SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

December 28, 2012

Column: More questions, answers on Salem schools

Kimberley Driscoll and Stephen Russell
The Salem News

---- — At the community meeting on the Salem Public Schools held at Salem State University in September, audience members submitted questions. It was not possible to answer all questions that evening. Below are final unanswered questions with answers.

We saw a lot of improvement in a short period of time at Bentley over the summer. Will we see the same increase during this school year?

One of the advantages that the Bentley/Salem State University program enjoyed during the summer was staffing levels that allowed for a great deal of small groups (three or four students to one teacher). While not affordable on a broader scale, we do believe many of the “lessons learned” about how best to organize instruction and work with English-language learners are transferable. Staff, students and families are working hard at Bentley School, and we hope to see their improvement continue.

In your experience/research, have you found that parents in the community sent messages to their children that would undervalue education? If so, was it enough to have schools with high expectations to improve, even if some community members did not share those expectations/values?

Dr. Fryer’s research has shown that this is possible given high expectations, academic support and not accepting (or making) excuses for why students aren’t performing well. Many of the students he and his staff have worked with have succeeded despite the obstacles they face in their daily lives.

What percentages of students, districtwide, are failing MCAS? What percentage were minority or low-income?

The fall 2012 MCAS results (for this past spring) with a target of 75 show all students achieving an average of 56. Those in the high-need groups, 54, and low-income, 53.

How can we solve the class-size issue at the elementary level? Witchcraft Heights Elementary School has 24 kids in second grade, and other schools have a lot less.

We are aware of the problem and are working on it. As a result of our continued monitoring of this issue, we have placed a “hold” on transfers into the Witchcraft School throughout much of October. As an aside, Dr. Fryer’s research has not found class size or student-to-teacher ratio to be a prime determinant of student success. Nevertheless, given the inequities, we are continuing to monitor and address this matter.

Where are we at in the conversation about the number of grades that will be at Collins Middle School?

Given the multiple challenges that the Salem Public Schools have faced and the absence of an assistant superintendent since late July, the issue of school configuration has been placed on hold. In the meantime, an initial review of available research supports that the quality of instruction, regardless of the school’s configuration, is the prime determinant of student success.

Considering the acknowledged larger number of students per class at Witchcraft Heights Elementary School, is there any possible reconfiguration for staff being increased, particularly regarding literacy?

During the past several months, small increases were made to staffing levels and additional classes were added to the Witchcraft School. (Similar changes were also made to staffing levels at the Horace Mann School.) It is also interesting to note that the current enrollment at the Witchcraft School is comparable overall to what it was last year. Part of the difference in class-size numbers is that the students assigned to specialized programs (newcomers) were assigned to homerooms for the 2012-13 school year — at least in starting their day.

In order to keep some of our best students from choosing out-of-district schools, how will Salem residents be informed or educated about the wealth of opportunities available to middle school students, only offered at Collins Middle School?

Enrollment in each of Salem’s three middle schools has its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. In an effort to provide parents with more information, the Salem Education Foundation assisted us in creating tour videos of each of our middle schools. (Saltonstall and Bowditch have been completed. Collins is pending.) These are/will be made available on our website. Opportunities to tour each of the schools are also created in the spring.

Is there a plan to set up a communication network for extended-day programs like after-school programs, so the staff within these programs is able to support and understand the expectations and curriculum in math and literacy assignments?

Yes, we hope to put out a new request for proposals for on-site after-school providers that require stronger communication and support for the academic programs that are being implemented throughout the school day.

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This is one in a regular series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools. Answers were provided by Mayor Kimberley Driscoll and Superintendent Stephen Russell.