BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The School Department is hiring an outside administrator to help turn around the troubled Bentley School.
Superintendent Stephen Russell announced the dramatic step at last night’s School Committee meeting.
Russell said he plans to hire a “district overseer” who will work with Principal Renata McFarland and other staff at Bentley, the Salem elementary school designated an under-performing Level 4 school two years ago due to consistently low scores on the statewide MCAS exam.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education gave Salem three years to show significant progress or face possible takeover. This is the second year of the turnaround effort.
The pressure on school officials increased Friday when the results of the 2013 MCAS exam were announced, and Bentley had slid backward in several areas.
“We have reached a critical point” that requires “more aggressive steps,” Russell said.
Russell said he has been talking with several potential candidates and hopes to have an announcement by the end of the week. The new administrator is expected to be someone with experience as a principal of an urban elementary school. The job may not be full time, but the overseer will be expected to be at the school at least part of every school day, Russell said.
While noting that solid programs and initiatives are underway at Bentley, Mayor Kim Driscoll said the school has to move more rapidly and make significant progress this year. “We need to pick it up,” she said.
Driscoll described the district overseer as “another set of hands.”
The mayor stressed that this move is being made by the School Department and is not being dictated by the state.
The new position will be paid from the $500,000 annual federal turnaround grant Salem was awarded last year. No salary has been set, Russell said.
The superintendent said he plans to meet with Bentley staff Friday to discuss the new hire.
In addition to the overseer, the School Department is providing other assistance including more before and after-school programs at Bentley, more lab classrooms for teacher training and a stronger partnership with Salem State University.
McFarland was named principal of Bentley shortly before the start of the 2011-12 school year. She was on the job only a few months when the bad news arrived about Bentley, generally considered the most challenging of all city schools, with the highest number of students from low-income families and with limited English proficiency.
In November 2011, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education notified the city that Bentley was being relegated to Level 4 status as one of the worst-performing schools in the state. School officials were told that four other schools with low MCAS scores were on the brink of Level 4 — Salem High, Collins Middle School, Nathaniel Bowditch School and Carlton School.
A 13-member stakeholders group was named to help formulate a turnaround plan for Bentley.
In the summer of 2012, the School Department was awarded a $1.5 million federal redesign grant for Bentley — $500,000 annually for three years. Some of the funding went for a dozen new positions, including an assistant principal and math and language arts coaches.
Beginning last school year, Bentley revamped its curriculum and added an hour to each school day for students. The schedule changes also included the addition of large blocks of time for English/language arts and math, two key areas on the MCAS test.
For the past two summers, Salem State staff worked with Bentley teachers on a summer-school program.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.