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Schools showcase their Excellence for All program work

Two years in, supporters say alternative to advanced work class is showing promise

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Schools showcase their Excellence for All program work
Holmes Elementary fourth-graders Elvia, Sada and Soriah pose with their teacher, Monique Brown, and BPS Supt. Tommy Chang in front of their “Friends Through the Fire” capstone project. As part of the project, the girls created kits to give to children who have experienced house fires. Photo: Sandra Larson

The Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center teemed with elementary-school energy earlier this month as more than 200 fourth- and fifth-graders gathered to show off the capstone projects they completed as part of the Boston Public Schools’ Excellence for All program, an initiative that aims to increase the rigor and challenge of the district’s general education curricula for grades 4 and 5.

At the June 15 showcase, a subset of the student teams gave presentations to an audience of peers, teachers, and school administrators, including outgoing Superintendent Tommy Chang, providing a glimpse of the wide array of chosen topics and approaches.

Fourth-graders from the Edison K–8 read essays they wrote after researching athletes who broke color barriers. A team from Gardner Pilot Academy showed the instructional video they created on safety measures in a natural disaster, after studying volcanic eruptions.

Some projects probed science questions; others had literary components; many addressed social justice issues.

At John D. Philbrick Elementary, a group studied the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy and connected the hopes and fears of today’s DREAMers with themes in the book “Esperanza Rising.” The idea was sparked in part because “a classmate of ours had to leave the country,” they said.

Students, school administrators and visitors then roamed a large exhibit of capstone displays. Most projects included a visible technological element such as a website, slide show or edited video.

Goal: equitable rigor

The Excellence for All initiative emerged after Supt. Chang, who took the helm in 2015, learned about the Advanced Work Class (AWC) option that some schools offer beginning in grade 4. AWC presents a more rigorous and faster-paced curriculum to students who demonstrate their readiness by scoring high on the Terra Nova test, administered to all students in fall of third grade.

Chang was disturbed to observe in school visits that while children in AWC classrooms seemed to be focused and appropriately challenged, those in general education classes appeared to be languishing. In addition, it was clear that AWC classrooms did not include the same proportions of black, Latino students, English language learners and students with disabilities that were in the school population as a whole.

Shortly before Chang’s start at BPS, a 2014 report on outcomes for black and Latino males in BPS had raised questions on whether this sort of academic tracking based on a third-grade test could be closing doors to opportunity for some students.

Chang proposed to raise the level of rigor and opportunity for all fourth-graders, whether they tested into AWC or not. The Excellence for All initiative began in the 2016-17 school year as a pilot in 13 schools, 10 of which had never offered AWC classes, and three that previously had AWC but switched to the Excellence for All model.

The initiative aims to include more demanding core coursework,  instruction in world languages and exposure to STEM instruction through a robotics and coding curriculum.

Maryalice Jennings, a fourth-grade teacher at Dorchester’s Martin Luther King Jr. K–8 school, explained how a capstone project focused on the book “The Hope Chest” reflected students’ math learning and “a higher level of thinking skills” than previous fourth-graders had been able to demonstrate.

In the book, a character chooses to avoid marriage and join the fight for suffrage at a time when young women had limited choices. The students’ project investigated other choices, Jennings said, from school lunch and uniform issues to elective courses.

“They created surveys, analyzed data and wrote argument papers and persuasive letters,” she said. “It was tied to the math curriculum, in that they collected data, read graphs and used statistics.”

Boosting skills for teachers

To support the increased rigor for students, the initiative includes efforts to build teachers’ skills as well, with coaching and training in such areas as math; teaching writing to English learners; implementing the Universal Design for Learning approach; and teaching students “executive function” skills such as organizational and study habits.

Regine Phillipeaux-Pierce, Excellence for All project manager, said she has already seen change not just in the learning opportunities, but in the adult mindset.

“In a more traditional system, we think, ‘These kids can do it,’ and ‘These other kids need extra support,’” she said. “With Excellence for All, from the start everyone has access to rigorous, high levels of study — and then it backtracks to say, ‘How do we support every single child in getting to those higher levels?’ That’s what equity looks like to me.”

While she does not have before-and-after data yet, Phillipeaux-Pierce said she sees an evolution in teacher perceptions.

“Anecdotally, teachers were saying last year, ‘Wow, I didn’t know our kids could do this level of work. I didn’t know this student was even interested in school.’ So it’s changing the expectations of teachers of what kids can do,” she said.

Reaching all students

An obvious question is when advanced students are not separated into AWC, how to ensure that all students, whether ready to go faster or needing a different approach, are properly challenged.

One added support Phillipeaux-Pierce cited is the “What I Need” (WIN) block, a period of time each day in which students receive specific intervention or acceleration according to their need. As an example, that might include book groups, she said.

Teacher Kristine Hughes, who teaches fourth grade at the Phineas Bates Elementary, told the Banner that reaching all learning styles and levels is something that takes constant effort, but she believes it can be done. Having been at Bates before and after the presence of AWC, Hughes also mentioned that AWC can be a divider in a school.

“We are an inclusion school. Every student is being challenged at their level. It’s not perfect — sometimes those who have greater needs, or those at the top, may not be getting what they need — but in the end we see every student striving to do their best work.” She added, “The capstone is a perfect illustration of giving kids different ways to show what they know.”

Program growth and future

In the 2017-18 school year, the initiative grew to include grade 5 in the same 13 schools, and funding increased from $1.2 million to $2 million.

Phillipeaux-Pierce said program success will be gauged in several ways, including examining “21st-century skills,” which she said don’t always show up in tests; scores on district assessments of reading level and other academic skills; and social and emotional trends.

“Between these, we will have a pretty holistic picture,” she said.

As the three-year pilot runs its course, an outside researcher will be working with a BPS data analyst to analyze what’s working and where the challenges remain. A report is expected this winter, in time for the district budget decision process.

A BPS spokesperson told the Banner that despite Chang’s departure from BPS, announced last week, Excellence for All is likely to continue next year, as it is already in the budget. The FY 2019 budget commits $2.6 million for the initiative, expanding its reach to grade 6.

BPS officials have not said whether AWC will eventually be phased out if the Excellence for All data shows successful results, or continue to be offered at some schools.

A sense of urgency

Phillipeaux-Pierce feels a personal urgency in pursuing equity in the city’s public school system, beyond her professional expertise in teaching and research.

“I have deep ties to the black and immigrant communities. I keep that in mind every single day, with every bit of research,” she said.

She noted in particular a compelling economic benefit to imparting STEM skills to all students.

“Coding may not exist exactly as it is now in 20 years, but the kinds of thinking it involves makes you a more analytical problem-solver. And it gives you access to fields in which folks are making a lot of money — and our people have not had access to those fields.”

The pilot schools

The 13 schools participating in the BPS Excellence for All pilot are Phineas Bates Elementary, Curley K-8, Thomas A. Edison K-8, Gardner Pilot Academy, Henry Grew Elementary, Curtis Guild Elementary, Harvard-Kent Elementary, Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary, Martin Luther King, Jr. K-8, Ellis Mendell Elementary, Orchard Gardens K-8, John D. Philbrick Elementary and Charles Sumner Elementary. Of these, the Bates, Curley and Edison previously had offered AWC classes but switched to the EFA model.

BPS