Today on the blog I interview Kimberley Driscoll, the fiftieth mayor of Salem, Massachusetts. Salem has a fascinating history, even beyond the notoriety of its 17th century "Witchcraft Trials." Salem today looks nothing like its colonial forebear, and as one of Massachusetts's "Gateway Cities," Salem is among the most diverse communities in the Commonwealth. In our conversation, Driscoll talks about the linkages between past and present, playing an active role in education policy, and planning for the city's 400th anniversary.
Me: So, a lot of us lost track of Salem after our high school United States history class. What does Salem look like in 2016?
Driscoll: It’s funny you ask that, because our 400th anniversary is ten years from now. We’re working on a community visioning process, to figure out what we want our community to look like then. There’s nothing like a deadline to get people moving, so we’re really focusing on having stuff done for 2026.
What Salem looks like now is a city that’s benefitting from the new urbanism movement. People want to live in active, vibrant places, where there’s walkability and access. If you can do that in a place like Salem, with all of the history and culture we have, all the better.
In Salem, you have the bones of interesting architecture. People can live downtown in a cool building. We have the Peabody Essex Museum, which has a world class collection. For a city of our size, we sort of punch out of our weight class. We have a full service hospital, cultural institutions, and a history. Even though that history is complicated and makes us notorious, that means we are a tourism-based community. We have our own economy, but our economy also relies a great deal on the Boston market to help us thrive.
People, by Thousands
Me: Salem's notorious history, which could be the topic of another whole conversation, means that you get a ton of tourists in October. Is that calming down?
Driscoll: There are still people here this week, but not like in October. We’ll have about 250,000 people visit here every October, depending on the day of the week that Halloween falls. There were five weekends in the month this year, just packed with people and activity. The hotels are full, the restaurants do well. We have walking tours, museums, and attractions. It certainly is a big month.
Me: Salem has changed a great deal in the last generation. What does that mean for your broader civic infrastructure, schools in particular?
Driscoll: We’re a more diverse city than we were twenty years ago. From the socioeconomic standpoint, as well as race, and makeup of our community more broadly. We benefit from the fact that we’re a welcoming, diverse, and inclusive place. We have lots of different backgrounds, and lots of different languages spoken.
Salem in 1980
Salem in 2016
We also have lots of different incomes. We have neighborhoods with pockets of poverty. We have pockets of real affluence too, and everything in between. When we think about the history of Salem, the sea captain Elias Hasket Derby set up shop here, and he was the first millionaire in America. But we've always had income diversity. When you look at the federalist houses downtown, you see the history of wealth, but you have to contrast that with the folks who unloaded the docks in those days. All of those people have always been living within eight square miles of each other, and it’s been a real mix.
When it comes to education, we didn’t have standardized tests twenty years ago. There was no yard stick. The accountability has changed, and so we know a lot more about how we’re doing across those lines of difference
Me: To stay on schools, you have an elected school committee, and you are an elected mayor. How do you interact with the schools?
Driscoll: I would say that when I first started in office, the superintendent was the leader of the schools, and I put a lot of trust and thought into being supportive of whoever that was. Mainly that meant making sure there were the resources in the budget to get the job done. I was a lot less inclined to get into the weeds. I don’t have an education background, and as a parent of three kids in the district, I was pretty pleased. I mainly wanted to make sure there were adequate resources for schooling.
Then, enter the "level four" designation. (NB: In 2011, one of Salem's schools moved on the state’s intervention list for low-performing schools, and the whole district later was identified as needing improvement.) I felt like, “Holy cow, wait a second. If we aren’t at the level we need to be, I need to play a more active role.”
I started to think about what are the other steps and action items I can tackle, to make sure that all families, including middle class families, can raise their kids and receive a high quality education. Education became more of a pressing, up-front issue for me as mayor. I wanted to get under the hood, working in partnership with a quality superintendent.
Me: Has that paid off?
Driscoll: I think it’s challenging, because as it turns out, educating kids in Gateway Cities is challenging. The hardest work we do as a city is making sure that all kids have great schools. That’s more difficult than roadway issues, and all of the other stuff that comes across my desk. It’s also the most important. Given the impact that schools play on every other facet of our community, it’s such an important part of your profile as a city.
The young millennials need to know the schools are good if they’re going to stay. The families here need to know that their children are being well served, and that is critical to our success as a city. But it’s hard, it’s really challenging work, and I think we’ve had hard conversations as a school committee, and in the community at-large, about what is the best way to achieve success. We want to be innovative and to give parents choices.
Me: So speaking of choices, while many of the municipalities in the Commonwealth have campaigned actively against charters schools, you have taken a different approach. Talk to me about that.
Driscoll: I think that, given how hard the work is, we need an “all hands on deck” approach. We have an in-district charter and an independent charter. We have an innovation school, and we have a school on the campus of Salem State, in partnership with the university. We have an array of choices for families, which I think is really important, especially as a parent of three kids. We have three different learners in our household alone.
The work is so hard, and we end up fighting over charter versus traditional. But we are working towards making sure we have high quality options for everyone. We work collaboratively with our charter school. That doesn’t mean that we like the funding formula. We’d love to see those reforms. That’s a valid issue.
But we are not worse off as a community because we have Salem Academy, which 51% of our families apply to for middle school. We are a better community because of that option. If as a state we could get over this funding situation, we could be more honest on this issue. It would be great if we could work on the math and make sure that all communities and all kids have quality options.
Me: What else, besides options, makes Salem stronger, when it comes to education?
Driscoll: The partnerships we have formed. Working closely with Salem State, working with the Peabody Essex Museum. We work with Harvard, and its medical center, which has a branch in town. One of the ways we approach the work in our schools is with these partner organizations.
We also formed a children’s cabinet, which means we think a lot about how we come together as a whole community. Education is a community mission, so how do we ensure, through our community, that we are providing excellent opportunities? We’ve got people buying in now. Part of the reason we became "level four" in the first place is that we didn’t have as active and engaged a community around our schools. That accountability from the community is a positive thing for us, and we need the lens the community brings to push us even further.