SALEM — Bentley Academy Charter School is departing from its charter school model and becoming an "innovation school" under direct city control beginning with the 2020-21 school year.
In a joint statement, city and school officials said the school's board of trustees voted on May 29 "to convert from a Horace Mann charter school to an in-district innovation school, reflecting the consensus of stakeholders to move in this direction."
The statement was issued jointly between city Mayor and School Committee Chairwoman Kim Driscoll, Bentley Academy Charter School board director Ryan Lovell and Ann Berman, president of the Salem Teachers Union.
"The conversion plan will be developed collaboratively next school year with significant input from families, educators, and the community," the statement read. "We anticipate that the new Bentley Innovation School will open in school year 2020-21. We do not expect any disruptions to the student and parent experience at Bentley while the transition takes place."
Bentley Academy was converted to a charter school in 2015 as a response to years of struggling performance. It was downgraded to Level 4 accountability standards by the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2011, placing it at the time among the lowest-achieving and least improving elementary schools statewide and in threat of a state takeover if things didn't improve.
After district turnaround efforts failed to yield dramatic improvement in MCAS scores, the school's third, fourth and fifth grades were managed outside of the district briefly while Salem Public Schools continued to run kindergarten, first and second grade. Today, all grades are managed under the charter school model.
In its first year as a charter school, Bentley soared to Level 1 and was meeting all of its targets for performance improvement. Officials have since described the move to switch Bentley to a charter school as a painful, yet necessary and successful step to turn it around.
This year, Bentley served 339 students spread throughout kindergarten to grade five.
Shortly after the Bentley turnaround, the district's focus turned to performance at Nathaniel Bowditch School. The School Committee voted in March 2018 to close the K-8 school after years of what then-Superintendent Margarita Ruiz described as unintended segregation, which was reflected in Bowditch's student population, which was 69% Hispanic. Bowditch students were reassigned to other schools in the district, including to Bentley Academy.
Through this move, district officials worked to even out the schools' percentages of economically disadvantaged students, which varied wildly from school to school at the time. While other city schools fall within about 5 percent of the district average on that statistic (48 percent), Bentley Academy currently sits at 67 percent economically disadvantaged, sharply outside of the district average as it returns to being a city school.
The charter for Bentley Academy was due to expire at the end of the upcoming 2019-20 school year, Lovell wrote in a letter to the Bentley community this week. The decision to not renew the charter was voluntary, he wrote.
"Rather, the Board voted to pursue the process of converting to an innovation school," Lovell wrote. "Bentley is excited to engage in this process in partnership with Salem Public Schools and the Salem community to focus on the aspects of our model that work so well for our scholars and families: individualized instruction, family engagement, extended learning, and a commitment to meeting the needs of all our students, including our bilingual students and students with disabilities."
It remains unclear what precipitated the change at Bentley or triggered the vote on May 29, or what efforts will be needed to bring it in line with district-wide demographics. Being said, district officials are energized by the impending change.
"We are excited that this will be a collaborative partnership among Bentley stakeholders that will focus on the aspects of Bentley's model that have been working so well for our students and families," the joint statement reads. "We made this decision because we believe that an innovation school, at this point in time, is the best path forward for Bentley students, families, and educators, and for the broader Salem community."
Innovation schools, signed into law by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2010, represent a school model that uses "creative and inventive strategies" in structure and classroom learning to achieve student success not possible in non-innovation schools.
In Salem, Carlton Innovation School switched to this model in 2012. Last year, Carlton was among the district's highest performing schools.
Lovell, in his letter, said two community information sessions are planned to help answer questions, at 9 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 1, and 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7.
Bentley Academy is also in the midst of a search for an interim head of school. Marlena Afonso, the school's most recent leader, informed the board on July 10 that she has accepted a new position with the Lynch Leadership Academy at Boston College. Candidate interviews are expected to take place as early as next week and into August, according to the school's website.