By Tom Dalton
SALEM — A Salem elementary school is one of six "underperforming" schools in Massachusetts that must turn themselves around or face possible state takeover, according to an announcement yesterday by Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Bentley School, which is near Salem Willows, was given a Level 4 designation based on low scores and lack of improvement over the past four years in the English language arts and math sections of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, the high-profile MCAS test.
It is the first school in this region to receive a Level 4 status.
The other Level 4 schools announced yesterday are in Lawrence, New Bedford and Worcester. The state announced 35 such schools last year, including two in Lynn.
The Salem school system was given three years to improve the 350-student, K-5 Bentley School or face a possible state takeover.
Even more alarming, in private meetings, representatives from the state told school officials that four other schools — Salem High, Collins Middle School, Nathaniel Bowditch and Carlton — teeter on the brink of Level 4 status, which means that more than half the city's schools are among the worst performing in the state.
Superintendent Stephen Russell said he was told the other four schools could be designated Level 4 "as early as next fall."
He called the announcements a "wake-up call."
"We've got work to do," said Russell, who took over leadership of the Salem schools three months ago. "We're not going to gloss over it, or offer excuses or point fingers. ... What we're going to do is get to work to help our students be successful."
"It's definitely something we're very concerned about," said Mayor Kim Driscoll, chairwoman of the School Committee and a school parent. "It's not enough for our schools to be serving some of our children really well. We have to provide a quality education for all our students."
About three-quarters of Bentley students are poor, based on the numbers receiving free and reduced school lunches, and more than 25 percent speak a first language other than English, the highest percentage in the school system, according to the Salem schools.
"The student population there is among the neediest," Russell said.
At the same time, however, there are schools across the state with similar profiles with much better MCAS results, the superintendent said. Demographics are not an excuse for poor performance, he said.
In a memo to staff, Russell said "dramatic change" is likely at Bentley.
If the city applies, as expected, for up to $500,000 in annual federal funds for Bentley, the school district will be required to choose one of four "turnaround models."
"These options all represent dramatic change," Russell wrote, "ranging from closure to restarting as a charter school, to reorganizing, or placing ourselves under the oversight of another education management organization. Although none of these options is welcome, we have reached a point where change is no longer a choice."
Under several turnaround plans, the principal is replaced and much of the school staff changed or required to reapply for their jobs. School systems can also reopen collective bargaining agreements with unions.
Bentley Principal Renata McFarland arrived only last summer and will lead the turnaround effort, Russell said.
The fate of teachers and staff will depend on the turnaround model.
Commissioner Chester stressed that Level 4 status represents a chance for schools to get help to improve and for students to get a much better education.
Of the 35 schools statewide to receive the underperforming designation last year, two-thirds are showing significant improvement, according to the state.
"I view the Level 4 designation as an unprecedented opportunity for students," Chester said yesterday during a conference call.
In addition to federal funding, schools can receive outside support and technical assistance, he said.
Under the state guidelines, Bentley will form a stakeholders committee composed of parents, staff and others to draft a turnaround plan. The plan will be submitted to the superintendent and school board for approval and then sent to the state for further approvals or modifications. That plan then becomes the basis for applying for federal funds.
Although the plan won't be implemented until the start of next school year, Russell said Bentley will begin working right away to identify problems and improve student performance. He said similar efforts will take place at the four other schools in trouble and districtwide.
"We're looking at this as a district problem that just happens to be showing itself at Bentley at the present time," he said.
Letters to parents went home yesterday.