SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 18, 2014

Board votes to consider turning Bentley over to private firm

BY TOM DALTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALEM — The School Committee voted 6-1 last night to explore hiring a private school management firm to take over the struggling Bentley School.

If that happens, it will be a first for the city and region.

The board directed school officials to hammer out an agreement with Blueprint Schools Network, a nonprofit that has worked with the Denver and St. Louis public schools, and bring it back for a final vote. That step is expected to take a month or more.

The dramatic vote was met with silence by a standing-room-only crowd in the School Committee meeting room at Collins Middle School that included many Bentley teachers and parents.

A proposal to consider an alternative plan from the Bentley staff was rejected.

Mayor Kim Driscoll and Superintendent Stephen Russell both supported hiring an outside school management firm.

“We need to hold up the mirror, and we need to recognize that more help is needed,” Russell said.

The school boss said he believes Blueprint “can bring us to a higher level.”

With a possible Level 5 designation looming next year, which could mean a state takeover of Bentley, Driscoll said the situation is urgent. She recited some of the low scores of Bentley students in the state MCAS exams to underscore her point.

“I’m accountable to the people who elected me and to the hundreds of kids whose statistics I just read off,” she said. “We haven’t had the success we hoped for. We need to get serious. It’s not a rush to judgment...

“I’m really proud of the effort everybody’s put forth, but I really feel we need to take a fresh start,” Driscoll said.

“For us to think about not doing anything, taking another year, that would be irresponsible ... I know we can do this, but I also know we need help...”

Most board members agreed dramatic action is needed.

“As a district we have a long way to go,” said Debra Amaral. “We need a turnaround partner.”

School Committee members Jim Fleming and Brendan Walsh asked board to consider an alternative proposal from Bentley staff. That suggestion was rejected.

Walsh was the only member to vote against the proposal to hire an outside management firm to run Bentley.

A large number of Bentley School teachers and parents, many wearing the school’s green T-shirts, attended last night’s meeting.

The large crowd came to hear the School Committee discuss the controversial proposal to turn Level 4 underperforming Bentley over to Blueprint Schools Network, a private school management organization.

Under that option, Blueprint would run the school as a “partner” with the city but could be given the power to hire new teachers and staff and make other changes.

Bentley’s co-principals asked the school board to consider an alternative plan, allowing Bentley staff to work with Blueprint on a new or revised plan.

Several parents asked the board to be more patient and give Bentley the full three years of its turnaround effort before making a final judgment. Bentley is in the second year of a turnaround and at the end of next school year faces a possible state takeover.

One man asked Driscoll, a proponent of hiring Blueprint, what she would have thought if she had been judged after only two years. Driscoll is beginning her ninth year as mayor.

School officials said that Bentley, despite the strong effort of its staff, is still struggling.

“There has been some progress made,” said Russell, citing increased parent involvement and a number of changes in the academic program.

“However, the results are not indicative of the level of effort that has been going into the work,” Russell said, pointing to low test scores reported by Achievement Net, a consultant monitoring progress at Bentley this school year.

Unfortunately, Russell said, there has been “continued decline” at the school.

Most of the schools statewide that have been successful moving out of Level 4 have adopted more aggressive turnaround models and seen significant improvement in the first year, Driscoll said.

Driscoll stressed that Bentley is in the second year of a three-year turnaround and that action is needed soon. “We are running out of time,” she said.

Bentley Co-Principal Diane O’Donnell, a retired principal who has been at Bentley a few months, pointed to a number of positive signs at the school.

She asked the school board to consider a less dramatic option than tuning the school over to an outside school management firm as a “partner.”

“It’s being called a partnership,” she said. “But with all due respect, it’s not a partnership. It’s a takeover.”

As an option, she asked if Bentley teachers could work with Blueprint to put together a proposal for improving the school. She asked if the school board could consider that plan along with one to turn the school over to Blueprint.

When O’Donnell praised her co-principal, Gabrielle Montevecchi, a veteran Bentley teacher and administrator, several in the crowd stood and applauded.

Montevecchi outlined a long list of new programs and initiatives at the school.

“Now is not the time to rip from our hands the work that is underway,” Montevecchi said.

An official from Blueprint Schools Network told the crowd of dramatic improvements in test scores at schools they oversee in Denver.

The room was packed with about 90 people by the start of the meeting at 7:30 p.m. Several people stood along the walls. A second room was opened for the overflow crowd.

A large number of Bentley School teachers and parents, many wearing the school’s green T-shirts, attended a packed meeting last night on the future of struggling elementary school.

The large crowd came to hear the School Committee discuss a controversial proposal to turn Level 4 underperforming Bentley over to the Blueprint Schools Network, a private school management organization.

Under that option, Blueprint would run the school as a “partner” with the city, but could be given the power to hire new teachers and staff and make other changes.

Bentley’s co-principals asked the school board to consider an alternative plan, allowing Bentley staff to work with Blueprint on a new or revised plan.

Several parents asked the board to be more patient and give Bentley the full three years of its turnaround effort before making a final judgment. Bentley is in the second year of a turnaround and at the end of next school year faces a possible state takeover.

One man asked Mayor Kim Driscoll, a proponent of hiring Blueprint, what she would have thought if she had been judged after only two years. Driscoll is beginning her ninth year as mayor.

School officials said that Bentley, despite the strong effort of its staff, is still struggling.

“There has been some progress made,” said Superintendent Stephen Russell, citing increased parent involvement and a number of changes in the academic program.

“However, the results are not indicative of the level of effort that has been going into the work,” Russell said, pointing to low test scores reported by Achievement Net, a consultant monitoring progress at Bentley this school year.

Unfortunately, Russell said, there has been “continued decline” at the school.

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