BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — When School Superintendent Stephen Russell announced the creation of a task force to study and possibly reorganize the city’s middle schools, he cited the “troubling trend” of low scores on the state’s MCAS exams.
He also pointed to declining enrollment at that grade level.
“We’re continuing to lose students between grades 5 and 6 or between grades 8 and 9,” he said at the Oct. 7 meeting of the School Committee.
That trend, he said, “causes us some concern.”
He is not the only one worried.
Last week, two parent-led groups held a meeting at a private home near Salem Common to address issues on the minds of parents after the 2011 designation of Salem as an under-performing, Level 4 district based on low MCAS scores at Bentley School and poor results at other schools.
Since then, Salem has adopted an improvement plan and launched a number of initiatives across the district. Convinced the school system could do a better job of communicating with parents, Parents United of Salem and the Salem Education Foundation have taken it upon themselves to listen to parents’ concerns and seek answers.
A lot is at stake, they say.
They are particularly concerned about connecting with parents whose children are about to enter school. For new parents with young children, it can be a questions of whether to sign up for the public schools or not.
“I have received five messages just in the past week from panicky parents,” said Leanne Schild, an officer in both parent-led groups and also a member of The Salem Partnership’s school advisory committee.
“Over and over again, the school issue keeps coming up, especially the past few years. We see people who are very involved here move out, and it’s very sad.”
Schild said she and others feel there is a lot of good news about the schools that is not getting out that could allay some of those fears.
“Parents United and the Salem Education Foundation decided to give parents here an opportunity or venue to talk about these concerns, because (parents) are feeling they are not getting enough (information) from the district, and we feel pretty confident if they give the schools a chance, they will be happy here.”
If nothing else, the two groups hope new parents will benefit from talking to mothers and fathers who have children in the school system. Sometimes, it is as simple as reassuring parents that they shouldn’t panic if they don’t get their first choice for kindergarten, Schild said.
Last year, the “hot” school for many parents was Carlton Elementary School, one of the state Innovation Schools, according to Schild. She knows parents who weren’t able to get their children into Carlton and were worried because they had to “settle” for second choices. In most cases, those worries proved unfounded.
“You talk to them now, and they love Horace Mann School, and they love Witchcraft Heights School,” she said.
Katie Casiglia, a parent who ran unsuccessfully for School Committee, said these information sessions are important. A lot of parents are following the school system closely, at all levels, she said.
“They are very keenly watching to see the direction the school system is going,” she said. “It’s impacting me because I’m thinking ahead. I’m already thinking ahead to what we are going to do when we cross that (middle school) bridge.”
At the meeting last week Parents United and the Education Foundation wrote down questions and concerns to pass along to school officials. They also plan another meeting next month.
One goal is to find out how young parents want to be informed: social media, school websites, small meetings or larger community forums.
The School Department is making plans now for a parent information night this winter and welcomes suggestions from these two groups and others, Russell said.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.