SALEM — The School Department is making solid progress implementing a long-term plan to improve teaching and raise student achievement, but still has a long way to go.
Those were among the conclusions of mid-year reports presented last night to the School Committee, which is closely monitoring progress in a Level 4, under-performing district ordered by the state to make a number of changes.
School leaders were praised for work done to align school curriculums with state academic frameworks, to use test data to analyze student performance and to improve teaching, and to attack chronic problems like poor attendance.
A top state official also lauded Salem officials for welcoming input from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and for working with a number of outside groups.
“We feel like this is a partnership that has been real strong,” said Eva Mitchell, an associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“This is very encouraging,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll, who chairs the school board.
In a cautionary note, testing done during this school year shows that some schools and grades are not making sufficient progress in math and English, two key areas on the high-stakes state MCAS exam.
The progress reports were made on the eve of a community meeting tonight on the School Department’s “Accelerated Improvement” or turnaround plan. Driscoll and Superintendent Stephen Russell will provide updates at a 6:30 p.m. meeting at Nathaniel Bowditch School which is open to parents and the general public.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has given Salem three years to raise test scores and make other improvements throughout the system following the Bentley Elementary School’s designation as a Level 4 school based on low scores in the MCAS exams.
This is the second year of the turnaround plan.
While initiatives are underway systemwide, officials are especially targeting high needs students — a group that includes children with limited English skills, low-income students and special needs students. More work has to be done to close the academic achievement gap between this group and other students, officials said.
The school system was commended for the partnership it formed with Achievement Net, a private, nonprofit company that is testing students and working with teachers to improve instruction.
After hearing from state officials, Driscoll said: “It feels to me like we’re really hitting our stride with ANet.”
State officials also lauded the greater role principals are taking in implementing the school systems accelerated improvement plan. As busy as they are, it is essential for principals to be leaders in this effort, an official said.
“There’s a cultural shift underway,” said Patricia Williams, the state’s plan monitor for Salem.
There was a note of caution, however, in a report that accompanied last night’s presentation.
“Heightened expectations for principals are clear, although the capacity of all principals to respond to these expectations is not yet clear,” it stated.
Williams praised Superintendent Stephen Russell for implementing and participating in “instructional rounds,” or visits to classrooms by a team of educators to monitor instruction. Through the fall, the team had observed about 100 classrooms across the district.
Williams said she has seen “promising results” in the effort to improve student attendance.
While systems are in place and progress is being noted, it also was clear that Salem has a long way to go to raise test scores and other chronically low benchmarks.
“The work is underway,” a DESE report stated, “although a great deal remains to be done.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.