UNION – It appears the very popular and successful Union School District Middle and High School Academy started by Superintendent Patrick Martin four years ago will not be coming back.
Although parents waged and won a valiant fight last fall to have the Academy reinstated, recently their pleas fell on deaf ears. In fact, the Union Board of Education did not even respond to concerns voiced by parents and educators alike at recent board meetings when the topic was addressed. This has raised concerns among parents, who said they have serious concerns about the board and its members, some of whom are running for reelection this year.
Four years ago when Martin came aboard as the new superintendent, his new concept of a Saturday Academy in the spring of 2010 was so innovative, there were concerns over whether or not students would embrace the idea of going to school on a Saturday.
It turned out the district had nothing to worry about. Not only did more than 50 elementary school-aged students register to attend classes on Saturday, but they totally embraced the idea of dressing up for the occasion.
The concept of three additional hours of math and language arts on a Saturday starting at 8 a.m. sharp was unheard of, let alone the rule that boys had to wear collared shirts and a tie and girls a skirt or dress. There were no jeans, no sneakers and no slackers allowed.
In many ways, the Saturday Academy mimicked a prep school. The rules were strict and made clear: any problems and students are out of the program.
With a long waiting list of students eager to get into the academy, in the spring of 2010 school board president Anthony Manochio let it be known the district would have no problem removing a student for the slightest infraction. Back then the school board fully supported the Saturday Academy and that support continued for several years.
It was not long before academy registration broke any expectation Martin had from the start, topping out last fall at 400 for elementary school students and ninth-graders, who for the first time were allowed to attend the academy.
Actually, the addition of ninth-graders came after both students and parents of high school-aged students begged Martin to include them in the program.
Despite the popularity of the program, the 2013 Fall Academy almost did not get off the ground. When news spread that the board would not be approving the academy for the fall, parents jammed several board of education meetings, demanding to know why the board was canceling the popular program.
At issue was whether the spike in academy enrollment had anything to do with the fact the school district agreed to pay the $175 academy fee for any student qualifying for the federal free or reduced lunch program. But, even though it was not Martin who delayed the start of the academy, it was board president Ray Perkins who had issues with it from the start.
Perkins felt the problem involving the free lunch program could possibly involve fraud, “and fraud is a crime,” he told parents at a board meeting.
Martin, visibly upset by the fact the program had to be delayed or even not take place at all last fall, explained why he made the decision he did.
“I love the academy but I’m not going to let any family get in trouble,” the superintendent said, his voice breaking at one point.
Martin admitted he was the last person who wanted to see the program postponed or canceled and even said he was very concerned about the hundreds of students looking forward to the learning experience the academy provided.
“It blows my mind that there are 312 kids in the school district that want to get up early to learn more for 20 days,” said an emotional Martin, adding that he did not want to see any family get in trouble.
Martin said he agonized over the decision, initially planning on holding off the academy for two weeks until an audit could be completed of those registering for the academy. But, when he heard this could take up to 30 days, he felt he had no choice.
Perkins admitted he sent the memo about the spike in academy registrations because in the spring of 2011 the school district was fined $20,000 for having children in the free and reduced lunch program that did not qualify.
Perkins said the district was responsible for auditing the applications and that is what they intended to do with the academy applications. However, a few weeks later the fall middle and high school academy was reinstated with little fanfare and no explanation. Enrollment was over 300, but the district was tight lipped about the reversal, as was Martin, who said he preferred not commenting on the matter.
At this board meeting last fall, Perkins did mention that he had concerns about the academy because it was not available to every student.
“We need to make sure these programs are available to all students,” he said, telling parents attending the meeting that while their kids would be okay, “what about the kids who aren’t here?”
Fast forward to the spring and it quickly became apparent there would not be a spring academy. This time around parents came out in droves to several school board meetings, demanding to know why the program was not scheduled as it had been the past four years.
Board members, however, remained stony faced and never responded to their questions. Union Education Foundation President Sue Lipstein was more than concerned about this, explaining to LocalSource how things transpired since last year.
“The community realized that this year there was no Saturday Academy and no plans were announced for the spring Academy. Parents attended the last three board meetings and asked board members if there would be an academy but we have received no answer, no information at all,” said Lipstein, who added that hundreds of students have been asking at school about the academy and the board has not replied.
At the April 8 meeting, Lipstein approached the podium during the public session and asked the board outright to reinstate the academy. She said not one board member responded to her question.
“I quoted from what Mr. Perkins said at the Aug. 20 board meeting,” Lipstein said, explaining the board president said he envisioned the academy would be a program that ultimately would be available to any student in the district, at the cost of the district.
“He said that there would be no issue with free or reduced lunch. He also said there would be a recommendation from the Education Committee, who is asking to study this program and deal with these issues,” she added.
Lipstein said the academy ended in November but when she asked at the April 8 board meeting about this particular report that was supposed to be completed by the Education Committee, she was told no report was issued.
“Why are we told there will be a report and no report has been made?” the foundation president asked. “All along, in my opinion, it has seemed to me that the biggest concern of Mr. Perkins was that he wanted documentation that the program was effective. It seems that having 300 children want to come to school early, stay late, learn to respect themselves, others, their teachers and education is not enough for him.”
Lipstein said in the minutes of the Aug. 20, 2013, meeting, a board member said a survey could go home to parents about the academy so the district could find out how parents and students felt about the academy. When she inquired about this survey at the April 8 board meeting, Lipstein said she was told that a survey was never completed.
“Does the board not want to know how parents feel about the academy?” she asked, noting that she specifically asked the board at the April 8 meeting to work with the superintendent to come up with a plan to reinstate the academy.
“I feel that with all the intelligence and skills that our board members should have, they should be able to work together to come up with any solutions necessary to reinstate the academy program,” Lipstein said.
As far as any concerns about financing the academy, the foundation president said parents have already indicated they are willing to pay tuition and help raise funds for scholarships for those who may not be able to afford the academy.
Lipstein noted that after her statement, not one board member commented.
“No comment whatsoever,” she stressed.
“What concerns me is the board told the public on the record what they would do and they have done nothing. Isn’t it time we had a board that listens to community input, especially the voices of parents whose children are trying to get the best education possible?” Lipstein said, adding “what is the problem with our nine board of education members? Are they unable to solve problems? Or do they just not want to? And why would they not want to provide more for our children?” she asked.
There is little doubt the Academy was an incentive that drew students from every economic level, especially the African-American community. As one parent noted, she watched her son completely change direction after attending his first academy.
“My boy was heading down the wrong road, getting involved with kids he shouldn’t and not concentrating on his schoolwork. When the academy came along he did a complete turnaround and was reading books, became very interested in getting good grades and it was a godsend,” noted the mother, who preferred her name not be used.
“What will happen to my son now?” she asked, adding that she is gravely concerned for his future and that of other boys his age who found refuge in education instead of violence or gang activity.
Other parents also called LocalSource expressing concerns about the academy, but preferred their name not appear in the paper because their children might suffer repercussions as a result. One mother said she felt that because more than 70 percent of students in the academy were African-American — that number went up to 90 percent at Burnett School — that this could possibly be a racial issue.
“I know Dr. Martin had the best interests at heart for our children, but what this school board has done about the academy has made me wonder what their agenda really is about,” said the mother of a Burnett school student. “I would hate to think this is racially motivated in this day and age.”
Another mother, LaTanya Everett, gave her name freely, even sending a letter to the editor to LocalSource so her story would hopefully inspire the board to reinstate the academy.
“My daughter and I have been with the academy since its inception,” she said, adding that when the program began, it was to address the needs of students who needed a hand in improving their state test scores.
“When my daughter began the program, she was not in the least bit interested in reading outside whatever homework assignment was given. Through the academy she not only improved her reading comprehension, she now reads for herself. She uses her allowance to purchase books both online and in bookstores on topics ranging from animals to history,” said Everett.
“We should be looking into ways to keep the program and raise funding. This program has been a benefit for many of the children on the cusp, why take it away now?” she asked, adding “why kill it? Instead of taking a no money, no go attitude, be proactive and work with the community to assist with raising funds for the program.”
When called Monday, Martin said he had “no comment” on the spring academy not taking place, or how the board responded to parents inquiries about the program at the last few meetings.
“Again, I’m afraid I have no comment,” the superintendent said.
Perkins was also contacted for his comments but did not respond. Several other board members were also contacted but they did not respond to inquiries regarding the academy.