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Salem's Bentley school designated underperforming by state

Posted by Justin Rice  November 15, 2011 10:45 PM

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The Bentley Elementary School in Salem was named one of six underperforming schools by state education officials yesterday based on consistently low test scores.

Under a sweeping education reform law approved last year, state officials require languishing schools to adopt turnaround plans, which often include extending the school day, removing the principal and teachers, and giving extra help to struggling students.

Four other Salem Schools — Salem High, the Collins Middle School, the Carlton Elementary School  and the Nathaniel Bowditch School (K-8) — were also designated as being on the cusp of being named underperforming.

“As a result of that, the mayor and I are treating this as a district-wide challenge rather than simply as a Bentley School challenge,” Salem School’s new Superintendant Dr. Stephen Russell said during a phone interview yesterday evening.

Russell said he while he wasn’t blindsided by the news when state officials gave him an early heads up a few weeks ago that the announcement would be made public yesterday, he did call the news a “wake up call.”

“I’ve only been here since August but I can tell you as I looked at the scores early this fall, it was evident to me we did have to make some improvements,” he said. “The reason we were given [an underperforming] designation is because the scores have been generally flat for the last four years.

“Because of the lack of overall progress, the Department of Education has shared information with us that they did with us that we will have to take steps around the Bentley School and perhaps in the next couple years around the other schools as well.”

Russell said information about the turnaround designation was sent out to staff members and parents yesterday and he and Mayor Kim Driscoll also met with the district’s administrators and the Bentley School staff on Monday.

“We challenged all of them to come up with plans in terms of how to excel and improve,” he said.  “We also met with the Bentley School staff and explained to them the next steps.”

The district is now required to create a stakeholders group for the Bentley School consisting of teachers, parents, union and community members.  Once the group is formed they have 45 days to develop a turnaround plan for the school that has to be reviewed by Russell and the School Committee. Then the plan has to be submitted and approved by the Department of Education.

“So we got some work to do,” Russell said.  

The designation also makes the district eligible for $8 million in financial assistance from the federal government.

After lawmakers approved the reforms last year, state education officials identified 35 schools with chronically poor standardized test scores as “underperforming” and call for their restructuring. Most of these schools showed progress in the latest round of MCAS scores, giving cause for optimism.

“We are providing these districts with the aggressive tools and assistance necessary to achieve rapid school turnaround,” said Mitchell Chester, the state’s education commissioner.
Russell said the district will also begin to develop turnaround plans for the four other schools on the cusp of being designated as turnaround schools.

“That was part of our conversation yesterday with building principals and the leadership team to do just that to begin to look at ways to accelerate improvement,” Russell said. “You will see over the next several months significant changes as we start to organize and as we move ahead and address these problems.

“My guess is we’ll not only see issues addressed around the Bentley School but see issues around Salem schools collectively.”

Peter Schworm contributed to this report.
Justin A. Rice can be reached at

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