BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Mayor Kim Driscoll has made a longer school day, and possibly a longer school year, priorities in the effort to turn around a low-performing school system.
Accomplishing that goal quickly, however, has proven difficult.
When negotiations between the city and the Salem Teachers Union failed to reach an agreement last summer, the mayor and Superintendent Stephen Russell set their sights on finding one or two schools to host pilot programs starting this September. That goal, too, did not materialize.
Still, nobody is giving up.
In fact, Salem has applied for planning grants through the National Center on Time & Learning with the hope of launching extended day or year programs at four schools: Bates Elementary School; Nathaniel Bowditch and Saltonstall, K-8 schools; and Collins Middle School.
If they get the grants, they will work on it next school year with the goal of having longer school days starting in September 2014.
Both Driscoll and Russell say they have learned through experience that negotiations with the union should not be the starting point in this effort. It is important at first, they said, to build support among parents, staff and students and to initiate this effort school by school.
“As we’ve looked at other models, this seems to be the most effective way to provide a base of support and a longer-lasting plan,” Russell said.
With that grass-roots model in mind, parents and staff at every school were surveyed this spring to determine their level of interest. Although results varied, there was support at several schools for a longer day. The idea of going to school into the summer was not popular, according to the survey results.
The survey indicated at least a willingness “to look under the hood,” the mayor said recently,
The four schools applying for grants were selected, in part, because their principals are willing to take on the issues of a longer school day or year, Russell said.
“The principals in each school are playing key roles,” he said.
Two Salem schools already have extended schedules.
Bentley Elementary added an hour to each day this school year after it was designated a Level 4, under-performing school by the state. However, when the union and school administration failed to reach agreement on teachers’ pay and other issues, only students have been going the extra hour. Teachers work a staggered schedule.
Asked how that went, Russell said he would give the trial a grade of C-plus.
“It’s working out OK,” he said, “but ... it’s a time-intensive task to run a staggered schedule. It’s not ideal. We’d prefer to have all of our teachers and staff members there throughout the whole day. We’re just not at that point yet.”
One of the potential ironies of this effort to have students spend more time in school is that the School Committee, in what it says is an effort to treat all schools equally, may end up terminating the extended-year program at Saltonstall. At present, the school year at Saltonstall is 190 days for students (202 for teachers), in contrast to 180 days (185 for teachers) at most other schools.
A decision is expected soon.
In a related effort, the public schools are expanding summer enrichment offerings across the system as a way of giving more children an opportunity to benefit from more time in school.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.
Parent Survey on Longer School Days School In favor Bates 64.5 % Bentley 59.1% Bowditch 64% Carlton 48% Collins 61% Horace Mann 21% Saltonstall 74%* Witchcraft Heights 53% Salem High 33% * A total of 74 percent of Saltonstall parents support both a longer school day and year. Parents at most schools indicated little interest in a longer school year. The number of parents responding to the survey varied from 3 percent at Salem High to 34 percent at Bates.