SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 11, 2014

Officials detail plan for Bentley

By Neil H. Dempsey
Staff Writer

---- — SALEM — More details emerged last night about a proposal to boost exam scores at the Bentley School by turning its operations over to a private educational firm.

Speaking to a full house of staff members, parents and School Committee members at a committee of the whole meeting in Bentley’s combined auditorium-cafeteria, Superintendent Stephen Russell noted that Bentley had fallen to the bottom three percent of all K-5 schools statewide.

“We’re not making the level of progress we need to make,” said Russell. “I’m concerned about how much progress we’re making and the fact that we may not get there at the current rate.”

Low MCAS exam scores prompted the state to designate the school a Level 4, underperforming school in 2011. In the two years since, officials have tried to spur improvement with longer days, a new schedule, more staff and a $500,000 redesign grant.

Officials say the turnaround effort has resulted in some positive changes — parents are more engaged, and students have more time to work with their teachers — but students still aren’t doing as well as they need to be in the core subjects of math and English. The state has previously indicated that Bentley could face takeover if it doesn’t show serious improvement within three years — or by next year.

As early as September, a nonprofit firm called Blueprint could take over the school, install a new principal, select new teachers and initiate an educational plan partially based on previous success  at the Roger Clap Innovation School in Boston, a school that received a Level 3 designation in 2011.

In fact, Blueprint wants Bentley to be led by Justin Vernon, Clap’s current principal. Noting that Clap has many similarities to Bentley both in size and number of low-income students, Vernon said Clap was the only Boston school to rise from Level 3 to a Level 1 in one year, and that it now ranks among the top three percent of Boston public schools for improvement in language skills by English language learners.

“I’ve been through a restart before, and that’s part of the reason why I’m excited,” Vernon said.

Under the proposal, Vernon and Blueprint would work with the city under assistance from two other organizations, Empower Schools and Unlocking Potential.

Vernon noted that while Clap likely had lessons for Bentley, each school is unique.

“This plan needs to be a plan that’s tailored and customized,” he said.

Notably, the Blueprint plan would mean that all of the school’s teachers would have to reapply for their jobs, and many teachers would likely be brought in from elsewhere.

“There are livelihoods at stake, none of this easy,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll, who chairs the School Committee. “Not talking about it means we may have a level 5 designation.”

As for what he looks for in teachers, Vernon said “it’s about experience, it’s about results and it’s about a fit.”

Driscoll noted — to applause — that improvements had been made over the past two years, but emphasized that results had to be the driving force in choosing a path forward.

“We know how hard everyone’s working,” said Driscoll. “We all went into this with the highest of hopes.”

During an ensuing public comment session, numerous people said they liked Vernon’s plan but that it was similar to the one currently being instituted. Others indicated that having teachers change one year to the next would adversely affect students. Several people thanked school faculty for their work.

Of Bentley’s 295 students, 75 percent are considered low-income and 19 percent speak something other than English as their first language.

Bentley’s current principal, Renata McFarland, has been out on family medical leave this year.

Whether a firm will be hired will be determined by the seven-member School Committee, which is scheduled to meet next on March 17.

Neil H. Dempsey can be reached at ndempsey@salemnews.com.