SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 28, 2014

Driscoll: Commitment to Salem schools continues

Kimberley Driscoll
The Salem News

---- — The Salem Public School District has been working diligently for the last two and half years, putting in extra time and energy to improve student outcomes. It started with the adoption of an Accelerated Improvement Plan (AIP) that spelled out the additional steps we would take to improve teaching and learning in Salem. In late January, we received positive feedback from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) about the actions we have taken to date. DESE highlighted the fact that school officials have taken very seriously the “call to action” prompted by our Level 4 designation and have taken important steps toward improving teaching and learning in our public schools.

Some of these actions include:

Building data systems to collect and review the growth and development of students;

Developing leadership capacity and teacher support systems to improve instructional quality in all our schools;

Implementing the new educator evaluation system to provide educators with timely feedback and opportunities for improvement, as well as greater accountability;

Creating an environment for innovation and support for nontraditional models to achieve results.

We continue to implement our improvement plan, align curriculum and utilize an array of tools to monitor progress and improve teaching. Our partnerships with DESE and others — including the Salem Education Foundation and the Salem Partnership’s Community Advisory Board — are strong and positive. Gov. Deval Patrick, through the Gateway Cities Education Agenda, has recently announced an additional $115,000 grant to support Salem’s English language learners.

The principal searches underway for Bates, Bowditch and Collins schools are happening in a district-wide context, not with each school in isolation. Our number one priority as part of this process is to attract the best-quality leaders for these schools and we have involved school community stakeholders in the hiring process. The goal is to have all the searches completed by May 1 so new, turnaround principals can be in place before the start of the school year. With the assistance of the Collins Center for Public Management at UMass Boston, we are on track to meet that target.

Our ongoing Middle School Success Initiative is deeply connected with the AIP. This initiative was launched to improve Salem’s middle schools and prepare all our students for continued success in high school. The Middle School Task Force has researched successful middle school models and reviewed survey, focus group and interview data from the community. They are developing a clear vision for what critical components will create an enhanced middle school model in Salem and a set of recommendations to present to the School Committee in March.

The findings of the surveys, focus groups and interviews revealed key themes that will inform those recommendations. There is strong support for choice and consistency across our schools. Community members rightly see our teachers as one of our schools’ core strengths but believe there must be more rigorous expectations and higher academic standards for our students. There is a need for more differentiated instruction for both advanced and struggling students. Parents want to be more involved but sometimes feel unwelcome. Latino families, in particular, feel our schools should focus more on cultural competency for educators.

We believe that by strengthening our middle schools, we can really move the needle on achievement overall. The final report from the task force will identify three to five recommendations under each of the AIP’s focus areas. Each recommendation will include actionable implementation strategies, specifying who is responsible for the recommendation, along with budget estimates.

Overall, parental and community engagement remains a top priority, as does extended learning time, increased teacher collaboration and robust summer learning opportunities.

Finally, we are pursuing increased achievement levels at Bentley School. We are at the midway point of year two of the school turnaround plan at Bentley, and we will undertake a robust evaluation of the work underway to ensure the best possible outcomes for students and families.

In my inaugural remarks in January, I called our focus on Salem’s schools a “community mission,” and it most certainly has been. We are not waiting for things to improve on their own, because they will not. Working in collaboration with DESE and positive partners in our community, we’ve been proactive. We won’t watch idly if plans don’t deliver results, and we won’t pretend things are better if they’re not.

We made a commitment to positive improvement in our schools through the AIP, and we have set strong standards and expectations for ourselves, our staff and our students. We won’t rest until we are achieving the best possible outcomes for our kids, because Salem’s students deserve nothing less than the very best that we can give them. We know we can achieve our goals and remain focused, committed and excited about the work underway!

Kim Driscoll is mayor of Salem and chair of the city’s School Committee. This is one in a series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.