SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 24, 2013

Column: Work to improve city's schools continues

Kimberley Driscoll
The Salem News

---- — Our school improvement cycle is fully underway this year, thanks in large part to the many people in our community who have been engaged with, shown interest in, and contributed to our progress. Teachers, administrators, parents, students, members of our business and nonprofit communities and concerned residents are all stakeholders in the critical effort we have underway to close our student achievement gaps and enhance learning opportunities for every student within each of our public schools.

We know what successful school improvement models look like and what they can accomplish. They raise both parent and teacher expectations around what students are capable of achieving. They strengthen and improve instruction and training. They provide supports and services that address every child’s social and academic needs. And they provide parents and members of the community with opportunities to ask questions and get involved in school improvement efforts.

We are working closely with each stakeholder to advance identified reforms through an accelerated school improvement program. This holds us accountable for raising the performance of all students by continuously improving teaching and learning and creating a culture of high expectations and accountability for each child, in every school. These changes will be phased in over the next two years. They will require us to think and act differently to attain greater success for all our students and families.

We have engaged people from across the Salem community to develop a set of bold strategies to improve every school in our city. Our strategies — adding an hour to the school day, using data to support instruction, building capacity of our teachers and principals, setting a culture of high expectations and accountability for students and staff — are key parts of our Accelerated School District Improvement Plan.

We are giving principals and teachers the tools they need to achieve success and to strengthen both the learning culture and level of instruction in our schools. We have engaged state and national experts to work with our school district on the use of data to inform instruction. We are working within the new teacher evaluation system to give and receive feedback, and we hope to make better use of time to ensure that our staff truly “own the learning” of every student in their classroom.

We have already undertaken a number of steps to help us achieve these goals, including new leadership within school buildings, interim student assessments that allow us to use data to drive instructional supports and more frequent evaluation and collaboration with our teaching staff.

Research shows that when done well, additional time in both the school day and year is valuable for both students and teachers, creating opportunities for more enrichment, more academic instruction, and better prospects for educators to work collaboratively.

This summer, in partnership with several community stakeholders, we expect to offer a number of new enrichment programs at all grade levels. These offerings will enable students to learn and grow, both in formal school settings and in areas beyond the four walls of existing buildings.

As we dive deeper into the details of our work some may ask that we defer difficult decisions or limit changes that might impact their particular school, grade or child. We understand and appreciate how difficult change can be, but maintaining the status quo in our schools is not an option. Making decisions on how best to improve our schools will require a thoughtful and exhaustive process. It will also require focus and urgency.

What we need now more than ever are public school champions — parents, community members, business leaders, and others who care about the direction our schools are headed — who will help us continue to build understanding of and support for the turnaround. The more we can keep our community informed and quell the spread of misinformation before it begins, the better.

The three critical yardsticks that define a great city are public safety, economic vitality, and good schools. In many respects the key to gaining success in all three areas comes down to how well we perform with our school improvement plans. With the changes we have underway we now have an opportunity to grow and enhance our schools in a way that also strengthens our community as a whole. By working together, what we do today will help us reach, not only the students who are thriving now, but all of our children — truly making our public schools the harbinger of our community’s future strength and success.

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Kimberley Driscoll is the mayor of Salem. This is one in a series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.