SALEM — The School Department could spend up to $125,000 next year hiring consultants to help with turnaround plans at city schools.

The city is seeking proposals from consultants to help coordinate and craft this first-ever effort across nine city schools.

Superintendent Stephen Russell stressed that Salem will develop its own plan to help students at Bentley Elementary School and other schools struggling with the statewide MCAS exam. But he said the city also wants to use the expertise of outsiders who may have worked on turnaround efforts in other communities.

"One thing I've learned over time is none of us has all the answers," Russell said. "There are professionals out there who have done this before, and we hope to use their expertise and save us from making some of the same mistakes maybe they have made.

"Also, we're determined to be successful, and sometimes that means pulling in people who have an outside lens who can look at what we may be too close to see."

This citywide school improvement effort began in November when the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education designated Bentley a Level 4 school due to low MCAS scores and little improvement over several years. Russell said other Salem schools also have consistently low scores.

Salem is attacking the MCAS problem on several levels.

A local stakeholder group made up of community members and educators has already met at Bentley, which has been given three years to show significant improvement. The group has been charged with identifying key problem areas for Bentley and recommending a turnaround plan from one of four state models.

Other city schools have been told to name stakeholder groups by mid-January and hold their first meetings by Feb. 1, Russell said.

Mayor Kim Driscoll, who is leading the turnaround effort with Russell, has scheduled a Jan. 19 meeting at Salem High for city residents and others who have volunteered to help. It is being billed as a citywide stakeholder meeting.

In January, every school will begin offering after-school help in math and English/language arts two days a week. More than 600 students have signed up so far.

While focusing on MCAS scores, the superintendent has stressed that the larger goal is to improve city schools and provide a better education for all children, regardless of how they did on the MCAS.

Proposals from consultants are due Jan. 19.

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