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Salem schools to overhaul school-choice program

Posted by Justin Rice  January 23, 2012 10:39 AM

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Salem's annual kindergarten registration period has been pushed back from January to March as Salem school officials are working to overhaul the school-choice program that allows parents to send children to any school across the district.

Salem Superintendent Dr. Stephen Russell said the current system no longer creates an equitable socioeconomic balance in Salem's elementary schools.

About 38 percent of students in the Witchcraft Heights and Saltonstall schools receive free or reduced lunch, generally considered an indicator of low income students. The Bentley and Carlton schools have 73 and 71 percent of their students considered low income.

Also, less than 20 percent of the students at Witchcraft Heights and Saltonstall are Hispanic compared to schools such as the Bentley that have roughly 50 percent Hispanic students.

"We've been looking at ways to have limited choices and to use that as a means both to start working toward making the demographic of schools more equitable," Russell said during a telephone interview this morning.  "When we have a school with 73 percent of the students are low income and another school at 38 percent, a couple schools are 38 percent, obviously we have to work to bring some better equality to the schools in the district."

Russell said they are considering giving parents three school options in the immediate area they live.  The proposal would also allow a child to attend a school outside that immediate area if they add balance to the demographic of that school. But parents would have to provide transportation for their child if they attend a school outside their neighborhood.

"As it is Salem is only eight-square miles anyway," Russell said.

Russell said the current system was installed in 2006 and is "basically first come first serve" even though it calls for all school demographics to be no more than five percent of the overall system average.

"That's what the policy said," he said. "Although in practice it's not working out that way. Over the years things have gotten a little unbalanced."

Russell noted they will phase in whatever new program they install over the next three to four years by adding a new grade to the program each year. That means they will not force any student enrolled in an elementary school to move into another school. He also said they will continue to allow a sibling to enroll in the same school as their older sibling regardless of where it is on the map.

A school committee subcommittee is meeting to review the initial proposal on Feb. 6, he said.

"My guess is it will take a little more work but we're working toward it anyway," Russell said. "We're hoping to have it in place for the March kindergarten enrollment period."
 
Russell said he also hopes the new proposal will also decrease transportation costs.

"In the past we transported students throughout the city regardless of which school they went to as long as they met the distance requirement," he said. "As a result student transportation costs are close to Lynn Public Schools, which is a much larger district."
 
Justin A. Rice can be reached at jrice.globe@gmail.com.

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