The Struggles at Two Boston High Schools: Will Axing Teachers Fix the Problems?

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Boston school officials got an earful Wednesday night from critics of a coming reorganization of two city high schools that could see most of their teachers gone next year.

Brighton High School and Excel High School in South Boston are on opposite sides of the city, but they share a substandard designation from the state. Both were deemed so-called Level 4 schools this past fall, meaning state education officials think they need drastic intervention.

About two weeks ago Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang notified teachers at the two schools that if they want to stay there they must re-apply for their jobs. He has that discretionary authority when the state puts a school in the Level 4 category, which calls for a shakeup.

It isn’t sitting well with teachers and students.

Dan Ordorica, a former teacher at Excel who is now a first-year student at Boston University Law School, lambasted what he called “this absolutely terrible decision.”

“It’s all based on the old lie that if there’s a problem at a school it must be the teachers’ fault,” Ordorica said.

Thi Ho, a Vietnamese junior, said when he arrived at the school he had few skills.

“When I first came here I didn’t know anything,” he said in a heavy Vietnamese accent, with four other Vietnamese students standing behind him. “… “The teacher[s] taught us how to act, how to speak.”

“We don’t want to have new teacher,” he said. “… We want to have our current teacher. We love them and we need them.”

In all, nine teachers and nine students appeared before the Boston School Committee at Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Roxbury to decry the decision, most from Excel. No parents of students at either school spoke.

Some speakers framed the situation as the teachers getting fired, but that’s not the case. Chang said in an interview after the meeting that all teachers who have so-called professional status, which they get after three years experience, are guaranteed a job in the Boston school system. But if they want to come back to Brighton High or Excel they must re-apply. Jobs are posted March 1.

Chang didn’t have to take that step. But he noted that there are two state-mandated models for so-called “turnaround” programs for Level 4 schools. In both the principal has to be replaced. But the more extensive program calls for at least half the teachers to go, too.

Level 4 status offers schools a chance to apply to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for federal grant money to implement a turnaround program. The grants are competitive and not guaranteed.

Chang stressed that he hasn’t decided which method to use. To maintain flexibility, he said, he had to notify teachers early that they might not be coming back to their school in order to comply with the collective bargaining agreement between teachers and the school system.

“We do not know what model we are going to be using for these schools. So there could be zero percent of the teachers returning, there could be 100 percent,” Chang said during the meeting.

Notifying the teachers gives them a chance to decide if they want to be part of the turnaround, which entails serious change.

“It won’t be business-as-usual at Brighton next year,” said Liza Vito, director of the Office of Turnaround & Transformation for the Boston public schools, who explained that school officials will soon come up with an extensive plan to turn things around that teachers can examine. “They also need to be very committed to implementing the plan …”

Some School Committee members, seeing some improvement in test scores at the schools, expressed sympathy with the teachers.

“I can see why the teachers are confused,” said committee member Miren Uriarte.

But Chang pointed to the low rankings of the two schools compared to the other schools in the state as cause for concern.

To be named Level 4 by the state, a school must be in the lowest 20 percent of schools in the same grade span statewide. In addition, test scores must also show flagging performance in English language arts, math, and science, as well as unsatisfactory rates of on-time graduation and dropouts. State education officials look not just at snapshot data points but also at trends.

At Brighton High School, about 64 percent of 10th graders scored at proficient or advanced in English language arts in the 2016 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test (known as MCAS) in 2016. Only 39 percent in math and only 24 percent in science scored proficient or advanced.

Meanwhile, the school has dropped from the 12th percentile in the 2012-2013 school year to the 2nd percentile in 2015-2016, meaning almost all the schools in the state are ranked higher.

Test scores were better at Excel High School, where 71 percent of 10th graders scored proficient or advanced in English language arts in 2016, 56 percent in math, and 38 percent in science. But Excel has dropped from the 7th percentile in 2012-2013 to the 3rd percentile in 2015-2016, putting it near the bottom in the state.

Marcus Walker, a history teacher in his 13th year at Excel, said what happened to the school was predictable — and in fact, he predicted it.

In 2007 Excel was deemed a high-performing Level 1 school, he said. In 2010 it merged with Monument High School over the objections of both schools. In came high numbers of students for whom English is not their first language, who have learning disabilities, and who suffer from emotional trauma. But instead of getting more money, the newly configured Excel got less.

He said he appeared before the School Committee in December 2010 to warn members about what merging with Monument would mean.

“We’re been asked to do a lot more with less resources and leadership that was not trusted,” Walker said.

Some educators said many students who never performed satisfactorily on the MCAS in middle school have gotten socially promoted to high school, where they continue to underperform.

“Obviously we’re coming up short on test scores,” Walker said. “… When are we going to be honest about the system’s shortcomings and stop blaming teachers?””

Students at Excel have organized three walkouts to protest Chang’s decision.

One of them, Michael Jones, praised his teachers. He called for getting rid of high-stakes testing, which he said leads to schools getting shut down “and also forces teachers to teach to the test which means they’re teaching a fraction of a subject.”

“I wouldn’t call it a failing school,” he said of Excel.

Gina Nota, a science teacher at Excel, said the test scores don’t show the whole picture.

“We are not a failing school, but a school misrepresented by selective data,” she said.

Rajeeve Martyn, a history teacher at Excel, said shaking up the staff would “destroy a highly functional collaborative team,” and he called for school administrators to abandon top-down decision making and instead show they are “committed to democratic practices.”

Trinity Kelly, 17, a junior, said Excel has offered her “not only a great education but a family.”

Now she’s facing the prospect of coming back to the school for her senior year not knowing any of the teachers. “This is really scary to me,” she said.

She questioned why Excel didn’t get more attention and more money when it was ranked a Level 3 school, which is a warning level for schools ranked in the bottom fifth of the state.

School Committee chairman Michael O’Neill later in the meeting picked up on that point. He asked school administrators to make a presentation about schools performing in the lower half of Level 3.

“Are there any warning signs there that we need to be ahead of?” O’Neill said.

School Committee member Jeri Robinson said Excel and Brighton High should have gotten the level of funding and staffing as Level 3 schools that they are likely to get now that they’re classified as Level 4.

“Ms. Robinson, I think you are pointing out one of the key shortfalls of the turnaround model,” O’Neill said.

Chang said he expects to name new headmasters at each school for the 2017-2018 school year sometime during the next couple of weeks. School administrators are also working on the turnaround plan, which they hope to announce soon.

Turnaround plans are for three years, but Chang said fixing such schools often takes longer than that.