I would like to tell you about a school in Boston, a school that was in bad shape two years ago, but seems to be working diligently to turn a once failing school around in a positive way.
A news report from November 19, 2009, will help set the scene for this story. On this day, Carol R. Johnson, School Superintendent for the Boston City Schools, revealed the names of 14 schools which would be undergoing massive overhauls, reinvention, or possible closing. The decision was precipitated by the habitually low scores these schools achieved on their standardized tests.
In a speech delivered at Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury, a new facility with an attendance of approximately 600 students, Johnson announced, “For our very survival, we must launch a new era for Boston public schools. We are prepared to innovate.’’
One of the schools earmarked in 2009 for an overhaul was Orchard Gardens, which had chronically low test scores, and a 60% Latino population and a 40% black population, two groups which tend to lag behind other ethnic and racial groups on state tests. Approximately a third of the students who attended were learning to speak English, and the school had gone through five principals in seven years, making it a very unstable environment in which to try to achieve a long-term improvement plan.
The district’s pilot schools program allowed administrators to deviate from its district’s curriculum mandates and teacher union rules in the hope of spurring innovation. Five thousand schools have been chosen nationally to get millions of dollars from the federal government to turn around, and Orchard Gardens is one of them. Its goal is to become a top-performing school.
The principal of the school, a very young Andrew Bott, stated in an interview with CNN in September of this year, “We need to do something bold. We need to really restart Orchard Gardens.” According to turnaround rules, principals must replace at least half of their staff, but Bott boldly fired 80% of the original staff, and hand-picked replacements for the teachers he had fired. He will receive $3.7 million in grants over the next three years to help facilitate his goals.
Seven months into the school year, Bott is feeling very confident about the improvements they have made so far, and predicts that within three years they will have over 90% of their students testing either proficient or advanced, and on a college track.
Justin Cohen is much more cautious. He works with failing schools in an effort to help them turn around, and he warns Botts against becoming too overconfident. “What happens is, schools that have achieved fragile gains can often slide back into underperformance once either resources are taken away or attention is distracted. What I worry about with school turnaround is we hit a plateau or we increase student scores to some extent, but they’re still performing well below their peers in affluent neighborhoods.”
How significant is Orchard Gardens’ improvement so far? In a school where only 10% of its population scored proficient in the past, Botts claims that they are anywhere from 35% to 50% proficient in English and 15% to 75% proficient in math. Of course, these are projections. The real figures will not be available until the summer.
I can’t help but question these projections. I am curious what data has been used to make such bold predictions. But I am equally curious about the wide range in percents, particularly in math. Is anyone else questioning the enormous difference between a child scoring 15% and 75%? That’s a pretty padded bet, don’t you think?
Regardless of loosey goosey percentages and unexplained data, I wish this school well. I am all for good news from any source regarding public schools. And the turnaround of Orchard Gardens would be a tremendous thing for the students, the teachers, the parents, and the entire Boston community.