SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 13, 2014

Numbers don't add up for Bentley School

BY TOM DALTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALEM — Test results and other statistics appear to support the claim by the city’s top school leaders that Level 4 Bentley School, which is in the second year of a turnaround plan, is not improving — or, at least, not improving fast enough.

As a result, Superintendent Stephen Russell and Mayor Kim Driscoll are recommending a dramatic step: hiring a nonprofit school management firm to take over next September.

A vote on the controversial proposal could come as soon as Monday.

In 2012, Bentley’s “overall performance” ranked in the bottom 4 percent of elementary schools across the state based on scores on the state MCAS exam and other factors, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Last year, one year into the turnaround effort, the school dropped to the bottom 3 percent.

Scores on the MCAS test, a key standard by which public schools are measured, also raised concerns, officials said. Math and English scores have not shown significant improvement since 2012 and, in some instances, have declined.

For example, 49 percent of grade 3 students scored proficient or advanced in reading in 2010, according to statistics school officials shared with parents at a School Committee meeting Monday night. The number, however, fell to 23 percent last year, the most recent MCAS test year.

While the school is credited with making significant changes and progress in many areas, the general pattern, based to a large extent on test scores, is one of decline, officials said.

This school year, Salem students have been taking assessment tests given by a consultant, The Achievement Network, which is working across the school system. Those results also raise concerns, officials said. For example, math scores at Bentley went down over the course of three testing periods.

Bentley’s situation has been complicated by the loss of its principal, Renata McFarland, who has been on family medical leave since Christmas, according to officials. The school is being run by co-principals.

In one report after another, state education officials point to the need for consistent and strong leadership at Level 4 schools.

While the Salem Teachers Union is asking for more time — at least until the end of this school year — before a decision is made, Driscoll contends the city doesn’t have time if it hopes to have a school management firm in place by September.

Driscoll also points to a 2013 state study that shows, in general, that schools that have had successful turnarounds and emerged from Level 4 showed progress in the first year and then continued to make gains.

The clock is ticking on Bentley. The state has given Salem three years for the turnaround. That deadline arrives at the end of next school year. If Bentley does not make sufficient progress by then, it could be designated a Level 5 school, and the state could take over control.

Against that backdrop, Russell and Driscoll are considering an arguably radical step — partnering with a private, nonprofit management organization, which would hire a new principal and staff and make other changes. Current staff would be able to reapply for their jobs.

The mayor and superintendent even named the possible management firm, Blueprint Schools Network, and principal, Justin Vernon, head of Clap Innovation School in Boston and a Salem resident.

In recent weeks, Russell has sounded warning bells.

“We’re all coming to grips with the fact we do need to accelerate progress,” he said yesterday.

The School Committee could vote as early as Monday on a proposal to transfer control of the school to an outside contractor.

Tom Dalton can be reached at tdalton@salemnews.com.