BY TOM DALTON
---- — The fate of the extended-year schedule at Saltonstall School, a seemingly never-ending saga, faces one more “final” showdown tonight.
The School Committee is scheduled to vote on a motion to end Saltonstall’s 190-day schedule at a 7 p.m. meeting in the Salem High School auditorium. The meeting was moved to Salem High because a large crowd is expected.
This issue appeared all but over on June 17 when the School Committee deadlocked in a 3-3 vote. Committee member Nate Bryant, in something of a surprise, joined colleagues Brendan Walsh and Jim Fleming in support of a motion to place Saltonstall on a 180-day schedule as the other public schools are.
Missing from that meeting was school board member Janet Crane, one of the original proponents of taking the 10 extra days away from Saltonstall and using the estimated $150,000 in savings to benefit schoolchildren throughout the district.
With Crane in attendance tonight, she is expected to cast the fourth and deciding vote.
Whatever happens, it will not affect Saltonstall’s longer school day. Students at the grade K-8 school are in the classroom one hour longer every day.
Tonight’s vote comes against a dramatic backdrop. Over the past week, a number of prominent city leaders have written or co-signed letters in support of retaining the 190-day schedule at Saltonstall. They include Salem State University President Patricia Meservey, state Rep. John Keenan, Salem Partnership Chairman George Atkins, former Mayor Stanley Usovicz, former School Committee member and ex-Saltonstall Principal Peg Voss Howard, Salem Education Foundation President Janine Matho and Salem Academy Charter School leader Rachel Hunt.
Letters have been sent to school board members and The Salem News.
“We are writing to speak with one voice today and express our strongest objection to the proposal to reduce the academic school year at the Saltonstall School,” stated a letter by Meservey and others.
“We have the opportunity to build on the Saltonstall model and expand it for the benefit of all of our students and not step back from a proven approach that improves student learning.”
The man on the hot seat appears to be Bryant, who voted to keep the extended-year program last year and then reversed his position recently. Bryant said he switched after seeing data showing that Saltonstall had significantly fewer low-income students than other schools and scores on the state MCAS exam that were not markedly better.
This debate began nearly two years ago when test results showed that some of the lowest-performing schools had the highest numbers of low-income students. Superintendent Stephen Russell and the school board have made a number of moves to try to address that imbalance.
“To me, it’s an equity issue,” Bryant said during an interview on Friday. “I just feel that there are other schools that would benefit more with those resources.”
Bryant said he has received letters and emails on both sides of the issue but does not plan to change his vote.
“I’m feeling very comfortable,” he said. “I don’t lose any sleep at night. I think I’m doing the right thing. I think I’m looking out for the best (interests) of all 4,600” children in the public schools.
Supporters of the extended-year model contend that it has strong support from parents and staff at Saltonstall and that the school was created to give parents a real educational choice.
They also contend that educational studies indicate that children benefit from more time spent in the classroom and that children who go to school during the summer suffer less “learning loss” come September. The Saltonstall school year goes through July.
Currently, several other Salem schools are exploring longer school days, and the school system is starting to offer more summer programs.
With that in mind, supporters of the 190-day calendar say it seems contradictory for the school board to consider reducing the schedule of the one school that already has a longer day and extended school year.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.