School district officials vet plan for new summer school

After an effort to hold a summer school at Vashon High School faltered last year, the school district is taking steps to see a program for struggling students come to fruition this summer.

After an effort to hold a summer school at Vashon High School faltered last year, the school district is taking steps to see a program for struggling students come to fruition this summer.

At last week’s Vashon school board meeting, VHS principal Susan Hanson presented two summer school options for the board to consider. While board members said they were glad to see the effort move forward, several of them, as well as a volunteer who has promoted summer school, said they weren’t happy with the latest plan.

“It doesn’t accomplish what I thought we were trying to do,” said board member Laura Wishik at the meeting. “It doesn’t let you wipe out your mistake.”

At issue is the fact that under the proposal, a high schooler who failed an English or math class could take summer school and earn a “pass” grade, but couldn’t change the letter grade he or she had earned. Instead, the old F as well as the new “pass” would both appear on the student’s transcript.

Several board members said they wanted to give students the opportunity to improve their original grades, and they questioned whether many students would take part in a summer school that didn’t give them that option.

“We’re looking for a second bite at the apple,” said Bob Hennessey, board chair.

Hilary Emmer, who organized a small-scale summer school program two years ago, said that while she was happy to see the district taking steps to offer an official summer school, she too wanted students to have the chance to improve their grades and in doing so improve their GPA.

Two years ago, Emmer, a tax preparer and former high school teacher, offered a program that did just that when she tutored eight geometry students over the summer for about 18 hours total, helping them raise their grades from F to D or D to C.

“There was a real major inclination for them to be there, and their attitudes were pretty good,” Emmer said.

Last summer, Emmer attempted to organize a similar tutoring program that would have been overseen by two teachers, giving students in geometry, algebra or English the chance to raise their grades. However, last-minute objections by teachers hampered the effort, and the teacher that was to oversee the English tutoring pulled out.

Teachers who had learned of the program, particularly those in the high school’s humanities department, said they were uncomfortable seeing a student change a grade in a class after simply being tutored by someone not certified as a teacher. They also said the concept violated their union agreement and questioned if it may violate state law as well. Humanities teacher Martha Woodard, also grievance chair for the teacher’s union, said she was prepared to file a labor grievance if the plans went forward.

“As far as the union goes, it was completely contractually wrong,” she said of last year’s effort.

Emmer’s program was delayed by the conflict and ultimately faltered. Some tutoring was offered over the summer, but no students improved their grades. Board members, displeased to see what seemed like a positive effort foiled by the disagreement, asked Superintendent Michael Soltman in July to deliver a viable summer school option for the following year.

Last week, Hanson, the longtime VHS principal who recently announced her retirement, presented the board with two options similar to the summer school program the district offered about a dozen years ago. Both would give students with F grades in math or English the chance to completely retake the course over the summer, with one option involving a certified teacher providing 70 hours of instruction over the summer and the other having students complete the course online with a certified teacher on hand for help when needed.

Since the state doesn’t fund summer school, either option would likely depend on students paying some tuition with scholarships available.

Hanson, in an interview, said she thought the proposal was fair and would provide a good opportunity for students who fail classes to make up the credit.

Students who fail a class can currently retake it during the school year or take it independently online, but few make up courses independently and some would probably like the chance to do it over the summer in a more structured environment, she said. A similar program once ran for years at the district, but interest waned, and eventually not enough students signed up to keep it going.

The summer class would be pass/fail and wouldn’t wipe out the previous grade because it would be a condensed version of the original, Hanson said.

“You’re doing it intensely, and it’s not the full depth of the full class.”

When board members raised objections to the model, both Hanson and Soltman said they would consider putting together a new proposal that involved changing grades, but it would likely mean working with teachers to find something they were comfortable with. What’s more, they said, in order to change a grade already earned, the summertime class would have to match the original class in time and difficulty, something that would require a whole new level of planning.

“We have to find a way to do it that maintains the integrity of the standards we set for performance,” Soltman said. “Summer school, in that case, would need to replicate the regular course experience.”

A curriculum would need to be set, Hanson said, and there isn’t much time to work out all the details before summer.

“It would be very difficult,” Hanson said at the meeting. “I hesitate to say that anything is impossible.”

As for Emmer, she said she would hate to see the program again derailed by grading policy and teacher’s objections. If students prove they have mastered concepts they struggled with the first time around, she said, they should be able to improve their grade like they did two summers ago.

“What we did is worked on the areas the students didn’t get and were weak at,” she said. “I think it’s possible to do it in a shorter period of time, and the kids can still get a lot out of it.”

But Woodard endorsed Hanson’s proposal, saying it was both fair and a standard way for districts across the country to offer summer school. Should the district put forward a proposal where failing grades are replaced with new ones, she said, it would likely be met by opposition from teachers. Woodward also suspected changing a grade is against state law.

“I think you would run into some issues, philosophical or not,” she said. “I think that what kids get on the transcript remains on the transcript.”

However, at Thursday’s meeting, Soltman said he thought the board could set a policy allowing for grade changes on transcripts if it wished. At the same time, he said, he thought the district should work to find a solution everyone could agree with, even if it didn’t happen in time to plan a full summer program this year.

“It’s a pretty professionally charged issue we would need to work our way through,” he said.