Our view: A promising new approach for Salem schools

The Salem News

October 1, 2017

Salem has much to recommend it to new residents, including a revitalized downtown, myriad housing options, a university, nightlife and a major museum. But for some years now, the public schools have been its Achilles heel.

In 2011 the state labeled the district Level 4, or underperforming, worrying parents of current schoolchildren as well as newcomers considering a move into the city. The schools shed that label last year, as the state announced they had made substantial progress in turning the system around. That is still a work in progress, however, and it’s hard to see how Salem could ever match the more glowing academic records of its neighboring suburbs.

That’s why it was so heartening last week to hear about a new approach to education that is starting to take place here, an approach that Paul Reville, a former state education commissioner and current Harvard professor, said is at the forefront of a national effort to update the way schools help children in this century. Reville, Superintendent Margarita Ruiz and Mayor Kim Driscoll spoke to the Salem Rotary about it last week.

It’s easy to be skeptical about school reform, because there have been so many efforts over so many years, all replete with their own jargon, and all producing still limited, and often unsuccessful, results. What’s different this time is that the onus is not just on the schools, it’s on the community.

As part of this By All Means program, the city is approaching learning as a community endeavor, calling on community groups, youth groups, the hospital, the university, sports groups and others to step up and help kids get the resources they need to be successful in school.

The big issue, Reville says, is no secret: Children don’t enter kindergarten on a level playing field. Some have been read to every night, nurtured in preschool, taken to museums, exposed to dancing lessons or nature camps. Others have had none of those advantages. And the resulting achievement gap grows as the years go on, and some children continue to get everything from sports camps to homework help, and others do not.

The schools have addressed some barriers to learning, by, for example, offering free breakfast in the classroom every day. Now they are starting a new program in which every child will be assessed by his or her teacher and get an individual plan. Then the teacher can consult with counselors in the schools, who will handle it from there, connecting children with resources that can help with issues ranging from housing needs to outside enrichment.

Ruiz gave the example of a kid who might benefit from an after-school basketball program, but he lives in a single-parent household and has no way to get to practices. Using the school system’s new partner, City Connects, counselors can help make it happen, perhaps by using a youth group van or connecting a family with another parent on the team who could provide transportation.

“We’re looking at making education a community mission,” Mayor Kim Driscoll said, adding that the city has a myriad of community groups eager to help out. It’s a matter of having a systematic way to meet those needs that doesn’t burden classroom teachers. 

And, says Superintendent Margarita Ruiz, it sends a message to Salem’s children: We care.

It’s a smart approach. It lets teachers teach, while referring issues outside the classroom — where students spend 80 percent of their time — to those who can help. And it personalizes the approach to every child, rich and poor. Success won’t be measured for some time, but it’s an idea well worth pursuing, and school and city leaders should be commended for making the effort.