Salem, Massachusetts

How Salem is Reshaping the Role of Education

In 2013-14, the Salem school district was in crisis. The schools’ ranking was at a level 4, one of the lowest performing levels in a scale from 1 to 5. Almost 60% of the student population came from economically disadvantaged homes and nearly 70% were considered high needs students—an inequity that made it exceptionally difficult for many children to thrive.

By All Means

Then in 2015 Salem became one of six cities chosen to participate in a three-year initiative launched by Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), Education Redesign Lab. The initiative, By All Means, had one goal—to eradicate the link between children’s socioeconomic status and achievement.

United Way’s work with the By All Means initiative and Salem is multifaceted. Our work spans across a number of community leadership programs in the city, all of which are aligned to close the achievement gap.

“Schools alone, as currently conceived, can’t do the job of educating all children for success. We can do better,” says Professor Paul Reville, founding director of the Education Redesign Lab and former Massachusetts Secretary of Education. “By All Means will help light the way.”

In fact, By All Means was the spark that ignited a new movement in Salem—Our Salem Our Kids—explains Emily Ullman, Director of Extended Learning Programs at Salem Public Schools. The goal of the movement is that all students are challenged and cared for every day by an entire community.

Connecting Kids to Resources

According to Kelley Rice, Chief of Communications at Salem Public Schools, Salem is a city rich in community resources, but until this year the school district had limited infrastructure in place to connect their students directly to those resources. Many kids were facing serious issues outside of the classroom, such as poverty, homelessness, and trauma, which negatively impacted their ability to focus and learn in the classroom. “We recognized to improve academic achievement, we needed to find a systemic way to address issues outside of the classroom,” says Rice.

As a response to these issues, Salem has implemented several sustainable youth- and adult-empowered programs under the umbrella of By All Means and Our Salem, Our Kids.

One of these programs is City Connects, which uses a ‘whole child’ approach to ensuring academic success. As part of City Connects, Salem hired and trained coordinators for every pre-k to 8th grade school in the district. At the beginning of the school year, the coordinators are conducting a comprehensive review of each student in pre-k to 8th grade, focusing on four domains: social skills, emotional development, health and wellness, and family. The coordinators and teachers then worked together to create an individualized plan for every student. The objective is to create an optimized student support system that seeks to understand students’ unique strengths and needs.

While this program is still in its infancy, “schools now have a system in place to seek specific, deliberate student support across the district and community,” says Ullman. She notes that the secure and confidential data from the whole child review will allow schools to coordinate pre-emptive services before a crisis occurs.

The Next Phase

Salem is looking forward to the next phase of Our Salem, Our Kids, which enlists help from the community to create strong, supportive relationships between youth and adults.

“We are positioning Salem as a community of change—raising young people who are well cared for and well developed. It’s good for everybody in the city,” says Ullman.

And it looks like Salem is undeniably becoming a community of change. In a recent Letter to the Editor in The Salem News, the parent of a second grader wrote, “My son is engaged, challenged and respected in his elementary school and we are proud to be part of the Salem Public School community … I firmly believe the “change” everyone is looking for is happening.”

Learn more about how United Way helps prepare children to learn»