By Katherine Stephens
Gordon College News Service
Oct. 28, 2013
(This story appeared Oct. 29, 2013, in the Salem Your Town site of the Boston Globe.)
SALEM—Despite competing with game five of the World Series, the Salem School Committee Candidate Forum drew close to 100 people Monday night, Oct. 28, at the Nathaniel Bowditch School. It was the last opportunity for voters to hear from all six candidates before the Nov. 5th elections.
Three incumbents— Janet Crane, Lisa Lavoie, and Brendan Walsh—joined three challengers— Rachel Hunt, Rick Johnson, and Patrick Shultz—as each candidate campaigned for a spot among the three available positions on the seven-member board.
The nearly two-hour forum included introductions, statements, and rebuttals from each candidate and ended with a 20-minute question and answer period from residents. Moderator Dave Olson, editor of the Salem New, read questions from note cards that had been passed around at the beginning of the meeting.
Janine Matho, president of The Salem Education Foundation, began the night by thanking the speakers “for stepping up and running for office and caring about our schools.” She then encouraged the audience to, “get out there and vote. Grab your friends and neighbors and get to the polls, or all of their work will be worth nothing.”
During the introductions, the candidates were asked to define what they saw as a priority for the people of Salem in their schools.
Johnson said he was encouraged to see that people are engaged and knowledgeable about Salem’s schools, but he notices a lack of results. “People are ready for results now,” he said.
The topics of discussion shifted towards middle school improvements and extended school days and years. One question addressed the qualities needed in new school district employees, primarily a principal or teacher.
Hunt said she would look for a principal with knowledge and experience in an urban setting along with demonstrated results in their work. Walsh pointed to the importance of experience and a greater understanding of the learning process. He also would look for another quality: “If you don’t have people skills, you are going down in flames,” said Walsh.
Most of the candidates agreed with the necessary enforcement of the accelerated improvement plan, like Hunt, Shutlz, and Lavoie, who is already a member of the plan’s committee and sees the need for collaboration among schools in the area to strengthen the plan.
As to Salem middle schools, candidates said they saw the need for improvement, but hesitated to disrupt what is already in place.
“We shouldn’t put the cart before the horse but make sure we look at all of the evidence, because the middle school might not need a new model,” Shultz said.
Every candidate—except Crane—is in support of extended school days and years.
“It shouldn’t be a secret that I am in favor of adding time to the day; students can benefit from the extra time, and we can even explore staggering the teacher’s schedules,” said Lavoie.
Each candidate pushed for intensive tutoring for students who need more specialized attention, but cited expenses as an obstacle. Lavoie suggested they needed to be creative and look for community partners to help with funding.
Another question addressed diversity and poverty among students. Hunt responded that, “serving well calls for equally high expectations for all, but with different inputs depending on the student.”
Each candidate hoped to increase the involvement with Salem State University in the local schools with student teachers and tutoring programs, and also acknowledged the work of programs with after school providers like the YMCA and the Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs.
What two accomplishments did the candidates want to achieve by next fall? Shultze said he hoped to work closely with the ELL director to recognize funding needs and areas of improvements; Johnson expected to create leadership training and communication between parents and students, especially those with special needs.
Hunt would like to see a greater educator evaluation support system to leverage accountability and support the superintendent and a stronger focus on policy and budget.
Lavoie pushed to implement the instructional rounds more, which would create collaboration between principals and teachers. Walsh wants to stabilize the leadership team who is knowledgeable about Salem and be in place for a longer amount of time.
“We need increased educational opportunities for the neediest of our students, like an in-home tutoring program, which is cost effective and informative,” said Walsh.
Crane would like to use the Carlton model, especially in middle schools, which allows students to proceed at their own pace, while also placing creativity and compassion back into teacher evaluations.
Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll summed up the night best in a tweet shortly after the meeting ended: “Meaningful Q + A on a myriad of topics at School Com Candidates Forum—school improvement, expanded learning times, middle school initiative.”