In its final scheduled meeting until Sept. 8, the School Committee on Thursday, June 23, celebrated the school year’s end and responded to community demand to revive science camp, start before-school care and educate families about keeping firearms away from minors.
Friday, June 24 -- the final day of classes until fall -- found the Arlington Public Schools with only 17 Covid-19 cases across its 10 campuses, celebrating a year-plus of on-campus operation (since late spring 2021) and recognizing students honored at the national level.
“It’s been an amazing first year,” said Superintendent Elizabeth Homan, whose anniversary in that position will be July 1.
“It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, as omicron [the variant of the novel coronavirus that was the likely cause of a high rate of infections earlier in spring, topping out at 362 in mid-May] threw us for a bit of a loop, but we’ve had a successful year,” she said.
A notable triumph of the just-concluded school year was that of Ottoson Middle School students who created a website and a documentary recognized at the national level in the National History Day competition. Half-a-dozen of them made a brief report about their work at the meeting. Committee member Bill Hayner was impressed. “People often worry about the future [of youth] – I don’t,” he said.
Science camp’s return urged
By unanimous vote, the committee directed the superintendent to deliver a report by Oct. 13 describing options to bring back the uber-popular multinight science-oriented camping experience shuttered by the pandemic. But with Alton Jones in Rhode Island, the previous camping site, now permanently closed, plus the possibility of moving the program from fifth to sixth grade, and the need going forward to include more students than in the past, any new version will not be identical to what came before, officials conceded.
“I want to let the parents know that we hear them,” said Assistant Superintendent Roderick MacNeal Jr. “We’ve done some work already on this,” he noted, saying science educators already had toured a possible alternate site and had met to look at liability concerns.
Committee member Len Kardon said that despite the undeniable public passion for the program, it had always been imperfect -- and that, previously, “issues were not publicly discussed,” including accessibility, finances and the role of volunteers. “It will take a lot of effort to rebuild the program. It’s not going to be easy,” he said.
Earlier in the meeting, during public comment, local parent Michelle Lambert said that her child considered the “immersive” camp her "absolute favorite experience of all her elementary-school years" and that it fostered self-confidence, social connection and overall emotional growth. “I do believe that Arlington is a creative and dedicated community” capable of overcoming any obstacles to reestablishing the program in some fashion, she said.
On its agenda, the committee reported having received half a dozen emails within the previous two days from other people also advocating renewal of the camp.
Pilot program to offer before-school care
Something else that many parents have requested in recent months is early morning care at elementary schools. Surveys recently conducted by the school district have indicated that the highest demand is at two campuses at opposite ends of town – Peirce in Arlington Heights and Thompson in East Arlington.
Homan said that the pilot program would be limited to 30 students maximum at each campus. It would occur from 7 to 8 a.m. at Peirce and Thompson only.Parents would have to enroll their children in advance and state ahead of time when they would attend; the cost per day per family is to be $15. There would be a lead teacher and one support person for 15 children or fewer per campus; should there be 16 to 30 students at a given campus, a second support person would be added.
The committee approved this pilot program as part of an overall fee schedule adopted unanimously that also accomplished another goal welcomed by many – elimination of fees for student participation in athletics and music.
“It’s a really great step,” said committee chair Liz Exton, adding that paying fees for those extracurricular activities had “been a challenge” for many local families.
Committee to ponder gun-safety resolution
After some debate, the committee voted unanimously to ask its policies and procedures subcommittee to consider directing the superintendent to communicate with families about the obligation to keep firearms from children.
In public comment earlier in the meeting, two local parents urged adoption of what is officially known as the “secure storage notification resolution.”
Angela P. Christiana, a leader with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, said that firearms constitute the leading cause of death for children of all ages, be they accidents, homicides or suicides. She said that, on average, five preteens die in gun violence each day. “Secure firearms storage can save lives,” she said, because many of these tragedies are due to use of guns and ammunition found by children in their own homes.
Laura Gitelson of Precinct 17, who has two young children, concurred. She called the proposed resolution “pro-active and evidence-based” and urged the committee to “show that Arlington is the leader that we know it to be.”
Committee members appeared to agree with the speakers but decided that the policies and procedures subcommittee should be tasked with developing the precise wording of the proposed resolution before bringing it back to the full body. “It would make it stronger,” committee member Jeff Thielman said.
In other business:
- The committee unanimously approved memoranda of agreement with four groups of employees and directed the chair to sign the associated contracts. “We were able to adjust the salaries of our lowest-paid workers significantly,” Kardon said. The groups are as follows: bus drivers; traffic supervisors, also known as crossing guards; paraprofessionals, such as teachers' aides, covered by Unit D of the Arlington Education Association; and the Administrators Association, whose members are assistant principals, deans, directors and special-education coordinators.
- MacNeal presented two brief slideshows. One was about professional-development efforts that began a year ago and included training K-12 teachers about mental health first-aid and numerous other topics. The second was an update about the literacy core team meetings held over the past several weeks; MacNeal said he plans in September to report on data analysis, other research and a timeline for implementation of new teaching methods for literacy.
- Agreeing with its curriculum subcommittee, the full committee unanimously approved the newest versions of a vision statement, mission statement and strategic priorities associated with the five-year plan and also approved goals for the upcoming school year.
- The district has hired Kaitlin Moran as K-12 director of history and social studies. Job descriptions for two other positions – assistant principal at Brackett School and special-education coordinator at Arlington High School – have been reposted.
- The committee voted to retain as of July 1 a newly formed law firm – but the same attorney, Katie A. Meinelt -- as its counsel. KM Law, LLC, dedicates its practice to education law, including school discipline and special education.
- The consent agenda passed unanimously, and the committee adjourned, with no closed session scheduled, at 8:51 p.m.
This summary by YourArlington freelance writer Judith Pfeffer was published Friday, June 24, 2022, and updated Saturday, June 25, 2022, to clarify the categories of employees to be covered by new contracts and to make minor wording and punctuation improvements.
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