, Salem, MA

March 8, 2014

Outside firm may run school

Salem officials weighing options for Bentley


---- — SALEM — School leaders are considering handing over a struggling elementary school to a private, nonprofit firm that specializes in turning around low-achieving urban schools.

This dramatic step, which would be a first in the city and region, is one of the options being eyed for the Bentley School, which the state designated a Level 4, underperforming school in 2011 based on consistently low scores on the state MCAS exam.

Two years into a turnaround effort, Bentley has not made significant improvement in English and math scores despite a longer school day, revamped schedule, more staff, outside help and a $500,000 annual federal redesign grant, officials said.

The 292-student, K-5 school has one of the city’s highest percentages of students who are poor and from families where English is not the primary language.

The state gave Salem three years to show marked improvement at Bentley, a deadline that arrives next year.

“There’s no doubt everybody’s working hard,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll, “but we are not hitting it out of the park ... so all options are on the table.”

Complicating matters, Bentley has been without its leader since the start of the year, as Principal Renata McFarland is on a family medical leave, according to Driscoll.

“Anytime you’re in the middle of a turnaround and don’t have a principal at the helm on a daily basis, it’s a concern,” she said.

The School Committee will meet Monday at 6:30 p.m. at Bentley “to review a proposal to accelerate improvement at the school,” according to a letter to Bentley parents and staff signed by Driscoll and Superintendent Stephen Russell.

After noting improvements in school climate and parent involvement, the school leaders said data shows “that there is much work to be done. ... It is with this in mind that we are exploring a potential partnership with some of the best school turnaround providers in the Commonwealth.”

Boston and Lawrence have already turned schools over to outside educational firms.

In Boston, a company called Unlocking Potential took over a failing middle school in 2011. After hiring new staff, lengthening the school day from 61/2 to 8 hours and making other changes, MCAS scores in English and math rose significantly the following year.

The decision on whether to hire a turnaround firm will be made by the seven-member School Committee, which Driscoll chairs.

Monday night’s meeting, technically a committee of the whole meeting, is informational. The next School Committee meeting is March 17.

“We don’t have the luxury of lots of time,” Driscoll said. “I think the School Committee has to decide — is there a model we want to invest in?”

The mayor conceded that Salem is exploring new ground.

“This could be a revolutionary change,” she said, “where the district says, ‘We’re going to choose to work with a partner.’”

Tom Dalton can be reached at