, Salem, MA

July 13, 2013

Letter: Cutting school year at Saltonstall ‘a big step backwards’

The Salem News

---- — To the editor:

The following letter was sent to the Salem School Committee:

I have watched the news with growing dismay as I realize that a vote to abolish the extended year at Saltonstall may actually occur. I urge all of you to save Saltonstall’s extended schedule, as you simultaneously work to provide extended time to the other Salem schools.

As a citizen, parent and educator, I was extremely proud of Salem in 1995 when it opened a school with such a carefully designed philosophy, including its place as the first public school in the Northeast with an extended year. Saltonstall and Salem demonstrated that true innovation is possible in the public schools.

Later, as a School Committee member and even later as Saltonstall principal from 2005-2009, I saw the value of extended time for learning. Dr. Walsh’s recent op-ed in the Salem News criticized Saltonstall for test scores similar to Witchcraft’s, noting the similar demographics of the two schools. How fortunate for Salem that two schools share the top two rankings in the district! Scores are an important measure of a school’s effectiveness, but I urge the School Committee to consider other factors, as well, as you evaluate the strengths and characteristics of our schools and the Saltonstall calendar, in particular.

First, not all learning is measured by tests. Saltonstall teachers and families cite the strong participatory nature of learning at Saltonstall, the bonds of community, the teamwork, the character development, and the joy of learning. Of course, other schools offer these positives, but Saltonstall has the advantage of time. As an educator who worked in many different schools as a teacher, administrator, and consultant, I noticed a less frenetic atmosphere at Saltonstall, a happy energy that I attributed to longer time blocks and more weeks in which to learn the curriculum.

The summer weeks gave students more opportunities for outdoor science study, hands-on field trips, portfolio development, and integrated projects. The staff was able to plan amazing, intensive on-site experiences throughout the year, such as a senses fair, a Salem exploration, and an Egypt Day (planned by fifth- and sixth-graders) that were creative, effective, memorable learning experiences that benefited students of all grades and ability levels.

Second, Saltonstall has undergone several challenges in the past few years. Expanding from K-5 to K-8 took a great deal of energy and attention, which may have unintentionally lessened the rate of improvement. Just as the new grade configuration has settled and solidified into a strong program, renovations forced Saltonstall into a crowded building for two years. Of course, strong instruction continues even in a poor building, but challenging logistics and fewer resources (such as no computer lab) take time to manage and may cause pressures that lessen optimal learning conditions.

Third, why not give Saltonstall, along with all other Salem schools, a chance to fully implement the initiatives recommended as part of Salem’s school turnaround effort before making such a major change in its structure? Challenge staff to take a renewed look at what Saltonstall can do better to utilize its summer weeks in even more productive ways. Teachers are sure to have great ideas, especially now that students will have the opportunity to work in a more comfortable, air-conditioned environment in the summer. The improved environment will make it easier for many children to concentrate and focus in the hot summer weeks, as the school, like all Salem schools, simultaneously progresses in ways recommended by the system-wide turnaround plan.

Finally, one of the major selling points of many charter schools is the offer of additional time. Why would Salem want to take away a popular district option that families want and that keeps some of them in the local district? Controlled school choice with variation in school models has been a key part of Salem’s system for many years.

All Salem students deserve the best education we can offer. No one questions that. We should be finding ways to add time to the school day in every school. We should be offering quality summer programs to all students who would like them. The current administration, with School Committee support, has planned a summer program that benefits additional students. That’s wonderful. Why take away a summer program from those at Saltonstall? The money saved by shuttering Saltonstall for the 10 additional days in its year is a small amount that will not make a significant difference in the district’s other goals. Eliminating a good thing is counterproductive and a big step backwards.

Please keep the extended year at Saltontall School.

Margaret Voss Howard, Ph.D.

Retired principal

Saltonstall School