SALEM — Some earn cash prizes for their hard work, others win awards. But at Carlton Innovation School, the reward at the end is unique: shoes.

The school was recognized Friday in a national contest run by shoe company Børn and Waltham-based PlanetShoes after making dramatic progress in standardized test scores over the past three years. 

The elementary school was on the brink of a Level 4 designation four years ago, Principal Jean-Marie Kahn noted.

"We came very close. We were hairs away," Kahn said. "We have fully turned this school around."

The school did it by reinventing itself from the inside, becoming an Innovation School in 2012 and turning the numbers around.

The state data backs that up. From 2012 to 2015, students scoring "proficient" and higher in English language arts MCAS scores jumped 46 percent — from 39 percent in 2012 to 57 percent this year. Math scores rose an astounding 81 percent, taking a leap from 33 to 60 percent.

How they did it may surprise those who live by the numbers, said art teacher Kate Bouffard: don't teach to the test.

In other words, don't make state data the basis for instruction, even if that's how it is ultimately gauged for effectiveness.

"When you teach kids how to problem-solve, think for themselves, analyze the problem, they carry it through their entire life," Bouffard said. "If they know how to think, understand things and comprehend things, they'll be able to tackle any problem and question.

"They can answer the test questions and they'll do well, but they'll also do well no matter what the situation is."

Carlton is one of more than 30 Innovation Schools in the state. The initiative was a signature component of education reform law signed by former Gov. Deval Patrick in 2010. It was aimed at closing the achievement gap by giving local educators freedom to create new in-district schools with more autonomy and flexibility in areas such as curriculum, budgeting, scheduling and staffing.

Shoes for the staff

On Friday, the school held an assembly in the cafeteria, where Kahn read a book to the entire school highlighting the power of teamwork.

After the book was flipped shut, representatives from Børn and PlanetShoes stepped in. With them came shoes for every staff member at the school — 48 in all.

The companies had teamed up for a contest in May, calling for schools to submit examples of teachers going above and beyond for their communities.

"We have a big emphasis on community, and our tagline is 'feel-good footwear.' It goes beyond the comfort of the shoes," said Ipek Cav, marketing director for PlanetShoes. "Honoring teachers is the perfect way to do it. It's one of those fields that receives a lot less accolades than it deserves."

Bouffard submitted a photo of several Carlton teachers wearing matching "Rock the MCAS" shirts, and wrote in her submission that each teacher at the school "goes above and beyond in the service of our kids and their learning." 

They do this in part, she explained, by never identifying single teachers for their accomplishments.

"Børn and PlanetShoes' award is wonderful because it recognizes the value of teamwork and how every staff member is critical to the students' success," Bouffard wrote in her submission. "We are effective because of how we work as a team."

That team is ultimately what turned the school around, according to Kahn. To do so, beginning with the switch to an Innovation School in 2012, they looked in the mirror for ways to improve.

"The teachers wrote the plan," Kahn said. "We wrote it. 'These are the challenges we're facing. What do we need?'"

Because the school staff was in the driver's seat, the journey became that much more rewarding in the end, according to Bouffard.

"No outside company came in," Bouffard said. "There was no, 'You're going to do this' and 'This is the way you're going to do it.' We did it."

Team spirit

That created enormous energy and enthusiasm.

Gino Bellia, marketing director for Børn, said the "sense of community and sense of family is incredible."

"You see it, walking through the school, the way the staff interact with each other and the kids," Bellia said. "They work together as a team, and we really respond to that, and the fact that they were able to take the school and bring it to this level of quality speaks to their dedication and passion."

But new shoes aren't rewarded just for community.

"We've honored schools that have been in situations where they have turned themselves around," Cav said.

And with other Salem elementary schools designated as Level 4, or on the brink, Cav said there is "so much opportunity in Salem to continue improving."

Carlton, too, still has much to do. The leaps in improvement have brought test scores just about to the state average for all elementary students in Massachusetts in math and English language arts. In science, the school scored much lower. But there was still much to celebrate.

"This change has been relatively recent and involves educational structure," Cav said. "A lot of schools were like, 'We don't know how to deal with this, and we're learning.' It's nice to see a community come together."

Bellia hopes the award inspires other schools to turn things around from the inside, he said. 

"This award will hopefully inspire other teachers and other schools to achieve this level they've reached," he said, "this sense of community, and the success Carlton has received."

For Salem news and story inquiries, email Salem reporter Dustin Luca at, call 978-338-2523 or message @DustinLucaSN on Twitter.

Carlton MCAS Results*
Category  2011 2012** 2013 2014 2015
 English 40 39 40 50 57
 Math 36 33 34 51 60
 Science 24 32 21 38 33

*Percentage of students who scored proficient or higher in MCAS testing.

**2012 marks the school's low point for scores. Following test results that spring, the school launched its Innovation School model, opening that fall.

All Salem Elementary MCAS Results*
Category 2011  2012 2013 2014 2015
 English 45 43 44 46 50
 Math 43 44 47 54 52
 Science 39 40 38 41 35

*Percentage of students who scored proficient or higher in MCAS testing.

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