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Should Salem Schools Alter Grade Level Configurations? [POLL]

K-5, K-8 —Should grade levels in the district be uniform? Weigh in here.

The Salem School Committee Monday voted in favor of creating a task force to examine grade level configurations in the district.

The decision to examine grade configurations comes as a result of feedback the School Committee received after soliciting ideas from the public as part of the district's turnaround effort, according to Superintendent Dr. Stephen Russell.

Should Salem have all K through 8 schools or just one school serving middle schools students? Should things remain as they are?

"There were many...alternatives [to the current structure] that were discussed," Russell said. Whatever the case, the superintendent said not enough middle school aged children in the district are succeeding in the current setting.

Five schools in the district — , , , and — have K through 5 programs. Students then proceed to for grades 6 through 8 before heading off to .

Two schools — and maintain K through 8 programs.

Committee member Jim Fleming said he was interested in "getting some of the hard facts over the next six months" and developing a "coalition of people including the public" to determine where the issues currently are and to consider what should be done in terms of possible reconfigurations.

He later noted that having three schools that have middle school aged children splits up district resources.

Nate Bryant said he would rather put the School Committee's efforts into extending hours and the length of the school year to "yield better results."

Dr. Janet Crane said she was concerned the School Committee has "a lot of ideas that we're dealing with," and said she wasn't in favor of forming another group. She said she would prefer if the discussion stayed within the committee.

Dr. Brendan Walsh said he was concerned that "the makeup of the group (the task force) will determine what information will be brought to the committee…Oftentimes the parents of many of the children affected do not choose to or cannot be involved due to circumstances," he said.

"People with a vested interest will be there and will be there in force, he added. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease," Walsh said. He also made reference to "a contentious meeting a few weeks ago."

Chairperson of the Committee Mayor Kimberley Driscoll and Fleming noted that discussion about possible reconfiguration was designated as a School Committee "priority" in district turnaround discussions.

Driscoll said there were "parents who expressed concern," adding that hearing concerns, getting the facts and exploring different models to get "different perspectives" is something to which she is open.

"We need to find out what's best for us," she added.

In addition to Driscoll and Fleming, Lisa Lavoie and Debbie Amaral were also in favor in establishing a task force.

During public comment, Sean O'Brien told the School Committee he is a product of Collins Middle School and lauded his experience there.

Though there need to be changes to turn the district around, O'Brien said he wants there to be a focus on some of the positive points in the district.

"I don't want things completely 100 percent different like it's bizarro world. I don't want that for my city or for my future children," he said.

What do you think about the possible reconfiguration of grade levels in Salem? Take our poll below and let us know what you think in the comments.

Lindsay June 05, 2012 at 11:51 AM
I agree with Nate Bryant's comment that we need to maximize the time on task and look at changes to the school day and year which will accomplish that and provide ample time for teachers to give and get feedback on their performance.
Kathleen Hoff June 05, 2012 at 12:28 PM
I believe that kids are still too young to be in a central middle school. They lose their place. At a time when they need to be molded as leaders, we are herding them into a big city of a school to get lost in the crowd. At the smaller K-8 schools, the kids get to see themselves as the leaders we all know them to be. Why not explore more opportunities for all the 7-8's to get together for common classes in preparation for high school. The real question is "Is 12 old enough to make it in a large population? I say "NO" If you notice, most of the private schools are k-8 - have you ever wondered why?
Patti June 05, 2012 at 01:16 PM
Again, the issue is leadership and instruction. For as many children who would benefit from a smaller K-8 environment, there are those who would really benefit from a larger community of students their age. The real issue is the leadership of the school, and how the students are taught in the classroom. If the expectations are high, the students will respond. As far as keeping the parents involved, if the leadership fosters an environment of parent involvement, it will continue at a middle school. Just the fact that there are so many different models around the state, in districts that do very well on state testing, points to the fact that it's not the grade configuration, but the leadership and the instruction.
Donna June 05, 2012 at 01:16 PM
Where are the details from the meeting about how we are failing our English Language Learners? For true turn around, this is the good stuff! This should be the focus of today's news. Their solutions to this problem are important and the city needs to hear about it. Please report on it.
Rick Johnson June 05, 2012 at 01:59 PM
Leadership and instruction are vitally important, but there is evidence that shows the transition to middle school may cause serious disruptions to young students that persist throughout their education. From http://educationnext.org/the-middle-school-plunge/ -- "Taken as a whole, our results suggest that school transitions lower student achievement but that attending middle schools in particular has adverse consequences for American students. Especially when considered along with those of other recent studies, our findings clearly support ongoing efforts in urban school districts to convert stand-alone elementary and middle schools into schools with K–8 configurations. They are also relevant to the expanding charter-school sector, which has the opportunity to choose grade configurations without the disruption caused by school closures. More research is needed to see whether policy or pedagogical innovations can mitigate the effects of middle school. In the meantime, policymakers should exercise caution before extending the middle-school experiment to school districts that still enjoy the K–8 configuration."
Rick Johnson June 05, 2012 at 02:03 PM
I generally agree with both Lindsay and Kathleen's comments above. My wife and I wrote the committee a few months ago to request that it research options before reconfiguring our schools. Specifically, I'd be interested in MCAS scores of 7-8 students in middle schools versus K-8 schools in Salem and state-wide. Many parents don't consider Collins Middle School to be a viable option for their children because two years is not enough time to build a supportive academic community of involved parents and engaged students. A growing number of cities in the U.S. realize this and are moving away from the K-6/middle school model, as noted here: - http://educationnext.org/the-middle-school-mess/ - http://educationnext.org/the-middle-school-plunge/ - http://educationnext.org/students-who-attend-middle-schools-at-risk-of-dropping-out-of-high-school/
Aubry Bracco (Editor) June 05, 2012 at 02:19 PM
Hi Donna, with such a packed meeting and as ELL is continually discussed in the district, we didn't want to confuse readers by jamming it all into one article. That will be addressed in another forum. Perhaps you would like to blog on it?
Pam Ryan June 05, 2012 at 02:58 PM
I think and I am no expert on education by any means, that by making some schools k-8, it has diluted the base of services and teachers we can supply to all children. At this age, kids need strong teachers, and more services. By having three different middle schools, we are diluting the best experience that, we as tax payers can afford, to all students. There is a lack of experienced, talented math and science teachers at this level. If we continue to separate the resources we are in fact maintaining the status quo, which is unacceptable. We need to research and find ONE model and stick with it throughout our whole entire school district. At that time, after we have been successful, should we consider looking at different ideas. We need to get back to basics, focus on keeping one set of balls in the air as a team instead of the individual juggling act we are currently doing. We are all in this together. The WHOLE district is only as strong as our weakest school.
Patti June 05, 2012 at 03:43 PM
Rick - There are studies that support all configurations, that's my point. And if school transitions were the main factor, than both Bowditch and Saltonstall would have higher test scores for the middle school years. They do not. The issue is leadership and instruction. Look at Marblehead: transition from K-3, to 4-6, to 7-8, to 9-12. Their results seem to contradict the study you cite.
KW June 05, 2012 at 04:05 PM
There is no research that says it would be beneficial to bring kids together for two of their most vulnerable years. Kids need adults who know them during those years. Research does say that for each year you structurally move kids, test scores will go down. Why would we want to place kids in that situation before High School? Several years ago we had many kids at MCS. Saltonstall was asked to consider the K-8 option to stop the flood to MCS. Saltonstall accepted the challenge and stopped the flood to Marblehead. Without choice in Salem, kids will be flocking to the charter schools again and with them goes $10,000 each. I have taught in both Middle school and K-8 for many years and have found K-8 to be a better experience for the older students.
KW June 05, 2012 at 04:10 PM
Has anyone thought about how taxing it would be to add a 6th grade to each elementary school? Who has the extra space?
Rick Johnson June 05, 2012 at 04:33 PM
I largely agree with you; I've been saying for some time that our district has suffered primarily from a lack of leadership and accountability. However, the original context of this discussion is this idea that our district should reconfigure into several K-6 schools that feed into the middle school. Before reconfiguring our schools to fit that model, we should consider carefully the available research and data. If we cannot substantiate that creating these changes and transitions would benefit performance--as you point out many successful models exists--then we probably shouldn't force all of our schools to reconfigure.
Mom to 2 June 05, 2012 at 04:52 PM
As a mother, I value having choices within our city, of where to send my children to middle school. While some kids do wonderfully in a big middle school, other's excel in a smaller atmosphere. I think that if Collins were the only middle school in Salem, many parents would seek out alternative placements for their children. I also agree with KW, that most elementry schools in Salem, lack the space to add a 6th grade. I wish we could focus on improving test scores within the schools we have now, instead of wasting valuable time on reconfiguring schools, school uniforms, etc.
KlassySalem June 05, 2012 at 05:12 PM
You'd take 7-8 out of Salts and Witchcraft, and enroll more k-6 kids in those schools, and fewer in the others.
SalemMom June 05, 2012 at 05:48 PM
Why is it that Salem is allowed to use public funds/ taxpayer dollars allotted for all public schools to create schools with UNEQUAL programs throughout the district. Shouldn't ALL students in Salem PUBLIC schools have access to the same programs? This should be looked into at a higher level.
Pam Ryan June 05, 2012 at 05:59 PM
Klassy- Witchcraft does not have 7-8. Yet with more kids, more kids per classroom, and less days/hours, they are out performing all other elementary schools in Salem. Kind of off topic but an interesting tip none the less.
KlassySalem June 05, 2012 at 06:54 PM
You're right of course, I meant to say Bowditch.
lea benson June 05, 2012 at 07:12 PM
The "middle school" concept began in Salem in 1982. Like all of the other "shiny & new" theories in education that Salem has tried and discarded over the years its time has come. Beyond this, the "Everyday Math" and "Connected Math" curricula have clearly failed. The students need math books with actual algorithms in them. Several other states have abandoned the "New" new math programs and have integrated traditional math programs with "hands-on" activities successfully. The experiment with these substandard programs is OVER!
KlassySalem June 05, 2012 at 07:18 PM
I don't disagree at all. With the slashing of the textbook budget, these math programs aren't going anywhere, though.
christine August 22, 2012 at 02:45 PM
Witchcraft outperforms other schools because of the family demographics, we all know that. Stop mixing up the demographics and fix the problems. If Bentley has more spanish speaking families enrolled then spend more money and provide smaller classrooms at the schools that need help, these children need to receive xtra help. This needs to be fixed well before middleschool age!

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