An Open Letter to the Salem School Committee

I plan to read this aloud at the next school committee meeting:

I feel very strongly that the district has turned its back on the moral implications if not yet the legal ramifications of the Brown v. The Board of Education decision. I believe that what we are seeing today in Salem is closer to what was addressed in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the court accepted segregated institutions for black people, stipulating only that they must be equal to those open to white people. While in Salem our African American children are equally represented in our schools, it is our low income, our Hispanic and our English language learners who are not. Our children who are waitlisted and asked to make 5 minute decisions about attending another school are not. Yet it would appear that this systemic duality has been unquestioned for years.

One only needs to look at the enrollment statistics over time to realize that equity has never and likely will never be achieved. In this school year that is just ending there was reported low income population of 60% yet of this 60% only 9.8% was enrolled at Saltonstall, and 13.5% at Witchcraft Heights, yet 28.1% of the low income population was enrolled at the Bowditch School. And this is not an isolated occurrence; one needs only look at the enrollment data for the past 10 years. The low income enrollment at Saltonstall and Witchcraft Heights has actually declined, even in the face of an increasing low income population within the city. When you look at the numbers of Hispanic children, even allowing for the SEI program at the Bowditch, we see a similar pattern. In this school year there was a 37.1% reported Hispanic population in these schools yet only 9.8% were enrolled at Saltonstall, 8.9% were enrolled at Bates and 11.8% at Witchcraft Heights. While I acknowledge the “bump” at the Bowditch School related to the SEI program, when you look over the past 10 years the Bowditch school has always had over a quarter of our Hispanic population, with Bentley following a close second. How can you talk about equity and balancing the schools, yet tell parents that their child may not be allowed the choice granted to others because they do not meet the demographic requirements? How can the district say there is not a two-tiered system in Salem, when the numbers quite obviously show that there is? We may have equal funding in our schools, but equal funding for unequal needs is not equality.

We speak loftily of restructuring, but all I have been able to ascertain about restructuring in the SPS is the moving of the same old furniture around the same old house and calling it new. The SEI program was set up without the necessary supports in place for it to function adequately in a school that was ignored even while parents were raising red flags about issues in the school. There was no thought to how the move of over 100 students with limited English proficiency would impact the school. The move of this population coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of RFL student in the school. The Bentley and Bowditch schools have been allowed to flounder, have been allowed to become so unbalanced and sadly underperforming that there may be no recovery possible. Letting them go “charter” is a very convenient way to divest yourselves of the problem schools, and avoid any further black marks on current and future political careers.

The failure of our schools has gone on for too long, and the remedy must be systemic, not a band aid here, and a finger in the leaking dike there. It is not working. The 2011 DESE report detailed dramatically the failings of this school district, and after reading this report, and doing a very detailed review of all the statistics myself I cannot see where things have changed. When Bowditch parents come before this committee and voice concerns about a culture of disrespect within that school, one has to ask “Is this coming from the top?”And I am afraid that to a certain extent it is. It is all too easy say this comes from societal issues such as inter-family and community violence, from drugs, from any other issues that plague our less well off neighborhoods, but if that respect is not coming from the top then how can we expect our children to show respect? Is it respectful to a child to pull a teacher out of class for a meeting? Is it respectful to leave a school without leadership for years? Is it respectful to expect a family to put their life on hold while waiting for a Kindergarten assignment? Is it respectful to cause undue anxiety to these children and their parents while they are forced to wait? Is it respectful to change agendas at the last minutes and then discuss plans for the future of an entire school without a single parent present? Is it respectful to tell parents that the focus of the district is test scores and that maybe their children would be better off elsewhere?

In the education catch-up game we are entrapped by teaching to the tests. We are currently a district that has made a conscious decision to abandon the practice of educating the “whole child” in the drive for “academic rigor” and improved test scores. When test scores become the primary focus of the system, we are left with children who are not educated; they are trained to be test-taking machines. By stopping the curriculum in favor of test preparation we are robbing our children of the right to be engaged, the right to learn to think independently, and we are robbing them of the right to an education. Our underperforming schools feel this pressure more intensely, and the trickledown effect from the SC and administrators, impacts teachers who are so anxious about their student’s performance it impacts their effectiveness as a teacher, and do not for one second think that the older children do not have some comprehension of their status as students at “a bad school” Have you stopped to think for one second what 30 days of testing in the academic year takes away education? How these children are in a constant cycle of test preparation. Our neighboring districts do not have this endless test cycle and their scores are higher, their children are learning, and if children are being taught the material in meaningful ways endless test prep and endless testing should not be needed. How important to society are flexible, imaginative and inventive citizens? I cannot even guess, and if we continue down this road in Salem we may never know. We will have generation of children qualified to work in the tourist industry, which is seemingly the only industry that matters in Salem.

To assume that parents are not paying attention and making choices based on the data is shortsighted. We are not going to take the advice of a “Tips for Parents” document that was lazily adapted from another district, a document that tells us not to look at test scores, when in fact we are constantly reminded that test scores are all that matters to the district. A document that tells us not to listen to “playground talk” when there is such a lack of transparency from the school committee that we have no choice but to get our information from other more reliable sources. Does the committee not understand that many parents visit the schools prior to enrolling their children, so we can see the glaring differences in educational practices? We can see that the teaching and the curricula between the schools are not equal and consistent and when we select our three choices we are doing it based on what we have seen and what we have learned. We can see which schools have more engaging curricula and which have been left to rot. To assume that we are not going to wonder what kind of system we are putting our children in to when a piece written by the superintendent is littered with spelling and grammar errors, reads more like tourist information brochure than a reason to believe in our schools. Those of us who chose to educate our children outside of the district are not being disloyal, we are being parents, and we are doing what is best for our children. Maybe, when the school committee starts doing its job then we will reconsider.


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