BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The School Committee kept its promise last night to take up the issue of the extended-year schedule at Saltonstall School.
In fact, board members debated the value of the extra 10 school days at K-8 Saltonstall, allowed parents to make emotional appeals to retain it and even voted on a proposal to end it.
They did everything but resolve the issue.
What they did, it appears, is to put the matter off for a few months, or until a committee of administrators, teachers and parents from across the school system can come back with at least a broad outline of a summer school enrichment program that will be open to all public school students for the summer of 2014 — including Saltonstall.
Since it opened in 1996, Saltonstall students have gone to school one hour extra every day and 10 extra days every year, or right through the month of July. The extra hour, or extended-day program, is not being debated and will be retained.
The current debate does not affect this school year at Saltonstall.
While there may, in the end, be sentiment to end the 190-day, extended-year program at Saltonstall by next summer (2014), some board members were clearly reluctant to act until they knew what alternative summer program would be in place.
“It will be a real shame for us to think about just removing this program without understanding what we’re going to replace it with,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll, the school board chairwoman and a Saltonstall parent.
In the end, that sentiment carried the day.
The immediate issue before the school board last night was a motion by School Committee member Brendan Walsh to put all schools on a 180-day schedule for next (2013-14) school year.
It was defeated by a 4-3 vote — a vote that came with some drama.
The first to speak in the roll-call vote was School Committee member Lisa Lavoie, who turned out to be the deciding vote. She was clearly undecided.
After pausing for several seconds, Lavoie said, “I’m thinking.” Finally, she voted against Walsh’s motion and was joined by Driscoll and board members Nate Bryant and Deborah Amaral.
Walsh’s motion was supported by fellow members Jim Fleming and Janet Crane.
A follow-up motion to create a committee that will come back by the end of the school year with a report on a citywide summer school program for 2014 that could replace the extended-year program at Saltonstall, won unanimous support.
Several school board members, even some who voted against Walsh’s motion, said they have trouble justifying the additional expenditure at Saltonstall, estimated at $100,000 or more, in a school system with many low-income children who have done poorly on the state MCAS exams and who could benefit from more help and more time in school.
“I truly believe there are students who could benefit more if we (take) some of those funds and distribute it ...” Bryant said.
“Extended time is important ... but it’s important for all children,” Fleming said.
Several board members also noted that the extra time at Saltonstall has not resulted in significantly better scores on the statewide MCAS exam, one of the primary standards by which the state is measuring Salem’s underperforming school system.
“I’m not sure time on learning is being used wisely ...” Amaral said.
Before the vote, parents were allowed to speak, and many made emotional pleas to save the extended-year program, or at least delay action until more was known about the proposed expanded summer school.
“This is not improvement ...” parent Cindy Johnson said. “This is inviting dysfunction ...”
Parent Erin Heenan said she didn’t understand why there seems to be such “negativity” toward Saltonstall. “If our MCAS scores aren’t what they should be ... then tell us how to improve ...” she said. “Just don’t shut the door on what you think is a wasted 10 days ...”
Several parents praised the program at Saltonstall, where children are grouped in multi-age classrooms, take part in a “Friday Club” taught by parents and community members, and learn based on an educational theory of multiple intelligences using a variety of teaching methods.
“I feel that taking our program away is a premature decision and is based solely on financial value and not on the value of our families and community,” PTO Treasurer Pam Rochna said.
“If anything, extended year is a model we should be trying to extend from Saltonstall to the other schools, as well — to make them that much more competitive and make Salem that much more desirable a town to live in,” said Josh Turiel, a Saltonstall parent and city councilor.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.