The School Committee was updated on school start times. COVID protocols and heard updates on the strategic plan working groups at its Wednesday, Aug. 24 meeting.
The district’s schools opened for the 2022-23 school year on Wednesday, Aug. 31.
“We are ready to go,” Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak said at the meeting. “School is ready to open. Professional staff – we’re fully staffed, but I’m going to make a plea to the public right now … I’m in dire need of paraprofessionals at all levels.”
Szymaniak said he also needs duty aides – lunchroom assistants for the elementary and middle schools – and long-term substitute teachers, especially at Conley and Indian Head schools and the high school.
Those positions are all posted on the SchoolSpring website [schoolspring.com].
He also said bus and van drivers are needed by both First Student and North River Collaborative.
“The lack of bus drivers will impact us in the future when people start calling out sick and things like that,” he said.
Szymaniak said for the first time since the pandemic started, he had an extremely short COVID report.
“I asked [lead nurse] Lisa Tobin for an update and she said, ‘We’re as close to 2019 as ever,’ so we’re opening as normal,” he said. “We’re only asking students – if they test positive at home – to stay home for five days.”
Masks will only be required in the nurse’s office.
The strategic plan working groups provided an update on their work over the summer. Chair Christopher Howard said no votes were planned on the working groups’ reports.
Uniform start times
With the start of a new school year in mind, as well as requests over the summer from parents and students asking that start times be pushed back, Symaniak reviewed the work of the Uniform Start Times working group.
He has included further investigation of the issue in his years’ goals. Hurdles along the way include financial implications, teacher contract renegotiations, student work schedules, younger students at home alone after school, special education can availability and the impact on athletic schedules, among others.
“We think 9 a.m. is a good start time, that will definitely have an impact on high school schedules and our league,” he said. “We need to dig deeper. There were a lot of what-ifs at our meetings.”
Benefits include more downtime for high school students at the end of the day, parents will have older students home with younger siblings after school or can find work and the lower grades administrations seem to be satisfied.
Szymaniak is also looking into what plans the state may have in mind regarding start times as well as the possible budget implications of any change.
“This is really supposed to be just an information share,” said Howard, who was a member of the Postgrad Readiness and Early College and Work group. “We really focused in on early college pathways, additional post-graduation type opportunities in terms of career readiness and then we looked at early college, as well.”
The group researched what other school districts and the state has to offer as part of their work, Committee member Beth Stafford said, including business innovation pathways programs.
“We’re hoping to do a medical one, because we feel that it’s not just about college,” Stafford said. “It’s about readiness for all different aspects of the world.”
Dual enrollment with Quincy College has also been discussed. The school already has a program with Quincy College involving courses in pre-calculus, sociology and accounting with the aim of adding marketing, anatomy & physiology and statistics.
High School Guidance Counselor Ruth Carrigan said that a “robust” internship program is already in place for several years, in the past connected to a work-based learning program, which has lost some focus recently before COVID stopped it completely.
She said the plan is to bring it back.
Counselors also work closely with students to develop a post-graduate career plan.
“It’s not the same for everybody,” Committee member Fred Small said. “Everyone has a different need. Everyone has a different desire, and to be able to accommodate so many students in that aspect is fantastic.”
He did express concern about the sustainability of grants. Stafford also said someone had to be put in place to run the programs.
The K-8 Related Arts working group’s blueprint includes foreign language — what a language is and how it looks like in today’s day and age, according to Assistant Superintendent George Ferro. The group analyzed how teachers are used today, how to bring in new staff and programs as well as how students learn best.
Starting with a STEM and robotics program, during a related arts period already offered, from K-8 was recommended because there is no impact from a personnel standpoint. Using library periods in earlier grades adds a literacy component including early coding and STEM aspects. In grades three to five use of an online program called Robotitfy works off an ingenuity platform that fits with all the students’ hand-held devices, again during time already allotted in their schedule. Middle school students already have STEM or technology application classes.
“This would be infused in it and would be a formal way for students to do it,” Ferro said. The cost starting point for a year would be $55,000 with that method.
Introducing foreign languages, too, could be built into the day for grades seven and eight through an online course that “doesn’t have to always be during the day,” Ferro said.
“You would offer online Spanish to all eighth-grade students in both middle schools, that way there are no equity issues,” he said. “We’re providing a service, we’re providing a device and we’ll talk about the support for that.”
Online programs also provide on-demand tutoring outside of school.
“We would hire one Spanish teacher as we begin this,” Ferro said, who would provide in-person support to interested students during academic extension time. The teacher would serve both middle schools, who could also offer a introductory cultural class in grade six and one school and grade seven in another.
The Spanish course would cost $24,000 per year for Whitman and Hanson combined through Imagine Inginuity with the on-demand tutoring option costing $4,400. The teacher would cost about $75,000.
“You would be making students competitive with other students locally, within the state and nationally,” Ferro said. Students would start with Spanish II at the high school. He argues it could open avenues for other courses.
While he admitted it would have to be explore it with the teacher’s union, Ferro said it could open different teaching opportunities for staff.
Learning a language – whether coding, ASL or a foreign language – expands the mind’s ability to think critically and problem solve, making decisions quicker, as well as introducing them to a broader world.
The Student Climate, Culture and Support working group will be collecting information over the coming school year to gauge where the culture is as a district before the meet again as a group to make recommendations.