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Salem residents told school turnaround will not be easy but can be done

Posted by Ryan Mooney  September 27, 2012 09:07 AM

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Believe. Achieve. Succeed.

This is the mantra of Salem Public Schools in the second year of a major turnaround effort after the district received notification last fall that it was one step away from undergoing a state takeover.

These three simple words were at the heart of a community meeting at Salem State University Wednesday night that dealt with school improvement efforts in the city.

At the meeting Mayor Kim Driscoll and Superintendent Dr. Stephen Russell outlined what has been accomplished and updated members of the public on what to expect moving forward, and Dr. Roland Fryer - an economics professor and director of the Harvard Education Laboratory - gave an inspiring speech on the city-wide commitment needed to get public education back on track and moving in the right direction.

The atmosphere was one of measured optimism.

"We can do this, I don't want us to not be brave enough to think boldly," Driscoll said. "And I also know how hard it is, and how these uncomfortable conversations we're going to have with an array of populations, it's not business as usual, it can't be.

"How do we achieve the type of success I know we're capable of, and I think that everybody wants? It's going to be hard, it's going to be challenging, but it is totally achievable."

Since last fall, district officials have secured major grants for Bentley (nearly $1.5 million over three years) and Carlton ($45,000) elementary schools, forged new partnerships with Salem State to provide summer programs for students and training for teachers in English Language Learning, added assistant principals to all elementary schools, and put a new educator evaluator system in place.

Goals in year two will put a greater focus on using tangible data to improve teaching and learning in classrooms, according to Russell. Rather than relying solely on standardized test scores, periodic assessments will give administrators an idea of what students are retaining and what they are not.

Russell says that administrators will continue to align the district's curriculum and assessment system with state frameworks, as well as create a district-wide model for teaching that will create uniformity across all schools in the city.

But according to Fryer, these are "baby steps."

Fryer is bringing his experience transforming some of the worst school districts in the country - in cities like Denver and Houston - to Salem as a consultant during improvement efforts. On Wednesday, he spoke at length about the importance of education culture in diverse school districts.

"This is not about a few poor kids, or kids who by accident of birth grew up in a zip code that doesn't have good schools, beating the odds here and there," Fryer said. "This is about changing the odds."

Fryer spent two years studying public schools around the country, and brought to the table the five things he says set effective schools apart from non-effective schools: more time in school, small group tutoring, high-quality teacher tools, training and development, data-driven instruction, and a culture of high expectations.

Fryer said that when he looked at failing schools "one of the most distinguishing factors was how many excuses they made for themselves, and for others, about why their students didn't succeed."

 "Kids will live up or down to our expectations," Fryer said. "The schools that are effective realize that poverty is a given for a lot of our kids, single-female heads of households are a given for a lot of our kids...the question is 'How are we going to educate them,' not 'What are they coming in with?'"

His beliefs can already be seen in some of Salem's turnaround efforts. Prior to this school year, administrators extended the school day at Bentley, the city's worst-performing school, and have talked about doing the same at all schools.

Driscoll, Russell and Fryer stressed that a massive turnaround effort like this is a commitment, one that needs support from everywhere, not just school administrators and city officials, but parents, students, and community members. 

Over the next few months, meetings will be held at each school in the city, more community meetings are scheduled for February and June, and community groups will meet with Driscoll and school officials regularly.

"Salem, you can absolutely do this," Fryer said to the audience. "The question is, and I'm going to be very frank with you, do you have the courage to do this?"

Ryan Mooney can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mooney_ryan.

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