Salem Parents, Teachers Come Together to Fight for Their Schools: An Interview with Sherry Croft and Beth Kontos

I’m not going to sugarcoat this week’s education news. There’s been a lot of news that made the steam come out of my ears. More on that below, but first here’s a good news story, about a community coming together to push back against destructive education “reforms.” Last issue, we wrote about the Holyoke community’s efforts to articulate a positive vision for their schools and work together toward that goal. This week, I invited Salem parent Sherry Clouser Croft and teacher Beth Kontos to talk about the way they’ve brought parents and teachers together to do some similar work. 

Can you tell us about how parents and teachers have been joining forces in Salem to push back against efforts to bring in external management of Salem Schools?

Sherry Clouser and Stephen Croft

Sherry Clouser and Stephen Croft

Sherry: A group of three Salem transplant families met through social media and at school committee meetings, where we realized that we all shared common concerns and views about the Salem Public Schools. Realizing that a group effort would be much more effective, we started the “Salem Education Allies” Facebook page, and began networking to find other families who had similar views. We began to attract many teachers who felt the same way about the direction the schools were heading. We also found many parents who were not speaking out through fear, and realized that our forum was a much-needed place to share concerns about what was happening in the schools. Through connections with teachers in our group, we have been able join forces to push for a more comprehensive and quality education system in Salem. We want a system that allows the highly qualified educators already in Salem to create a system that is good for all students — not external management of our schools.

Beth Kontos

Beth Kontos

Beth: Throughout public school history, the best way to get anything done is to ally teachers with parents.  We are a team working towards the educational success of the student.  Of course, the standard conventions are in place, with an open house at the start of the year, report cards sent home quarterly, parent-teacher conferences, phone calls home, etc.

But recently, through social media and email lists, parents and educators have joined forces for school-wide protections against nationwide policies toward charter takeovers and high-stakes standardized testing.

We discuss issues, we share information regarding the national education policies, state policies, and local actions.  We meet face to face to air our grievances and make plans to create a united front for addressing our concerns to the School Committee, the Mayor, and the local principals.

Our once small group is growing.

Why do you think there’s been an upsurge of resistance in Salem to these kinds of reforms/interventions? 

Sherry: I think our growing group of parents, who questioned the status quo, brought a different perspective and voice to the conversation surrounding our schools. As a group, we knew things did not seem right when the direction of the schools seemed to have a narrow focus on “academic achievement,” i.e., MCAS and ANet test scores, and we started to question the influence and intentions of groups outside of education. With a multiple perspective approach, we have encouraged others to also think in a different way about our schools. Before the organization of our group, it seemed the loudest voices in our community (on social media, in City Hall, and in community groups who guide policy) were supporting and pushing for the reforms. There was no strong dissenting voice until we started to speak at school committee meetings and grow the members who discuss the schools in our online forum. The seemingly sly way policy has been voted on, the lack of transparency between the policy makers, the teachers and the community, and the controlling attitude of elected officials have caused both teachers and community members to speak up in numbers. Things have really started to take off as we have joined forces with our teachers.

We found they were equally as frustrated with the direction the school committee was taking our schools, such as: the narrowing focus on test scores, the increase in diagnostic testing to prepare for the MCAS, and the short-sighted solution of handing our schools to outside management companies.

Beth: I believe there is an upsurge of resistance primarily because of the grass roots efforts made by the core group of parents that began meeting.  From there, educators met the parents at public hearings and SC meetings and immediately shared contact information.  Each new person has brought several new people in.

Collectively, we are concerned about the “take over” mentality of our SC and mayor.

It is criminal to turn schools into charter schools before giving the teachers a full chance at a turnaround model and without proper support.  In hindsight, we see that this was the plan all along for the Bentley school.  It’s heartbreaking to see a group of dedicated teachers disrespected.  The teachers were implementing a plan but were cut short.  Eighteen months short from the first agreement despite making academic gains.

Teachers lost jobs.  Students lost teachers they adored.  The neighborhood school was now a place of increased standardized testing, competition between students, and shaming. For example, it has been reported to us that students who score well on ANET are rewarded with a pizza party or ice cream while those lagging behind are left out of the fun, creating a division between the students rather than a supportive and cooperative learning environment.

What would you like to see happen to really support the Salem public schools?

Sherry: I would like our teachers and community members to work together to create a system that is not just about raising test scores, but focuses on the well-being of Salem’s children and the desire to educate the next generation of well-rounded citizens. The current top-down management style coming from our School Committee and Mayor is doing nothing but hurting the morale and professionalism of our best educators, as well as alienating parents from their children’s education. There seems to be this very controlling, very scripted, very data- and test-driven mind-set coming from the top that needs to be eliminated.

I’d like to see our tax money spent on things that will help and support our students and teachers. Over the past three years, we’ve paid $926,000 total to The Achievement Network to use their diagnostic tests and consultants. This money could have been spent on classroom supplies, more teachers to provide smaller class sizes, extracurricular activities, field trips, etc., instead of assessments that do not provide a comprehensive view of our students’ overall knowledge and capabilities.

I’d also like to see enrichments available to all of our students, not just the ones performing well on the diagnostic tests. The ones being denied these opportunities are most likely the ones who need them the most. A broader, more well-rounded curriculum would also be beneficial – as this is what our children deserve and our teachers want to provide. The school day, especially in our elementary and middle school grades, has been narrowed to focus a lot of time on Math and ELA and very little time on Science, Social Studies, and the Arts; all of which are critical in creating innovative and intellectually curious citizens.

And lastly, I’d like to see the conversation in Salem, and nationwide, evolve past “how can we raise the test scores?” Our students don’t need more standardized testing. In fact, in order to reach their full potential, they need less. Our goal should be to do whatever we need to do to inspire children to learn, to find a joy and purpose in their learning, and to apply their learning to the real world. It is myopic to label schools, especially the ones who serve our most vulnerable populations, like Salem, as failing. We need to address poverty above all, and we need to return to the type of learning that inspires children to want to continuously learn throughout their lives.

Beth: I would like Salem, and all schools, to look beyond test scores.  There are always supports that could be put into place to help our students.  We have an ELL population, we have a Special Education population, we have students with interrupted formal education, and we have Advanced Placement students.  Poverty is also a problem for some students in Salem.

Instead of spending a large amount of money to an outside charter organization and giving up control, we should be spending our tax money on the supports we have in place and increasing them.

All problems can be fixed with smaller class sizes (especially those with many special education students enrolled), more ELL teachers, more co-teachers who are also educated in special education and teaching ELL students, eliminate fees for all afterschool activities to include all students, increased bus service for more students (especially in bad weather), and proper heat and cooling in the classrooms.

I applaud the availability of RETELL (Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners) classes. However, teacher programs should now require several classes in the field of language acquisition in an undergraduate or advanced degree.  It is beneficial even for the schools without ELL students.  Using these methods will help all students.

I believe that school districts should offer greater tuition reimbursement to alleviate the cost burden of advanced degrees for all teachers.

Finally, as we welcome ALL students into our schools, we should not punish teachers for the past education history of the student.    But acknowledge the gains regardless of how great or how small. Support us as we guide our students into lifelong learning.

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