SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

December 7, 2012

Column: Answering parents' questions on the 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 some of the unanswered questions with answers. Additional ones will be answered in subsequent articles.

How does our designation as a gateway city influence our decision process for school change?

Salem’s designation as one of the commonwealth’s 24 Gateway Cities increases our eligibility for grant funding. For example, working in conjunction with Salem State University and the North Shore Workforce Investment Board under Mayor Driscoll’s leadership, we have submitted two Gateway City grant applications for the creation of a summer English Language Learners Program and a Career Academy at Salem High for training in health care services.

Dr. Roland Fryer said Salem is at the level of baby steps. What should we be doing to take giant steps?

Some of the key aspects of Dr. Fryer’s work in the city of Houston’s lowest-performing 10 urban schools involved greater use of data to inform instruction, the hiring of tutors at a five-student-to-one-tutor ratio, the replacement of a substantial number of administrative and teaching staff within the schools, and additional time added to the school day and year, as just some examples. Given the significantly smaller scale of issues to contend with in our schools and the greater role our educators take on both within our schools and our community, not to mention much stronger collective bargaining legislation in Massachusetts, it would not be practical to utilize the exact same approach in our school improvement plans. However, we are working with Dr. Fryer and implementing reform measures that make sense and are more constructive in a smaller city like Salem. Some examples of efforts and priorities that will enable us to take “giant steps” include: the increase in the use of data to inform instruction with A-Net; the addition of time to the school day; more focused training and supports for teachers/administrators, along with higher accountability through implementation of the new educator/administrator evaluation tools, addition of tutors and/or intervention blocks for students.

I don’t want to dwell on the past, and I also want to focus on our efforts going forward, but I would like to hear some public discussion of the failures that got us here — to help ensure we don’t repeat our mistakes.

Hindsight is always an easier proposition than foresight. A combination of circumstances has led us to the current circumstances. A high turnover within school administrative positions (e.g., three school superintendents within six years) along with difficult budget decisions that limited our ability to sustain programs and staff were certainly contributing factors. Within the context of that environment, there has been an increase in testing and accountability standards for students and schools within Massachusetts. All of that led to a less cohesive and more disjointed attempt at improving test scores, which usually was undertaken on a school-by-school basis, not a comprehensive, districtwide approach. All that being said, the state’s recent Level 4 designation has provided us with an extraordinary opportunity to assess what’s working and what’s not within our schools. We can renew our commitment and rethink our approach to educating the children of Salem. We intend to get it right and make sure improvements are sustainable long-term.

In addition to passion, observation and intuition, has your education and work in economics — particularly the Chicago School stuff — helped in your current work?

Dr. Fryer would likely respond, “yes, that and my grandmother’s advice.”

Applying an economists’ view of the cost/benefit relationship to public education has led to the development of Dr. Fryer’s views. I’d encourage readers to seek him out on the Web. There, you will find copies of his articles and some of the many presentations he’s given to groups throughout the nation.

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