SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 19, 2014

Bentley headed into uncharted waters

Vote to lead to a month or more of 'due diligence'

BY TOM DALTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALEM — The School Committee took a bold step Monday night, voting to draft an agreement that could put Bentley Elementary School into the hands of a private education management firm.

It is a bold step because it has never been done before in this city or region.

But there is a long way to go over the next month to 45 days, when school officials are scheduled to return to the school board for a vote on an agreement with Blueprint Schools Network, a Newton-based nonprofit that specializes in “accelerating student achievement” in challenged urban schools.

Bentley, which has a history of low MCAS scores, appears to fit that category. While it has only 295 students in grades K-5, three-quarters are from low-income families and nearly 1 in 5 from homes where English is not the first language. The state has designated it a Level 4, underperforming school based on consistently low test scores.

The school faces a possible state takeover if it doesn’t show significant improvement by the end of next school year.

The exploration about to take place is two-way: the School Department will take a long, hard look at Blueprint, and Blueprint will do its own investigation into conditions at Bentley and in the district.

“We want to see what they’ve done at some schools in Boston,” said School Committee member Nate Bryant. “They call it kicking the tires. We want to make sure we go out and do our due diligence.”

Blueprint recently began working with the Boston public schools and has a longer track record in Denver and St. Louis.

There are two seemingly contradictory words used to describe this potential new relationship: partnership and takeover.

It’s seen by some as a “takeover,” because under most state restart models, the outside organization running the school can hire the principal, teachers and other staff, and make other significant changes, such as adding a longer school day. Current staff can reapply for their jobs.

“It’s a partnership with autonomies,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll.

At Monday night’s school board meeting, Superintendent Stephen Russell bristled at the word “takeover.” He repeated those concerns during an interview yesterday.

“If it’s a matter of a takeover, then, frankly, I’m not interested, because I think all it’s going to do is fragment the district and create a situation where people are working at cross purposes,” Russell said.

He wants Bentley’s co-principals and staff, who have been working under a turnaround plan for the past two school years, involved in the planning for this new or revised turnaround proposal.

“There’s too much that has been accomplished in the last several years to simply throw it away and start completely new,” he said.

Sitting at the table along with the city and Blueprint will be officials from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, who must approve any changes to Salem’s plan for Bentley — with a $500,000 federal redesign grant hanging in the balance.

Also at the table will be Empower Schools, private consultants who help school districts work out agreements with nonprofit management firms. One of the group’s co-founders, Chris Gabrieli, founder of a healthcare software company and a former Democratic candidate for Congress and lieutenant governor, has been working closely with Driscoll and other city officials.

Blueprint also has a principal in mind — Justin Vernon, a Salem resident who just announced plans to step down at the end of the school year as principal of Roger Clap Innovation School in Dorchester.

With Monday’s vote, an already busy school system has set off on another quest — trying to jump-start Bentley with the help of a nonprofit management firm.

“This is uncharted territory for us,” said Bryant, vice chairman of the board. “I’m just as curious to see what transpires over the next 35 to 40 days as everybody else.”

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