School Committee logoCamp goal is community-building, social-emotional learning and joy.

UPDATED Oct. 20: A reimagining of the program formerly known as science camp, changes in standardized test scores, concern about attendance and updates on elementary campuses were discussed at length by the School Committee on Oct. 13, though no decisions were made. 

Emphasizing that the camp proposals currently are simply an initial “exploration,” Assistant Superintendent Roderick MacNeal Jr. presented four options for what is now termed an “overnight experience.” 

If chosen, any one of them potentially could succeed the long-established and wildly popular Rhode Island-based Alton Jones science camp program that many Arlington Public Schools fifth graders participated in prepandemic.

But with the former venue permanently closed and the consensus now to facilitate as many students as possible to take part including those living with disabilities, things will have to be different going forward, administrators and committee members have acknowledged in recent months

All proposals presented Oct. 13 were for sixth graders, and none focused specifically on science. These changes were not explained or discussed at the meeting, so YourArlington inquired.

Replying via email the morning of Oct. 20, Superintendent Elizabeth Homan stated, "Arlington has a 6th grade school [Gibbs, headed by Fabienne Pierre-Maxwell], where all students come together into a single building. Organizing district-wide efforts and maintaining consistency for an initiative of this size can be more effective at one school than when we try to spread it across seven [elementary] schools.

Of the change in emphasis, her response was as follows: "We are exploring ways to ensure that ALL students have access to rich and rigorous, immersive science curriculum experiences as part of the regular school day. Science Director Dr. Sam Hoyo and her team are exploring ways to bring the 'science' aspect of science camp into the 5th grade curriculum as an immersive, interdisciplinary capstone experience that would not include an overnight trip.When it comes to the APS core curriculum, we are required to ensure that all students have access to experience the curriculum, and not all students can access overnight experiences."

The goal now is community-building, social-emotional learning and joy, in alignment with the core values of Gibbs School. “It will not be attached to the science curriculum,” MacNeal said. 

The time frame of any future overnight experience was not specified, though some mention was made of it possibly taking place during the February break or the April break either in 2023 or 2024.

The subject is expected to be discussed at the Oct. 24 morning meeting of the School Committee’s curriculum, instruction, assessment and accountability subcommittee headed by committee member Jane Morgan.

4 possibilities for the future

Four venues were identified and described -- three in Massachusetts and one in New Hampshire. Estimated costs were mentioned for only two of them, and it was not clear how these would be paid, who would be paying them, how many nights’ stay the quoted prices cover or how many children could attend at a given time. Read the documents for this agenda subject >> 

Morse Hill Outdoor Education Center Inc. of Shutesbury and Amherst provided no cost information. No nurse is on staff, but all employees are trained in first-aid, CPR and medication administration. Nevertheless, MacNeal said, the district should provide a school nurse with each group of students it sends. Activities include canoeing, climbing and tree identification, all with social-emotional learning in mind. The venue is also customized for students with individual education plans, and for behavior support.

The Farm School in Athol is a working farm, with hands-on activities as dictated by the season; for example, it is harvesting at present and will have maple-syrup production in February/March. No nurse is available at the facility. The expectation is that teachers would supervise and that parents would attend if there is room. The initial quote was for $425 per child attendee.

Merrowvista Education System in Tuftonboro, N.H., has a focus on team-building and quasi-engineering activities, such as building rafts, fires and shelters. These activities along with outdoor games such as capture-the-flag, archery, and arts and crafts make it the most summer-camp-like of the four options under consideration, MacNeal said. No one on staff is authorized to administer any kind of medication, he said, making it crucial that the district send a nurse with each group of students. The base cost was cited at $320 per student.

Nature’s Classroom in Charlton was the only facility of the four to have a nurse on staff and available around the clock, MacNeal said. Also, this program could be connected to science instruction if desired, he added. It includes a focus on mindfulness and on the humanities. While not mentioning any figures, MacNeal said one drawback is that this site likely would be “expensive with add-ons.”

Good news, bad news on MCAS front

MacNeal also showed a slide deck and spoke about the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, better known as MCAS. Arlington Public Schools is above the state average for grades three through eight, scoring in the 60s as compared to the 50s in the “meets or exceeds expectations" classification. However, trends statewide are that math and science scores increased but that scores for English language arts declined, and local schools mirror those trends.

See all documents for this agenda item >> 

Arlington High School is higher with regard to participation in advanced coursework in 2022 compared to 2021, though nonwhite students, English language learners and low-income students generally take part at a lower rate than whites who are not English language learners or low-income. Asked about this – something sometimes called an “achievement gap” or an “opportunity gap” -- MacNeal said, “I would like to see all of our groups achieving at a much higher rate.” 

In response to a question from committee member Kirsi Allison-Ampe, he said, “The pandemic widened gaps. We know that the pandemic had all sorts of effects that were not within the control of the school system.”

MacNeal said the district has three responses intended to make improvements: adoption of a new K-5 core universal literacy program, an equity audit and equitable grading practices. “We have a ways to go across all subject areas to fully recover [pandemic-related] learning losses.”

Updates on Peirce, Dallin schools

Playgrounds are undergoing rehabilitation at three campuses, Homan reported. At Bishop School, the playground reopened Oct. 11. At Stratton, rubber surfacing is due to take place the week of Oct. 17. And the playground at Peirce is expected to soon get mulch put down in appropriate places and to be open on or about Nov. 2.

Peirce School’s principal, Andrew Ahmadi, and its assistant principal, Oliva Goodrich, reviewed “wins” and “challenges” at the 330-student campus that prizes “growth” and “joy” as does the district’s own mission statement. Read the documents for this agenda item >> 

A big win is that MCAS science scores are at 78 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards -- above the district at 69 percent and far higher than the statewide average of 43 percent. The school prizes relationships and people having a sense of belonging and is proud that 85 percent of families report feeling good about two-way home-school communication.

At Peirce, chronic absenteeism – missing at least 18 school days, equating to 10 percent of a school year-- is 11.8 percent, lower than the district average of 13.5 percent. But it is much higher among Peirce’s ethnic minority children, at 25 percent, which is yet higher than the district average for these same students, which is 21.5 percent. 

Ahmadi attributed chronic absenteeism to the effects of Covid-19; transportation difficulties, especially in winter; a language barrier with some parents; and poverty in many cases -- all factors that are “bigger than just one school.” Campus staff is meeting more frequently with affected families, he said. He advocated for consideration of the concept of establishing a “welcome center” to provide additional support for those households who have “a lot of things working against them.” 

On the other side of Mass. Ave. in the Heights, Dallin School, student population 425, holds courage, respect and responsibility as its core values. It believes that “literacy is equity” and also resonates to the terms belonging, growth, joy and empowerment from the mission statement, said Principal Thad Dingman.

See the documents for this agenda item >>

He was pleased to report that math scores are up among the high-needs population and that reading scores are sharply up in kindergarten over the past four years, particularly in tests of “nonsense word fluency.” 

He said Dallin would continue to promote early literacy, improve mathematics communities such that students feel self-confident enough to speak out and share their ideas, foster stronger community connections -- and continue to improve pedestrian safety by pushing for families walking their children to school rather than driving them, and, he hopes, having more crosswalks and crossing guards.

In other business, the committee:

  • Expressed solidarity with METCO cofounder and education/civil rights icon Dr. Jean McGuire, 91, recovering after having been stabbed by an as-yet-unknown assailant while walking her dog in Franklin Park in Boston on Oct. 11. In 2016, McGuire was honored at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Observance in Arlington.  
  • Unanimously approved a contract with cafeteria workers running from July 1, 2022, through June 30, 2025 (see it here >>); 
  • Heard that chronic absenteeism is a problem locally and statewide. APS stands at 13.5 percent overall and significantly higher among those children considered as disabled and as low-income – 23.4 percent and 30.2 percent respectively. Homan called it “something we are monitoring closely,” “something that we have to recover from” and noted that ensuring regular attendance is “a big challenge” for some families;
  • Appointed committee member Paul Schlichtman as the delegate to the assembly of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, or MASC;
  • Appointed Kym Goldsmith as the committee’s representative to the town’s Rainbow Commission and reappointed Michael Brownstein and Scott Lever as the committee’s designees to the Envision Arlington Commission;
  • Heard that they would “very soon” meet the finalist for the chief financial officer position soon to be vacated by CFO Michael Mason, who is to become deputy town manager next month;
  • Adopted the consent agenda 7-0; and
  • Voted unanimously to go into closed session at 9:47 p.m., with no report expected.
Watch the Oct. 13, 2022, meeting on ACMi:

Sept. 24, 2022: Higher-cost option for next year's AHS start approved


This summary by YourArlington freelance writer Judith Pfeffer was published Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, and updated later that day to correct the first name of the Dallin principal and the title of the PTO serving the three middle-school grades. It was updated Thursday, Oct. 20, to include emailed statements from the superintendent explaining proposed changes to grade level and mission of any future overnight programming.

Donate button, 300pxThis reporting demonstrates your donations at work to support democracy here.YourArlington is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.Your contributions are tax-deductible. Donate here >>