The Salem School Committee last night adopted a new policy that significantly changes the way children will be assigned to city elementary schools.
By a unanimous vote, the school board gave its third, and final, approval to a plan that allows parents to choose from among Salem's seven grade schools, which they have done in the past. However, it reserves a set number of seats in each entering kindergarten class for two distinct groups of students: low-income children who receive free and reduced lunches and those who do not.
The goal of the policy is to create balance in a school system where high numbers of poor children are concentrated in a few, low-performing schools. It is only fair, officials said, that every school reflect the Salem school system as a whole.
The first group of kindergarten children to be enrolled under the new plan will be assigned June 1.
The policy change was triggered, in large part, by years of low scores at schools with high numbers of students who are poor and speak limited English.
School officials last night attempted to downplay what could be a dramatic change. For years, parents signed up children on what amounted to a first-come, first-served basis.
This new plan, officials say, will create equity among schools but will do so in small steps, over time and voluntarily. It is not expected to achieve socioeconomic balance until the 2017-18 school year.
"I think it's a common-sense policy; I really do," said School Committee member Nate Bryant, a member of the committee that wrote the policy.
"I think we're doing our best to give parents some flexibility and yet achieve balance in our schools," Mayor Kim Driscoll said.
The goal of the plan is for each school, within five years, to reflect the overall socioeconomic composition of the system within 5 percentage points.
Currently, about 55 percent of Salem schoolchildren are enrolled in the federally subsidized lunch program, which is a measure of family income. Yet, more than 70 percent of the students at two schools, Bentley and Carlton, are low-income, while other schools have percentages under 40.
Bentley and Carlton have had among the lowest scores on the state MCAS exam.
Under this new policy, if 55 percent of the children across the system are in the lunch program, then 55 percent of the seats for entering kindergarten students at every school will be set aside for students in that socioeconomic profile, and 45 percent for students not in the free and reduced lunch program.
The School Committee stated its rationale for the change at the beginning of the five-page policy: "When a school's student composition becomes socioeconomically imbalanced in contrast to other schools in the district, that school's environment and educational opportunities also become imbalanced, contributing to educational inequality.
"It is well-documented that students learn from each other, as well as from teachers and other adults. Interaction with students from different backgrounds and abilities is a powerful tool for advancing student learning and performance, as well as preparation to live in the larger world."
Parents have until May 15 to submit kindergarten applications for the June 1 assignment. A second round of assignments will be made on July 16.
The new policy also will apply to assignments to the city's three middle schools. However, current fifth-graders in the Salem schools will be allowed to enter the school where they are already enrolled.
Until balance is achieved, the policy directs the superintendent to provide more funds for tutoring and other support to the schools with higher numbers of low-income students.
This new assignment plan was, in large part, a reaction to sobering news in November from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The state declared Bentley a Level 4, underperforming school based on scores on the state MCAS exams and gave the School Department three years to turn the school around.
The superintendent said at the time that a handful of other Salem schools were on the verge of Level 4 status, prompting a series of proposals this winter for sweeping changes across the school system.