North

At Salem’s Bentley school, reason to cheer

After monitoring the Salem Public Schools for the past five years, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday deemed the district has shown enough improvement to remove its “underperforming” designation.

Salem has been a Level 4 district — one step from state receivership — since 2011. But factors, including improving assessment scores among students at the Bentley Academy Charter School, prompted state officials to designate Salem a Level 3 district, Superintendent Margarita Ruiz said Tuesday.

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The Bentley school, which had approximately 275 students in grades K-5 last year, has a history of low scores on assessment exams. But it climbed from Level 4 to Level 1 after switching from the MCAS to the PARCC tests last spring. Schools are allowed to administer either test until an MCAS-PARCC hybrid is completed in 2017.

After Salem elected the PARCC exam for elementary schools, Bentley students — including the English Language Learners and High Needs groups — received a rating of “on target” or “above target” for growth in both English Language Arts and math for the 2014-15 school year, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Bentley students scored in the 13th percentile when compared to similar schools statewide, the best ranking in the school’s history.

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Brendan Walsh, the School Committee vice chairman, said it’s not yet clear whether PARCC is a better assessment for district students than MCAS.

“I don’t know if it makes a difference at all,” Walsh said in an interview. “I think you have to let it ride for a few years.”

When the Bentley scored in the lowest 7 percent statewide in 2014, Salem hired an outside contractor, Blueprint Schools Network, to manage the school in 2014. The school was granted a charter by the state in February 2015.

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Blueprint oversaw Bentley’s transition to a charter school, replacing 16 teachers and bringing in Justin Vernon as the school’s principal.

Vernon resigned in May after a complaint was filed against him to the state Department of Children and Families. In a statement, the DCF said that because of confidentiality laws, the department does not confirm or deny whether the have conducted an investigation.

Salem Police Captain Conrad Prosniewski said Wednesday the only police report involving Vernon is a medical response in September 2015 that does not appear to be related to any complaints filed against him.

In addition to improvement at Bentley, seven out of nine other schools in the district improved their ranking, said Ruiz, who took over as Salem’s superintendent last year.

“We couldn’t be happier with the direction in which we see the district going,” Ruiz said. “But there’s still work to do.

“My vision is to make Salem Public Schools one of the best districts in the state. We are definitely on that trajectory of improvement.”

Sean Teehan can be reached at spteehan@gmail.com.
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