SALEM — Carlton Elementary School was one of the lowest-performing schools in the state in 2012, the year it launched a six-year plan to become an innovation school.
It ranked in the 6th percentile on state MCAS tests, meaning 94 percent of the schools in Massachusetts outperformed it.
Today, with its six-year transition just completed, it is in the 54th percentile, making it the highest-ranking elementary school in the district.
How Carlton turned itself around, and what lessons can be learned from its experience, are of keen interest in the city right now, as the Bentley Academy Charter School prepares to switch to an innovation model over the coming year.
To be sure, there are differences between the two schools, including size: Carlton has 279 students; Bentley, 339. And there's a lot of work to be done — a prospectus must be written, deals must be bargained, a school must be converted. But many remember carrying out that work at Carlton, and though it wasn't easy, it has led to positive results.
"It took a lot of explaining to parents, and the honest thing to say is there were definitely teachers who left, parents who left," said Beth Anne Cornell, a three-time Carlton parent who is now working to help Bentley with its transition. "People were really skeptical, but we stuck with it. (Teachers) believed in it and really executed it."
Today, the school would be unrecognizable to anyone who stood in its halls six years ago. Grades have been replaced by "cohorts," and students "transition" from one cohort to another at any of three points in the year, depending on their own academic and emotional growth.
"Kids go through the standards at their own pace, and they're able to get what they need based on their standards and socio-economic needs," said Bethann Jellison, the school's principal. "We get them through the cohorts and move them when they're ready."
That creates an interesting dynamic for both students and teachers.
"It's like... every kid belongs to every teacher — and it's a small school, so they can pull this off," Cornell said. "Every teacher in the school knows every single kid. And they don't just know their names; they know how they're progressing, what their strengths are. There's a lot of community building."
This past school year — 2018-19 — was the final one for Carlton's transformation. Each year since 2012, one grade has been converted from the old model, starting with the youngest. The traditional fifth grade finally vanished last year.
As each grade was converted into cohorts and students transitioned at their own pace, Carlton's performance climbed. The 6th-percentile standing in 2012-13 rose to 15 percent the following year, 21 percent in 2014-15 and 34 percent in 2015-16. Today the school, once just a year away from being declared a Level 4 underperforming school, is at the 54th percentile, the highest of the city's elementary schools.
Bentley: Talks begin
While Carlton was in a precarious position in 2012, Bentley was actually doing worse — the 3rd percentile. A local turnaround effort produced only modest results — 7th percentile in 2013-14 and 13th in 2014-15. So the city opted to make it a charter school, under the purview of its own board of directors instead of the School Committee, starting in the 2015-16 school year.
The process was a painful one that is still debated today. The coming school year, 2019-20, is the last one under the five-year charter, however, and rather than seeking to extend it, the school has decided to switch to the innovation model. But in Bentley's case, this isn't a complete conversion.
One of the critical things Carlton gained in its transformation to an innovation school was the power of autonomy — the ability to blaze its own path on, for example, the types of staffing positions it creates. That's something Bentley already has as a charter school, according to Jellison.
"Our music and art teacher has to be elementary-certified as well, because they also teach math," Jellison explained. "Bentley already has some of the autonomies, being the charter they were."
That's something Mayor Kim Driscoll pointed out, while noting that comparisons between Bentley and Carlton can be tough to measure. The charter school last year landed in the 26th percentile, falling short of Carlton's ranking, but still far better than it used to be.
"Because we have a model we know is working, we're really just changing the operational model," Driscoll said. "Our intention is to use the current model as the outline going forward."
The process starts with drafting a prospectus based on community feedback, according to Driscoll. An 11-member innovation plan committee will then form to write the final plan, and votes will be needed from teachers in the building and the School Committee.
"Once that happens, you're good to go," Driscoll said, adding that much of that work should be done by the end of the calendar year.
But Bentley needs one thing more than anything else for the transformation to work, according to Jellison. In fact, what Bentley needs is the biggest thing Carlton had going for it.
"They have to have buy-in from the staff and the community and the district for this to work," she said. "The teachers put in a lot of time. You have to believe in what we do, and you have to believe it's what's best for the kids."