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Salem to officially kick off Bentley turnaround process on Friday

Posted by Justin Rice  December 1, 2011 11:47 AM

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The Salem School Department has received such an outpouring of support in the wake of the Bentley Elementary School being categorized as “underperforming” by the state that a School Committee planning session scheduled for this Friday afternoon has blossomed into a full blown community forum.

“There has been such a public response of people asking ‘How can we get involved, what can we do?’ that the mayor has opened it up,” Superintendent Dr. Stephen Russell said of Friday’s forum during a phone interview yesterday afternoon.

The forum, which is slated to be held from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Salem State University’s Enterprise Center (121 Loring Ave.), is also the official kickoff of the process to develop a turnaround plan for the Bentley.

The Bentley was named one of six underperforming schools by state education officials on Nov. 14 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 and giving extra help to struggling students.

The designation also makes the district eligible for financial assistance from the federal government.

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

Russell and Mayor Kim Driscoll have both called the news a “wakeup call” and say they will also treat the four other schools as if they are already labeled “underperforming” by the state, a status known as “Level 4.”

“Our placement on the Level 4 list means that what we’re doing isn’t working,” Driscoll and Russell said in a Op-Ed that has appeared in several local publications and websites. “We need to develop and put in place a dramatic plan for change, quickly.

“Over the past year some positive steps have already been taken: New school leaders have been hired and tasked with using data to improve instruction; a new in-district charter school focused on dropout reduction opened this fall; and in 2012 the Carlton Elementary School will reopen as an Innovation School, with multi-age classrooms, a new trimester promotion system and a curriculum designed to meet students exactly where they are academically. These have been big steps for Salem, but are clearly not enough.

“As a community, we’ve talked about reform and have made some improvements along the way, but until now have not had the collective sense of urgency, resources or motivation to pursue true, transformational change.”

The Op-Ed goes on to say that classroom teachers, Salem State President Patricia Meservey, leaders at the Peabody Essex Museum and the Salem Education Foundation have pledged their support, among others.

Specifically, Salem State has offered to lend its expertise to interpret and analyze data from the struggling schools, according to university spokeswoman Karen Cady. 

“We’re all in the City of Salem together and we’re the institution of higher education,” Cady said. “The history of Salem State University began primarily as a teachers college. So that’s our roots historically so we feel we’re very well equipped to lend support to the Salem Schools."

Driscoll reached out to Salem State to see if they could host Friday’s forum, during which the state of the Bentley School will be reviewed before the next steps in the process are discussed.
“What the mayor hopes to do is outline the current challenges and opportunities that lay ahead and the next steps involved,” Russell said.

The district has until Dec. 14 to form a stakeholder group of parents and staff. That group will have until Jan. 28 to submit recommendations to Russell. A draft of Russell’s turnaround plan has to be sent to the School Committee and state education commissioner by Feb. 27 and the education commissioner has a month to make modifications.

The final turnaround plan is due on April 27 so it can be implemented next school year.

Russell said that  timeline is daunting but a good tool to keep everyone on task.

“Right now it’s occupying a great amount of time and effort as we gear up or power up to tackle these challenges,” he said. “There’s a lot of energy going into it right now. My hope, my belief is it’s going to benefit Salem schools in the long run. While it is hard work, the mayor, myself and the School Committee members think it is well worth it.”

Russell said he has not considered having the Bentley School put straight into state receivership like the Lawrence schools have elected to do.

“No, honestly I much prefer to be in charge of our own destiny,” he said. “I believe the community of Salem feels the same way.”

Justin A. Rice can be reached at

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