, Salem, MA

August 10, 2013

Letter: Salem's schools could be great

The Salem News

---- — To the editor:

This is in response to Nelson Benton’s column of Aug. 2 (“Unspoken, unchallenged”):

I don't mind using strong words to get a point across - and at the same time if being outspoken on an issue of great importance to the city (even if I have no authority over them other than to vote on their budget) is enough to get people to try and beat me, so be it. Salem schools have been on a downward trend for years, and under the watch of the School Committee. Deb Amaral and Lisa Lavoie weren't there when this all has happened, so I don't have any issue with the work they've done. And frankly, outside of the Saltonstall debacle and where we are now I have high personal regard overall for Dr. Walsh. He's a very good man who's served the city well in a number of ways for decades. His work for Salem is exemplary.

The problem to me is that I simply don’t see sufficient acknowledgement of the work that they have in front of them to turn around the school system, and I see side issues that are distracting everyone. When your best school is a Level 2 (Saltonstall would have also been a Level 2 but for a reporting error — one that was used against them by the School Committee last month), most are Level 3 (with several in danger of slipping), and one is Level 4, that’s not when you congratulate yourselves for a job well done. This is when you look in the mirror, figure out what your mistakes are, self-assess, and go find a solution and work it relentlessly.

I made two points in that statement (“District problems don’t lie with Saltonstall,” July 22) that was reprinted in The Salem News (it was a transcript of my speech to the School Committee on the 15th). One was that our schools suck right now. The more important point to me is that they could be great. We have a talented superintendent. We have lots of new, committed administrators. We have tons of dedicated, skilled teachers. We have students and families who want to learn. Why can’t they be great schools? All the ingredients are there.

Being a city councilor doesn’t mean I should take the door marked “Salem schools parent” and close it. I’m glad, I guess, that my concern over this has generated so much ink usage and page views for The Salem News. But that’s not why I’m doing it. I’ve been speaking out because more people need to do that. I’ve been speaking out because there’s a message that needs to be delivered that the status quo won’t help us. And I’m speaking out about this because I can. If people want to use my office as a reason to pay attention, that’s great — the fundamental message I have about Salem schools is a positive one. Issues like Saltonstall (and what is now starting to bubble up around the Community Charter) are distracting us from the work at hand.

But as a parent (and a Saltonstall parent at that), I saw what the fight that went on for the last several years over the extended year did to the city. I saw even more what it did to Saltonstall’s parent community. I saw all the kids who applied to and left for the Salem Academy this year — mainly because of that. The School Committee got what they wanted with the school calendar. But what did they win by doing that? And what did they lose?

At the same time, we are all part of the problem. But we can all collectively be part of the solution. Lots of people are stepping up this year to bring new perspectives to the School Committee. I think, given where we are and how we got there, that this is a very good thing (full disclosure: I volunteered to be the chairman for Katie Casiglia’s campaign), and I hope that we see a plethora of new people this November. Outside of the usual suspects commenting in The Salem News’ online comments, I have been surprised at how positive the feedback I’ve gotten has been. I just hope more people speak their minds and get a healthy debate going. It can only help us get better.

Josh Turiel

Salem City Council

Ward 5