Tuesday, March 4, 2014

How do you Solve a Problem Like the Bentley?

I think (and this is really just an educated guess) there are big goings on being planned for Bentley Elementary School. Maybe even really big goings on. The conversation that took place regarding Bentley was really weird, and shrouded in behind the scenes stuff that we aren't privy to. The Committee of the Whole meeting that was scheduled for last night was canceled, and two additional meetings were set, Thursday at 6:30 and Monday at 6. I'd like to take credit for the cancellation last night, but I'm betting that Mr. Schultz inability to attend is the real reason. It was mentioned that the meeting Thursday would likely be almost entirely executive session (so feel free to stay home), but no reason was given. That alone is odd. Usually it's executive session "to discuss contract negotiations," or "to discuss a grievance."  The discussion that was on the agenda for last night's regular school committee meeting was basically punted until after the COW meetings.

I pointed out when we were designated a Level 4 district that the turnaround model that we chose (Transition) was the path of least resistance, and created the smallest amount of short term pain. It also required the smallest amount of change. I asked one school committee member when MCAS results came out this year with no real Bentley improvement, even after the large amount of effort (and money) spent when it was time to ask if we picked the right model. The response was something along the lines of "we're getting there."

The other three options were Turnaround, where all staff and administration are let go, the principal is replaced, and no more than half the teachers can be rehired. That would definitely require some executive sessions, followed by some collective bargaining. There is a Restart model, where the school is closed and reopened with a new operator, and massive staffing changes. Again, there'd be plenty to talk about in executive session. The most drastic model is Closure. Literally you padlock the school and reassign all the students. I'm not sure, but I don't think we have the capacity across the district to make that happen.

It's possible that because we already have our School Improvement Grant that we can make changes on the fly without without declaring a new model. The model has to be declared to get federal school improvement and race to the top funds. Even if we don't officially change turnaround models, I'm pretty sure we're about to see big changes proposed, and you'll see a schism between newer and older committee members. The new members will embrace more aggressive action, while the committee members with more seniority will not want to admit that a school that they oversaw for so many years reached a point of being beyond saving. If you watched last night you saw the beginnings of that already, with Walsh and Bryant pumping up Bentley, and pumping the brakes on these meetings. I agreed with Walsh's call for sunshine on these discussions, but executive session exists for a reason, too.

I don't have great personal vision into Bentley, so I'm pretty much stuck with the stats. The stats show little, if any, improvement. We're halfway through the time set by the state to get out of level 4, and that school is currently closer to going to level 5 than it is to level 3. It may well be that the time for bolder action is now. (Personally, I like the sound of the Salem Academy Charter Elementary School at Bentley.)

An agenda for the Thursday meeting should legally be posted today. Expect it to be pretty generic.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Do Actions Speak Louder?

From the "actions speak louder" department. Some of you won't like this, and that's OK, but come on a little logic journey with me.

We were named a level 4 school district largely due to chronic under-performance at the Bentley Elementary School. In fact, since Bentley was named a level 4 school, the school has seen the decline continue. In 2012 the school was in the 4th percentile statewide. In 2013 the school fell to the 3rd percentile, even with a massive amount of turnaround effort and resources pointed at it. Literally 97 of 100 schools perform better. We're 2.5 years in to this, and the spiral appears to continue.

My point is this. There is still plenty of work needed in our schools, and at Bentley in particular. The problem isn't solved. Why then, is our "focus on education" mayor skipping the Salem School Committee of the Whole meeting at 5:30 tonight, where the only agenda item is Bentley Turnaround Progress, to hold a ceremonial bill signing at the same time?

And yes, I support the non-discrimination ordinance completely. It echoes state law, while adding and expanding some protections, especially for a group of the most marginalized people you'll find, who aren't currently afforded accommodations by the state law. The No Place for Hate Committee, which worked hard on this ordinance, has a regularly scheduled meeting tomorrow night. I'd think the bill signing could have been done just before, in conjunction with, or just after that meeting. Let's celebrate the crap out of the ordinance, and the No Place for Hate Committee, but let's not do so at the expense of what Mayor Driscoll has referred to as "perhaps the most critical issue facing Salem today." She said herself that we need all hands on deck.

Coming three days after a column in the newspaper from the mayor that discusses our continued commitment to school improvement, and cites the Bentley Turnaround review, and 8 weeks after an inaugural address that included the following:

"We are gathered here, at the Collins Middle School, for the first inauguration in our City’s history to take place in this building – we are gathered here, in this place, for a reason: To signify to all, with unmistakable clarity that our primary focus in the years to come will be fixed with unwavering commitment upon Salem’s public schools. And this charge is not simply for our School Committee and School leaders. We must all together devote ourselves to this end. This is a community mission."

I'm not sure why we couldn't have found a different time to sign an ordinance. So I go back to my first sentence above, and say I hope this isn't a case of actions speak louder.