By Wayne Ogden
Salem Community Charter School (SCCS) in Massachusetts is not your typical high school. Its “campus” is several thousand square feet of retail space in a downtown mall. No landscaped grounds or athletic fields surround it and its neighbors are the residences and commercial enterprises of downtown, historic, Salem, Massachusetts. The school’s mission is succinct yet complex, “Salem Community Charter School (SCCS) is a Horace Mann Charter School providing an alternative educational experience for students who have previously struggled in school. SCCS is specifically designed and staffed to serve the needs of students who have dropped out of high school or who are at-risk of dropping out, to engage them in new and exciting ways and inspire them to reach their academic aspirations.”
SCCS Started kicked off its inaugural school year in September 2011 with a new principal, Jessica Yurwitz, and a small staff that the local newspaper described as a “small bunch of 20 and 30-somethings” . Despite the terse journalistic description, the teaching team knew they had to hook their 50 new students immediately, or risk losing them once again, and this time perhaps with finality, from the public school system. The school had begun to take shape many months before when the City’s Mayor and then Superintendent of Schools had a nascent vision of re-engaging some of the many students the traditional system was losing. It was the right vision, but the “how” would be challenging at every step. The role and performance of teachers would, of course, be critical.
May , 2011 Salem Community Charter School is awarded its official school charter. (From left) Paul Reville, State Secretary of Education; William Cameron, Salem Superintendent of Schools; Jessica Yurwitz, Principal of SCCS; Maura Banta, Chair of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; and Mitchell Chester, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts
Now in its second full year of operation Principal Jess Yurwitz and her dedicated staff are buffeted by most, if not all of the same things as high schools twenty times their size and, of course, some much more complicated matters. How does one begin re-engage students who describe their previous experiences in high school as painful, unsuccessful, and frustrating?
Add to that set of dilemmas a new challenge for Principal Yurwitz and her staff this year -how to train for and implement Massachusetts’ new “Educator Evaluation Process”, a statute that promises to include student performance data as a significant part of a teacher’s overall evaluation rating. While this statewide initiative has caused much anxiety in many of the state’s school districts due to the perceived high stakes nature of holding teachers accountable for their students performance, the SCCS professional community is embracing the new evaluation training and implementation in a fashion that makes it a model for schools and district across Massachusetts.
What makes the SCCS approach so unusual in this new evaluation initiative is that the principal and her teachers have chosen to work together as a professional learning community , to be trained in unison in every aspect of the model educator evaluation process. Most Massachusetts’ school districts have elected to pursue a training and implementation model that has teachers segregated from their building-based evaluators in all phases of training for the new, model evaluation process. This alignment follows a traditional pattern seen in most school districts over the past five decades in which teachers and administrators receive their professional development in isolation from one another. And, while that model may work reasonably well when the professional learning is centered around a new curriculum initiative, it can breed differing and sometimes competing perspectives about what constitutes instructional excellence. Common sense would seem to dictate that when teachers and their principals can agree upon what a common set of standards of excellence in teaching are and what those standards look like in the action of a classroom, then performance evaluations have a better chance of bringing about the desired result of instructional improvement.
At SCCS considerable time has been set aside for Yurwitz and her teachers to learn every teaching standard, element, indicator and performance rating that the state has been laid out for them by the new DESE process. They debate about what good practice looks like and how it might be improved upon. They look at instructional videos and analyze and classify the many teaching behaviors they observe into the performance matrix the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requires (http://www.doe.mass.edu/lawsregs/603cmr35.html) of all principals to use in their evaluation of teachers. The staff at SCCS can view this process as an institution-builder, and a quality mechanism and engage in sophisticated professional conversations about what best teaching practice looks like.
Perhaps, the same out-of-the-box thinking that allows the faculty of SCCS to successfully re-engage disenfranchised students, is what has made them unique in their unified approach to improving teaching performance.