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.