Superintendent Stephen Russell had been in Salem only a few months when he got word from the state that an elementary school was being given a Level 4 designation based on its consistently low scores in the high-stakes MCAS exam.
As a result, Salem became a Level 4 school district and the newly arrived superintendent was under the gun. Salem had three years to turn things around, the state said.
Although that turnaround has yet to happen, Russell, who has just completed his second year in Salem, was given good marks this week by the School Committee for laying a solid foundation.
Five of the seven school board members ranked Russell as “proficient,” the second-highest rating. One member rated him “exemplary,” the highest ranking, and another gave him a “needs improvement/developing,” the second lowest.
“All agreed that Dr. Russell entered the district under trying circumstances and has provided leadership, professionalism and direction,” stated a summary of the superintendent’s evaluation.
The summary also noted that Russell “should involve the entire committee earlier in actions/incentives and make his personal positions on difficult issues clearer.”
Mayor Kim Driscoll, the school board chairman and a prime mover behind the turnaround efforts, gave Russell his lowest overall rating — needs improvement/developing. From her written comments, however, the low rating appears based, in part, on the fact he is a new superintendent overseeing a turnaround plan that is just beginning.
“The superintendent is hard-working and earnest and brings a wealth of experience and a congenial manner to this position,” she wrote. “He is visible within the district and approachable to parents, staff and students.”
Driscoll also made clear, however, that she is looking for stronger leadership.
“Thinking boldly and acting strategically to improve both the experience in and perception of our school district is a critical role that our superintendent must better fulfill if we are to achieve greater success and build confidence in Salem public schools,” she stated.
“There is no doubt that changes in ‘business as usual’ have started and that more will be necessary to accomplish the type of success we want to achieve. Managing this change will require more robust leadership that not only provides a sense of direction, but also limits distractions and builds ownership and alignment among teachers, staff, parents and students. This is no easy task and will require the best efforts of our superintendent, as well as a strong, committed, focused School Committee.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.