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An Open Letter to the Salem School Committee

An Open Letter to the Salem School Committee.

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Educational Gerrymandering: Part 1

I had originally planned just one post covering the School Committee Meeting on June 16th, but the two-part meeting raised some issues that are best addressed separately, although I will discuss one in particular, that of school assignment and equity in each post, but from slightly different but equally valid perspectives.

The meeting was divided into two parts, the first part was devoted to the imminent implosion of the Nathaniel Bowditch K-8 School, and the second part was the general School Committee meeting. It was a long night, and I confess that I lasted only the first (and most fruitful half hour of the second part.) The first part was very well attended, by the community, teachers and Bowditch parents.

But, before I get to the meeting a quick piece of background data related to poverty and school performance as this will come into play in this discussion. Nationally 1/5 to 1/4 of American children are growing up in poverty, and sadly one of the results of NCLB and all this standardized testing is that we now have the stark proof that children growing up in poverty do very badly in school. By the end of middle school these children are often 2 to 3 grade levels behind their more well off classmates. Ultimately the most impoverished children face not just obstacles at school, but obstacles in their lives outside of the school environment. They are likely facing home and food insecurity, as well as all of the social issues that plague poorer neighborhoods such as drugs and violence. Statistically the children from the most impoverished homes are likely to being raised by poorly educated, never married single parent, and their caregivers are more likely to have been reported to child welfare agencies for suspicion of abuse or neglect. As the demographic picture of the USA has changed, as has the demographic picture of low income students. We have a steadily increasing Hispanic population who speak English as a second language and many now come into school from homes where English in not spoken. This linguistic disparity compounds the socioeconomic disparities. These children are not only dealing with the issues that often plague minority/low income neighborhoods but they are often facing school districts that have reduced expectations of their ability to perform.

In the 2011 inspection of the Salem Public School District the Nathanial Bowditch School was described as being “on the cusp” of becoming a level 4 school. It is not just a failing school it is something of an exercise in social engineering run amok. The DESE report clearly stated that there was “minimal use of Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) strategies to support ELL and other students’ learning.” More concerning and related to this in the report is that “the community has found it difficult to adjust to its changing population, particularly the increase in residents who speak other languages…..some administrators and staff do not have high expectations for students, especially ELLs” This lowered level of expectations likely stems from the fact that during interviews the DESE noted that while some staff members recognized the challenges students faces, others stated that the district does not pay attention to cultural needs and issues. More disturbing is that other staff members expressed resentment about “current students being different from what Salem students were historically.” I am going to run with the historical theme here for a moment and point out that it was this fear and dislike of the other that prompted the events for which this city is (in)famous.

While I can find no documentation attesting to this, given the timing I believe that the start of a dedicated SEI Program in the district was related to this report. However the program was set up at Bowditch and resulted in an increase in Hispanic students (the predominant ELL population in Salem) from 246 to 336. This centralization of SEI to one school however has another consequence; it puts more strain on a school that was already dangerously close to falling off the cliff. It has increased the student body by almost 100 students without an increase in resources, which was confirmed by parents and the two brave teachers who addressed the committee. This increase in overall numbers, also increased the number of RFL students enrolled at the Bowditch from 60.2 % (n=282) to 75.1% (n=427).

In the DESE report it was reported that the teachers within SPS felt that did not have the skills to deal with these children and their myriad of needs. While I cannot say that every RFL child enrolled comes from a dysfunctional home, the overall statistics nationally do support my hypothesis that this increase has negatively impacted the school a whole, while allowing the district once again to perform some creative data manipulation under the guise of promoting equity and balance.
As they looks at dismal ANet scores that fall close to 20% below target, the School Committee is shaking it’s head and wondering what went wrong at the Bowditch. They transferred 100 children with limited proficiency in English into one school and the RFL population increased by 145, and given the research that is widely available they still cannot comprehend why the test scores have decreased so dramatically.

The parent comments also reflected this demographic shift. More than one parent talked about the student on student violence and student on teacher violence, with more than one citing “the fight.” While those of us who are not Bowditch parents know nothing about this actual event it appears that it was enough to cause some children to start refusing to go outside during recess because of fear, especially as one of the aggressors was reported as having faced zero consequences. We heard about classes of 15 boys and only 5 girls, where disruption was such a constant the girls did not want to go to school, and teachers were forced to spend the majority of their time dealing with disruptive children while the other children were just neglected. We heard about teachers being pulled out of class to attend meetings, and classes then being covered by a sub or a movie, or by another teacher by opening the door between two classrooms. How is any of this helping our children? We heard about the parents who enrolled their children at Bowditch because they liked that they had a dual language program only to find that the much vaunted program was actually non-existent. We heard about a lack of communication between the school and parents about everything from academics to head lice. Many parents did praise the teachers as caring deeply and trying their best, buy they pointed out that their efforts were basically Sisyphean as there was no administrative support. This is view is also supported by the 2011 report which stated that within SPS there was a lack of motivation to change things, and a lack of follow through in improvement plans.

After the community comments the microphone was turned back over to the school committee and it was horrifying. How can the school superintendent not know that a dual language program no longer exists even though the school continues to use it as a selling point to prospective parents and talks about it on its website? How do we have a school committee that is so out of touch its members had no idea that the dual language program no longer existed, and they claimed to know nothing of the pervasive violence in the school. Dr. Walsh, the most outspoken and oftentimes divisive member of the school committee was positively apoplectic. But to me it just seemed like so much more bluster. How can a school committee not know what is happening? But then after reading the DESE report I do not think I am incorrect in saying that the school committee has not known what was happening in the district for many years. We are city that crows about its “No Place For Hate” program and its recent recognition from the Human Rights Campaign’s 2014 Municipal Equality Index for LGBT-inclusive laws, policies and services, yet we cannot get rid of the inherent racism and inequality within the schools. When educators and politicians are judging children based on race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status I do not know how things can ever truly improve.

I am calling shenanigans

Oh I have so many questions. I have been looking at test scores today, I went back to 2003, it was very dperessing and an exercise in frustration, it did not show me anything new, it merely confirmed what i already had already learned about the schools in Salem. It confirmed that things are seriously amiss in the Witch City and as for who is to blame for this? Well there is plenty of blame to go around. But before I get to the scores, I agree with many educators in that these tests are not often an adequate representation of child’s ability, and as one researcher put it, the MCAS is often a better indicator of a district’s socioeconomic status. But sadly these socres are what I have to go on, so I am pretty stuck right now.

One thing I have heard over and over is that the issues we are seeing in the Salem schools are all the fault of the last mayor – the guy who left office in 2006. This punting of blame to the old guy has got to stop, and our current mayor Ms. Kim Driscoll has to stand up and take some accountability for this mess. The school committee also has to shoulder a huge chunk of blame here, (although I am going to exclude Patrick Schultz and Rachel Hunt from this as they truly are brand new to the job) as does the superintendant. Interestingly as far as the actual school committee goes I am going to dump a whole lot of blame on the doorsteps of Dr. Brendan Walsh and Mr. James Fleming as the longest sitting members. Yet I am hearing no accountability from any of these people. My understanding is that Mr. Fleming spends a great deal of time in Florida and is often absent from meetings, Dr. Walsh while always present is oftentimes very polarizing, I am not quite sure what to say about Dr. Russell the superintendant just that he hasn’t done anything since taking up the position in 2011. Mayor Driscoll’s focus seems to be developers and tourism, and making sure everyone thinks Salem is happy and smiley (please check her Facebook page for the latest posts on the sunshine and unicorns in Salem!).

But I digress, back to the scores. I have only looked at Grade 4 English Language Arts so far, so will comment on this area for now.

  • In 2003 the average number of children testing proficient or higher was 46% and currently stands at 39%
  • In 2003 the average number of children testing as “needs improvement” was 42% and currently stands at 39%
  • In 2003 the average number children testing as “warning/failing” was 13% in currently stands at 22% 

When you actually graph this data you can see that although there was a spike in proficiency in 2007, this seems to have been a statistical anomaly and the number of kids in this group has stayed relatively stable over time as has the “needs improvement” cohort. The failing cohort however is the most concerning as that has just continues to slowly increase over time. A quarter of our children should not be failing 4th Grade English.

Why are more children scoring so low on the tests? Have the tests changed and become more difficult? Are the scores required to meet each requirement changing therefore making it actually harder to pass? Are we not preparing our teachers adequately to teach? Are our children not understanding the material? Are families and kids so disengaged that school has just become a babysitter? Are parents just too busy to sit down and help their kids with their homework? Are the tests fundamentally flawed? I think the answer is likely all of the above, but there has been no motivation from those charged to govern our schools to do anything about this. I know we have been shifting programs around and therefore shifting children around within the SPS and that really plays havoc with any meaningful data. Unfortunately this shifting of children and programs only seems to result in moving problems from one school to another.

So what of our erstwhile superintendent, Dr Russell who was brought in to much fanfare about how he was going to fix everything. Dr. Russell was hired in 2011. His only competition for the position of School Superintendent was Dr. Debra Bradley. Both applicants had very impressive credentials, Dr. Bradley is even a turnaround specialist known for increasing test scores in troubled districts, yet the position went to Dr. Russell for two reasons that I can ascertain

  • He is from MA
  • Dr. Bradley could not discuss why she had left her prior position due to a non-disclosure agreement – and this to the school committee equaled too many questions. 

A little bit of digging can give you a pretty good idea that Dr. Bradley left the Fontana District due to backlash over this:

“The claim by community and the Fontana Teachers Association that the Fontana District office staffing went unchecked resulted in Debra Bradley recommending to the Fontana District Board of Education that a management audit/management study be conducted to determine the accuracy of the claim. The management study resulted in a significant staff re-organization and a savings to the general fund and categorical fund budges of approximately $3 million, significantly reducing the $8.6 million deficit that confronted the district at the time. “

This is conjecture and a little conspiracy theory on my part but perhaps nobody wanted Dr. Bradley looking too closely at our books? Dr. Bradley also specialized in improving test scores through improvements in teaching and curriculum, and yet we hired a chap who isn’t even held accountable for the test scores in his evaluation. (Hell’s bells the he also wanted to bring in school uniforms and he hasn’t even managed that.)

Why would Salem not want someone looking too closely at their books? I have some thoughts- and again I point out that this is pure conjecture.

Title 1
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, to be an eligible Title I school, at least 40% of a school’s students must be from low-income families who qualify under the United States Census’s definition of low-income, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Remember that 40% figure, it is important.
Now let’s take a look at Salem’s schools….

  • Bates – Title 1
  • Bentley – Title 1
  • Carlton – Title 1
  • Horace Mann – Title 1
  • Nathaniel Bowditch – Title 1
  • Saltonstall – Title 1
  • Witchcraft Heights – not Title 1 

That, as my sister-law pointed out is whole lot of Title 1 schools. I, however ran the numbers.
The total district wide percentage for students classified as low income (and most schools calculate this using the numbers of students requiring free or reduced lunch) was 55.9% in 2013, but when you look at the individual schools it is a little different.

  • Bates – RFL – 51.6%
  • Bentley – RFL – 71.4%
  • Carlton – RFL – 74.2%
  • Horace Mann – RFL – 63%
  • Nathaniel Bowditch – RFL – 60.2%
  • Saltonstall – RFL – 38.5%
  • Witchcraft Heights – RFL – 35.8% 

We have already established that Witchcraft Height is not a Title 1 school, so let’s ignore that one and ask this question about the remaining schools. “Which one of these is not like the others?”

Yes, Saltonstall has been designated a Title 1 school for as many years as the program has been available. What is particularly interesting is that between 1998 and 2013 the RFL population never met or exceeded 40%. It only became eligible in 2014 when the RFL population wnet up to all of 41.8%. So for shaky numbers I am calling shenaningans. And shenanigans that people might not want to address.

The Budget – (AKA the only place for creativity in SPS)
There seems to be some degree of creative bookkeeping. After all the school committee is responisble for it’s own budget, the city council only approves the total amount of money allocated. The school committee can then spend the money as they please and the city has no say in it. I am very interested to know what input Madam Mayor has in the school budget given that she is the chair of the school committee. I am not sure if it is just me but I do find that to be a huge conflict of interest. In the most recent budget there have been suggestions of cutting math coaches and special education teachers, I am sorry but when the school district is in such poor shape and our test scores are continuing a slow inexorable decline into disaster does cutting teachers seem like a good idea? But then this is the school committee that voted to end the only year round program in the city, so just as cutting learning time will benefit test scores it appears that cutting teachers will do the same. As I already mentioned the district does like to move programs around, and all that does is alter the numbers, mess with the test scores and spread the misery.

I don’t know what to do. Next week there is a community meeting at Nathaniel Bowditch, ostensibly to discuss their impending doom in regards to test scores and I am guessing their likely decline to Level 4. The school committee wants to assign another assistant principal, and throw $200,000 at the problem – but that $200,000 has to come from somewhere else in the budget, so something else gets axed, and as I have already said the misery spreads. Let’s cut special education teachers at Carlton….okay lets do that and see how they fair in the next round of testing when they are already struggling. 

I shrug and wonder how to address all of this to the school committee without being vilified for insulting Dr. Walsh, for making Mr. Fleming actually pay attention and turn up and sin of all sins for popping Mayor Driscoll’s bubble about how fantastic everything is in Salem.

My Dream CUrriculum

I guess this is a mini manfiesto – a minifesto if you like!

I have been thinking about what I would truly love Poppy’s school curriculum to look like and this is what I have come up with. I purposefully did not include mandatory PE at this point figuring we have decent breaks and a decent lunch break.

09.10am School Assembly

09.30am: English – so reading and writing!

10.30am Break-time

10.45am: Maths

11.45am : History/Geography (M), French (T), History/Geography (Wed), French (Th), History/Geography (Fri)

12.15pm: Lunch

13.30pm: Afternoon Registration

13.35pm: Art (M), Music (T), Art (Wed), Music (Th), Art (Fri)

14.45pm Break-time

15.00pm: Science

15.30pm End of school day

I have this vision of tying lessons together. So for example if it was the Arctic in geography we would talk about ice/snow/cold and cold climate animals in science. Let’s build a winter scene in art!! Music and French could link together or French and Art. The English class could be half devoted to writing and half to reading. And Hisotry automatically involves reading – and I would love to start with the Greeks and Romans so you could do all the mythology – and think how that could tie into art and science? Let’s build a Trojan horse! Let’s build a labyrinth! I know this is likely unrealisitc but a girl is allowed to dream right?

My Eduation (and some background on England and Eduction)

What has been especially hard is that I do not really understand the American system, it just baffles me. I don’t understand why it starts so late, or that there is so much variation in curricula, that foreign languages are an afterthought, and that schools can actually be allowed to edit text books and teach that creationism is fact and evolution a ‘theory”

I am very aware that I am viewing my education through a distance of more years than I care to document, and that my memories of my education are mostly positive. England has gone through remarkable changes since I left school at 18. Just like in the USA there is a huge government focus on testing and assessment, and on schools being graded in relation to their test scores. The system I went through has changed as to pretty unrecognizable to me today. There are academies that have received much of the same criticism regarding “privatization by the back door.”More recently the much reviled (and rightly so) coalition government, and in particular Michael Gove have permitted the establishment of so-called “free schools” which are very similar to US charter schools, however in England many requests to open “free schools” have come from faith based organizations, and while Michael Gove has said that no extremist groups will be permitted to open a school, this remains a very genuine concern with England. There are many unhappy teachers in the UK as curricula seem to be ever changing, and teacher performance has been tied to student performance. This all being said however, I find the detail and knowledge required in the UK exams to be far more rigorous than I have seen in US public schools.

I am a summer baby so I started school when I just 4. Yes you read that correctly I was just 4 when I started full time “infants” school. I have fond memories of the reading scheme, of times tables, of learning to write stories, of the dress up box and play houses. My headmistress was Miss Gent; she seemed very old and very stern. After infants it was “junior school” from 7 to 11, where I remember classroom plays, finishing the reading scheme, moths (I was not very good at moths so I am sure if any of my teachers saw me plowing through all these stats now they would be amazed), writing stories, lessons in penmanship (imagine that – we wrote with fountain pens), music lessons, choir, orchestra. I remember history going as far back as the Greeks and Romans. There was art and PE. I remember Mr. Clarke and Mr. Barber, and our head teacher Mr. Jardine. And then I was off to the “big school”

From 11 through 16 I went to “seniors” and shit got real. Moths, English language and literature, French, World Studies, Science, PE, music, art, graphics and even RE. In second year I added German, and at some point World Studies became History and geography and Science became Biology, Physics and Chemistry. I flirted with the saxophone and double bass, and was in every conceivable school play. I followed this path until my 3rd year when we sat our “options” the exams we take to help decide what subjects we would take for the final 2 years. We had to write short essays on these exams, there was not that much multiple choice as I remember. For my final two years I took French, German, Latin, English Language, English Literature, History, Moths, Chemistry and Biology. And oh my those exams….we had to be able to sight translate, we read Ovid in Latin, we read Shakespeare, the World War 1 poets and Thomas Hardy in literature, we dissected things, we may have blown a few things up, we wrote essays on the French Revolution and innumerous wars. We still took PE by the way – there was no escape from cross country runs in the rain and field hockey!

After “seniors” it was off to Sixth Form College for 2 years and further specialization with “A” levels. This is where things become pretty specialized, and you tend to select your “A” levels based on your “O” level results and what you plan to do after college. I was blessed in that since I knew I wanted to be a nurse I only had to repeat my biology to get my grade up, so the “A” levels I selected were for interest only. So there were 2 more years of French, and English lit, plus some “general studies” and a random “O” level in Home Economics.

I did try to attach some links to some “O” and “A” level exam papers so that you can take a look but in my novice blogger status i am having ahard time with the links…If you are interested I recommend checking out the following website:
htts://www.aqa.org.uk