BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The academic programs and configuration of the city’s middle school grades could look dramatically different next school year.
The School Committee last night approved a proposal by Superintendent Stephen Russell to name a task force to study a “Middle School Success Initiative.”
Russell said he wants to explore different middle school models to try to raise the consistently low MCAS scores by students in grades six to eight and to stem the flow of students in that age group who are leaving the district.
The superintendent said he wants the task force to submit recommendations by March for “potential implementation” by next September.
This middle school initiative is the latest in a series of moves by school officials to try to turn around a school district given a Level 4 designation by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education almost two years ago due, in large part, to low scores on the state MCAS exam.
This is the second time at a school board meeting that Russell has mentioned concerns about students leaving the school system, presumably over the Level 4 ranking.
Last night, he called the continuing low MCAS scores at three schools with middle school programs a “troubling trend” and said the system “continues to lose students” going from grade five to six and from grade eight to nine. He did not provide statistics.
School Committee member Brendan Walsh noted that students traditionally leave school systems in those grades for parochial or private schools and questioned whether there has been a “precipitous falloff.”
Salem has one middle school, Collins, which had 628 students, according to the 2012-13 school district profile on a state education website. Nathaniel Bowditch, a K-8 school, had about 150 students in grades six to eight last school year, while Saltonstall, also a K-8 school, had 110 students in those grades.
There is another middle school option in the city — the Level 1 Salem Academy Charter School. Although a grade six to 12 public school, the charter school is independent and not part of the district school system. In another possible sign of dissatisfaction with the district schools, however, nearly 40 percent of fifth-graders applied to the charter school last year, according to statistics from the charter school and state.
Russell said he wants the task force to review research on successful middle school models in communities with demographics similar to Salem’s, which has relatively high numbers of students from low-income families and with limited English proficiency.
The school boss said he would expect the task force to conduct community surveys, interview parents and students, and hold focus groups. He said he wants the task force to recommend a “clear vision” for a more successful middle school program by March.
Russell said he expects to name a task force soon and welcomes suggestions and recommendations. He said it will have representatives from each of the schools with middle school grades.
In a subcommittee meeting prior to the regular school board meeting, Walsh and Mayor Kim Driscoll argued over whether the superintendent had bypassed the school board in deciding to name a middle school task force. Tentative plans for a task force were announced by the mayor and superintendent at a community meeting last week.
Walsh said the school board should approve recommendations like that by the superintendent before they are announced to the public.
“I don’t think he should have to come in here for every idea” to improve the school system ,“given where we’re at ...” Driscoll said.
Looking at Walsh, Driscoll said: “So, this is a process issue?”
“Yes, it’s a process issue,” Walsh said. “The process is extremely important.”
Later, when Russell made his recommendation during the regular school board meeting, he used terms like “proposed” and “suggested.” The board approved the task force unanimously.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.