BY TOM DALTON
---- — 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.
The school is also focusing more on data. Using test results and other information, the staff aims to figure out where each child stands educationally, what skills they need to master and what issues may be getting in the way of learning.
To that end, Bentley has
hired English/language arts and math “coaches” whose job it is to analyze data and work with teachers to improve student learning.
Students will be evaluated at least every six weeks to see what progress they have made and where they need to improve.
The system adopted by Bentley is part of a statewide effort to put what educators call a “laser-like focus” on every child.
Thanks to a $500,000 state grant, Bentley has added about a dozen new staff, including its first assistant principal, a library/media specialist — a position it has not had for years, a technology specialist and a bilingual adjustment counselor. It also has purchased new curriculum materials, including books and material from National Geographic.
Bentley is making a concerted effort to reach out to parents at a school that, in recent years, has had a low turnout at family events. That started to turn around last spring, and the effort continues this year with a family event calendar that includes a curriculum night for parents.
McFarland, who speaks English and Spanish, has made a personal effort to reach out to parents, from visiting homes to showing up at supermarkets where parents shop to engage in conversations about the school and their children.
The school is also focusing more on children just learning the English language, most of whom come from homes where Spanish is spoken. Bentley has 91 so-called “English Language Learners.”
Those students will be in full-day “sheltered English immersion” classes, where they will be grouped according to their abilities. Last year, many were pulled out of class. Again, McFarland said the aim is to focus on each child and move them along as quickly as possible.
As much as the Bentley staff feels under a microscope, some see this turnaround effort as an opportunity.
“What’s exciting is we are the visionaries for the Salem Public Schools,” Assistant Principal Gabrielle Montevechi said. “We are the model that is going to be followed.”
While they face a daunting task, the Bentley staff has been energized by its mission, according to Superintendent Stephen Russell.
“There’s an enthusiasm that’s already very evident to me,” he said. “I was at an opening activity for new teachers, and the table in the center (with Bentley teachers) was just filled with life and excitement. ... There are some good things going on in that school.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.