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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.

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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