SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

July 22, 2013

Turiel: District problems don't lie with Saltonstall

Josh Turiel
The Salem News

---- — So we stand here once again, in a room packed with parents, to determine the fate of Saltonstall’s extended year program. It’s a program that, though wildly popular within the community, has been on the chopping block because it’s supposedly not “equitable”.

And from the story I read this morning in the newspaper, this is a done deal. The member who everyone looks at as the swing vote is “feeling very comfortable.” Well, that’s wonderful.

From all the most recently published data, Salem’s schools suck. And that’s happened on the watch of our School Committee. So what kind of equity are we looking for? That sort?

If there are problems in the demographics of the schools, is that the fault of the schools, or the parents who choose them? No. It’s a failure of the school department to do its job, and a failure of the School Committee to lead. A failure to follow the stated assignment policy of the past, and judging by last year’s K class, a failure to follow the recently adopted assignment policy.

Fact is (since so many people are citing them): Salem has a Level 4 school district. I’m encouraged by much of what I see from our superintendent, who walked into this job just as our status was announced. I’m encouraged by many of the newer leaders that have come to manage some of our schools. I’m encouraged by the dedication and hard work of so many of our teachers, particularly the ones at Saltonstall who managed to keep working effectively despite the renovation project that’s had them in exile for two years in a dramatically outdated and inadequate building.

But at the same time, I’m discouraged by some of the old-guard teachers and administrators I’ve heard here who have tried to sow discord by setting parents against one another. I’m discouraged by the School Committee’s relentless focus on Saltonstall when it’s one of the only schools in Salem that currently makes it up to the category of mediocre.

School Committee, your focus is simply in the wrong place. We’ve spoken often here about a “Salem model” for the school turnaround. Well, other cities have turned around their schools. They have methods that are known to work — and as far as I know we’re not using them or talking about them. Instead we argue about Saltonstall year after year.

This is an easy problem to solve. The Saltonstall program has been around for nearly 20 years. Over that time, it’s resulted in Salts’ being typically a better school than most — despite significant changes, administrative turnover, a two-year facility move, and annual uncertainty that has been driving families into the Salem Academy and school choice.

So to solve this problem for now, it’s simple. Leave it alone. The Saltonstall extended year is a program that’s immensely popular within the school, and has self-selected a population (with the support of the school department) that wants an extended year. It serves over 360 students at a lower cost than this year’s pilot program costs to serve half as many. It keeps committed families in the district, and helps keep them in Salem, at a cost per pupil that compares from the most recent numbers I’ve seen right in the middle of our schools. Fix the biggest problems. Fix the structure. Raise all our other schools up to a high standard. That’s when you start making changes elsewhere.

The failure of the School Committee to see this, and their continuous fixation on extended year is a failure of the highest order. Fix the failing schools. Get real data about what works and what doesn’t — not just anecdotes. When you have that mission accomplished, then it’s time to put everything on the table. And yes, that can include extended year. But there’s a lot more to do in this job than change the bedsheets while the house burns down around you — and that’s what this School Committee seems to want to do.

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Josh Turiel is the Ward 5 councilor for the city of Salem.