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Troubled HUB schools ‘turnaround’ in latest statewide test scores

Martin Desmarais

Three years ago, the Trotter Elementary School in Dorchester was labeled one of the lowest-performing schools in Boston.

Today, after three years of work, Boston Public Schools officials are celebrating the school’s improvement, one of the highest academic gains in the state.

The Trotter School is one of five BPS schools that have shown great advanceement. The others are Orchard Gardens K-8 in Roxbury, Blackstone Elementary School in the South End, John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Jamaica Plain and Harbor Middle School in Dorchester. In 2009, BPS singled out 12 Boston schools as some of the worst in the state. Through state funding and grants the schools were able to pay for new staff and extra teaching time, helping them improve.

At the Trotter School, this effort led to a 30 percent increase in the number of African American students who are proficient in mathematics according to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) testing.

The school jumped from 10 percent proficiency in this category in 2009 to 40 percent today. The school also tripled the proficiency level on the English MCAS from just 12 percent in 2009. Lastly, the proficiency rates for English Language Learners (ELL) — students who are learning English after growing up speaking another language — jumped from zero in 2009 to 56 percent.

Mairead Nolan, principal of the Trotter School since 2007, said the first step was staff changes. The Trotter School was singled out by BPS as a low-performing school in the spring of 2009. By the start of the next school year in September, the school had replaced 65 percent of its teaching staff.

“We were really looking for teachers, and we kept teachers who really believe that students can learn and are committed to working with each other,” Nolan said.

“The collaborative effort of the teachers is absolutely the key,” she added. “The teachers, when they work together — they plan lessons together, they look at individual students progress, they look at students and make plans to figure out how to make them better.”

The school also took steps to ensure that it not only had better teachers, but that the teachers continued to get better. “We also did a lot of professional development time together after school,” Nolan said. This professional development training included strategies to improve classroom management, student focus and lesson plans, as well as and methods for targeting students’ writing skills.

BPS officially designates low-performing schools with a ranking level from Level 1 to Level 5, with Level 5 being the worst — grounds for the school and district to be taken over by the state. Schools in “turnaround status,” meaning they are receiving help to improve, are put into Level 4. The Trotter School started out three years ago at Level 4 and has now been ranked Level 1. Schools ranked Level 3 exit “turnaround status.”

Nolan says the entire staff is just thrilled with the results of the efforts to make the Trotter School better.

“We still have work to do,” Nolan said. “But we have definitely made huge gains.

The 12 low-performing Boston schools put into “turnaround status” were given state funding to make improvements. In the case of the Trotter School, this funding was a $519,000 grant each of the last three years.

According to Nolan, this money was mostly used to increase the school day by a half-hour. Before, school was in session from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but now the day ends at 3:30 p.m. This allows extra time to work with the students on academics. The money was also used to pay education consultants to work with teachers and pay retired teachers to work with smaller groups of students who needed extra support.

Like the Trotter School, Blackstone Elementary School in the South End, John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Jamaica Plain and Harbor Middle School in Dorchester all have moved from Level 4 to Level 1.

Orchard Gardens in Roxbury has also moved from Level 4 to Level 1. At that school, proficiency rates on the English MCAS rose from 13 percent to 34 percent for all students, tripled for Latino students and doubled for African American students. In 2009, just 25 students were proficient in mathematics according to the MCAS test — now 200 students are.

“When we launched this effort three years ago many people told us these schools might never succeed,” said Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “Look at these classrooms today. We have great teachers pushing students to be their very best. We have longer school days and stronger partnerships with families. This type of transformation is what Boston is all about.”

Menino is credited for helping push through legislation that allowed BPS to get state funding to improve its lowest-performing schools.

However, not all the news is good. Two of the Boston schools singled out for their poor performances did not show enough improvements to exit “turnaround status,” despite having received state funding to do so. These schools are the Dever Elementary School in Dorchester and the Holland Elementary School. These schools are in danger of moving to an even lower Level 5 rating.

Other schools will continue to work on improving. These are the E. Greenwood Leadership Academy in Hyde Park, the Dearborn School in Roxbury; Burke High School in Dorchester; and English High School in Jamaica Plain. The Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan was designated a Level 4 school last this year.

“It is our responsibility and obligation to ensure success for all students in all schools,” said BPS Interim Superintendent John McDonough. “Even as we celebrate forward progress for many schools, we must not let this success overshadow the fact that there is more work to do. We will use every strategy available and even initiate some new ones to ensure every child can find success in every school.”

According to BPS, school officials will take a close look at the schools that have improved, such as the Trotter School, and share what has worked at those schools with schools that continue to struggle.