"Who The F*** Are You?"

Sorry, Mom.  The bad language here is needed to make a point. 

Chris Gabrieli is an ed reformer in Boston, with many hats.  Below is a guest blog from Chris, about a terrific Boston Magazine article by Rob Gurwitt.  Read Chris's take, and then the whole article. 

Chris: The September edition of Boston Magazine has a feature article entitled “A Tale of Two Schools” by Rob Gurwitt that is a MUST READ for all of us and everyone who wants to understand the Boston:Forward Coalition.  It is also the sort of journalism and public discourse we as a coalition aim to inspire and we can take some pride in Gurwitt citing the BFC platform as the central policy implication of his article.

The article features a comparison between the success story at Orchard Gardens led by BFC member Andrew Bott and the continuing struggles of the nearby Higginson/Lewis K-8 School, also in Roxbury.  By focusing entirely on why each of these two schools are on their current trajectories, the article follows our central belief – schools succeed or struggle, one at a time, that schools are the unit of success. 

Gurwitt writes of Orchard Gardens:

Boston Magazine: It has become Boston’s flashing-neon rebuke to the idea that ineffective public schools filled with poor kids from often-troubled families cannot be fixed.

Chris: By contrast, he highlights the tensions and woes at the Higginson/Lewis despite many fine people there trying hard:

Boston Magazine: Academically, the school has been a laggard. Its MCAS scores in English are well below the district’s average for proficient or advanced work. In 2012, only one other Boston public school did worse in math. Even more disheartening, the Higginson/Lewis is being outperformed by most other BPS schools when it comes to improving its MCAS scores.

Chris: Gurwitt centers his article explicitly on the Boston: Forward premise about the policy conclusions to draw from the success of the best autonomous schools such as Orchard Gardens.  He cites Michael Jonas’s great piece in the Boston Globe about the Boston: Forward Coalition:

Boston Magazine: It is Exhibit A for the group of school reformers who’ve coalesced around a push, as CommonWealth magazine’s executive editor put it recently in the Globe, “for the embrace of a strategy to make school-level autonomy the governing principle, rather than a carve-out exception, at Boston’s 128 district schools.”

Chris: Gurwitt describes in detail both the sincere anguish of good people at the Higginson/Lewis trying to turn things around and the great path taken at the Orchard Gardens, a path enabled by a Turnaround law that provides great autonomy to Bott:

Boston Magazine: Bott recruited veteran BPS teachers he knew from other schools, but also handpicked young, energetic, and demanding teachers like Vega, who left a public high school in Los Angeles to teach at Orchard Gardens. And that was just the starting point. Bott and his teachers had much greater autonomy than ordinary public schools to shape the school day and design the curriculum. Each of Boston’s 12 turnaround schools was given additional federal money for three years, and was allowed to add an hour to the typical BPS school day. Using their extra $1.3 million a year, Bott and his staff added a voluntary afterschool program for the elementary schoolers and a mandatory three hours of afterschool programming for the middle schoolers. One of Bott’s more-striking moves was to replace the school’s security personnel with visual-arts, dance, music, and theater teachers.

In many of Boston’s regular public schools, including the Higginson/Lewis, teachers get less than an hour per week to meet together to discuss students who are struggling, collaborate on joint projects, or brainstorm solutions to challenges that arise at the school. At Orchard Gardens, elementary teachers spend three hours a week, while middle school teachers get four. They’re guided by colleagues who, thanks to the federal money, have spent a lot of time over the past three years learning to be “teacher leaders.”

The school is full of high expectations, and Bott has made it a habit to hang posters around the building that underline the point. After the first graders’ trip to the White House in 2012, he blew up a photo of President Obama, his eyebrow cocked and a slight “That’s impressive!” smile on his face as he stands watching a row of Orchard Gardens kids. Underneath, Bott put, “Look how impressed the President is with OG. Would he have been impressed by you today?”

Chris: Gurwitt is an excellent writer bringing out people and anecdotes.  One that had me howling in laughter and shared agony was his writing about Jason Wise, a teacher at the Higginson/Lewis who is fighting the odds and has successfully launched a musical theater program there:

Boston Magazine: In 2005, well before the Higginson/Lewis merger, Wise began his teaching career as a substitute at the Lewis middle school. On his first day he was given an eighth-grade social studies class whose regular teacher hadn’t even made it through the first day of school. The man had barely paused by the front office to announce, “I’m overwhelmed” before heading out the door for good.

There followed a succession of subs. Wise vowed he’d be the last. “I was determined not to be the teacher who walked out on kids,” he remembers. So he stood up in front of the class. “I know things got off to a rough start,” he told them, “but you can always start over, and we’re starting over today.”

The kids just stared back, until one girl in the front row raised her hand. This was the first question Wise had ever fielded as a teacher, and he was curious. Would it be about the American Revolution? About the Civil Rights era?

“Who the fuck are you?” she said.

Wise found the exchange oddly appealing. “There was something about the way she said it, this profane innocence that just popped out,” he says. “I thought, This place is wild. I need to stick around.”

Chris: One important point not to miss in the article is how aligned our thinking is with BPS leadership’s evolving approach to autonomy and school success.  The article cites just-departed BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson:

Boston Magazine: But Johnson, who stepped down as superintendent at the end of June, doesn’t think that’s enough. “All of our turnaround schools have flexibility around who they hire and where they place people, flexibility around their master schedule, and the ability to redistribute resources to address the specific challenges identified in their data,” she says. She and Menino went to the state legislature at the beginning of the year with a request to give schools designated by the state as “Level 3”—the category the high-support schools fall into—the same abilities. “Even when you select a great leader, it’s not enough if they don’t have the tools to make changes,” Johnson says. “It’s about building a culture of people who you know understand what the work is really about.”

Chris: Finally, and very poignantly to me, the article points out how much of this hard work depends on shared cultures of high expectations and beliefs that schools can overcome the disadvantages their students clearly face:

Boston Magazine: But many of the teachers at the ­Higginson/Lewis have yet to buy into the notion that what they do will make the difference between success and failure for their students. In a 2011–2012 survey of teachers, BPS found an intriguing contrast between the teachers at the Higginson/Lewis and those at Orchard Gardens. When asked about the most important factors influencing how much students learn in school, teachers at the former disproportionately said it had to do with matters out of their control, especially family support. The teachers at Orchard Gardens, on the other hand, believed above all in their own influence on their students. The factor they most often picked? “Classroom lessons requiring students to play an active role.”

Chris This article gets me excited about the potential of the Boston:Forward Coalition.  The question is not, ‘can we do it?’ The question is ‘when will we do it?’ The Boston:Forward platform is a way to fast track Boston’s schools through unleashing the power of every single teacher, leader, and ultimately school in this city.

There is lots of work ahead, but I’m glad to be a part of a coalition that is focused on a asset based, forward looking policy platform that will catalyze real improvement for all of the students of Boston. 

-Chris Gabrieli

Gurwitt's whole article is here.  Really well reported. 

Chris tends to operate behind the scenes, so he didn't tout his own horn here, but I happen to know Chris was a huge help in the Orchard Gardens turnaround. 

A key puzzle to leave you with:

Teachers, in particular, were unsettled by the school’s stubbornly low MCAS scores. “I don’t get it,” said third-grade teacher Melisa Nettleton at a particularly tense moment in the spring, as her students were taking the MCAS tests that she and others were convinced would decide the school’s fate. “Please pardon my language, but I work my ass off and my colleagues do as well. I don’t understand what’s going on.”