Cherry Hill students choose Saturday makeup sessions

Among Cherry Hill High School West seniors are (from left): Jenna Brown, Erin McBride, Andre Baldarrago, and Eytan Gittler. They and their counterparts at East voted for Saturday makeup days.
Among Cherry Hill High School West seniors are (from left): Jenna Brown, Erin McBride, Andre Baldarrago, and Eytan Gittler. They and their counterparts at East voted for Saturday makeup days. (CURT HUDSON / For The Inquirer)
Posted: May 15, 2014

On Saturday morning, teenagers around the region will be sleeping in, working out, heading to a job, hitting the mall - all the weekend things teenagers do.

But not Cherry Hill's seniors. At 8 a.m. Saturday, they'll be at school.

And believe it or not, it was the students' decision.

To satisfy the state's requirement of a 180-day school year, and to avoid the logistical nightmare of rescheduling graduation, the district opted for Saturday school to let seniors make up some of the year's snow days.

In early March, a committee of eight students - four from each district high school - was convened to advise Superintendent Maureen Reusche and their principals on what to do. They picked Saturday school over virtual school or an abbreviated spring break.

"Of the eight kids, none of us were pro-virtual school," said Andre Baldarrago, 18, a Cherry Hill High School West senior and president of Latinos at West. "It just seemed very unappealing. . . . It seemed like we would just be on the computer. We wouldn't be able to interact with our friends."

So two Saturdays were added to the seniors' school year: April 26 and this Saturday.

"These are young adults," Reusche said. "Some are going on to college. We try to look for opportunities to engage in the decisions that affect them."

As the snow days started piling up, it became obvious that makeup days would be necessary, even after Cherry Hill used two extra days built into the calendar. The district added March 14, which would have been a professional development day for staff, and tacked June 18 and 19 onto the end of the school year.

But that schedule wouldn't work for the seniors, whose graduation was set long in advance for June 17 at Temple University's Liacouras Center. Not only that, but each of the high schools holds a large post-graduation overnight party at rented venues. To change the date would have required reorganizing all three events.

Many districts let the snow day makeups gobble up spring break days. But Cherry Hill had a problem on that front, too. To prepare for planned capital improvements, Reusche said, the district scheduled asbestos removal in several schools over spring break.

Given the experience in another district, it was just as well that the student committee didn't go for the virtual option.

At Pascack Valley Regional High School District in Bergen County, where all students get laptops and all teachers have websites, officials decided to turn its Feb. 13 snow day into a virtual school day.

The district sought permission from New Jersey's Department of Education beforehand and was told the virtual day might not count toward required days, Superintendent P. Erik Gundersen said. But it went ahead.

"It was an exciting, innovative initiative," he said.

About 95 percent of students participated, and staff were enthusiastic, Gundersen said. The main complaint from students was that the virtual day was harder and longer than a regular school day, he said.

Yet the district still hasn't gotten word on whether the day counts. The district ended up using an April break day as makeup, but student participation was lower, about 70 percent.

State Education Department spokesman Michael Yaple said issues including access and rigor of programming needed to be reviewed before the department could rule on virtual school days. Unlike Pennsylvania, New Jersey has no purely cyber schools.

"The current laws and regulations that define issues such as school attendance were written before the advent of the personal computer," Yaple said.

Gundersen said Pascack Valley would like to do other virtual days, but "it will be difficult to motivate students to do this if they don't get credit."

On April 26, Cherry Hill's first Saturday makeup day, over 50 percent of seniors attended various breakout sessions on college and career readiness. Other seniors received credit for participating in already scheduled community service.

Jenna Brown, 17, a swimmer and student government member who also served on the advisory committee, doesn't regret their recommendation.

"The virtual school sounded like too much work on everyone's part," she said.

On the Saturday school, "I don't think people minded too, too much," Brown said. "It wasn't that bad. A day of school is worse."

Rodney Williams, a West senior who has a football scholarship to snowy Syracuse University, missed the April 26 makeup because as a class government member, he was signed up to volunteer at a yard sale fund-raiser for Project Graduation.

He said he was looking forward to some of this Saturday's sessions, which also focus on preparing for college.

"Most kids are going to complain because they don't want to get up early on the weekend," said Williams, 18. But he's used to rising early to work out, so he doesn't mind.

Besides, "we need more time so we can graduate, so there really isn't anything we do about it."

856-779-3893 @ritagiordano

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