BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — City leaders hosted a community forum last night that was both an information session and public rally for the school turnaround plan.
Mayor Kim Driscoll and Superintendent Stephen Russell pointed out key areas of progress the school system has made since last fall, when it was designated a Level 4, underperforming district by the state.
“We’re all focused on seeing better results,” Driscoll told a crowd of more than 150 at Salem State University’s Mainstage Auditorium. “We can do this, and we have to do this.”
Russell pledged to oversee a transparent school system that will share news — good and bad — with the school community and public.
“We have nothing to hide,” he said. “You will see public reports from the Department of Education ...”
The city leaders used the forum to introduce Dr. Roland Fryer Jr., an economics professor at Harvard University who has worked with the New York City and Houston public schools. Founder of the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard, the 35-year-old Fryer is a consultant to the Salem schools.
Using humor and inspirational stories, Fryer talked about what he has seen work in urban school systems. He stressed the importance of longer school days and spending more time on learning, of using data about children’s achievement to drive instruction and of setting a “culture of high expectations.”
“This is about what we can do to educate our kids who need us the most,” he said. “If a kid is at a Level 4 school, they need our help.”
Last night’s forum was one in a series of efforts by city officials to keep the public informed about what is happening in city classrooms.
The audience was told about the new assistant principals hired at every elementary school, a first for Salem; the competitive $1.5 million, three-year school redesign grant the city was awarded; and the addition of an extra hour to the school day at Bentley Elementary School, something the mayor hopes to do at every school.
In addition, school officials talked about The Achievement Network, a nonprofit organization hired to assess student progress four times a year and to use that data to work with teachers to improve student learning. Understanding where students are having difficulty and getting them the right help is at the core of the turnaround plan, officials said.
“There is a lot happening at once,” the mayor said.
Salem State President Patricia Meservey served as a master of ceremonies, stressing the close relationship between the state university and the public schools. Meservey lauded results of a four-week summer program at Bentley, a collaboration between Salem State and public school teachers.
“We really can make a difference for the children of Salem,” she said.
There were only a few questions allowed from the audience, all written out on cards, but one asked where city leaders have failed in the past so that those mistakes aren’t repeated.
Driscoll mentioned the need for a more stable and stronger school administration, pointing out that there have been three superintendents in her seven years in office. Due to financial trouble, she said the focus was more on “dollars and budget” at the start of her first term.
“I certainly think there has always been a strong commitment to public schools ...” Driscoll said, “but we need to make sure we’re getting a higher return on the investment.”
The mayor praised members of the community who have stepped forward to help and stressed that it is going to take a citywide effort to get the job done.
“I really want you to leave here hopeful,” she said at the end of the evening. “We are committed as a community and as a school system to seeing this through.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.