When elected officials and business and civic leaders in Lawrence decided to come together to improve their city’s fortunes, one of the places they looked to for guidance was Salem — specifically, The Salem Partnership.
It was a wise choice. The Salem Partnership has been deeply involved in many of the city’s successes over the past three decades, from the construction of the Salem Visitor Center in the old Armory building, the building of the tall ship Friendship, and advocacy for the new courthouse complex on Federal Street and the new garage at the MBTA station.
Last month saw the launch of the Lawrence Partnership, a similar collection of leaders with an optimistic and forward-looking vision.
Now, Salem has a chance to take a page from the Lawrence playbook by adopting an innovative approach that has helped turn around that city’s schools.
The Salem School Committee is considering a sweeping plan to “decentralize” management of the school district, giving more power and responsibility to individual principals and teachers, allowing them to decide how to best run their schools.
Under the so-called open system model, which has been used to great effect in Lawrence, the superintendent works in more of a support role.
Salem schools have been more open to innovation in recent years, with the transformation of the Bentley School into a Horace Mann charter school, the unveiling of an intensive improvement plan at Bowditch and the lengthening of the school day at other underperforming schools.
That openness to change, however, has been scattershot and driven by desperation. The state declared Bentley a Level 4 underperforming school in 2011, based on consistently poor MCAS scores. Bowditch and the Collins Middle School are at Level 3 status. While things seem to be improving, the threat of a state takeover still looms large over every decision the School Committee and district administrators make.
An open system across the district, in contrast, would allow teachers the freedom to meet challenges before they become crises. Teachers have power as well as accountability.
It’s a method that has worked well in Lawrence, Julie Albino, that city’s deputy chief school redesign officer, told Salem School Committee members at a meeting last month.
“We are trying very hard to transition from the state takeover district to an innovation district,” she said. “It’s important to us that we have a level playing field where all the schools have the same ability to be flexible. People who are closest to students are the ones who are best able to make policy decisions, so we need new structures to do this.”
Lawrence’s transformation has been remarkable. The district, which had been taken over by the state, has seen six of its most challenged schools rise to Level 1 status — all using different methods to get there.
Lawrence teachers have budget control at each of the district’s 33 schools, and they and the building principal make decisions on curriculum, scheduling and use of resources. Principals are allowed to hire their own staff, with innovative educators being attracted to the district by the promise of autonomy.
The School Committee, to its credit, has voted to explore the idea, which is more timely given the impending departure of Superintendent Stephen Russell, who will be leaving at the end of the school year. A superintendent versed in the open system — one willing to cede authority to leaders in each school — is vital.
We believe the idea has merit, and hope the committee commits to the endeavor in earnest. Lawrence was able to use the success of the Salem Partnership as a blueprint for its own venture. There’s no reason Salem can’t do the same in its schools.