SALEM — Local officials say the latest MCAS results show that the school district’s controversial decision to shutter the Nathaniel Bowditch School in 2018 was the right one for the students.
The 300 Bowditch students were reassigned to other city schools after the failing K-8 school closed at the end of that school year. Now, those students have shown marked improvements on their testing scores in all three areas — English language arts, math and science — in the spring 2019 MCAS exams, compared to 2018 results. The district released the numbers at a recent School Committee meeting.
Performance on science tests showed the greatest improvement, with 32% of former Bowditch students meeting or exceeding expectations on the spring 2019 test, compared to just 11% in 2018.
The School Committee voted in March 2018 to close Bowditch after years of what then-Superintendent Margarita Ruiz described as unintended segregation, which was reflected in the school’s student population, which was 69% Hispanic. In addition, 75% of the student body was economically disadvantaged, and the school, overall, struggled academically.
“It’s really hard to make a decision to close a school, and when the School Committee voted to do this — and it was the superintendent’s recommendation to give Bowditch students a fresh start — it was aimed at improving student outcomes,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll, who also chairs the School Committee. “The report really bears out success in the areas we hoped to achieve, with student performance really markedly increasing for former Bowditch students in their new settings.”
While the 2019 results generally show positives for the district, there are some blemishes — specifically, student growth in English language arts dipped from 62% in 2018 to 53% in 2019. Growth measures an individual student’s progress on statewide tests year to year, as opposed to the overall student population’s performance.
Even further, the district found that former Bowditch students in grades 6 and 7 had scaled scores in English testing dip when compared to students in those grades from the year prior, according to the report. All other grades advanced in English testing, with the biggest increases seen in grades 3 and 8.
A majority of Bowditch students in grades 6 through 8 (102 students) enrolled in Collins Middle School, with 30 in grades K-8 going to the Saltonstall School. Collins principal Matthew Condon said performance in seventh grade English showed declines throughout the whole grade — not just for Bowditch students.
“It was a bit lower than what we normally have,” Condon said. “We’ve identified some areas reflectively in curriculum and building off of the strong sixth-grade numbers, the strong eighth-grade numbers, and what they need to fill in at that time. For us, it was more of a curriculum hiccup.”
Still, assistant superintendent Kate Carbone said the numbers overall support the School Committee’s decision.
“It was a difficult decision, but we really made it in the interest of our students and wanted to create opportunities for them to grow and achieve academically,” Carbone said. “We felt like we could better do that in our other schools where student performance and outcomes were looking better.”
The district put out another report in May that showed a majority of Bowditch students liked the new schools they were enrolled in, while also highlighting that some students struggled with the transition when walking into schools that weren’t built like what they knew at Bowditch.
It’s something that Condon said he noticed to an extent.
“I told a story at graduation. The Bowditch students, when they first came — especially eighth grade, who started in kindergarten (at Bowditch) — they started with a Bowditch table,” he said, describing lunch-time trends of the students staying together. “By June, the tables were all mixed up. Kids felt more comfortable in the end, and I’m proud of that.”
That further reinforces the idea, Condon said, that the dip in English performance is reflective of what the whole school is working with today, now a year and a half removed from Bowditch’s closure.
“Other than meeting the needs for special education, English language arts services... kids in classes weren’t identified as Bowditch kids,” he said. “They’re Collins kids.”