School Committee logo'[Schoolchildren] have missed out on so much already.'

-- Parent Elizabeth Pyle

Overnight science camp – a beloved Arlington Public Schools institution that is no more – was a continuing topic at Thursday evening’s School Committee meeting.

The venue, the popular Rhode Island-based campsite Alton Jones, closed permanently two years ago because of financial straits associated with the Covid-19 pandemic

Moonlight hikes, catching frogs, building terrariums and the like formed precious memories for many participants. Historically, teachers have supervised the experience – another of the possible barriers to restoring it, the committee was told.

How, when, where and if to resurrect the program came up first in public comment, later during the superintendent’s report and finally toward the end of the three-hour session. A couple of local moms and committee members described it as a memorable experience often mentioned fondly by students even many years later.

“[Schoolchildren] have missed out on so much already,” said local parent Elizabeth Pyle, who said her child considers it to have been “the highlight of her elementary school experience,” that it “made science learning fun” and be “on their own in a new place out in nature.” Local resident Julie Hall also advocated for its return, saying that it builds confidence, imposes routine, imparts responsibility and is an “experience that can’t be replicated in the classroom.”

Surge scuttled plans last fall

Responding immediately rather than waiting until the superintendent report typically scheduled toward the end of each agenda, Dr. Elizabeth Homan said that the district early last fall began work on recreating something comparable, “But then the omicron surge hit” at the end of December, and necessary administrative planning time was lost, not to be recovered, the superintendent said.

Both parents characterized the camp as a valuable way to enhance social-emotional learning, and Homan concurred. She agreed that the “overnight experience is really special” and that it can be “very exciting and experiential” for the children to meet their age-level counterparts districtwide. She said at least two issues need to be addressed: “incentivizing the staffing,” as classroom teachers historically have run the program but cannot be compelled to do so, and ensuring accessibility and accommodation for all who wish to attend regardless of special needs, demographics or hometown, as some students who attend APS schools travel from Boston to do so.

Subcommittee discussion to resume

Toward meeting’s end, committee members continued the discussion and informally agreed that the subject would soon be taken up at the subcommittee level. Even if the precise format can no longer be replicated in future, “We have to replace that social-emotional learning somehow,” said Len Kardon. “It needs to be a community conversation.”

Jeff Thielman agreed with the public commenters that the camp has a special place in residents’ memories and that “part of the community really feels attached to it.” He asked that his colleagues and the administration find a way to “a date certain” by which it could be publicly communicated what the status of the camp program is going to be – ideally, by October.

Jane Morgan said that despite all that she had heard, she needs clarity on the issue for herself and for her constituents. “I [still] don’t know what to tell them. We could lose trust very quickly if the intention is not clear.”

In other business:
  • The committee voted unanimously to approve the job description for a new position at the district, a specialized support paraprofessional who would be an educational coach for the MAICEI program. MAICEI, or the Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative, is a way for students enrolled in college to simultaneously get special-education services through the public school district providing that support, according to the MAICEI website
  • The committee voted unanimously to send a letter about traffic-safety concerns to the Select Board, with a copy to be given to the Transportation Advisory Committee.
  • Homan said recent news on the pandemic front is excellent and that she was “very pleased to report that [Covid-19] rates have gone down precipitously” within the schools. According to the APS “dashboard” website updated weekly, the number of infections today is exponentially lower than a month ago
  • She said the district was considering the possible establishment of before-school programming beginning at 7 a.m., given that 41 families have reported that they would use it regularly and that another 26 families stated that they might use it occasionally.
  • She reported that Leo Muellner, a noted local working artist, has been hired as director of visual arts. Recruitment is in the final stages for director of history and social studies, high-school special-education coordinator and assistant principal at Brackett School. Job descriptions have been posted for director of fine and performing arts, Stratton School assistant principal and Ottoson Middle School principal.
  • Homan presented the latest versions of proposed wording for the vision statement, mission statement and strategic priorities for the five-year strategic plan. Committee members debated at some length the aspects of the wording. Revisions are to be made and a second reading is likely at the next meeting June 23. Read the agenda documents >> 
  • Chief Financial Officer Michael Mason described physical-plant improvements in the works at Bishop, Dallin. and Peirce elementary schools. Homan noted that Mason recently was accepted to the master of business administration program at Boston University.
  • Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director Margaret Credle Thomas gave a report on accomplishments in her first year in the post; she is the first one to hold it. She mentioned that she would be starting her second year of a doctoral program at Boston College in July.
  • METCO Director Richelle Smith gave an update on the program that brings low-income minority students from Boston to study at Arlington Schools. METCO, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, began in 1966, and Smith is a former participant. Arlington serves some 70 METCO students. Four of them graduated from Arlington High School a few days ago and will continue their educations at Albany State, Bunker Hill, Framingham State and UMass./Dartmouth.
  • Arlington Education Foundation President Judy Geyer talked about the volunteer-run nonprofit’s recent work. School Committee Chair Liz Exton is the new AEF liaison, succeeding Kardon, who served for five years. AEF funds initiatives and creative new projects throughout the district. 
  • The committee discussed scheduling a summer retreat. Possible topics are reflecting on their first year working with the new superintendent, who began in that position July 1, the strategic plan for the district, a DEI workshop and the implications of the expected tax override by next year.

The consent agenda was approved, 7-0. The committee went into closed session at 9:35 p.m., with no report expected. 

May 27, 2022: Public schools drop mask rule except for Menotomy Preschool


This summary by YourArlington freelance writer Judith Pfeffer was published Friday, June 10, 2022.

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