Summer school program falters after teachers raise concerns

A volunteer effort to offer a small-scale summer school program for Vashon high schoolers has all but failed after teachers raised last-minute objections, leaving school administrators and volunteers scrambling to keep the effort afloat.

At a meeting last Friday to introduce students to the new summer school program for math and English, just two of the approximately 40 students invited to participate showed up, said Hilary Emmer, who is spearheading the effort. Emmer, disappointed at the turnout, believes more students would have attended if their work could have resulted in raised grades — as she had suggested — and if a dispute with teachers hadn’t delayed outreach to students.

VHS humanities teachers, however, question how one month of tutoring can take the place of months of actual class work and result in changed grades. They also think it’s possible the grade-raising part of the program could violate state law.

“Nobody is the bad guy,” said social studies teacher Martha Woodard, a high school humanities teacher who is looking into the question of legality. “This is not a well-thought-out policy.”

But both Emmer and school board members say that the effort may prove worthwhile in the end. Emmer and at least two other school board members — Bob Hennessey and Laura Wishik — hope  to create a better-organized, district-sponsored summer school next summer.

“I’m disappointed with the whole thing here,” Emmer said. “But I’m now going to push for the school board to put in a (budget) line item for summer school next summer. Maybe this has a silver lining.”

Emmer, a tax preparer and avid volunteer, has been working to promote student achievement for more than a year. Last summer, after learning that several VHS students were struggling in math, she tutored eight high schoolers in geometry, helping them raise their low to failing grades by one letter.

This spring, after getting a green light by VHS principal Susan Hanson, Emmer decided to expand the effort and lined up several volunteer tutors for a similar program, this time to cover geometry as well as algebra and freshman and sophomore English.

A math teacher and English teacher agreed to provide oversight for the program for a $500 stipend, Emmer said, and letters were prepared to inform high schoolers that they could change their D grades to Cs by completing the six-week program.

However, when Woodard heard of the summer school, she contacted Hanson to halt the English portion. Woodard, who is also the grievance chair for the teachers’ union, said she believed grades should not be raised during a short program taught by volunteers and believed the concept may violate the union contract as well as state law. She reached out to the union’s attorney and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Education (OSPI) to find what the school could legally offer.

Woodard, who said teachers learned late in the game about the summer school, said other humanities teachers agreed with her. Stephen Floyd, a teacher who had agreed to oversee English tutors, then declined to participate in the program.

“How can a four-week tutoring session equal a 13-week trimester in rigor, coursework and assessment?” she asked. “No one has bad intentions. I just question the entire premise of being able to change a grade in four weeks of instruction.”

Hanson said the union contract does not specifically address summer school. At the same time, she said, she couldn’t allow the program to move forward without a teacher overseeing it, and she knew no one else would step forward.

“The entire humanities department was uncomfortable with summer school changing an existing grade,” Hanson said.

Students who will be freshmen at VHS next year were also invited to get preparatory tutoring in math or English, an offer that five students so far have taken.

Emmer said she wasn’t surprised when no current high schoolers showed up at the summer school meeting to seek help in English and only a couple came for math. Letters eventually sent to students arrived just days before the meeting, Emmer said, and offered grade changes only in math.

“There’s no prize at the end, so they didn’t show up,” she said.

Emmer said she wanted students to have an option to attend summer school in part because she’s concerned over the number of poor grades VHS students receive. Emmer, who taught high school for a short time in the 1970s, frequently requests information about grades at VHS. She hasn’t compared the Vashon grades to those at other schools, but said she is concerned nonetheless.

“I think we have kids who are struggling. … I think we don’t spend enough time with these kids,” she said.

Hennessey said he, too, was disappointed to see Emmer’s effort fail because of teachers’ objections, though he said he understood state law may come into play.

“We need to be both compassionate and generous in terms of providing an opportunity for kids to do it right the second time,” he said. “It’s important that we not lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve here. ... It’s the outcome we’re looking for, not so much the process of getting there.”

Wishik also expressed disappointment.

“There’s a concern on the part of some of the teachers that changing the grades is not appropriate,” she said. “I don’t agree with that concern, but I think we need to take the time to address it so we don’t risk hard feelings on any side.”

Emmer said that unless more people contact her, there would be no program for English this summer, and a few students will work with an algebra tutor to try to raise their grades. Meanwhile, she plans to attend the upcoming school district budget hearing to request that board members designate funds in the budget to support a summer school program next year.

The school district has put on a larger-scale summer school taught by teachers in years past, Hanson said, but it was discontinued when there weren’t enough students willing to pay tuition.

Both Hennessey and Wishik said they would push for the district to once again offer a full-fledged summer school with teachers doing the instructing.

“If money is the issue, I personally would support finding the money to pay for the classes to occur,” Hennessey said.


To register a student for summer school, contact Hilary Emmer at 463-7277 by Friday.


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