Bentley Academy shedding charter model

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.

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 Mayor and School Committee Chairwoman Kim Driscoll, Bentley Academy 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."

The Bentley School 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 Blueprint Schools Network was hired in 2014 to run the third, fourth and fifth grades at Bentley while the district continued with grades K-2. Bentley was then converted to a charter school the following year.

After the first year as a charter school, Bentley students exceeded all of their target goals for performance improvement and the school's rating soared to Level 1. 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 in grades K-5.

When the Nathaniel Bowditch School was closed in 2018, after years of what then-Superintendent Margarita Ruiz described as unintended segregation in Bowditch's student population, the 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 greatly from school to school at the time. While other city schools fall within about 5 percentage points of the district average (48%) on that statistic, Bentley Academy is an outlier with 67% economically disadvantaged students.

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, as well as what changes will take place in the impending conversion of the school. District officials, however, are energized about this.

"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, the Carlton School was switched to an innovation model in 2012. After several years of lackluster progress on student achievement, the school finally shed its Level 3 rating in 2015. 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, Thursday, Aug. 1, at 9 a.m., and Wednesday, Aug. 7, at 6 p.m.

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. 

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.