The Salem School Committee voted on Monday night to create a task force charged with reviewing grade configuration statistics and exploring models that might work for the Salem school district.
The idea of reconfiguring the way grades are organized throughout the city's eight primary education schools has been on the table for some time as a way to improve middle school level academic performance. Salem currently has three schools that serve grades 6, 7 and 8, but only one true middle school - Collins - that serves only those three. The other two, Saltonstall and Bowditch, are both K-8 schools.
Superintendent Stephen Russell lamented the fact that despite some highly successful middle school individuals, none of the schools in Salem have a sufficient number of middle school students reaching the potential they are capable of.
"Some of our middle school students are successful," Russell said. "But too many of them are not."
Standardized test scores of students in grades 7 and 8 throughout the city have largely been in decline for the last three years. Fewer than 40 percent of students at Collins place proficient or advanced in the MCAS Math, with around 60 percent placing proficient or advanced in English. MCAS performance in Salem's middle school age group falls well below that of the state average.
The community-wide coalition of parents, administrators and school committee members will report back to the school committee in about six months, at which time the committee will examine the feasibility of moving forward with a major change in how the district offers grades K-8. No changes will be made before next academic year.
"It takes time, you can't impose any changes over night or next academic year," said School Committee member James Fleming.
School committee member Nate Bryant raised the concern that a change in grade configuration will not necessarily lead to better academic performance, and that exploring extended day or extended year programs might be a better option. Simply put, more time in the classroom equals better understanding of material.
Saltonstall students currently in school an extra hour every day, and 10 more days per year than any other school in the city, but that could change after the 2012-13 school year.
"I don't know that there's a perfect model," said Mayor Kim Driscoll, chair of the school committee. "I think this is one of those areas where I think brining people together will give us a chance to really understand the facts - we have the perspectives of parents, we have the perspectives of staff - and bring together some options and choices for the school committee to really consider."
Reconfiguration of grades would dramatically change the landscape of Salem schools, but it is part of the much larger district turnaround plan set in motion when the city was tagged with a Level 3 designation by the Massachusetts Department of Education last fall. The state ranks schools from one (least) to five (most) based on their need for improvement.
Salem is also home to one of only three Level 4 schools on the North Shore - Bentley Elementary - which must show dramatic improvement within the next three years or face a possible state takeover. Collins, Carlton, Bowditch and the high school are all on the cusp of Level 4 designation.
"Yes, we want more success for our middle school," said School Committee member Deborah Amaral. "But I think we really want more success for all of our children, so I think that's what we need to stay focused on."