Salem: A city getting ahead of the learning curve

Salem is becoming a city that’s prepared to provide children with the support, help, and enrichment that they need to thrive, Emily Ullman says, instead of addressing crises after they occur.

Ullman is the Director of Extended Learning Programs at Salem Public Schools. She’s also one of the city officials involved in a community collaborative looking at children.

“We knew we were a resource rich community,” Ullman says, pointing to Salem’s many cultural and community organizations and to school staff who were ready to do more for students.

What the city needed was a way to coordinate its in-school and out-of-school efforts and collect data on its actions. It turned to City Connects as part of a broader, citywide effort to address students’ barriers to learning.

Salem had been identified as a Level 4, underperforming school by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In 2016, Salem’s school district took a positive step, moving up to Level 3.

That same year, Salem was one of six cities chosen to participate in By All Means, an initiative launched by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education “to eliminate the link between children’s socioeconomic status and [their]achievement. ” The other cities are Newton, and Somerville, as well as Louisville, Oakland and Providence.

“While our recent efforts at education reform have yielded some great successes in certain places, overall, we have failed to achieve equity, we have failed to eliminate persistent achievement and success gaps,” Professor Paul Reville, founding director of the Education Redesign Lab and former Massachusetts Secretary of Education, said in a news release.

Salem officials have named their citywide effort “Our Salem, Our Kids,” and their goal is to serve children from birth to career. The program has several key components:

citywide training programs on promoting healthy adult/youth relationships

a resource website for parents and schools listing programs and activities for children

• additional behavioral health specialists to support schools, and

• a new partnership with City Connects operating in each of Salem’s K-8 schools

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll mentioned City Connects in her inauguration speech, calling the program a tool that will “help us measure more than reading skills – if kids are hungry, or homeless, or have anxieties, we want to help meet those needs in order to prepare them for success in school.

“Implementation of City Connects has been really exciting,” Ullman says. Public school student support staff, trained as City Connects coordinators, will be meeting with members of the city’s community collaborative and with the governing board of Our Salem, Our Kids to forge the adult relationships that will make it easier to connect kids to the city’s resources.

“The out-of-school providers were thrilled that, ‘wait, I’m going to have someone in the building that I can call to ask a question?’ Everybody is excited about that.”

The coordinators have been consulting with teachers about each student during whole class reviews and collecting data on students’ strengths and challenges. “Teachers feel good about sharing stories and responsibilities with coordinators,” Ellen Wingard, Salem’s City Connects Program Manager, says.

Ullman says the data that City Connects gathers will spark more action. “We can use this information to say to the community here are the ways that we can serve kids better.”

Because Salem is implementing our program in all of its K-8 schools, City Connects data can be used to generate a citywide snapshot that highlights gaps in services and opportunities. This will enable local leaders and organizations to be more responsive to student needs.

One finding the data has identified is a need for mentorship programs and tutoring. So, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, a community partner, is running their mentoring program inside a school to make it easier for children and families who would have a difficult time accessing mentors outside of school.

Salem’s goal is to create universal improvements.

“We’re not just thinking about kids who are struggling and meeting their needs. We’re asking for every kid: What services can we tap into?” Ullman says. It’s a matter of equity and access she says, adding “Equity and access aren’t just for poor kids. It’s about every kid.”

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