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South Side Middle School ends D.C. trip for NJHS

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A long-held tradition for eighth-grade members of the South Side Middle School National Junior Honor Society is moving in a new direction. At last week’s Rockville Centre Board of Education meeting, trustees were updated on concerns about the three-day trip to Washington, D.C., that students have taken each September for at least 20 years.

“We have, for the last five years, run into some serious issues regarding the Washington, D.C., trip for National Junior Honor Society students,” Superintendent Dr. William Johnson said. “It has reached almost a critical stage. We continue to revisit it each year. At this time, we need to seriously reconsider this opportunity for some very good reasons and look at some other experiences we can provide all eighth-graders.”

South Side Middle School Principal Shelagh McGinn outlined her concerns to the board. “I do understand change is hard, and I do understand students have friends and siblings who have gone on this trip in the past,” McGinn said. “And I do think that looking at it through the lens of the trip and going to Washington, D.C., it is a wonderful thing — if that is the only lens being looked through. But . . . it’s the whole picture.”

The middle school, McGinn said, has to consider not only the 180 or so students who go on the trip, but also the other 700-plus students who remain at school for those three days, and the logistics of planning the trip each year. The No. 1 problem, she said, is recruiting  enough chaperones: There were 16 this year for 183 students, when there should have been 18, according to McGinn. Some of the chaperones were sixth- and seventh-grade teachers, so the school needed to have substitutes in their absence.

“Instruction is incredibly compromised during the three days we run this trip,” McGinn said. One of the chaperones this year was the sixth-grade guidance counselor, who did not require a substitute. “But that also meant that all of those new sixth-graders had a rougher transition,” McGinn said.

Additionally, she said, there is an “uptick in discipline” at the middle school because of the change in routine. “Change for everyone is hard to handle,” she said.

McGinn also noted that there are safety concerns and security issues to consider. “We’re sending our students to D.C., where we hear about violence all the time,” she said, “and for three days, I hold my breath and hope they come back safe.”

Plus, she noted the students “come with a lot of medicine,” so each chaperone had a backpack full of EpiPens and other medications this year. At the middle school, they had one less nurse and needed to put students without a substitute teacher in the auditorium, which she said had never happened until this year.

“Then, of course, there’s the equity issue,” she said, noting that she’s always asked why they cannot send the entire eighth grade on the trip. “Sending 300 kids would require a shutdown of the entire school and the takeover of an entire hotel   . . . it’s impossible.”

McGinn proposed an alternative that would benefit all eighth-graders. She said she would like to see the school year start with a Challenge Day that builds unity and then have an extended day trip in May that includes community-building activities.

“We’d go somewhere fun and it’s open to every member of the South Side Middle School eighth grade,” McGinn said, adding, “The status of the National Junior Honor Society shouldn’t be the Washington, D.C. trip — it should be the status of making the grade to be in the National Junior Honor Society.” 

She said for the students who make the NJHS, they would still hold an induction ceremony and decide on a day trip for them. “That’s in the works now,” McGinn said. “We will talk to the seventh-grade students about what they think we should put in the hopper for discussion.”

Johnson reiterated the issues that arise during the trip, which are unpredictable and seem to grow each year. “Instruction comes to a halt for those three days for eighth-graders,” Johnson said. “And we saw a real spike in absenteeism during this time — 36 kids never showed up on at least one of those days.”

Also, he said the cost continues to rise each year, and chaperones are not able to confirm early enough ahead of time. “This is not new,” Johnson said. “It has literally reached the point where we can’t guarantee this trip anymore. We don’t want to reach the point where kids are on the verge of going, only to find out we don’t have enough chaperones.”

McGinn explained that it is easier to get chaperones for a day trip than for a three-day trip. She said the teachers would also like the three days of instruction back.

In response, Trustee Susan McNulty said, “I like the idea of talking to the seventh grade kids. There has to be that thought of how they are affected.”

School Board President Tara Hackett said she has heard that parents want to volunteer as chaperones, but for this trip, that is not a possibility. “Our teachers are vetted, they’re fingerprinted, they have their jobs that they’re responsible for, and it’s a huge responsibility for parents to take on,” Hackett said. “It’s an enormous responsibility and possible liability for the district as well.”

McGinn agreed and said there is also a privacy issue due to the medications.

Parents had an opportunity to ask questions.

Karen Thompson said she has a seventh-grade daughter — her third child — who has heard about the trip from her older siblings, has been working toward getting into the NJHS and was looking forward to the trip.

“I think what she finds to be most frustrating is that they are already on their way to being in the junior honor society, their grades have already counted for a few semesters,” Thompson said. “To me, it seems like this is something that should be grandfathered in — maybe start with the current fifth-graders.”

She also asked if there was a way that parents could pay extra in order to cover the cost of substitutes. “For us, it’s not a matter of money,” Johnson said. “The subs are just not there. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed now, not two years down the road. I don’t want to be in a position of disappointing your daughter and then not having an alternative for these kids for next year.”