, Salem, MA

March 12, 2014

Union: Bentley deserves a chance

Union president says teachers are committed to three-year plan


---- — SALEM — The head of the Salem Teachers Union said it would be a “rush to judgment” on the part of school leaders to turn over the struggling Bentley Elementary School to a private education firm in the middle of the school’s turnaround effort.

Union President Joyce Harrington said the city should not give up on Bentley halfway into a three-year turnaround plan that goes through next school year. The school and staff should be given more time and a chance to prove themselves, she said.

“The union is concerned that we are only midway through that three-year process and feel this is sort of a rush to judgment on the efficacy of the plan,” Harrington said.

“I don’t feel you can go halfway through the (turnaround) and decide to go down a different road, and that’s kind of what they’re doing.”

The School Committee is weighing a proposal to turn Bentley over to Blueprint Schools Network, a nonprofit that specializes in “accelerating achievement” in low-performing urban schools. Blueprint is currently working with public schools in Boston, Denver and St. Louis.

If the School Committee adopts this more aggressive turnaround model, a private management firm would be able to hire new staff, a new principal and make other changes, officials said. Current teachers and staff would be asked to resign and reapply for their jobs.

Bentley has reached this precipice after being given Level 4 status by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education late in 2011 due to consistently low scores on MCAS exams.

Salem was given three years to show measurable improvement or face a possible state takeover. This is the second year of that effort.

While there have been improvements at Bentley, school officials say progress has been slow, and math and English scores remain low. In fact, those scores actually declined slightly in the latest round of MCAS tests.

While praising the effort at Bentley, Mayor Kim Driscoll said the city is running out of time and needs to act soon if it hopes to have a nonprofit partner in place by the start of next school year.

Driscoll pointed to a state study that, she said, indicates Level 4 schools like Bentley that are not making progress after the first year often do not “course correct.” State officials have made those same observations, she said.

“That was obviously very compelling data,” she said. “Based on what we’re seeing right now, there are compelling reasons for us to be concerned and to look at some course correction.”

While acknowledging the concerns of Driscoll and Superintendent Stephen Russell, Harrington said Bentley has made a number of changes in curriculum and schedule and should be given more time to prove itself. She praised teachers for working hard and keeping their focus on students while navigating a challenging course.

“I understand the concerns ... but we’re kind of committed to this three-year plan, and we’d like them to hold up their commitment to it, as well,” said Harrington, who was a member of the stakeholders group named to help map out a plan for Bentley.

Harrington said she “would like to see (the school board) at least wait until the end of this school year. ... I get all the reasons behind (the possible hiring of an outside firm), but let’s give these folks a chance.”

The School Committee could vote on this issue as early as Monday night.

Tom Dalton can be reached at