, Salem, MA

April 11, 2013

Our view: A potential loss for everyone at Saltonstall

The Salem News

---- — Salem’s School Committee made a wise decision Monday to delay its vote on eliminating Saltonstall School’s extended-year calendar. There’s no way to make a good decision without knowing what kind of summer enrichment program would replace it.

Still, it’s just delaying the inevitable outcry. Because no matter how interesting or enriching an optional new summer program would be, it will not be the same — and could never really replace — the current Saltonstall schedule.

The popular schedule has 10 extra days a year and uses a different calendar that extends the school year to the end of July. Instead of a two-month summer vacation, Saltonstall students take just one month off, in August.

It’s easy to sympathize with the reasoning behind the proposal to end Saltonstall’s special status. Salem’s public schools are in crisis mode, and Bentley Elementary School is under a state deadline to improve its test scores. So every dollar is being scrutinized, and every dollar is needed to try to improve all of the schools, not just one of them.

Saltonstall’s extended year, while popular, hasn’t translated into dramatic achievements on state tests, but it costs an estimated $100,000 a year — and that’s left it vulnerable to budget cutters. It’s also a matter of equity; in a system in crisis, one school is getting a greater share of the resources than others, even though it’s a school with fewer at-risk children.

And yet.

What we’ve heard over and over, literally for years now, is that children need more time on learning. Many kids lose a significant part of what they learn over the traditional, two-month summer vacation. And that vacation, derived from agricultural needs a century ago, doesn’t meet the needs of modern families, most of whom have both parents working. So it makes little sense to take away a benefit from several hundred families, when it’s exactly the kind of innovation most educators really would like to see extended to everyone.

Is it fair that Saltonstall — and only Saltonstall — should reap the benefit of extra resources? Probably not. But perhaps it’s better that some children get the benefit than none. It’s hard to believe that two weeks of enrichment for 100 kids could begin to compensate for the loss of an extended, and mandatory, schedule for 300-plus Saltonstall students.

When Saltonstall opened, with its extended day and extended year, it was an exciting time for the school system. From the start, though, there was resentment about the school’s extra resources, and that probably will never go away — though it will diminish if admission policies are changed to equalize the numbers of at-risk children among the city’s schools.

Chipping away at Saltonstall’s innovations, however, will also chip away at the enthusiasm, parental support and sense of vision it brings to Salem’s school district — a potentially costly move for a system in trouble.

Without seeing the new summer program, it’s hard to say for sure which way the system should go. But we hope it’s not backward.