SALEM — Salem Public Schools is no longer a Level 4 school district with the threat of state takeover looming overhead. In fact, state oversight is at an end, according to local school officials.

School staff and administrators were celebrating throughout the district Monday as word of the new designation spread. The state released new accountability designations, along with MCAS and PARCC testing data, to the public Monday afternoon.

Among the numbers are two shining highlights, according to Superintendent Margarita Ruiz: First, Bentley Academy Charter School leapt from Level 4 status with the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education all the way to Level 1, signifying substantial progress.

With that, the district itself went from Level 4 to Level 3, the lowest rank held by any of its schools (Bowditch Elementary, Collins Middle and Salem High).

The changes are "validation by the Department of Education that they're ready to move the entire district, because they've seen the progression and increase in student outcomes throughout the entire district," Ruiz said.

More immediately, the news means the state's oversight into the city's turnaround efforts is at an end, according to Ruiz.

But what do these numbers mean?

Level 1 schools are designated as such because they're narrowing proficiency gaps and meeting or exceeding goals to do so, according to the DESE. Level 2 schools are declared as such for not meeting goals but achieving satisfactory scores. Level 3 schools are not meeting goals and sit among the lowest 20 percent of schools in the state. Level 4 schools, meanwhile, are categorized as the "lowest achieving and least improving schools." Level 5 are those under state receivership.

Bentley has sat at Level 4 since 2011, and with it so has the school district. In that time, a massive turnaround effort was launched, and along the way, Bentley became a charter school — a decision that was a tough one to launch, according to Mayor Kim Driscoll.

"We weren't seeing the progress we were hoping for," Driscoll said. "We came in the middle of that plan and needed to push 'restart.'

"We can tell it worked out," she continued.

'A great milestone'

Some officials at Bentley learned the news over the weekend. That included newly installed Headmaster Marlene Afonso.

The school shared the news with its staff early Monday morning, according to Afonso.

"We have a culture of high expectations and achievement for all our kids," she said. "We believe they can do amazing things and push them every single day to do so, both academically and through our character and core values. This is a great milestone, great for us and great for the city."

Christine Sullivan, a member of the school's trustees board, said the boost in status is a product of what goes on in the classrooms.

"The classrooms are electric with learning," Sullivan said. "What I love about them coming out of Level 4 and coming to Level 1 is it's proof positive that the children want to learn, and if you put them in an environment where they can learn and the learning is exciting, and the teaching is committed and compassionate, they can learn."

But it's more than the school, or even the district, that feels the success, according to Sullivan.

"Having a school system that has now shown it can turn itself around is enormously important to the future health of the city," she said. "Salem is certainly starting to boom. You can see it with all the construction going on and all the things that are opening."

Ryan Lovell, chairman of Bentley's trustees, said he knew the school "was doing well, but the question was how well."

Now, they have their answer.

"While we were hopeful Bentley was coming out of Level 4, this news just confirms that what we're thinking is accurate," he said. "We're doing well. We're on the right track, and it's obviously thrilling news."

As a point of comparison, Bentley moved from the 13th percentile of achievement among similar schools in the state, up to the 24th percentile. 

'A district on the move'

Bentley Academy isn't the only success story for Salem Public Schools.

Seven of the city's nine schools increased in their percentile rankings following this past spring's standardized testing wave, according to Ruiz.

Of the seven schools that increased in their state rankings, several came close to doubling their rank over last year. Those schools include Bentley, Bowditch Elementary School and Collins Middle School.

Horace Mann Laboratory also increased from Level 3 to Level 2, according to Ruiz.

Two schools decreased in rank, however. They include Witchcraft Heights Elementary, which dropped from the 60th percentile to 54th, and Salem High School, which dropped from 24th percentile to 20th.

That drop at the high school causes the school to shed its prior Level 1 status and fall to Level 3, Ruiz said.

"We're a little disappointed," Ruiz said. "We're confident scores are going to go up next year. We're really excited, because when we look at the district as a whole, we've been seeing Salem Public Schools as a district on the move, on the rise."

Even though it's only two schools that saw percentile rankings slide, the work will charge forward at all nine schools, according to Ruiz.

"We're deepening the work, the priority we have on meeting the needs of all our learners, looking very critically at all our subgroups," she said.

That includes an added focus on specialists for the most critical subgroups across the district, according to Ruiz. At Bowditch, for example, a pair of coaches have come on to help with the school's English Language Learner population and a differential coach to target other areas.

As the district continues on its "accelerated improvement plan" — the framework that has guided district growth to this point — leaders are on the cusp of launching a strategic plan to guide further development, according to Ruiz.

"A strategic plan goes much broader," she said. "It'll be one master plan for the district, but it's all-encompassing."

While discussing results statewide with reporters Monday afternoon, state Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester said Salem has "smart leadership that's committed to improving and not willing to accept mediocrity."

"I'm very pleased with the progress that's being made in Salem," Chester said.

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523, or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.


School Level 2015 2016

Bates 2 33 34

Bentley 1 13 24

Bowditch 3 8 12

Carlton 1 21 34

Horace Mann 2 15 22

Saltonstall 2 54 63

Witchcraft Heights 2 60 54

Collins 3 17 29

Salem High 3 24 20