“Board votes to consider turning Bentley over to private firm.”
— Salem News, March 18, 2014
I cringe every time I read that headline from a story that ran last week about the Bentley Elementary School.
As many in Salem know by now, the Bentley School has had more than three years of flat or declining standardized test scores. The school is currently midway through its second year of a state mandated three-year turnaround plan intended to improve student achievement. More than half way through this plan, the improvements we hoped to see have not taken hold.
Rather than risk another year of underperformance at Bentley, which would more than likely also risk a Level 5 designation — and essentially a state takeover of the school — the School Committee voted 6-1 to begin negotiations with Empower Schools and Blueprint Schools, a nonprofit education management organization, to partner on a more aggressive turnaround plan at Bentley.
Some have been critical of this approach and described it as turning our school over to an outside private contracting firm. This could not be further from the truth. We are not walking away from the school or outsourcing public education at Bentley. In fact, I see our efforts as just the opposite. Despite the Herculean efforts of the teachers and staff at Bentley we have been unable to achieve substantial improvements in test results at the school. I think that underscores just how hard a challenge it is to close the achievement gap on an accelerated timeline. I also hope our actions last Monday night underscore just how committed our school district is to the community mission of improving public education for all students in Salem.
The School Committee has voted to work with Blueprint and Empower Schools because of the record of success that they bring to the table. Good dance partners make for better dancing and we believe working with a good educational partner will make for better teaching and learning. This is a new model for Salem and, naturally, anything new is wrought with fear, anxiety, and — sometimes — misinformation.
To be clear, we are opting to work with two of the most experienced and reputable turnaround partners in the Commonwealth via a performance contract that will identify certain tasks that each will undertake on the District’s behalf. These include, but aren’t limited to, the hiring of the principal and staff and the development of the school day and calendar. This will be a performance-based contract that will outline the specific gains we expect to see as a result of this partnership. Pursuant to state law the school will be able to utilize certain autonomies under the Restart Model, enabling them to add time to the school day and flexibility on operational issues such as tutoring, uniforms and professional development.
As has been reported, all teachers in the school will be given an opportunity to reapply to work at Bentley. Those that remain, as well as any new teachers hired, will be employed by the Salem School District and will be members of the Salem Teachers Union. Any professional status teachers that either elect not to return to Bentley or are not rehired have rights to open positions at other schools in Salem. We want to be as fair as we can with our Bentley staff and look forward to working through all of these issues with the teachers union as soon as practicable.
We fully expect that Blueprint will be an active partner in our district leadership team and that successful practices used at Bentley can be shared with other Salem schools. We know that Blueprint welcomes input and values feedback — both from the district and from students and families. We can’t expect to remove the very autonomies that make their model successful, but we can rely on Blueprint to be a good partner and we’ll make sure any agreements crafted reflect that in both spirit and substance.
The Bentley School is not a Level 5 school and Salem is not a Level 5 city. We all know and believe this deeply. But simply saying so does not make it true and, unfortunately, even with extra resources and extraordinary efforts by staff, Bentley has not seen substantial student gains. We have to be willing to acknowledge painful truths and be ready to change course when it becomes clear that the status quo is not working.
I don’t offer these comments easily, as all of this is hard, but as I said earlier this year in my inaugural remarks, we must be serious about reform and continue being positive, pressing leaders for our school district. That means we don’t wait for things to improve on their own. We don’t chance that we’ll be able to close the achievement gap and improve test scores. We don’t watch idly if plans don’t deliver results. We don’t pretend things are better if they’re not. And we don’t forget that our work is not about the adults. It’s about the kids.
Kimberley Driscoll is the mayor of Salem.