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Two struggles, one triumph

At Salem’s Bentley School, a second try at turnaround

Having turned around a Boston school, Justin Vernon will try to do so again in Salem.

Juliette Lynch for The Boston Globe

Having turned around a Boston school, Justin Vernon will try to do so again in Salem.

When students return to school Monday to start the new year at Bentley Elementary School, a week before the rest of Salem’s schools open, they will face the newest plan to turn around one of the lowest-achieving schools in the state.

The Bentley is undergoing massive change this year. The city has contracted with a Newton nonprofit, Blueprint Schools Network, to manage the school and implement a new curriculum, starting with grades 3 to 5.

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Meanwhile, the school’s application to obtain charter status next year has prompted an exodus of educators and students. No teachers in grades 3 to 5 from last year are returning. Salem Superintendent Stephen Russell said among all 16 teachers who were invited to reapply, nine who had tenure accepted positions at other Salem schools and the other seven were laid off.

Some parents are wondering why the city pulled the plug on its turnaround plan halfway through a three-year process.

“Students and parents are saddened either because the children have to endure the transition of a new school or return to a school with very few familiar faces and just a shell of what it used to be,” said Anne Wessel, who decided to transfer her son to another school this year.

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Since 2011, Bentley has been on the cusp of receivership, classified as a Level 4 school by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for its poor MCAS scores and low academic achievement. Despite more than $1 million in grants to add staff, professional development time, and boost student scores, MCAS numbers continued to fall: in 2013, Bentley students’ MCAS warning/failure rate for English and math was three times the state average, with the science rate nearly as bad.

In the middle of a state-mandated three-year turnaround, Salem school officials, along with Mayor Kim Driscoll, decided to scrap the plan and turn to Blueprint to manage the school under a state “restart” program that will give the school an additional $513,395 this year. The city also has applied to the state to convert Bentley into a Horace Mann charter school for next year, a move that would give the school’s administration further autonomy and new governance by an independent board.

‘I think everyone was working hard, but we just weren’t seeing, necessarily, the results we had hoped for.’

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“I think everyone was working hard, but we just weren’t seeing, necessarily, the results we had hoped for,” said Driscoll, who is also chairwoman of the Salem School Committee.

Academic progress at the Bentley will be monitored almost as soon as classes begin, because the stakes are high.

Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the school would be reviewed in the fall of 2015. She said Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester will decide at that time whether the school should stay at Level 4, elevate to Level 3, or drop to Level 5, an assessment that would require the state to take over the school.

Mitchell’s criteria will not solely be based on MCAS scores, she said. “A big part of it also is whether the district has the supports in place to sustain this improvement going forward,” she said. “It’s not just the academic achievement.”

Despite adding school staff over the last two years, Russell said the district underestimated the achievement gap at Bentley.

“I don’t believe there was a sufficient understanding of the need and what had to be done to turn the school around by leadership, and some of that is on me,” Russell said.

The Bentley serves students from some of the poorest families in Salem. Last year, 75 percent of its students came from low-income families, and just 18.5 percent were classified as English Language Learners, according to data collected by the state.

Chester agrees with Driscoll that changes need to be made at the school. In a letter to Russell last April, the education commissioner wrote that the school’s Progress and Performance Index number, which combines information about narrowing proficiency gaps, had dropped from 70 to 20 between 2012 and 2013, the most drastic decrease of all of the 34 Level 4 schools in the state. In his letter, Chester ordered that an external partner assist the school this year.

Enter Blueprint, which works in 60 schools across the country and is the educational group that was appointed by the state to run Boston’s Dever Elementary School this year. Blueprint, along with the Salem public schools, hired Justin Vernon as the school’s new principal, and also helped draw up a plan that includes a 185-day school academic year — five more than traditional public schools.

Matthew Spengler, Blueprint’s executive director, said the school planned to instill core strategies to increase student achievement. Those include hiring “quality” educators; using computerized data to assess each student; adding an hour each day to the school schedule; changing the school culture, such as requiring uniforms; and adding a tutoring program that will include “math fellows” to help students in class every day.

While all the educators at the school will work for the Salem public schools, Blueprint is employing a network director to help implement strategic planning and school coaching. Blueprint also plans up to six site visits a year, where representatives will sit in on classes, talk with teachers and students, and make recommendations on how to further increase student achievement. Spengler said Blueprint and Salem schools have yet to determine how much the nonprofit will be paid for its management this year.

Spengler said the turnaround would not happen overnight. “Folks know that to really transform a school it ought to take three to five years,” he said.

Vernon, the new Bentley principal, has led a school turnaround before — the Roger Clap Innovation School in Dorchester went from a Level 3 to a Level 1 school during his tenure. At the Bentley school, he said, core classes such as math and English will each run two hours, and there will be two 30-minute blocks each day for additional math and English tutoring. Students in grades 3 to 5 will be assessed every six weeks this year.

Blueprint thought it would be better to phase in management and curriculum over a two-year period, Russell said. “They felt that it would be too much too soon and they want to phase that in,” he said. Changes to curriculum for younger students in the K-5 school will be implemented once what works in the upper grades is identified.

Vernon also wants to make sure that students and parents at Bentley know that the goal of the school is for students to attend college. Homerooms will be named after colleges; university pennants will line classrooms; parents will be required to sign off every night on their children’s homework.

The school plans to hold a Saturday Academy every month, and will be open daily for kids who want to come to class during February and April vacations.

“We’re going to be relentless about planting the college seed,” Vernon said. “Many of our students will be the first in their families to go to college, and that’s what makes me so passionate about this.”

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.
com
. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.
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