SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 22, 2014

Longer year eyed for Bentley

SALEM: Tutors also a key part of elementary school plan

BY TOM DALTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — In two weeks, the School Committee will vote on a proposal to do something it has never done before: turn most of the controls of a struggling public school over to a private education management organization.

Due to the Bentley Elementary School’s Level 4 status as an underperforming school and the threat of a possible state takeover next year, the School Committee is considering putting the K-5 school into the hands of Blueprint Schools Network, a Massachusetts nonprofit that has partnered with school districts in Denver, St. Louis, Houston and Boston.

Officials at both the School Department and Blueprint stress that the school is technically not being “turned over” to Blueprint. Students would remain part of the public schools, and teachers would be employed by the school district. But Blueprint would take over management of the school.

Clues to changes Blueprint might make at Bentley have been laid out in recent weeks at meetings with the school’s PTO and the School Committee. While none of these plans is final, they are early indicators of the “new Bentley.”

If the School Committee signs an agreement May 5, Blueprint would take charge next fall, but only for grades 3 to 5, due to the late start. It would manage the whole school the following year.

The school year would definitely be longer — one week more for students next fall and probably two weeks in future years. For teachers, they are eyeing an Aug. 6 start and four additional weeks, largely for professional development.

Teachers would be paid more for the longer schedule, but that is something that would have to be negotiated with the Salem Teachers Union. In Lawrence, teachers with similar schedules receive a $4,000 stipend.

The class day would be extended. Blueprint is talking about adding several minutes to a schedule that is already an hour longer than most other elementary schools.

In a sample schedule shown to parents at a recent PTO meeting, the school day began at 7 a.m. with a half-hour for breakfast and a closing bell at 3:10 p.m.

The schedule includes two-hour blocks for English/social studies and math/science. Each classroom would have two certified teachers, and class sizes would remain the same as they are now. Every student would get art, music or physical education every day.

In one of the key features of the proposal, there are two times in the day set aside for “tutoring support” in math and English. The extra help is for students who are struggling and also students who are doing well and can benefit from enrichment activities. Students could work one-on-one with a teacher or in small groups, an official said.

Due to the challenges of math, special tutors called “math fellows” would be provided by Blueprint for students needing remedial help.

Blueprint has already selected a principal, Justin Vernon, who heads a public Innovation School in Boston. If Blueprint takes over, it will hire new teachers and staff. Current staff can apply, and so far eight Bentley teachers have applied and more are expected to do so.

School uniforms are also being proposed, along with schoolwide field trips or celebrations as rewards for good behavior.

The school will have a “college-focused” environment, officials said.

Involving parents in the school — one of the shortcomings cited at Bentley despite a number of efforts and initiatives — is another focus of the plan. Blueprint is proposing a “home-school compact that clearly identifies parents’ and school’s responsibilities.”

At a School Committee meeting last week, members asked a number of questions about the “memorandum of understanding” they will be asked to sign spelling out details of the legal agreement.

They asked about the “performance agreement,” or what measures will be used to demonstrate that the new school is succeeding. They also asked about the budget and what degree of control the school board will retain over the school, and its power to end this agreement if student performance does not improve.

At least one member appeared uncomfortable with the degree of control that may be turned over to a separate board of trustees.

“I do think this is a real sticking point for me,” Jim Fleming said.

The School Committee will discuss the Bentley agreement in more detail at a 7 p.m. meeting on Monday, April 28, at Collins Middle School.

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