The Silver Lake Regional School Committee began their virtual meeting on April 9 with a public hearing on whether to accept school choice for next year. Despite an option for public participation by joining the Zoom meeting, there was no one from the public wishing to speak on the matter. The Committee did discuss internally.
Before her retirement, former superintendent Joy Blackwood had said that the Committee might consider it for some of the grade levels with lower enrollment. The consensus seemed to be, however, that most grades are trending toward higher class sizes particularly with the loss of two teaching positions at the middle school level. Committee Chair Jason Fraser explained that the district could specify the number of seats as well as what grade levels would be open for school choice. Although voting in favor of it this year wouldn’t require Silver Lake to do so again, they would have to see the students accepted through until either their graduation or their decision to take themselves out of the district.
School Committee member Edward Desharnais brought up the possibility of having to take on students that have been expelled from other schools and said, “it’s a slippery slope and once you start it, it’s hard to back off from. I would hate to sacrifice the quality of our school.” Committee member Gordon Andrews made a motion not to accept school choice. The decision was unanimous.
Another major discussion during Thursday’s meeting was whether to honor April vacation this year or continue with remote learning in its stead. Monday, April 20 is a non-negotiable day off as it is Patriot’s Day. School Committee member Leslie-Ann McGee was in favor of eliminating the break this year as she said it would allow them to shave days from the end of the year. Desharnais said he was against cancelling April vacation as he said he had spoken to several teachers and felt that they were stressed out and in need of a break.
Fraser invited a father from the public who had reached out with concerns about remote learning, to speak at Thursday’s meeting. The father, a Halifax resident, said he had experience teaching in both private and public tech schools.
He described his family’s situation saying his wife was home-schooling an elementary aged child while also caring for a toddler. He said that they were experiencing some technical issues while trying to practice remote learning.
“April vacation might be a good chance to break and fix some of the technology problems,” he explained.
Committee member Christopher Eklund said he could see it both ways. Ultimately, the Committee voted not to cancel April vacation with McGee being the lone holdout.
The Committee also discussed what kind of help could be given to students who have high stakes testing. On April 10, just a day after the Committee met, Governor Baker signed a bill that waived the MCAS test-administration requirement this spring. The ACT test has also been postponed from April 4 to June 13. Proulx said that a number of online resources are available to students who wish to have help preparing for the ACT or the Advanced Placement (AP) tests. Silver Lake Regional Principal Michaela Gill said that the College Board has been hosting live tutorials daily for students wishing to prepare for their AP tests. Gill also said that the format of the AP tests have been modified and will consist of a 45 minute free response portion only.
The remote learning experience thus far was also discussed at length. The first few weeks after closing both the middle and high schools on March 16 consisted solely of voluntary learning with teachers and students electing whether or not to participate in a number of different enrichment opportunities. Beginning Monday April 6, however, the expectations were changed based on guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). The administration and Committee were in agreement that having only one week of data at their disposal made it difficult to troubleshoot and make changes as necessary. Proulx stressed the importance of flexibility as they navigate what is brand new territory to all involved. “I think that the teachers have done a great job of reinventing the way that they deliver and develop a curriculum.” Proulx said. Assistant Superintendent Ryan Lynch, who had met with Department heads regarding remote learning, agreed saying he was, “Very impressed, big picture, to watch us transition how education has been done for probably a thousand years.” Proulx and Lynch said that one of their goals is to start to think about ways for sharing out best practices for distance learning as they emerge.
Administration and Committee members discussed the difference between continued, maintenance education versus new learning. Fraser pointed out that in many private school settings, they are pushing forward with new learning. Proulx spoke at length about equity and the importance of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Proulx also acknowledged that some families are already overwhelmed and struggling with the remote learning. She also said that in their efforts to provide variety and choice to students, it may have been overwhelming. Desharnais said he was hearing estimates that nearly 20 percent of students were not participating in the credit/no credit remote learning that had been established. The Committee asked what could be done to reach those students. Proulx and Lynch said that the first step would be to reach out to the families themselves followed by a counselor or an administrator. Proulx said that they are trying to avoid scenarios where children don’t have access to learning because there are things going on in the home that prevent them from participating. After establishing the continuation of the free and reduced lunch program assuring that students had access to chromebooks was high on the priority list. Lynch and the technology team provided over eight opportunities for families to pick up chromebooks with over 700 devices distributed.
Gill said that while there has been a learning curve across the board, the response from teachers has been a mostly positive one. Middle School Principal Jim Dupille said, “I really give a lot of credit to the flexibility and hard work of my staff.” Dupille said that his staff has been making all necessary preparations for “step up” day despite the uncertainty of whether it will be able to be held. Logistics had to be worked out as well including how many students could be managed simultaneously on a Zoom call.
Eklund brought up the number of states that have already cancelled school for the entire school year. As of April 14, nineteen states had made that decision. Fraser, who also serves on the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) Board of Directors, said that MASC is advocating that if Governor Baker extends the closure past May 4, he just cancel school for the remainder of the year in part due to the stress caused by the uncertainty.
The father in attendance proposed the idea to extend the academic year to 900 hours bringing the last day of school to the very end of June. He said, “I have a child with an IEP and it is definitely difficult to get her to focus in general. Getting them back into the school longer is better than this experimental untested curriculum.” Fraser said he was unaware of any other district contemplating extending the school year. Andrews questioned the possible financial implications of pushing school to June 30. Director of Business Services Christine Healy said that it would likely mean finding $300,000 to $400,000 that they don’t currently have. Committee member Eric Crone was concerned with the levels of anxiety in people’s homes saying, “Asking them to continue for another week or two could be problematic with the levels of anxiety people are dealing with. Personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” Eklund said he was a fan of more learning hours and was concerned with kids not being ready to progress to the next grade. “If we can get more time out of the teachers and not punish ourselves financially, I’m for it,” he told the committee. Eklund, who is part of the negotiations team, offered to bring the idea to the teachers with the Committee’s backing.
The Committee asked Proulx and Lynch to come back to them with further data based on the first two weeks of official, remote learning including feedback from building principals and curriculum coordinators. The Committee agreed to hold a meeting on April 23 at 6:30 p.m. with Union 31 and all school committees to discuss remote learning and adjustment of practices. The public is encouraged to attend.
A brief conversation was also held regarding the budget. Fraser said that Silver Lake will need to adjust their budget once the new numbers are received from the state. Healy offered some good news saying that there will be a savings of $99,000 in next year’s budget thanks to the bus contract coming in far lower than estimated.