Salem Puclic Schools – Part One – Demographics

As I write this, I fear I am dooming my child to a school assignment in the janitor’s closet. Why do I feel this way? Because living in Salem I have learned that to rock the boat and to speak out against anyone in public office can make your life really quite difficult and unpleasant. The ranks close and small town attitudes take over. Those of us who “moved in” and who are not afraid to speak out are shunned. Instead of teenagers pointing fingers and whispering “witch” we face an entrenched population saying “how dare you criticize us? How dare you ask for more?”

I am the mother of a very bright 4 year old, and since her infancy I have been following the state of the Massachusetts educational system. We moved to Salem because we genuinely liked the community, we liked the low crime, and we liked the quiet. And then we watched the slow inexorable slide of the schools into the disaster that they are today. We have watched the failure of Bentley and the endless finger pointing that has followed. Parents are to blame, teachers are to blame, the MCAS is to blame, poverty is to blame, and minorities are to blame. There seems to be plenty of blame to go around, and yet there the one thing we have never heard is accountability. The school committee has not stood up and said “We did not do enough to stop this,” the Mayor for all her lip service has not made education a priority, she has chosen instead to focus on developers and the tourist economy, and while I acknowledge that you inherited a mess, you sir have done nothing to improve the plight of our schools. I am not writing this as an emotional reaction, I have sat down and talked to parents, and I have spent hours going over the enrollment data and MCAS scores for the past decade. It has made for very interesting reading. The conclusion I have come to is that things are very wrong in Salem. So wrong that I honestly do not know how they can ever be repaired.

Before we get to the data, I am a huge proponent of public education. I firmly believe that education should be free, of a very high standard, available and equitable to all. I think that teachers should be allowed to teach, so that the young minds they are shaping are able to develop critical thinking skills, and a deep understanding of the material they are studying. Our children should be taught to question, and to challenge. They should be allowed to create and grow as human beings. They should be exposed to music, art and foreign languages from a young age, as I hope you know there is a plethora of research that shows that children exposed to music, art and languages excel in other fields such as math and science. Sadly I do not see this happening in the Salem School District. I looked at the new Bentley curriculum proposed by Blueprint – there is no time for art and music. Other schools have art once a week, and music teachers are basically itinerant going from school to school. I have heard from parents about how everything stops for MCAS test prep – full days of math before the math test, full days of writing before the ELA tests. If our children were being properly educated then test preparation of this intensity would not be required, there would be a process of continual readiness. Cramming like this only sets up poor study habits, and creates resentment and boredom.

But now to the state of the schools overall and some of the statistics I looked at were very concerning to me as a parent, and as someone who believes in equality in education. The district’s own assignment policy states:

Rationale: When a school’s student composition becomes socioeconomically imbalanced in contrast to other schools in the District, that school’s environment and educational opportunities also become imbalanced, contributing to educational inequality. It is well-documented that students learn from each other as well as from teachers and other adults. Interaction with students from different backgrounds and abilities is a powerful tool for advancing student learning and performance as well as preparation to live in the larger world.

So with this policy in mind how can the district explain the following statistics in regards to low income student enrollment based on data from 2011 to the present day:

 

2011

2012

2013

2014

Bates

59.7

61.2

51.6

61

Bentley

76

74.8

71.4

75.3

Carlton

72.2

74.6

74.2

70.3

Horace Mann

44.1

56.8

63

62.2

Nathaniel Bowditch

64.3

66

60.2

62.2

Saltonstall

36.7

36.7

38.5

41.8

Witchcraft Heights

30.4

32.4

35.8

38.6

The difference between FRL enrollments in the schools is in direct contradiction of your own policy. How was the FRL population at Horace Mann for example allowed to increase by 18.1% while Witchcraft Heights and Saltonstall have remained so stable? Why are there between 36 percentage points difference between Witchcraft Heights and Bentley? Why when you convert the percentages back into numbers are there only 84 children considered RFL at Saltonstall versus 219 at Bentley? Actually why are the numbers of FRL students so low at Saltonstall overall? The Witchcraft Heights numbers seems reasonable when compared to the other schools until you factor in the size of the population at Witchcraft (493 total enrollment).

If you then look at enrollment by race and ethnicity how were the schools permitted to become so unbalanced? Out of a school population of 300 only 78 children who are identified at Hispanic/Latino are assigned to Bates, yet Horace Mann and Bentley which are of comparable size have Hispanic populations of 120 and 128 respectively. Saltonstall again shows limited diversity with 361 students enrolled and only 90 students are Hispanic. Out of the two largest schools Witchcraft Heights and Nathaniel Bowditch (493/569) are even more disparate with only 108 Hispanic students at Witchcraft and 335 at Bowditch? If you walk around the neighborhoods in Salem you will see that these numbers do not reflect the neighborhood demographics. I have heard the local myth that the reason for low Hispanic enrollment at Saltonstall was the year round calendar, and that Hispanic families did not like that because “they like to go home for a month in the summer.” This is nothing more than a myth that has obviously been perpetuated throughout the district, especially when you look at the statistics going as far back as 1996. The Hispanic population at Saltonstall has remained incredibly stable, and the only dips in Hispanic enrollment have occurred during periods where there was a decrease in the overall Hispanic enrollment in the district.

 

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