A debate that started at last week's Melrose School Committee meeting over parents paying for their children to attend the district's summer school program continued last night, when the committee voted 5-2 to approve the fee for this coming summer and revisit the topic again.
At last week's meeting, committee member J.D. LaRock reacted incredulously to the fact that the Melrose charges $225 for its 48-hour courses offered over the summer and recommended to students who just missed receiving a passing grade during the school year.
In more tempered remarks this week before voting against approving this year's fees, LaRock reiterated his belief that problems in Melrose's academic programs could be a contributing factor in a student's need to attend summer school, and thus it could be unfair to charge students to attend the program.
"Public systems take on the responsibility of providing a free public school education and educating the students to proficiency," he said. "That’s the ideal—and an important ideal—and one I continue to believe is not fully realized under a system that charges for remedial summer school."
Superintendent Joe Casey, who disagreed with LaRock's stance, brought back this week a comparison to other nearby summer school programs, including:
- Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational in Wakefield: $270 for a 42-hour course, $540 for an 84-hour course
- Belmont Hill School: $560 for a one-period course, $850 for a two-period course, $1,150 for a three-period course
- Woburn (2008): $225 for one class
Casey noted that Melrose's fee either matches or is less than what is charged at other nearby summer schools; reiterated that summer school is a voluntary program; and added that any student who wishes to attend summer school, but may have financial difficulty, is supported by the district to make attendance possible.
LaRock brought up a 2009 survey regarding summer school fees conducted by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. Our of the 177 school districts that responded, 69 percent reported offering the program without fees and supported with funds through public sources, with grants or otherwise, while 31 percent offer fee-based programs.
"The range of districts (offering free summer school) spans the gamut from high-need districts to districts that look a lot like ours," he said. "I think there is a varied landscape. Because of that, it’s another reason to perhaps, in the future, re-think the way we do this."
Committee member Carrie Kourkoumelis, who also voted against the fees, offered that a virtual high school program with fully-credited programs could possibly be an option for high school students who must work over the summer, but still need to attend summer school. She expressed her concern that last summer the district spent $17,625 on the program and brought in $20,235 in fee-based revenues, resulting in a profit of $2,610.
Casey responded that the money made off the program is used to purchase materials for this year's program, but Kourkoumelis noted that the cost of those materials was not presented in the figures given to the School Committee.
"If we knew how much those programs cost in actuality, it would be helpful in evaluating this," she said.
Why do kids end up in summer school?
Mayor Rob Dolan said Casey has done one thing "very well:" making sure that students who wish to participate in a fee-based program are not denied due to financial constraints. With regard to LaRock saying that problem in the schools could contribute to a student's need to attend summer school, Dolan said, "obviously you have to have conversations with the individual instructor—and our good friends at the teacher’s union would like to talk about that.
"The majority of the students in this program, I’ve learned, are good kids but didn’t make the right decisions over the year," he said. "They have consequences for that."
LaRock responded that he respects and appreciates "our friends in the Melrose Education Association" and clarified that problems in the school are not necessarily about teacher quality. As an example, he noted that earlier in the evening, Math Department Chairwoman Ro Gine spoke about "curricula issues, as opposed to teacher issues in middle school math," and Science Department Chairwoman Sue Eason spoke about a gap in science instruction in the Grade 7.
Pointing to enrollment figures provided by Casey, LaRock said that out of 58 students enrolled in last year's summer school program, eight students were enrolled in Grade 7 science and nine students were enrolled in Grade 7 math, which were among the highest enrollments in the program. Other high enrollment classes were Grade 8 English (nine students), Grade 10 English (eight) and Grade 11 English (nine).
"You can look at these data and make a reasonable link between issues and challenges in the instructional program," LaRock said, "and draw a reasonable conclusion that the cause of a student’s need to go to summer school may be more complex than just the effort the student put in him or herself."
Dolan said he applauded that the conversation was taking place about the summer school program, while noting steps taken by the district such as expanding free and reduced tuition for full-day kindergarten, reducing some fees at the Early Childhood Center, and the middle school afterschool program that could potentially expand. He also noted there are "needs everywhere" in the budget, and this year is focusing on class size at the high school and textbook issues, but that the budget is a "living document" revisited throughout the year.
"We collectively are in an ideal situation … to solve problems like this," he said. "I’m confident we can do it and keep the conversation going."