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.