Even before the adults began to discuss the future of Bentley Elementary School, the students had already begun to brainstorm.
As a result of being named one of six underperforming schools by state education officials on Nov. 14 due to consistently low test scores and other criteria, the Bentley School formed a group of parents, staff, and others to help develop a turnaround plan for the elementary school that has to be implemented in the fall.
Fifth-grade teacher Edward Mercier, however, assembled a group of fourth- and fifth- graders called the Student Group for Bentley Change ) well before the adult group formed on Dec. 14.
“They are the real stakeholders; it’s their education we’re talking about,” said Mercier, who was one of two Bentley teachers named to the group last week. “A lot of times we’re not directly talking to them. They hear about it word-of-mouth; an older brother telling them the Bentley is bad.”
Picking the nonstudent group was the first requirement in the school’s new strict diet of monthly deadlines.
The group has until Jan. 28 to submit recommendations to the superintendent, and a draft of the school’s turnaround plan has to be sent to the School Committee and state education commissioner by Feb. 27.
The final turnaround plan is due on April 27 so it can be implemented next school year.
“We’re on a treadmill,’’ said Bentley principal Renata McFarland, “and instead of a 2 percent grade, we’re on a 50 percent grade, and we have to stay on that treadmill; we can’t fall off.’’
But before she could rally her staff, McFarland had to reassure them that the turnaround status didn’t automatically mean they would lose their jobs.
“The way I approached it is, in a turnaround school you can’t blame yourself,’’ McFarland said. “You have to look at it as ‘All right, I know I’m a hard worker, but I’m going to have to change my working style to be more effective, and from this I’m going to really grow and walk out of this with the best experience. I’m going to learn how to do something better. I’m going to fail and then step up back again and do what I do well.’ ’’
Mercier expressed a similar sentiment to the students who showed up to the first meeting of the Student Group for Bentley Change. And while Mercier told the students that Bentley being named an underperforming, or Level 4, school is not their fault, the students told Mercier that the English Language Learners (or ELL students) at the school aren’t getting a fair shake.
“The kids themselves said the ELL students are on an unlevel playing field,’’ Mercier said. “That came right from them.’’
Marta Garcia, an ELL teacher at the school, said the school conducted an ELL night for about 50 parents on Dec. 7 to explain the turnaround process.
“We will figure it out and really provide what the kids need,’’ she said. “I feel this is social justice, and we really need to do something about them, and they can do as well as all the other kids.’’
During Mayor Kim Driscoll’s presentation to parents about the turnaround process Dec. 8, one woman stood up and called the ELL students the “elephant in the room.’’
Driscoll responded by saying she will not use the ELL students as an excuse for why the Bentley can’t improve, despite the fact that 36.6 percent of Bentley students are learning English as a second language and 28.2 percent of the students have limited English proficiency.
Driscoll noted that school districts such as Chelsea, Brockton, and Revere have similar types of students but don’t have any Level 4 schools.
“We can do more to engage that population,’’ Driscoll said of the ELL students and families. “I’m not willing to accept that challenging population as a reason why we can’t succeed.’’
Another challenge the school faces is that 76 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunches, meaning they are from homes that make under $25,000 a year.
But Leanne Schild, a member of the stakeholders group whose twin 6-year-olds are in the first grade at the Bentley, said the school’s diversity is what drew her to the school.
“I grew up with zero diversity and had to go out and as an adult explore the world to find it,’’ she said at the Dec. 8 meeting. “I love that my 6-year-old white kids are actually the minority in their classes here at Bentley. And I love it that they have no idea that the McIntire District we live in is any different from their closest friends who live on the Point,’’ a lower-income area.
Schild said that she’s receives “looks of pity’’ when she tells people her kids go to the Bentley, and she worries teachers will now be unable to relax in the classroom because their methods are going to be scrutinized.
“Most importantly, I want very measurable and specific goals to be defined and effectively communicated on a regular basis,’’ she said, “so that I am able, as early as possible, to brag about how the Bentley is not just meeting but exceeding these goals.’’
The stakeholders group includes a parent (Schild), a state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education representative (Amanda Trainor), a School Committee designee (Brendan Walsh), the teachers union president (Joyce Harrington), an administrator from the Bentley (MacFarland), two Bentley teachers (Mercier and Gabrielle Montevechi), a social service representative (Mari Matt of the Salem YMCA), a representative from a workforce development agency (Mary Sarris of North Shore Workforce Board Association), a Department of Early Education and Care representative (Lynd Coffill), and three community members (Joanne Scott of the Boys and Girls Club, Kathy Winn, and Rosario Ubiera Minaya).