School Committee Hashes Out School Choice, Turnaround Efforts
School choice policy and Parent Information Center to be reviewed.
The Salem School Committee is taking on multiple initiatives relative to the turnaround process in the wake of the November announcement that the Bentley School has fallen to Level 4 status.
Issues were discussed at the first regular meeting of the School Committee of 2012 on Tuesday night.
Stakeholders, School Meetings Planned
A stakeholders turnaround group will be held tonight (Wednesday) at 5:30 p.m. at the Bentley School. Another will be held Thursday at the same time and place. Superintendent Dr. Stephen Russell said the stakeholders group will be meeting twice each week over the course of the next month.
Principals are also working to identify stakeholder groups in their respective schools this month, the superintendent said.
Other meetings, which will include review of a presentation first given at Salem State early in December, will be presented at various schools through the month, and a follow up to that initial meeting — which will be geared to all community stakeholders — will be held Jan. 19.
Russell also said the Commonwealth's commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education will visit the district on Feb. 3 and is expected to meet with students.
Parent Information Center (PIC) Discussed
As part of a presentation on review of the district's Parent Information Center (PIC), Assistant Superintendent Dr. Steven O'Brien told the School Committee efforts had been made to examine other school districts and their information centers for parents, including Lynn and Waltham.
In terms of demographics, O'Brien said Waltham "is a mirror image of our own district."
In the other districts, information centers may include personnel ranging from bilingual staff and even a full-time nurse in addition to guidance services for school selection. Currently, Salem Public Schools has one main contact at the PIC located at the Collins Middle school in addition to a "three-quarter person" officials said.
Chairperson of the School Committee Mayor Kim Driscoll said Salem's PIC can be improved so as to be "a better front yard for our district…something people see as a resource."
School Assignment Policy to be Reviewed
Raised during the discussion of comparing Salem Public Schools with other districts was the issue of school choice, which is being deliberated on the recommendation of the superintendent.
Currently, the district allows for parental choice. O'Brien said other districts rely solely on districting to keep schools balanced in terms of racial, language and socioeconomic diversity.
Driscoll said she would like to look at school assignment policy models that include choice and are not just neighborhood based as Salem considers its own policy.
"I think it's led to our main problem today," Vice Chairman James Fleming said of the lack of diversity in Salem Schools. "Imbalance at the Bentley in terms of family income has hurt us. There are more free lunch students there than Witchcraft or any other school."
Several members said socioeconomic status should be the top priority when looking at balance at schools as opposed to race. Other issues brought up included public knowledge of speciality programs at schools in addition to Saltonstall as well as the factors, including sibling preference, and the process that goes into school placements.
Dr. Brendan Walsh said he was concerned the conversation "was generated by tests scores being very low."
Driscoll said the issue of school choice may have been raised as a result of the the recent Level 4 status announcement, which is a result of test scores, but it's still necessary to analyze and "look under the hood a little more."
"We're looking at the policy, how we allocate resources and how to improve that to do our best not to encourage disparity," she said.
According to the mayor, resources are currently allocated evenly and schools get "the same share of the pie." If there "are different populations at different schools with different challenges that warrant more [resources], we need to look at that," she explained.
"We're making sure that we're giving all our students an equal playing field," Russell added.
After School Programming Initiatives
O'Brien also reported on enrollment for new after school programming for math and language arts.
Approximately 665 have signed up thus far for the twice per week programming, with the most — 80 — from the Bentley School, and 54 teachers are undergoing training this week.
School Committee members said efforts will continue to connect with students and parent of students who will benefit from additional instruction.
In Other Turnaround News
Russell and the School Committee are working on gathering RFPs from consultants intended to guide the turnaround process. Proposals from consultants are due later this month.
In terms of community assistance, Russell and Driscoll said they are working on a "menu of options" for those who have expressed interested in helping with the turnaround efforts. Russell said he is eager to have people transform verbal offers to help "into action to try to generate momentum."