Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A history lesson, Salem ed style, and the rest of the DESE report

In light of the DESE report, it's interesting to take a look back at old news articles about the Salem schools.

About 15 months ago, the Salem News had this little tidbit. In hindsight, right on, Nelson. How does a school's program change without the principal or superintendent knowing about it? Mismanagement and lack of leadership?

Just over a year ago, one month before the DESE visits that the report is based on, the Salem School Committee gave Dr. Cameron a glowing review. They praised his vision and his relationship with the board and administrators. The DESE couldn't find any evidence of either.

"I see both a short-term and a long-term vision for the district that I've been impressed with," School Committee member Kevin Carr, as quoted by the Salem News on 12/7/10. Again, that was a little over a month before DESE visited the district and couldn't find anything near a short-term or long-term vision. This isn't to pick on Carr, who now serves as a city councilor, but to point out that maybe our school committee doesn't know much about what's going on in our schools. The fact that the level 4 designation, and publishing of the DESE report, didn't come out prior to the recent city council election was certainly to Carr's benefit. The DESE site visits were early in 2011. They didn't find what Carr says he saw. His quote above would certainly have been election fodder. Could he have turned level 4 into a city council seat?

In August, when Dr. Cameron left, this was the news piece. A tidbit from that piece. "We're sad to see him go," Driscoll said. "He has done an outstanding job." And here's another one. "In a nanosecond, you could tell he was a professional," said School Committee member Jim Fleming. Also, "He put us on stable footing," School Committee member Brendan Walsh said of Cameron. Really? We're on stable footing? Read the report. Finally, this one. "He's a terrific, terrific guy," Walsh said. "I just hope Dr. Russell can do as well." God help us if that's the case.

This is obviously anecdotal, but in the last few weeks I've spoken with several Salem parents, who have relayed the following examples of Salem school leadership to me. A Jewish parent at Bates asked why a meeting was being scheduled on a Jewish holiday. The Bates principal responded that "we don't have any Jewish students here." Wow.

One parent said, of Dr. Cameron, "I always got the impression that he had great attention to detail, but not necessarily the right ideas of where to focus that attention. If a gross of pencils was ordered, he seemed like the type of guy who would count, to make sure there were 144, and not only 143 pencils, but would miss out on big issues."

Some Bentley parents relayed the story of their child, who has a disability, and has an IEP, except that the former Bentley principal was ignoring the IEP and disability. The parents contacted Dr. Cameron for some assistance, and in their words, "Cameron did NOTHING to resolve the issues." I had know idea that the school following an IEP was optional. /sarcasm

Moving to slightly more recent news, Brendan Walsh asked the Salem City Council's A+F committee to give school committee members a raise. The raise proposed was a 140% raise to $6,000 annually. Most school committee members supported this proposal. The eventually adopted raise was $500. I get it. They haven't had a raise in over 20 years. But man, the timing really sucks, or was fortuitous to the current committee. Wouldn't there be more of an uproar now? The proposal was made 2 months after DESE visited the district. The original proposal was to tie the salary/stipend to the pay of the mayor. Here's a novel idea, let's tie the rate of pay to student performance ...

Dr. Walsh seems to have a habit of dashing off letters to the news when bad news about the Salem schools comes out. Here's one from 2008, after news of Salem students poor SAT results was released. And here's one from just last month. Why does it seem that both seem to want to blame anything other than the school system for the problems we face. The first seems to want to blame circumstance, and the newest, which talks about this not being a time for blame, clearly takes aim, and lays blame, at the feet of some parents. Dr. Walsh, the time for blaming others, and making excuses, is over. The report is clear. The blame lays with the administration. (OK, inattentive parents are a huge problem, but they aren't the ones falling down at running the schools.)

The other person who clearly benefited from this report not coming out sooner is school committee member James Fleming. If the report had come out prior to the election, wouldn't some of the school committee candidates have made a bigger deal of Mr. Fleming's frequent absences? The current issues clearly call for all hands on deck. Mr. Fleming would be wise to make sure he's around Salem, monitoring, guiding and supporting the new leadership team, as he stated was the largest challenge facing the school district just months ago. Hard to do that from Florida.

At this point, wouldn't you really love to hear what those secret recordings captured? I know I would. No wonder Dr. Cameron seemed so angry about them at the time.

I don't write this to crap on these people. I point these things out in hopes that you'll realize that you should question what you're told by elected officials, and the local media. That said, it's worth questioning the validity of the DESE report as well. While I was reading the report, two days before Christmas, I asked one school official if things were as bad as the report made them sound. That official responded as follows, "We have some work to do, especially with subgroups, like ELL, Special Ed, lower income, etc, as we are being outperformed by other districts with similar populations. But like everything, there's a back story. Dr. Cameron and the DESE reviewer did not see eye to eye, and had a poor exchange during the review meeting. In any event, we can, should, and need to improve and this presents an opportunity to do so. Personally, I've been pleased with my children's educational experience, and many other parents are as well."

It's true that I've spoken with plenty of Salem parents who are happy with what their children are getting out of the Salem schools. I've spoken to others who are concerned with the lack of rigor and homework that they see required of our kids today.

Remember that the DESE report was written by individuals, who may or may not have their own agendas. If everything was peaches and roses, they'd likely need new jobs. They are paid to write evaluations of "bad schools."

As for this being an opportunity, in some ways it definitely is. Level 4 status allows the city to do some things they wouldn't be able to do otherwise. I believe changes to things like hours and year length are much easier from a collective bargaining standpoint while we are in level 4. Some rules around curriculum structure are bypassed as well. Should it have ever come to this? Heck no.
I know what you all really want. Here it is, the rest of the DESE report on Salem schools.

Dr. Cameron is an easy scapegoat here. He's out of town and can't defend himself. Heck, ship this report out to the district he's in charge of now. They probably should be aware. And it may be the only way we get to hear a response from him, on how much of this is on him, and how much isn't.

For the first part of the DESE report, go here.


  1. At the last School Cmte Meet Carr said he was proud to say that the schools were in better shape now than they were 6 years ago when he got elected on the school cmte. What a complete liar and bafoon.

    The question is: Where is the Kimmy in all of this. When did she know? Why has she been silent? As a taxpayer I'm outraged at this. The citizens of Salem deserve answers from the administration immediately!!!!

  2. I haven't even started to read part 2 but, so far, I just don't know how much the school administrators and government communicate about education in this city. With such a lack of communication within the school system itself, who's to say that the reports to the mayor are even accurate?
    I question how important this issue is to the city.

  3. I think someone should forward this to Cameron's new district so they can keep an eye on him. When it was announced that Cameron was coming to Salem from the Pittsfield Public Schools, someone from Pittsfield that I know who has followed their school system for over 40 years called me to tell me "Good luck for you, but good riddance for us". Then I was confused with all the praise heaped on him. Now I realize its because the school committee has no clue what is actually going on in the schools.


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