SALEM — Whether the sun shines tomorrow or not, Bentley Elementary School opens the 2012-13 school year in the spotlight.
Designated an underperforming, Level 4 school by the state for consistently low scores on the statewide MCAS exam, the small grade school has been given three years to turn itself around.
That turnaround effort is under way.
Over the summer, Principal Renata McFarland and her staff partnered with Salem State University on a summer school for at-risk Bentley students, took part in more than two weeks of professional development, attended a two-day team-building camp at Project Adventure in Beverly, and made dramatic changes to the curriculum and schedule.
Challenges remain at a school with 335 students, three-quarters from low-income families and more than one-quarter immigrant children just learning the English language.
But those are just numbers, McFarland said, not the whole story.
“There are no excuses,” she said, sitting around a table in her office. “We can’t say, ‘Oh, we can’t do this.’ We can, and we are going to.”
The Bentley School that students enter tomorrow is vastly different from the one they left in June.
For starters, the school day is one hour longer, a feat accomplished by adding staff and having teachers work a so-called “flex” schedule. In other words, there are now enough teachers and staff to work staggered schedules and cover the extra hour.
That extra hour is allowing Bentley to focus more on English/language arts and math — the two key areas on MCAS exams — by creating two large blocks of time in each school day to focus on those two important subjects.
McFarland, who is starting her second year as principal, calls the two-hour time periods “non-negotiable blocks.”
During those large blocks, the classroom teacher will get a chance to work with small groups of students, while other staff, including so-called intervention specialists and special education teachers, will come into the classroom to work with individual students on specific skills.