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Local News

March 19, 2014

Bentley headed into uncharted waters

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

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.

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