This fall, seniors at will be able to arrive late, leave early, or leave and return to campus mid-day when they have an unscheduled block of 90 minutes or more.
The Ridgefield Board of Education on Monday approved an framework for Ridgefield High School that allows qualifying seniors to .
Unlike other open campus schedules, Ridgefield High's is limited to seniors who maintain a 2.5 GPA and who have no more than two unexcused absences and five tardies during the school year, plus no serious disciplinary offenses. What's more, a student's parents must sign a contract with the district giving permission for their child to leave school grounds during school hours. As such the program is set up to work as an incentive for good behavior and academic performance.
Amy Shinohara, one of four board members supporting the measure in Monday's 4-2-1 vote, said "six months ago I never would have considered voting for this proposal," but after the detailed plan (see attached PDF) was presented by the student government and high school administration, "I came to appreciate it."
"You guys did a great job, in terms of putting parameters around this," Shinohara told outgoing RHS Principal Jeffrey Jaslow and representatives from the student government, who conceptualized and developed the proposal, which was introduced in April. "It is not a true open campus, it is an 'earned privilege,' which I appreciate."
Shinohara added, however, that the school board was "very, very nervous about what could go wrong… and we're going to be watching this very closely."
Chairman Austin Drukker said the board had debated the idea of open campus many times in the past, "but I've never seen a proposal as well put together as the one we received." He said the measure already has the support of , "and I think the parents in this town in general have been supportive of this for a long time." He said if seniors are allowed to "blast around in their cars on a Friday night… I don't see a problem with leaving the school during the daytime and coming back."
Board Member Christopher Murray said he too supported the measure and wanted to see it implemented right away. "The kids need it, they earned it," he said. "What I like about is that it is self-limiting. It has a built-in safety component to it, in terms of the kids who will avail themselves of it."
Murray added that he wanted the high school administration to attempt to track how the seniors use their time when off campus "and to validate [the program] by showing productivity gains."
Board member Karen Sulzinsky, however, had the complete opposite view of the plan.
"In light of the risky behaviors that some of our students have engaged in… this is not a good policy to approve right now," she said, adding that there is "no accurate predictor for risky behavior… not GPA, not attendance, not whether they are captain of the athletic team."
"I think this is an accident waiting happen," Sulzinsky said. "I think the risk is too great… and I think the Board of Ed has no business getting between parents and their children. If parents want to give their children extra freedom and extra responsibility that's up to them — but we don't have any right to be in the middle of that."
Sulzinsky said she feared it could open up liability problems for the town in the event a student gets into an accident while off-campus during school hours.
"Our function is to educate — and during school hours, the kids should be in school," Sulzinsky said. "That is our function, to look out for their education and their safety. I think this is a foolish road to go down."
She said the proposal would place an additional administrative burden on the school staff, as they will have to track student performance and review each student's eligibility for the program.
"I would rather they spend their time, stretched as they are, focusing on the education of our children," Sulzinsky said.
Sulzinsky pointed to other districts' problems with open campuses — for example Weston High School recently adopted an open campus schedule ( download PDF), however due to some problems there, "the police chief wants it abolished," she said. In addition the had expressed its opposition to the plan, she said.
Earlier in the meeting, a school parent who spoke against the proposal said it had been requested under the "false premise" that the high school does not have adequate quiet space for study time. In the proposal, the students assert that the open campus framework will give seniors the ability to do school work or apply to colleges from the comfort of their own homes, as opposed to the often crowded common areas at the high school.
"Seniors have plenty of opportunities to exercise their freedoms — and yes parents can sign 'no' on the form — but we can't disregard the 900 pound Gorilla in the room: peer pressure," she said. "Have we learned nothing about the effects of peer pressure recently? Have we not seen top students and athletes show extremely poor judgment during the free time they already have? And why isn't there a 3.5 GPA minimum requirement for this privilege?"
"You're complicit in creating an unsafe environment for them, and making responsible parent's jobs harder," the mother said. "Please stop trying to be the popular parents: Educate, don't abdicate."
At one point it seemed the board might not proceed with its vote since several board members learned to their dismay that the proposal lacked any parameters for what disciplinary actions might lead to a student losing their open campus privilege.
Board member Mike Raduazzo asked if seniors in the open campus program would be held to the same disciplinary standards as athletes on high school sports teams. He wanted to know how the administration will determine when a student should lose the open campus privilege.
Jaslow explained that there are four different tiers of disciplinary action, but added that even with a "tier one" offense, a student may or may not face a detention, as it would be a judgment call based on the offense. Level three and four disciplinary tiers usually entail suspension, possibly expulsion, Jaslow said. He added that any student who is suspended would be automatically removed from the program — however a student who gets a single detention may or may not.
For a period of about 15 minutes the board debated whether an offense resulting in detention should be enough to take away the privilege — or if only suspensions should result in revocation. Ultimately it was decided that it should be up to the Open Campus Committee (established under the proposal) and the administration to determine student eligibility, on a student-by-student basis.
Jaslow said if a student's offending behavior "becomes repeated or chronic," the administration would not hesitate to revoke that student's open campus privilege.
Students who qualify for the program will get a special sticker for the back of their ID cards so that they can be distinguished from non-qualfying students.
Board member Russell Katz cast the second "nay" vote, while board member Richard Steinhart abstained.