This site aims to inform and mobilize Beverly parents to take an active role in all issues related to the funding and operation of the city's schools. It was launched in the spring of 2008, when the city saw its first-ever override attempt fail, followed by the closure of a nearly-new elementary school. Subsequent years have seen further cuts that have led to larger class sizes across the district. While the opening of an impressive new high school and plans to replace the city's aging middle school give us reason to be optimistic, the school community must be ever vigilant in demanding appropriate school funding by city and state governments, and better community communications from the district and School Committee.

Friday, September 23, 2011

MCAS Scores a Mixed Bag

The local media this week chose to look at the good news contained in the just released 2011 MCAS results: higher scores, and a narrowing of the achievement gap for high-needs students in 10th grade:

From the Salem News:
...Beverly High and North Shore Technical High in Middleton were commended for "narrowing proficiency gaps for high-needs students...

...Beverly Assistant Superintendent Maryellen Duffy said the state commended Beverly High for making strides in math with low-income students. Schools that were commended by the state had to meet certain improvement targets for low-income students for the past two years in math. 

"We have always met it in English/language arts," Duffy said. ...
Overall the progress at the high school looks good, with scores improving, and the school meeting AYP (adequate yearly progress) in all 4 categories (English & Math Aggregate and Subgroups).

But a closer look at the scores shows that the rest of the city's schools didn't fare as well, some showing lower scores than in 2010, particularly at the elementary level.

Briscoe improved scores slightly in all categories, but only rated AYP in English Aggregate, and is still rated as "Restructuring" in both English and Math.

All of the elementary schools missed AYP in multiple categories: Ayers missed all 4, and is listed as "Restructuring" for English; Centerville missed both Math categories for the 3rd straight year and is listed for "Corrective Action"; Cove also missed both Math categories for the 2nd straight year; North Beverly missed all 4 categories and its scores dropped in several categories.  It's listed as "Corrective Action" in English and "Restructuring" for Math. And Hannah, which had been the only school in the district to meet AYP in every category every year going back to 2004, not only missed AYP in all categories this year, but showed significant drops in scores compared to 2010 in aggregate and all subgroups.

Specific reports on the schools are shown here:

Ayers/Ryal Side
North Beverly
Briscoe Middle School
Beverly High School

Beverly is certainly not alone in its plight. A story in yesterday's Boston Globe stated that 82% of state schools missed the increasingly unrealistic targets, and it is a generally accepted view that the AYP targets, which require 100% of students to be proficient by 2014, are unachievable. The Federal Government has even begun to issue waivers from the targets to many states. [Note: Just this morning, President Obama announced a plan to exempt districts from some of the more unrealistic aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act, such as the AYP standard.]
That so many schools missed their targets for No Child Left Behind frustrated state education officials, who emphasized that the vast majority of the schools are doing a good job of educating the state’s children. Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, pointed out that MCAS scores at the majority of the schools this past spring either held steady or showed improvement.

But the federal law requires a more robust increase in scores, as all schools work toward a federal requirement of having all students — regardless of a learning disability or inability to speak English fluently — proficient by 2014.

“The federal [standard] is not helping us to distinguish who we should be the most concerned about,” Chester said in an interview before the results were released this afternoon at Lowell’s Murkland Elementary School.
But the significant drop in scores at Hannah and the lesser drop at North Beverly is particularly concerning, and underscores what many parents see as a connection between class size and MCAS scores. Last year was the first year that students in two of the grades tested at Hannah (3rd and 4th) had been compressed from 3 classes into 2, resulting in class sizes in the upper 20s. North Beverly's 5th grade was third in size projections (27) among the elementary schools that year.

Is it just a coincidence that these two schools saw the largest drop in scores the year after this consolidation? It's a question that parents bring up every Spring, but something the administration and school committee seem unwilling to acknowledge when putting together budgets.

9/24 UPDATE:  Here's another very interesting breakdown, provided by the Boston Globe, that shows grade by grade and school by school rankings compared to all other schools in the state.

9/29 UPDATE: The Beverly Citizen has more on the district's MCAS scores.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It's Scanlon vs Cahill in November

In a somewhat surprising result, City Council President Mike Cahill finished ahead of Mayor Scanlon in today's primary election for Mayor, setting up a showdown between the two in November.  Tim Flaherty finished well back in third place.

The final vote tally was as follows:

Cahill: 2467
Scanlon: 2273
Flaherty: 1856
Marciano: 145

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mayoral Candidates Meet Again in Forum

For the second time in less than a week, and the final time before next Tuesday's primary, the candidates for Mayor met to debate the issues, including the state of the schools.  The questions this time were posed by  30 & Main, a group of future leaders (under age 40) formed recently by Beverly Main Streets.

The questions were thoughtful, and somewhat deeper than last week's newspaper sponsored debate. Again the candidates differed more on style than on substance. Both major challengers, Mike Cahill and Tim Flaherty vow to run a more open and transparent Mayor's office, but don't differ a great deal from Mayor Scanlon on priorities.

The toughest question on education concerned a recent Boston Magazine survey that rated Beverly schools 89th out of 135 Boston-area districts, hardly a resounding endorsement. The candidates were asked to "sell us on why Beverly public schools are the right choice for our children."

While not dismissing the results outright, the candidates attempted to put them in context, and agreed that we have a good school system, but must aim to make it better.

Scanlon suggested that as a city, Beverly has a steeper challenge in these types of surveys than smaller, more affluent towns, but said we still should strive to do better overall:
Within the sample that you cited, the city of Beverly is within the top third of the cities. Most of communities on there of course are towns. I’ve often said that Beverly is a city that thinks it’s a town, and I think pretty much everyone in Beverly wants to rank well against any of the towns. I think the impact of [the high school], now nearly complete, will help because it’s a better place for learning. And I think the project to do the middle school will certainly help because right now that school is very crowded.
Flaherty, who has four children in the Beverly schools, said that the curriculum could be improved, but that overall he thinks the schools are excellent and improving:
Speaking from experience, I know that they’re saying we’re 89th out of so many schools, while Manchester and Hamilton-Wenham are at 4 and 5 [actually 6th and 9th respectively this year], but to tell you the truth, I’d rather send my kids to Beverly public schools than Manchester or Hamilton-Wenham because I think that we have more to offer.
Cahill, a former teacher, said the Mayor needs to take a more active roll, and be a presence in the schools, and work better and more collaboratively with the Superintendent and School Committee:
What we need from our mayor is to be in there learning and celebrating what we are doing right because there is a lot of greatness in our schools. But then where we do fall short, we need to be honest with ourselves and we need to roll up our sleeves and we need to move towards greatness. 
The two debates, and the overall tone of the campaign, has been refreshing. The candidates and the sponsors of the debates have raised the level of discourse exponentially since previous election cycles. While there is not a great deal of difference in their positions, the ability for the community to hear an open and intelligent discussion of the range of issues facing the city has been welcome.

Yesterday's Salem News has a report on the Forum, and today's Beverly Citizen has a transcript of some of the questions and answers. The video, provided by BevCam is posted below in two parts.

Make sure you get out and vote in next Tuesday's primary.  Polls are open from 7am to 8pm.

Disclosure: my business created the Cahill for Mayor website, and has informally advised his campaign on communications and social media.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Candidates Agree on Need for New Middle School

Compared to recent Mayoral campaigns in this city, last night's debate was a polite affair. Only fringe candidate Rick Marciano stood in opposition to the majority of Mayor Scanlon's record. For challengers Mike Cahill and Tim Flaherty it was more a debate about management style, and each candidate's vision of where we go from here as a city.

On education, much of the talk centered on the need for a new middle school. Scanlon, who has already begun the early stages of planning to refurbish the Memorial Building as the city's middle school of the future, stated that "we're four years away from putting bricks and mortar down." Cahill and Flaherty agreed that the school should be the city's next major priority, but Flaherty seemed the more cautious of the three on that "aggressive" a timetable, and cautioned that the city must pay attention to the poor condition of Briscoe in the mean time. Cahill said that the city must aggressively pursue new growth to support the project.

On other education issues, Flaherty said we need to focus more on building maintenance and professional development for teachers and administrators, and worried that the schools were passing too many fees onto families: "Are we a public education or are we a private institution?"

Cahill said that he wanted to be a presence in the schools, and take an active roll in understanding where we were succeeding, and where we were falling short. He also stated that we have a wealth of opportunities to tap the "people power" of the city's private and secondary schools and our business community to expand learning opportunities in science, technology, and literacy.

Another candidates forum, sponsored by the group 30 & Main will be held next Tuesday at the high school, and also televised live by BevCam.

The primary election, which will narrow the field to two, is September 20th.

Below is the full video of the debate, courtesy of BevCam. Questions about the schools are toward the beginning. Today's Salem News has a wrapup of the debate.

Monday, September 5, 2011

School Community Divided on Mayor's Race

Local school activists appear divided over the upcoming Mayor's race, with support spilt among the three major candidates, incumbent Bill Scanlon, and challengers Mike Cahill and Tim Flaherty.  The primary on September 20th will eliminate one of these candidates, and set up a showdown in November. (disclosure: my business created the Cahill for Mayor website, and has informally advised his campaign on communications and social media.) 

While many in the community are not fans of Scanlon's management style, and would like to see a more open city government, the current Mayor is given much of the credit for the successful high school project, and for securing a large reimbursement from the State.  Sources say he has recently started to push more aggressively for a new middle school as well. His most recent term has been relatively free of some of the skirmishes with the schools that marked previous terms.

But Cahill and Flaherty are both well-known, and generally well-regarded figures in the community, having both served as council presidents, as well as on many boards and associations in the city. Cahill was also State Representative for ten years, and his connections on Beacon Hill could be a plus were he to be elected Mayor.

The candidates, along with a fourth candidate, perennial long-shot Rick Marciano, will participate in two upcoming debates. The first, sponsored by BevCam and the Salem News, will be held at 7pm on September 8th at Beverly High School and televised live on BevCam. And on September 13th the group 30 & Main will sponsor a candidates forum, also at the high school focusing on issues of interest to younger citizens in the city.

This week's Beverly Citizen features interviews with the candidates on a variety of topics.  Here are some of their statements with regard to the schools:

Bill Scanlon:
Most recently we moved forward with the major High School project that saved our accreditation. Even in these difficult financial times, this project, like many of the others, is on time and within budget. ...
If re-elected, I will immediately pursue the Middle School project by generating a Statement of Interest with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, necessary to ensure State funding for the project. For our most recent experience (the High School project), we were able to get State funding for more than 58 percent of allowable costs. We would use the state funds, new growth, and the sale of the current Briscoe School to pay for this project. In addition to securing funding, we would also complete design of the Memorial School improvements and develop construction plans and specifications during this time.
Mike Cahill:
Our schools educate thousands of our children each year. In partnership with school leaders, I’ll regularly spend time in the schools, meeting with staff, observing classes, and learning more about the delivery of our educational programs. We’ll celebrate the ongoing greatness in our schools. As we identify areas of need, we’ll be honest with ourselves, work together, and constantly improve. Every parent will be proud to send their child to the Beverly Public Schools. Every taxpayer will be confident the schools they support are truly outstanding.
Tim Flaherty:
Investment in our public schools is another top issue facing our city. With unfunded mandates and declining revenues we must continue to provide our children (I have four currently in BPS) the same educational services generations before them were afforded. Therefore, I will serve as a proud, active, and invested member of the School Committee.
Our school’s students, administration, and faculty need to continue to build upon a foundation of excellence in efforts to meet and exceed their own potential and our expectations. To accomplish this, I will ensure that our teachers have opportunities for professional development that meet the needs of our children in the classroom.
Marciano has not much to say about education, other than this claim about the new high school: 
It is my understanding that our new 50 percent smaller high school compared to the 1965 school is already falling apart which includes cracking walls. This needs to be inspected immediately and not covered up. Also before the school is signed off releasing the contractor the soil around the school needs to be professionally tested for contamination.
The primary election will be held on Tuesday, September 20th.

Above photos from WickedLocal:Beverly used under Creative Commons licence.

9/9 UPDATE: Today Salem News has a wrapup of the first debate.