SALEM — The news this week that Bentley School is an "underperforming" school that faces possible receivership and that four other schools are teetering on the brink has hit local officials hard.
"It's a punch in the gut," Mayor Kim Driscoll said of the designation by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The bad news has propelled school officials into action on a number of fronts.
Driscoll and Superintendent Stephen Russell are forming a citywide committee that will meet the first week in December at Salem State University to review school district data and set priorities. Salem State President Patricia Meservey has agreed to take part, along with top officials from the SSU School of Education.
Russell plans to hold a series of community meetings beginning next month or in early January.
Bentley School is forming a local stakeholders group of parents, teachers, School Committee members and others to start working on a "turnaround plan," a step mandated by the state. The school has 30 days to form the group and 45 days to develop a plan, which must be approved by the School Committee and state.
In addition, Russell has told every principal to reach out to staff, parents and community members at their individual schools to come up with ways to improve their schools and raise scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, test. Poor MCAS results in English language arts and math over four years resulted in Bentley being designated a Level 4 school, a status possibly facing Salem High, Collins Middle, Nathaniel Bowditch and Carlton schools.
While commending the effort that went into the School Department's five-year strategic plan — which includes a number of priorities and "core values" along with 28 goals and a 50-page action plan — Russell said it is time to narrow the focus to several top priorities.
As an example, he said "all students should be reading at grade level by the third grade," echoing one of the statewide education goals announced this month by Gov. Deval Patrick.
Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said yesterday that Level 4 schools that are turning around have put in strong leadership that creates a "sense of urgency" in the school, monitors students' progress closely and has a "laser-like focus" on effective educational instruction.
On another front, Russell said he plans to address inequities among the city schools and will take a close look at the student assignment policy as administered by the parent information center. Some schools have far more low-income or limited-English students than other schools, he said.
Bentley, for example, has among the highest percentages in both categories.
"Unfortunately, what that does is it puts an additional burden on schools already challenged and less of a burden on some of the schools that have more capacity than they are maybe putting to use," Russell said. "I feel the need to equalize that a little more fairly."
He said he has no plans to change current enrollments but is looking at making adjustments in future years.
Both Driscoll and Russell said the city will apply for up to $500,000 in federal funds that are available annually to Level 4 schools, as well as seek other assistance.
They also encouraged anyone interested in helping to contact the superintendent's office.
"When your schools aren't as successful as you want, your community feels the pain of that, and we're going to need our entire community to overcome that," the mayor said.