across the city.
Russell insists that he is not penalizing Saltonstall, a K-8 school with strong parent support and, often, waiting lists for admission, but only trying to offer summer enrichment opportunities to more children.
The superintendent’s proposal comes almost a year after two School Committee members, Brendan Walsh and Janet Crane, raised a similar issue when they tried to change the public school calendar and have all city schools, including Saltonstall, operate on a 180-day schedule.
Saltonstall’s 360 students attend school an hour longer each day and 10 days more each year. Its 190-day calendar has different vacation weeks, with classes running from September through July.
At the time, Walsh and Crane described the move, which failed to gain support and sparked a backlash at Saltonstall, as an “equity” issue.
After being designated an underperforming school district in 2011 due to low scores on the statewide MCAS tests, Salem officials have focused on the imbalances in the school system, including the concentrations of low-income students in schools with the lowest scores.
Saltonstall has come under scrutiny for drawing additional resources — its teachers get 16 percent more pay — without having significantly better test scores. It also has among the fewest low-income students.
Russell stressed that he is a strong supporter of Saltonstall and is recommending keeping its extended-day program. In fact, both the superintendent and Mayor Kim Driscoll are urging other schools to go to longer school days.
The elimination of the extended-year program is being proposed, he said, to offer students from all schools, including Saltonstall, more learning opportunities in the summer.
“I’m trying to find an agreeable solution that not only is going to help Saltonstall continue the work they do, but also will benefit a broader range of kids in the community,” he said.
Marcie Clawson, PTO president at Saltonstall, said she feels a lot of parents will be “very upset” by the proposal.
She said many parents left their neighborhood schools to come to Saltonstall because of the extended-year model. She also said that it was unfair to measure the school’s success merely by MCAS scores because Saltonstall has a number of innovative programs that enrich children in many ways.
“It saddens me to see a program that many choose, work hard to make possible, believe benefits their children in more ways than just MCAS scores be taken away,” she wrote in an email.
The recommendation by Russell, which would need School Committee approval, would not affect Saltonstall this school year and would not begin until the summer of 2014.
It is not clear at this point how much money would be saved by eliminating the 10 extra days at Saltonstall. Whatever the amount, Russell stressed that money is not the prime reason for proposing the change.
“We are not looking at this as a cost savings,” he said, but as a way of “taking those very same dollars we may save and putting them into a broader array of summer programs for more kids.”
The summer enrichment programs would be open to students from Saltonstall and every other city school, he said.
Although plans are tentative, Russell said he envisions holding the summer programs at two or three schools, with about 100 children at each site. He said the program would be based on “high-interest” subjects like robotics or foreign languages that could be used to promote reading and learning.
Russell said his goal is to start a discussion with the school board and community about “ways to provide better summer programming in a wider range of areas for more kids.”
If the change is adopted, it likely would mean less pay for Saltonstall teachers, who currently are compensated for the extra days. That issue, Russell said, would have to be negotiated with the Salem Teachers Union.
The superintendent’s recommendation is part of his budget proposal for next school year and will be discussed at future school board meetings.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.