A Tale of Two Schools

In a struggling neighborhood filled with kids from struggling families, two of the city’s worst-performing schools are on diverging paths. Orchard Gardens, the turnaround success, gets all the press. The Higginson/Lewis gets whatever’s left over.

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“In some cities you get a whole year to plan a new school,” says the Higginson/Lewis school’s principal, Joy Salesman-Oliver. “Here? Six weeks over the summer.” / Photographs by Trent Bell

There used to be $30,000 worth of musical instruments stored next to the auditorium of the Higginson/Lewis K–8 School in Roxbury. The stash included saxophones, trumpets, flutes, trombones, and clarinets—a closet-load of promise. They showed up in 2009, the same year the school was stitched together from the old Henry L. Higginson Elementary School, which now sits empty just up the street, and the George A. Lewis Middle School, a worn, 102-year-old building that the combined school came to occupy. The instruments were bought with a grant from the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, and they came with a pledge from the school district to hire a music teacher. This was fitting, given that one of the school’s namesakes, Henry Lee ­Higginson, was the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

But that was four years ago. The Higginson/Lewis, a struggling school in a struggling neighborhood filled with kids from struggling families, never got its music teacher. And then most of the instruments disappeared. “At first I was worried they’d grown legs and walked out the door, stolen,” said one teacher. In fact, they’d been lent to another school for its band. Just a few trombones and clarinets remained, the brass fittings on their cases untouched and still as shiny as on the day they arrived.

Like many inner-city schools, the Higginson/Lewis has struggled even when good things happen to it. And good things don’t come along so often. The faded red-brick exterior is imposing and aloof. Inside, there are efforts at cheeriness: doors and trim painted a jaunty blue that has taken on a murky denim tinge, walls highlighted with inspirational quotes (“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. –Arthur Ashe”) painted a few years ago by volunteers from Bain Capital. But slogans can’t hide the sunless hallways, or the clocks that all run an hour fast because fixing them would require a visit by an electrician from central offices who has never shown up. The windows don’t open, and there’s no air conditioning—on a hot day it can get to more than 100 degrees in the classrooms along the southeast side. Just blocks away, dealers sell drugs on Warren Street and prostitutes ply their trade along Blue Hill Avenue. When a shootout erupted last spring at the nearby Walgreens, the kids playing in the schoolyard heard the shots—before they were hustled inside and the school went into lockdown.

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. “Our fate,” said one of the elementary school teachers in May, “is at least a weekly conversation here.”

And for good reason. In recent years, dramatic things have befallen the stragglers among Boston’s public schools. They’ve been shut down, “merged” into nonexistence, or converted into charters. A lucky few have been transformed into “turnaround” schools—a designation under state law in which the students stay the same but half or more of the staff is replaced. Over the past couple of years, a turnaround called Orchard Gardens, located just a mile from the Higginson/Lewis, has received more positive publicity than any other public school in Boston: a story on the NBC Nightly News, a loving shout-out from Governor Deval Patrick at the Democratic National Convention, a well-covered visit to the White House by one of its first-grade classes. 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.”

But the Higginson/Lewis fell into a different category: It wasn’t quite bad enough to be designated a turnaround. And so it continued to lag. That bitter irony has been compounded by anxiety over a new school-assignment system, which is set to take effect next year. For the first time, school quality—as measured by MCAS performance—will explicitly figure in the choices ­presented to Boston parents. Meanwhile, both the mayor’s race and a School Quality Working Group recently created by Mayor Menino are focusing citywide attention on fixing the schools. The pressure on places like the Higginson/Lewis has become overpowering.

This makes sense from the perspective of the Boston School Committee, the administrators who work at Boston Public Schools’ headquarters on Court Street, and the politicians who see the city’s future in its schools. They want schools that are dragging down overall performance to get better or, if they can’t, just to go away.

But inside the Higginson/Lewis, there’s worry about what will happen a year from now, when parents are given clear choices between schools that are succeeding and schools that are not. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing: advertising my bad-neighborhood, not-very-high-quality school as what?” says Joy Salesman-Oliver, the principal. There’s palpable resentment toward BPS’s central offices—“We absolutely feel abandoned,” says one teacher—for not doing more to help the school lift its performance. And there’s more than a little envy of Orchard Gardens, the other hardscrabble Roxbury K–8 school, which has seen levels of funding, flexibility, and attention that the teachers and administrators at the Higginson/Lewis can barely imagine.

Yet there is also, among some of the Higginson/Lewis school’s staffers, a frustrated belief that they should be doing more with what they do have. “There’s a culture in this building of blame,” says one. “People say, ‘Well, I couldn’t possibly teach this child because, you see, I don’t have the pencils.’ ‘I couldn’t possibly teach this child because, you see, he doesn’t come to school on time.’ But at the end of the day, our job description says, ‘You have to teach that child.’”

In this kind of struggle—the one between being a school to which things happen and becoming a school that makes things happen—the Higginson/Lewis is far from the lost cause that outsiders assume it to be. It’s in a much more difficult position than that: perched uncomfortably on the knife edge. It could go either way. Whether it tips in the direction everyone wants it to will say a lot about Boston’s ability to rebuild its least-favored public schools.

  • Hardin Coleman

    It is true that our schools with kids from poverty do not have the resources to serve them well. It is clear, however, that with focused teachers and supportive leadership, schools can succeed. Remember that not all schools with turnaround money make strides and many schools without turnaround dollars are very successful.