To the editor:
Recently there has been much said regarding the Salem Public Schools and, in particular, the high school, in the local press. Much has been said out of context and some of it has been said by people who I have never seen at the high school. As an educator who has worked at Salem High School for 22 years, I would like to take a few minutes to add my two cents to this ongoing conversation.
Do we have challenges we must rise to at Salem High School? Of course we do. But we are also doing plenty of good as well, and we have been for as long as I’ve been here. After being exposed to so much poor press, some people I know were surprised to hear where some of our seniors are going next year. I, however, was not. Every year I see students head off to Ivy League schools and other excellent schools and universities. Last year it was Harvard, BU, Tufts, Northeastern, UMass, etc. This year we have students who have been accepted to Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, BU (one of them on a full scholarship!) and plenty of others. I also often ask previous students who come back to visit how prepared they were for Ivy League academics and each and every one of them -- as far back as 2005 and as recently as last year -- say the same thing: they were very well prepared academically and, in certain social and societal respects, better prepared than many of their prep-school-educated peers.
Every year I meet many of the best students at Salem High School in my Advanced Placement Physics 1 and Advanced Placement Physics 2 courses. Every year I am thoroughly impressed by their academic abilities, their commitment to community and their general awesomeness as human beings. The public schools educate these kids well and many of them go off and succeed wonderfully. Examples abound. I meet students from years gone by who are scientists, engineers, teachers, professors, lawyers, etc. I know a former student who works at a computer company in Cupertino, California (Apple -- perhaps you’ve heard of it). A quality education is here for the taking if the students are willing to come to school and do the work.
And therein is one of our major problems: Each class in this school currently has a more than 30% chronic absenteeism rate. The high level of absenteeism has a large effect on how we’re perceived. It’s a critical metric when the DESE ranks us and, furthermore, those who don’t come to school often tend to not do well on tests like MCAS, another critical metric.
Another major challenge is buy-in by the non-AP, non-academic or slightly less academic crowd. Many students come here and wander the halls, skip classes, won’t put away their phones. I would like to state loudly and clearly that they do not learn said behaviors here, they’ve picked up those habits elsewhere -- someone, somewhere has influenced these kids and has given them the notion that staring at a phone while teachers deliver content is OK.
In general, when people express unbridled negativity at home and at sporting events, online and elsewhere, the kids hear it and they come to school thinking that it’s deficient or inadequate and they don’t buy in; they’re convinced before they even get here that there’s not much here for them. Imagine if the majority of parents and community members were focusing on the good? I’m not being Panglossian here -- I know we have plenty of issues to work on and challenges to rise to -- but there are definitely plenty of good things happening at the high school, and the big universities know it. US News and World Report also knows it; look it up.
We need to continue to focus on what’s wrong and continue to work toward addressing our challenges, for sure. But we should also celebrate, if only briefly, what’s good as well.
I would like to emphasize that this high school is full of dedicated professionals who work diligently to provide a high-quality education for the students of Salem; at this point I have hundreds of examples I can cite. If you cultivate within your children the importance of academic pursuits and the value of education, we will teach them how to excel at such pursuits. A quality education is available here for all, but we need your help in cultivating a respectful, positive learning environment so that access to academic excellence continues to expand. Send your children to school with the right attitude and we’ll send them anywhere in this world they want to go.
William B. Warren
Salem High School