“There are no excuses. We can’t say, ‘Oh, we can’t do this.’ We can, and we are going to.”
— Bentley School Principal Renata McFarland
The first full week of the school year has begun, and the stakes are high in Salem. Nowhere are they higher than at Bentley Elementary School, which the state labeled as a Level 4 “underperforming” school, based on its history of poor scores on the MCAS exam. While other Salem schools are said to be at risk of a Level 4 designation, Bentley already faces a three-year deadline to show significant improvement or face a state takeover.
There is, however, cause for optimism in the school’s ambitious, intelligent turnaround plan.
Many at-risk students have already spent a significant portion of the last several weeks in summer school, thanks to a partnership between Bentley and Salem State University. There was extra professional development time for Bentley staff, as well, and the school has also added about a dozen new staff members, including teachers, a library/media specialist and an assistant principal, its first.
The most important change was the addition of an hour to the Bentley day, which allowed for the creation of two large blocks of time to focus on the crucial areas of English/language arts and math.
During those large blocks, classroom teachers will get a chance to work with small groups while “intervention specialists” and special education teachers work one-on-one with students who need help. Three-quarters of the school’s 335 students come from low-income families; one-quarter are immigrant children just learning English.
Another key element of the turnaround plan: Students will be assessed every six weeks to see what progress is being made, and if the new approach is working. Teachers need fast, almost constant access to this information if they are to have any hope of improving their students’ learning experience.
McFarland is also taking steps to bring parents into the fold.
“Parent and community involvement is as fundamental to school improvement as a good curriculum or effective teaching,” she wrote in a column on these pages last week. “We have learned we cannot simply impose change without building ground-level support from parents and community.”
Bentley is facing a steep challenge, and some of the approaches outlined here may not work. But there is a welcome sense of energy and accountability among the Bentley staff, and that above all is an excellent sign headed into the new year.