High failure rates and low attendance figures are two of the challenges the Salem school district faces as it strives to implement an accelerated improvement plan outlined by state education officials.
The district in 2011 was classified as Level 4 — one step from the bottom — because of low MCAS scores. It received mixed reviews from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in a report filed last month after the school system completed the first year of its accelerated improvement plan.
The state found that while the district is establishing systems that will help track performance, during the 2012-13 school year it did not meet certain goals regarding attendance for students with a high level of need; reduce course failure at the high school; or achieve progress toward improving MCAS scores.
Performance designation is based on a four-year analysis of achievement, student growth, and improvement, all of which are measured by MCAS scores, according to the state.
MCAS results reported by the state in 2012 showed Bentley Elementary School — which was the first in the system to be designated a Level 4 — had 24 percent of its students in grades 3 through 5 failing or on the verge of failing English, and 34 percent of its students failing or on the verge of failing math.
High-risk students assessed in the state report, which included low-income, English language learners, and students with disabilities, frequently did not demonstrate expected progress toward their performance goals during the 2012-13 school year, the report said.
According to data compiled by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 78 percent of Bentley students were considered high need. The breakdown included First Language is not English (37 percent) or English Language Learner (29 percent); low-income (71 percent); and students with disabilities (19 percent).
“While we’re putting the pieces in place and working on the structures, we’re at the point where we need to put together tangible results and we’re committed to doing that,” said Stephen Russell, the Salem superintendent.
The report, which was released on Aug. 20, accounts for information compiled by state education officials between March and mid-June.
Although the final summary showed that results fell short of meeting established targets, “It is clear that the district now has a data cycle firmly in place and is measuring the extent of its students’ progress,” the report stated.
Among the more alarming findings was an increase in students failing at least one subject during the course of the school year at the high school.
The accelerated improvement plan called for a decrease in the percentage of high school students who are failing one or more courses in a quarter, with a 10 percent decrease as the goal set for each term.
Additionally, “a disproportionately high percentage of high-needs students failed one or more courses each quarter when compared to similar failures of all students,” the report said.
While 18.8 percent of all students at Salem High failed one or more courses in the first quarter last year, the figure rose to nearly 25 percent in the second quarter and climbed over 30 percent in the third quarter before dropping slightly — to 28 percent — in the fourth quarter.
Among high-needs students at the high school, 24 percent failed at least one course in the first quarter, followed by 31 percent in the second quarter, 38 percent in the third quarter, and 32 percent in the fourth quarter, according to the report.
The report also noted that average daily attendance at the high school dropped 4.6 percent during the school year, while attendance of high-needs students at Carlson, Bowditch, and Witchcraft Heights elementary schools did not match or exceed the baseline set Oct. 1 as called for in the improvement plan.
“The thing that really stuck out to me as something we hadn’t been discussing really much within the committee was the issue of attendance,” said School Committee member Lisa Lavoie.
“We have poor attendance by a lot of students that really need to be in school. I’m concerned about that, because if we’re offering programs for students, we need to have them come to the programs.”
To improve attendance at the high school, officials said they are reaching out to parents and implementing incentives to get students into the classroom.
One pilot plan focuses on improving attendance at elementary schools in the district by including a new breakfast-in-the-classroom program.
Salem recently received a $50,000 grant from the Eos Foundation Nourishing Kids Initiative that will provide breakfast for children at the Carlton, Bates, Bentley, and Horace Mann elementary schools.
The district is now focusing on how to make the most progress in the coming months.
“Our biggest issue is pacing,” said Mayor Kimberley Driscoll, who is also chairwoman of the School Committee. “We want to see results quicker. We may need to take steps that are bolder and act more strategically in respect to current programs and funding.”
The next assessment will be presented in October, and will be focused on the review of the work the school administration completed this summer on professional development and training.