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Concerns Remain After School Committee Approves Turnaround Plan

Committee votes to approve redesign of report cards, extending the school day by one hour and possibly reconfiguring elementary schools to be only through sixth grade.

The School Committee unanimously approved the proposed turnaround plan Monday night.

The plan, which will now be submitted to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for its approval, would extend the school day by one hour and possibly reconfigure elementary school to have students from kindergarten to the sixth grade. Seventh and eighth graders would be moved to middle school.

The school committee's subcommittee on policy also agreed to limit parents in the future to a choice of two schools, closest to their home. That measure now goes to the full committee for consideration.

Mayor Kimberley Driscoll, thanking all who helped develop the turnaround plan, said had the state not designated Bentley and later the entire district as Level 4, under-performing schools, “we might not have tackled the tough issues.”

She said she is excited and hopeful about the plan. “We shouldn't be in a Level 4 status. We want to get out.”

School Superintendent Stephen Russell said the state has a high level of expectations for Salem. “We cannot continue doing business as usual,” he said. “We are serious about this turnaround effort.”

Each school has been charged with developing its own school improvement plan, the superintendent said.

Driscoll and Russell outlined a series of changes in the district's operations that, while controversial, are designed to improve education for all students. Russell said the changes would cost more money, but he believes that additional revenue can be raised from other sources, including grants and revenues from the state and federal governments. The Salem schools, he said, could not rely on Salem taxpayers alone.

Some issues, including the longer school day, are being negotiated with the teachers' union.

The proposed changes were divided into three categories – depending on when they will or might be implemented.

Redesigning Report Cards

Among the immediate changes (which will take place by the start of the fall 2012 school year) are redesigning report cards to make them easier to read by parents; adding assistant principals at the elementary schools; hiring a lead nurse to deal with the growing number of medical issues; evaluating the curriculum to make sure it is consistent across grades and surveying parents to determine if they want their children to wear uniforms to school.

The turnaround plan also proposes to implement several measures in the next two years. Those actions include extending the school day by one hour; reorganizing the elementary schools to be kindergarten through sixth grade and moving all seventh graders to middle school; bringing in more academic-related after-school program and restricting athletics to students with a higher grade point average than they currently are required to have.

Russell said students with three D grades and one F grade can currently play sports. He said he believes schools should set a higher standard for sports participation and possibly all extra-curricular activities.

Longer term, Russell said, the district would consider going to a four quarter system with 180-day school year, eliminating bus and sports fees and adding night school for working students to earn their degrees.

Of night school, he said, “It was a good idea years ago. It is a good idea now.”

Several parents joined school committee members in praising the plan. Board member Jim Fleming called the plan “ambitious and effective.” Member Nate Bryant called it “a very bold agenda.” And member Dr. Brendan Walsh said he believes this plan will “do something good for all children,” not just those who have the resources to lobby for their children's education.

The longer school day drew the most support and opposition.

Russell said adding an hour every day would allow students to have 90 minutes a day of uninterrupted instruction in English and 60 minutes of uninterrupted instruction in math.

Jessica Fox, president of the PTO, liked the extended day proposal, saying some parents could be able to pick up their children from school and thus save the district some transportation money.

Donna Fritz said she is concerned about the impact an extended day will have on younger children. And she cautioned the committee to “make sure the quality of instruction is there before we extend the day.”

Reconfiguring the Elementary Schools

Some parents expressed concern about reconfiguring the elementary schools to kindergarten through sixth grade.

Driscoll disagreed. “We lose a lot of families at sixth grade. I am excited about this. It will keep more families in Salem,” she said.

A parent, Rick Johnson, opposed reducing the total number of days to 180 a year. Saltonstall students already go to school 190 days a year. He expressed concerned about the impact of shortening the school year on special needs students.

One parent voiced concern about the proposal to limit parents of new students to a choice of one of two schools closest to their home.

The subcommittee members and the administration said they want to change the policy and limit the choice of schools to diversify the schools socio-economically.

That measure will be considered for the first time at the next school committee meeting. The policy subcommittee voted to approve the change Monday night.

Bethann Cornell, a mother of Carlton school student, said she is concerned that the proposed change in choice policy will only reinforce the current disparity in the schools where some schools have a much higher percentage of students who come from economically disadvantaged homes.

In other business, the committee, meeting at because of construction at Collins Middle School, voted to give the crossing guards a raise from $11 an hour, the lowest among North Shore cities, to $12.75 per hour, which would match Beverly as the second lowest.

Rick Johnson March 06, 2012 at 12:45 PM
I don't think I actually "disagreed" with anything last night. My points to the committee were: 1. Saltonstall has 25% SPED kids and an unintended consequence of moving to a traditional school year could be a disruption of SPED services; these kids would then need a bridge over the long summer break. This could end up being less effective and more costly than the current Saltonstall calendar year. 2. If, as Dr. Russell suggested, the "conditions for school effectiveness" is the district's "report card," then it would be helpful to parents and taxpayers to know how the schools rate on each of the conditions. Information on underlying problems are not being shared consistently and transparently. It makes participating in this process difficult. 3. If we have conditions for school effectiveness, then the school committee should develop or reassess conditions for leadership, or administration, effectiveness. The presentation did not include a discussion of how the district will ensure improved leadership, organization, or accountability. Since these things are contributing factors to the Level 4 designation, then there should be a plan for improvement.
Melissa Drewenski Wilson March 06, 2012 at 01:37 PM
Valid point Rick!
Catb March 06, 2012 at 02:13 PM
I think Salem is going in the wrong direction. Some of the most successful school systems in the world have shorter days (since children do not have the attention span to sit through 90 minutes of english or math for example) but they have much longer school years. The US has one of the shortest school years in the industrialized world and I think it shows in our test scores. Teachers have to spend most of the first quarter of every school year reviewing what students have forgotten over the long summer.
Jared Robinson March 06, 2012 at 02:23 PM
I have to say, as a father of a nearly-three-year-old, the current state of the Salem Schools has us considering home schooling or moving to another nearby city. I can't afford private school for my kid but when the time comes for me to buy a bigger house, I may not be looking exclusively at Salem.
Catb March 06, 2012 at 02:53 PM
I hate to say it but I agree with you Jared. I chose Saltonstall for my daughter because of the extended year and the increased level of education provided. if they cut that program which seems to be likely, one of my main reasons for staying in Salem is gone.
Erin Cyr March 06, 2012 at 03:19 PM
School choice was enticing and exciting to me as a newcomer to Salem, especially with the Saltonstall. I know there was no guarantee that my son would have gotten into Saltonstall, or even my second choice, but school choice makes the Salem school system attractive. I have done a lot of research on how schools run all over the world and the type of people that result from that method and I have been a fan of school in Norway and Switzerland. I am hopeful for Salem's school system, but I do think that some of these solutions could be detrimental to children in the long run, especially when longer and fewer days are a part of the equation.
Mom to 2 March 06, 2012 at 03:26 PM
I agree Catb. We looked at a house in Danvers, but stayed in Salem because our kids go to Salts. If the Salts program changes, we would consider moving to a town with a better school system.
Mom to 2 March 06, 2012 at 03:33 PM
I loved the fact that each school in Salem was unique. Now it appears that the school committee wants to take a cookie cutter approach to our schools. It's sad. I don't see how forcing kids to go to their neighborhood schools is going to make our schools more diverse.
Catb March 06, 2012 at 03:53 PM
I agree, in trying to make changes to improve Salem schools, they seem to be taking away the few things that were working in Salems favor. If I only had the choice of the schools in our neighborhood I'm not sure if we would have stayed in Salem as much as I love other aspects of the town.
Chris March 06, 2012 at 03:58 PM
While the longer school year is appealing to parents, Salts does not have higher scores than Witchcraft or Horace Mann with the regular school day and year. If you want to have higher test scores...shorten the day for those who meet the standards and keep it the same length [or extend it] for those who don't [for K-8]. You will suddenly see very motivated kids and a huge rise in test scores. Home schooled kids tend to have a far better education and most days only spend 2-3 hours doing school work. Why? Because they don't waste time covering material they have already covered and grasp. I have three kids in Salem Public Schools from elementary to high school and have experienced four different schools in the district. Just one example of my oldest's experience in middle school when in a group of three for a project: "You see, we don't have to do any work because we don't care and you do. So we know you will do the work." They were right but they also were not learning anything. Offer a positive motivator that the kids will want....a shorter school day ...and watch how they suddenly start doing their work and learning the material. I am in higher education, and positive motivators work amazingly well.
Mom to 2 March 06, 2012 at 04:06 PM
I don't agree with the SPS adopting a school uniform policy. School uniforms do not improve test scores and are an added expense for parents. My brother's daughter goes to a Catholic school and they paid a fortune for her uniforms. Where are the lower income families in Salem going to pay for this. Are the schools going to foot the bill? I doubt it.
KlassySalem March 06, 2012 at 04:14 PM
Additionally, there seems to be growing data showing that K-8 models are more effective than the elementary, then middle school model. Many districts are moving away from the middle school model all together. Why are we moving backwards?
Mom to 2 March 06, 2012 at 04:18 PM
Maybe the push should be to make all Salem schools K-8. I'm disappointed that the school committee and the Mayor appear to have their minds made up already. It almost looks like their plan is a done deal!
KlassySalem March 06, 2012 at 04:27 PM
I did find it ironic that they were talking about waiving bussing and sports fees, but want to mandate uniforms.
Rick Johnson March 06, 2012 at 04:28 PM
This should be further explored. How hard would it be to compare MCAS data of 7/8 kids in middle school v. K-8? Would be interesting to see if there is a difference. Speaking of data, without leadership providing us with a link between identified problems and proposed solutions it is impossible to know which proposals would address problems, which would be for ease of administration, and which would be completely arbitrary.
Chris March 06, 2012 at 04:49 PM
I didn't get to see or attend the meeting last night, luckily the snews mentioned that the presentation is on the web: http://www.salem.k12.ma.us/Pages/SPS_DistWebDocs/Salem_Turnaround_03_05_12.pps
KlassySalem March 06, 2012 at 04:50 PM
Not specific to MA, but check this out. http://educationnext.org/the-middle-school-plunge/
Barbara Matteau March 06, 2012 at 04:57 PM
Regarding the uniforms issue...parochial school uniforms are very specific and therefore on the costly side...that doesn't have to be the case with a public school. My son attended a public school in Cambridge that had uniforms and it made it easier for us...most schools adopt a 'shirt with a collar' and chino pants which are reasonable. IN the morning, it is clear what one is wearing and it can make economic disparities less apparent.
Salem Taxpayer March 06, 2012 at 06:40 PM
Why don't we look at what the Salem Academy Charter School is doing? On public school-level funding, they are producing highly acheiving kids and their MCAS scores and AP enrollment is the highest in the city (public schools)! They are doing something right...
KlassySalem March 06, 2012 at 06:43 PM
Don't say that around Brendan Walsh. He'll bite your head off.
Concerned Mom March 06, 2012 at 06:54 PM
I have not seen or heard any changes for Salem HIgh School yet. I think a change that would be extremely beneficial would be a later starting time. The research shows that high school students whose start time was moved up 30 or even 60 minutes had much better participation and focus in school. They also have time to have a breakfast! Also, I feel Study Periods should be added back to the school day. Some kids don't have a quiet space at home, or some may have part-time jobs to help support the household. Giving a study period gives those students a specific set aside time to work on homework or study for a test. Though i feel kids have too much pressure with homework, standardized tests, push for AP classes, etc. these days. Take a look at the website "Race To Nowhere" and try to find a screening of this very powerful documentary in this local area. It was recently shown at Swampscott HIgh School. Swampscott has started "thinking more progressively" and has started having some "homework free nights" Come on, Salem . . . let's consider this!
john March 06, 2012 at 07:51 PM
I still have a big problem with our mayor on this issue. Russell finnaly took some responsability for the past by saying we cannot continue to do business as usual. That statement implies that our schools have not been run very well in the past. The mayor praised Cameron for all his good work when in fact he and the adminisration failed miseably. So, once again it's the taxpayers,students and teachers that have to suffer.Do your job city hall and lets see who the state cited as the reason for the failure.
Casey March 06, 2012 at 08:16 PM
"Jessica Fox, president of the Carlton School PTO, liked the extended day proposal"...My understanding is that Carlton School is doing this anyways next year as part of the Innovation School plan.
john March 06, 2012 at 08:21 PM
Extending the day will create a union issue and the city just cut the healthcare benifits for all employees. Good luck with that.
Chris March 07, 2012 at 03:33 PM
I'm for all the turnaround efforts that the administration are making, but not allowing younger siblings to attend the same school as their older siblings (when the school is not one of the 2 closest) is ridiculous.
Chris March 07, 2012 at 03:45 PM
According to the Salem news , but I'm hoping they have it wrong.
john March 07, 2012 at 05:51 PM
Making students wear uniforms is ridiculous and shows that the administration is still not focusing on the problem. How about just starting by telling students if you come to school with your butt hanging out you will be sent home or disciplined in some way. It seems to me if you force students to dress a certain way it will create an additional problem rather than solve one and you will have unhappy kids in uniforms with their butts hanging out. Whats the point here, you kids better shape up ? Teach the kids and don't keep focusing away from that goal.
Concerned Mom March 07, 2012 at 10:17 PM
Just goes to show you to those making these "important decisions about change" are completely clueless. Very scary to know that our children's future is in their hands. Time to start looking at properties in other towns. The state will be taking over our schools sooner than we think!
john March 07, 2012 at 10:45 PM
I have been one of the most outspoken people with regard to the way this city has been run and I have had many critisize my negative opinions. The last 6 weeks many more people have spoken out in a negative fashion about the direction this city is going. People like to say pointing the finger solves nothing. Politics is all about pointing the finger,after all who else has the right to reach into our pockets and take our hard earned money? The school failure was a complete break down of the administration. The mayor was hired by our votes but that dosen't mean she shold not be held accountable
Kelly d... March 13, 2012 at 05:57 AM
School uniforms are really at the bottom of my barrel....My son attends one of the Salem schools. He is currently in 5th grade reading at a 1st grade level he has had a IEP in place since 1st grade... I met with the school a few weeks ago an was informed that he was maxed out with services. I've placed my trust in the system an I'm disgusted with the results!!! Their solution was to move him to another school in this city. So I guess that means put him in Salem next year an hope for the best.....Come on people these are our children's futures their playing games with!! Sooooo frustrated don't know what to do----------Angry MOM

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