Harvard initiative to help Salem schools close achievement gap

The Salem News

  • By Dustin Luca Staff Writer
  • May 17, 2016

SALEM — City leaders have returned to college, but this time, it’s to write the books instead of learning from them.

Salem officials joined organizations and administrations from five other cities across the country at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education Tuesday for the launch of By All Means, a multi-year drive led by the university to redesign education.

“It’s addressing one of the most fundamental educational questions,” James Ryan, the graduate school’s dean, said of the innovative program. “How do we create an education system that works for all kids?”

The program has a single target: the “achievement gap,” or the disparity in performance that’s found when kids are broken up by socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, according to Harvard President Drew Faust.

“Achievement gaps affront the ideals of our democracy. The United States has long linked its national identity to the power of education,” Faust said. “The By All Means initiative is a crucial contribution to elevating education across the country.”

Roughly nine hours of meetings, forums and keynotes filled out the first of five meetings of the minds. The rest will be held over the span of the next 21/2 years, according to Ryan.

The event was attended by several Salem leaders, including School Committee member Kris Wilson, teacher’s union president Beth Kontos and Superintendent Margarita Ruiz.

Mayor Kim Driscoll both attended the event and participated in a panel with mayors from the other five cities in the program: Newton; Somerville; Louisville, Kentucky; Oakland, California; and Providence, Rhode Island.

‘We need a new vision’

The day opened with former Gov. Deval Patrick, who spoke to achievement gaps through a single statistic: the number of students who drop out of public school in the state.

“While that number has dropped in Massachusetts in recent years, it’s still too high — especially when you consider that dropouts represent 71 percent of prison populations,” Patrick said. “Stuck in those gaps are poor children, children with special needs, children who speak English as a second language — more often, children of color.”

Harvard professor Paul Reville, a former state secretary of education under Patrick, had a much more grim picture to paint for the audience. Flashing statistics across a PowerPoint presentation, he showed the eventual effects of the achievement gap. One example found that 44 percent of low-income children attend a community college as their first college, while just 15 percent of high-income students do.

While that may not seem so severe, other points made by Reville showed how dire the issue has become.

“The connection between education and income is as strong as has ever been,” he said, changing slides. “It extends to life expectancy as well. Here’s a table linking income to how long you live.

“In a certain sense, the battle is over before it has ever begun,” Reville concluded. “We need a new vision. We need a new conversation. We need to bring people together to collectively talk about what that vision looks like.”

That team, in the Witch City anyway, makes up what leaders are calling the “Children’s Cabinet.”

The cabinet will do the bulk of the work Salem will bring to the table, according to district spokeswoman Kelley Rice. The body has several members, including Driscoll, Ruiz, Wilson, Kontos, Salem State University Dean of Education Joe Cambone and Charity Lezama, senior program director of the YMCA of the North Shore.

Each city also gets a staff member from Harvard, labeled a By All Means City Team Consultant, according to Rice. Salem leaders would also have access to Harvard staff, resources and information tied to the program.

Taking stock of resources

Midway into the festivities Tuesday, the six mayors came together for a panel.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer discussed a program his city created to maximize the number of students who eventually get college degrees. 

The work to end, or even avoid, the achievement gap begins before public school, he said.

“It’s really sad and discouraging. We see these young kids getting ready for kindergarten and pre-K. They’re so full of life and excitement, and maybe you see a kid three years behind the other kid. He may never catch up,” Fischer said. “You see them in middle school, and you see the light dim in them. And in high school, you see them just hanging out.”

“All of our communities are different,” said Mayor Jorge Elorza of Providence, at another point in the conversation. “I’d say, for all of us, we have to take stock of the resources we have at hand. In Providence, we are fortunate to have a very robust network of after-school programs, so how do we build upon them?”

At one point, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone highlighted how two-thirds of his city’s children “receive free and reduced lunch.”

Ryan, as moderator, then directed a question at Driscoll: “Do you have the resources you need in Salem?”

“No, we don’t have enough resources, but I’ll also say to you that I don’t know if we ever will,” Driscoll replied. “I think the challenge is not letting that become a defeatist attitude or approach to doing this incredibly important work. You don’t boil the ocean — you start with a puddle.”

For more on this story or other story-related inquiries, email Salem reporter Dustin Luca at dluca@salemnews.com, call 978-338-2523 or message @DustinLucaSN on Twitter.