Mattahunt puts focus on options for turnaround schools
Boston Public Schools’ proposal to close the underperforming Mattahunt Elementary School, enroll children in older grades in new schools and then reopen it as an early learning center has come under tight scrutiny.
During a community meeting at the school, BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang said this plan was the best hope to avoid state takeover. According to a letter from state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Mitchell Chester, should BPS fail to present an adequate alternative plan, the state would be able to take actions, including state takeover.
The idea of state receivership as a solution is tarnished in the minds of many in the district, coming after struggles to demonstrate improvements at the Dever Elementary School and public backlash over the practice of suspending young children at UP Academy Holland. Both schools were taken over in 2014.
Following the BPS proposal for Mattahunt, some parents and community members protested that the dissolution of the school community was too drastic, and proposed several alternative remedies to closure or receivership. The next day, the Boston School Committee vote to approve the closure plan.
The Banner looks at the debate over improving the school.
Since its designation as Level 4 — or “underperforming” — the Mattahunt has received an influx of funding. According to BPS deputy Superintendent Donna Muncey, this included a school redesign grant of $1.8 million over three years; $139,500 to pay for site visits by the state and other indirect costs; a $30,000 grant; and $49,807 in one year to provide math supports.
However, progress was insufficient and ranking fell to “Level 4–under review.” Muncey attributes the failure to improve conditions primarily to teacher and administrator turnover and “less than full implementation of the turnaround plan.” Another challenge Mattahunt faces: a high level of student turnover. This can disrupt efforts to build a strong learning community and can mean that the kind of supports required by Mattahunt’s children change frequently during the year as the student body changes, Muncey told the Banner.
Approximately 33 percent of students, or about 200 pupils, leave and are replaced with new students during a given year. The Mattahunt has space to accommodate a larger student body than the number of local residents selecting the school, and under a provision in its assignment system, BPS administratively assigns children from other parts of the city to fill the school. The implication seems to be that many children who do not choose Mattahunt but are assigned to it end up leaving.
BPS officials see the value of transforming the school into an early learning center as twofold: It keeps the facility in district — not state — control and helps serve a known need. Early learning center attendance appears to reduce academic achievement gaps, and the two such centers that exist in the vicinity of the Mattahunt have long waitlists, indicating unmet neighborhood demand, Muncey says. The conversion would build on existing school strengths: Despite challenges in higher grades, Mattahunt kindergarteners outperformed district peers on early literacy testing.
In a mid-November meeting, a group of parents and community members developed and proposed to the BPS superintendent three alternative remedies that would maintain district control and school community.
These plans included continuing the school as a K-5 but under a management committee that would operate the school with greater autonomy and flexibility; extending Mattahunt’s Level 4 status but conducting it under a new turnaround plan; or continuing the school as a Level 4 under leadership of an independent trustee who would report to the superintendent or commissioner.
In comments submitted to DESE, Peggy Weisenberg, a parent of BPS graduates and current member of Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST), cited a precedent: the DESE’s commissioner extended New Bedford High School’s Level 4 status and appointed the district superintendent as receiver.
In a piece published in the Dorchester Reporter, Lincoln Larmond of Mattapan United also pointed to the importance of a nearby school for allowing local working parents to drop their children off before heading to their jobs.
In response to Banner questions, Muncey noted that the parent-generated proposals had merit, but that DESE had made clear a need for more powerful change.
“These were all potentially viable options. But please recall that the BPS Superintendent of Schools had received a very strong letter from the commissioner,” Muncey wrote. “The three options offered by the parents are options that are usually exercised at the start of the school being named Level 4 for the first time.”
Turnaround and state takeover
Questions about the effectiveness of state receivership have loomed throughout contemplation of the Mattahunt’s status. Superintendent Chang raised the threat of potential state receivership as he pushed for accepting BPS’s closure plan. Discussion on the topic has raised the specter of the Dever, which, following its takeover by Blueprint, has struggled from significant faculty turnover, little MCAS score improvement and reduced enrollment. Also hovering in public consciousness: Holland, whose operators Unlocking Potential (UP) drew ire for suspending kindergartners out of school at high rates.
However, Russell Johnston, senior associate commissioner for DESE, says that the state has been taking a methodical approach to improving and assessing its turnaround skills.
“We’ve been very strategic and evidence-based in knowing what it takes to turn around a school,” he told the Banner in a phone interview. “Here in Massachusetts, we’ve had very good success rates of turning around underperforming schools — higher than the national average.”
Any operator applying to oversee a school’s recovery must have proven track records of turnaround work or with the student populations they would be serving. DESE visits a school run by that operator applicant before making selection decisions. Each year, DESE revisits contracts with those currently engaged in operating schools.
During 2011 to 2014, DESE explored, tested and refined its turnaround practices and last week released a Field Guide on the process. The document outlines the principles that plans and efforts should adhere to and provides examples and a guide for what progress may look like at different steps along the way. Among the key lessons: tailor plans to each school’s unique circumstances.
Johnston was unaware of any turnaround ideas abandoned as ineffective during DESE’s testing phase. Instead, he said, that exploration had produced greater fleshing out of principles, expressing them with greater detail and clarity.
UP Academy has achieved student performance improvements, such as an 18 percent increase between 2015 and 2016 in students scoring “proficient” in English Language Arts. Network administrators also responded to outcry over suspension practices: The percent of the student body suspended dropped to 3 percent this year from just over 12 percent last year, he said.
While results at the Dever have been disappointing, Johnston said its trials indicate a need for deepened commitment. The state does not favor receivership as a remedy over compelling alternative solutions, Johnston added.
“Whether it’s Level 5 receivership or a district-led solution, our one aim is to make sure students have a better education,” he said.
Schools’ designated tier levels reflect trends in MCAS performance and dropout and graduation rates. DESE currently is considering additional ways to rank schools, including factors such as art, music and college-level course offerings; school atmosphere; student discipline data; absenteeism and family engagement.