BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — After nearly two decades, a key piece of the “break-the-mold” Saltonstall School got broken last night.
The School Committee voted 4-3 to end the 190-day, extended-year schedule at Saltonstall, one of the hallmarks of the K-8 school since its founding in 1996.
Mayor Kim Driscoll called the vote “a colossal mistake.”
The mayor, who is also the school board chairwoman and a Saltonstall parent, said she feared the vote would be a “real momentum killer” at a time when the Salem public schools are in the midst of a turnaround effort after getting a Level 4 designation from the state for low scores on the high-profile MCAS exams.
The majority of the board, however, strongly disagreed during a meeting at Salem High School before an audience of about 80.
The four who voted to end the longer schedule — Jim Fleming, Brendan Walsh, Janet Crane and Nate Bryant — insisted that only one piece of the innovative school model was being eliminated. They said the school system could not justify spending the estimated $150,000 the program costs when Saltonstall does not have measurably better MCAS scores and when funds are needed at schools with more low-income children and greater overall needs.
“This is not the dismantling of Saltonstall,” insisted Fleming, who made the motion to shift Saltonstall to the 180-day schedule used at other city schools.
“You’re going to lose 10 days,” Fleming said. “You’re not going to lose multi-age classrooms” or the extended-day program or teaching according to an educational philosophy of multiple intelligences.
Saltonstall students go to school an hour longer every day, are grouped for two years with the same teacher and, up until now, have gone to school through the month of July.
Bryant, who was seen as the swing vote, stuck to the stand he took last month.
“The test scores at Saltonstall indicate that there is no proof that the extended-year program is effective ...” he said, reading from prepared remarks.
“As a School Committee member, I feel compelled to make sure that we are addressing all students’ needs and, with limited resources, I feel that the money spent on the extended-year program would be better served helping needier students,” he said.
Lisa Lavoie and Deborah Amaral voted with Driscoll to keep the 190-day schedule.
Amaral was sharply critical of her colleagues for spending so much time on this issue.
“We have time to turn the Titanic around,” she said, “and yet some of us are choosing to rearrange the deck chairs.”
The school board vote was preceded by an emotional, 11/2-hour comment period by members of the community. About 20 people stepped to a microphone in the Salem High School auditorium, many of them Saltonstall parents.
Several pleaded with the school board to save a program that is embraced by parents and students and is based on an expanded learning model that schools across the country are adopting, that is used by virtually every state charter school and that even Salem is pursuing through a grant request to the National Center On Time & Learning.
“Do not push away innovative thinking and design,” said Saltonstall parent Kim Sullivan. “Don’t look to destroy choice and have cookie-cutter schools.”
Judith Nunez, a Carlton School parent, said Salem elementary schools are noted for innovative programs like the one at Saltonstall.
“My husband and I wanted to come to this city because all the schools were unique,” she said. “Please don’t take that away.”
Several people argued that the school board should not be eliminating an extended-year program but using it as a model while focusing on improving learning and test scores at all schools. They called this move counterproductive and divisive.
“Don’t be the first school committee in the commonwealth to have the dubious distinction of using low MCAS scores to justify reducing school time,” parent Rick Johnson said to applause.
Others questioned whether the school board had a plan for how to use the $150,000 in savings.
“As far as I can tell ... what we are going to do tonight is weakening the district with no clear plan to strengthen anything else,” Geoff Millar said.
Of all the speakers, only one voiced support for ending the 190-day schedule.
While calling extended year a “great program,” Pam Ryan said the school system has “bigger problems, bigger fish to fry ... This isn’t about one group and one school. This is about the whole district.”
This controversy, which has simmered for years, first surfaced last year when Crane and Walsh, in a move that caught some colleagues by surprise, moved unsuccessfully to reduce Saltonstall’s calendar to 180 days.
The issue arose again this spring, but a vote was delayed until June. That vote, which occurred with Crane absent, resulted in a 3-3 deadlock, setting up last night’s showdown.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.