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.

By | Boston Magazine |
teachers

“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.

Higginston Lewis

Clockwise from top left, Higginson/Lewis assistant principal David Brown; Lena Reddick, the director of community and partnership; the school itself; and teacher Jason Wise. / Photographs by Trent Bell

THE HIGGINSON/LEWIS’S STRUGGLES began with a merger. The Lewis was once an unofficial feeder school for the Boston Arts Academy, but wrinkles in the system had assigned it a disproportionate share of children with behavior problems, or kids whose parents didn’t know how to be involved. “The Lewis school was the dumping ground for kids in the city,” says Reverend David Wright, who is the executive director of the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston and has a daughter at the Higginson/Lewis. “If you had a parent who didn’t choose a school, you ended up here. If you were a new immigrant to the city and they had no place to put you, they put you here. If you didn’t choose anywhere to go or if you were cruising to no man’s land, this was where you ended up.”

The Higginson Elementary School, just four blocks away, had been small, cozy, and well ordered, a place where every teacher not only knew every student, but also knew about them and their families. In 2009, its kids and staff also ended up at the Lewis.

“There was no plan,” says Salesman-Oliver, who’d been the Higginson’s principal and was asked to take over the newly merged school. “They didn’t hand me a book that said, ‘This is how you make a K–8 school.’ In some cities you get a whole year to plan a new school, to talk to parents, hire staff, whatever. Here? Six weeks over the summer.”

Salesman-Oliver, who grew up in Roxbury in a tight-knit Jamaican family, is a BPS veteran, which may explain her matter-of-fact cynicism about the system’s bureaucracy. The day she and her colleagues arrived at the Lewis was an eye-opener. “When we got here,” ­Salesman-Oliver says, “nothing was fixed. It was like time had stopped on the last day of school.” They found the school’s furniture and supplies jumbled up in the auditorium. Some classrooms were bare, while others were piled to the ceiling with books and furniture. The cafeteria had nothing—not a table or a chair—and remained empty, despite repeated calls to central offices, until the day school opened.

These were annoying but relatively straightforward issues, fixable with sweat and some very long days. Much harder was trying to impose on the joint school, with its volatile mix of big and little kids, and of teachers who barely knew each other, the same sense of order, discipline, and common purpose that had marked the Higginson. “Honestly,” says David Brown, the assistant principal at the Higginson/Lewis, “academics was far, far off our radar screen, because what we had was, we had a mess.”

Salesman-Oliver and her staff felt they had to pay almost single-minded attention to the myriad issues raised by a high-poverty student body. Of the 386 children enrolled last year, says Renee Craigwell, who works with students’ families, “there may be, tops, 30 to 35 kids who have both parents who understand and know what’s going on and who will advocate for them.”

Among administrators and staffers at the school, many of whom are African American and grew up in or around Roxbury, this has led to an intense focus on trying to provide what kids might lack at home, from discipline to healthcare—and a stern word to parents who aren’t paying close enough attention to their children’s needs. “Most of our parents are minority parents,” says Lena Reddick, who coordinates the school’s partnerships with social-service providers and others. “They choose schools differently than I think I would say our white counterparts do. They’re not always focused on the popularity of the school or the scores. I think they’re looking for a place where our children are going to be nurtured.” Yet as hard as the Higginson/Lewis has tried to stem the tides of social dysfunction by caring for kids and supporting their families, even after four years it has floundered at improving the one thing it is most responsible for: academic performance.

As spring gave way to summer this year, the Higginson/Lewis still hadn’t seen the kinds of jumps in performance everyone was hoping for, and a quiet panic settled in. The uncertainty about the school’s fate was so disconcerting that some teachers, convinced it’d be shut down, contemplated jumping ship. “Do I look for a job this year,” one of them said, “rather than looking with all of my colleagues next year?” Even good news took on a glass-half-empty gloom. When plans took shape to renovate the school’s asphalt playground, the staff saw darker motives in the gift. “They’re spending a whole lot of money on us,” Salesman-Oliver mused one day while describing the playground changes in store. “Which makes us wonder: Are we the next in-district charter school?”

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.”

orchard gardens

At Orchard Gardens, principal Andrew Bott (left) and teacher Andrew Vega (right) are part of a team leading the city’s most dramatic academic turnaround. / Photograph by Trent Bell

A WEEK LATER, over at Orchard Gardens, Andrew Vega’s eighth-grade English class was trying to puzzle its way through the first chapter of Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam War novel, The Things They Carried. Sitting in a bright, airy classroom with a view of the Prudential Center, the students talked about how the soldiers deal with the reality that they could die at any moment. One boy raised his hand. “Why isn’t it, like, dialogue?” he asked, referring to the absence of quotation marks at this point in the book.

“It is dialogue,” Vega responded, “but it’s missing quotes.”

“Why?” a girl asked.

“This is a high-school-level question,” Vega responded. “Let’s pretend this was a reading assignment the night before. Now your teacher walks up to the front of the room. ‘Good morning, class. Let’s talk about chapter one. Antonio, why are there no quotes in the dialogue?’”

Vega’s class erupted in protest.

“Let me tell you a secret, okay?” Vega lowered his voice. “In English, it’s all made up.”

“That’s not true!” someone called.

Vega continued calmly: “If you come to class and have an idea and you can support it with something you’ve read, you can turn that into something. If you continue to look for ‘the right answer’ when you talk about books at the high school level, you’re never going to do well. You have to take risks.”

Orchard Gardens sits near a housing project of the same name, and before it became a turnaround school, it was among the worst-performing schools in the state, beset by high staff turnover, a revolving door of principals, an incoherent curriculum, and kids who were out of control. “It was chaotic,” says Sarah White Smith, the middle school guidance counselor, who started there before the turnaround.

It is anything but chaotic now. The student body hasn’t changed—the portion of students who come from families in poverty is 87 percent, compared with 88 percent at the Higginson/Lewis. But today, its MCAS scores are among the fastest-rising of any school in the district. 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.

The best-known aspect of Orchard Gardens’ refashioning was the controversial decision by its principal, Andrew Bott, to replace 80 percent of its staff when he took over the school in 2010, even though the state’s school-reform law required him to replace only 50 percent. It wasn’t so much that Bott, who is white, wanted to start with a clean slate. He wanted people around him who were convinced that, with creativity and determination, they could succeed. Early on, he says, he was talking with the staff about what it would take to transform the school with the same student population it had always had when a teacher spoke up. “You just don’t get it! You don’t understand these kids, and you don’t get this neighborhood,” she told him angrily. “It struck me,” Bott says, “that if that’s the mindset, then the students you’re teaching will never achieve. I needed to know that as a staff we would not come in with any judgments, any preconceived notions about our students and the ability to transform what had been in many ways utter dysfunction.”

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?”

“Kids realize when they’ve been counted out,” says Meghan Welch, the school’s director of operations. “They get when they’ve been marginalized. They get when, eh, no one really cares. But that doesn’t mean they’re not excited to seize opportunities when they come.”

IT’S EASY TO point to Orchard Gardens as an unassailable model of what is possible for inner-city educators to achieve. But there is resistance to this idea in various corners of the public school system, fed by an unspoken blend of resentment, envy, and political calculation. It is one of the cruelties of life in an urban public school system that, because the Higginson/Lewis had the misfortune not to be one of the worst schools in the city three years ago, it didn’t become a turnaround school. It never got three years of federal funding. Salesman-Oliver never got the right to choose her own teachers. It doesn’t have the flexibility to structure its school day as it would like, or to shape the curriculum, or to give teachers three to four hours of planning time a week.

The Higginson/Lewis can’t rely on the extraordinary resources and attention provided to the turnarounds in order to hoist itself to sustainability. Yet it’s not hard to see what will get it there: a core of energetic teachers and staffers, people like Jason Wise.

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.”

He did, and a few years ago he prevailed on the school to let him put on a production of The Wiz. “It wasn’t even a shoestring budget,” he says. “It was a that-little-plastic-thing-on-the-end-of-a-shoestring budget.” But he got together with a few other committed teachers. Kids started signing up, and then more kids. It was a raging success. Every year since then Wise has followed it up with a new production, for which he writes the script and music himself—Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax before it became a film, and last year a show based on Aesop’s Fables.

“That first year of The Wiz,” says David Wright, “the auditorium was maybe three-quarters empty. The second year it was three-quarters full. Now it’s packed.” These days, parents who’d never set foot in the school before, or had visited only because their kid was in trouble, are helping build sets or find props. “If we can keep this up,” Wright says, “this becomes one of those annual community institutions that everyone wants to go to.”

Painstakingly, the Higginson/Lewis has begun to cobble together a network that can help its students meet the challenges they face. Lena Reddick, a former Blue Cross Blue Shield administrator, is three years through a five-year federal grant overseeing the school’s efforts to build partnerships that augment its teaching. When City Councilor Tito Jackson offered to connect the school with a tae kwon do instructor, Reddick found the money and made the arrangements. She’s brought in eye care—and free glasses, which have helped the behavior and the grades of several students—along with dental care; built a relationship with Boston Ballet, which teaches dance to sixth-grade girls; coordinated with Roxbury Presbyterian Church (Reverend Liz Walker’s home base) to build a successful and expanding Saturday math-tutoring program; and contracted for before- and afterschool programming.

She’s also the school’s point person for Higher Ground, the Roxbury nonprofit established by the social entrepreneur Hubie Jones, who hooked the school up with the Whittier Street Health Center to help it deal with chronic problems like obesity and asthma, and got a crew of students from Boston Architectural College to draw up plans to improve the school’s look, accessibility, and use of classroom space. Jones intervened with former school superintendent Carol Johnson to get a corps of City Year volunteers into the Higginson/Lewis. In addition to tutoring and helping in classrooms, the corps members stood outside every morning, greeting kids as they came in the door.

All of these are hopeful developments, but they also serve to underline a pervasive feeling around the school that what it does have, it’s had to fight for. Last year, the school district created a new designation—“high support”—for 21 schools, including the Higginson/Lewis. As Salesman-Oliver puts it, rhetorically addressing the school bureaucracy downtown, “One of the reasons we’re a ‘high-support school’ is because you haven’t given us any support.”

Compared with the turnarounds, the help they’ve gotten has been limited. “There weren’t any additional resources [for the high-support schools],” says Kamalkant Chavda, the assistant superintendent for data and accountability. “It was raising the sense of alarm and urgency for these schools, so that the central office would provide as many supports to these schools as it could in a budget-neutral way.”

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.”

This is a hard issue for the Higginson/Lewis, because at heart it’s about how the adults in the building relate to one another. There is no culture of collaboration among teachers, and it’s worth noticing that the most constant encouragement the Higginson/Lewis’s kids get when it comes to higher education is in the gym, where phys-ed teacher Tony DaRocha has listed Boston-area colleges on the wall. When he talks to his classes, he makes sure to stand with the list over his shoulder.

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.”

At the Higginson/Lewis, David Brown, the assistant principal, has begun an effort to refashion school culture, leading a monthly professional-development session to build a common set of expectations. “Students rise to the expectation level we set,” he says. “So we have to set the standard that everyone can learn and everyone can achieve, including us as adults. We have to put that bar high.”

As the school year drew to a close at the end of June, spirits in the building rose. There were hints that the school might have seen a bump in its MCAS scores. And the district announced a plan to reopen the Higginson as an “inclusive” school that would blend mainstream and special-needs kids from preschool through the second grade—with the Lewis becoming an inclusive 3–8 school. Even when the move got temporarily hung up at the school committee, the teachers at the Higginson/Lewis immediately grasped its real meaning: They weren’t on the chopping block.

A few teachers in the building decided that if they couldn’t build a collaborative culture with colleagues in their own school, they’d make common cause with teachers at other schools. Math teacher Colin Rose launched an effort to build an online eighth-grade algebra class, so that the handful of kids at the Higginson/Lewis who qualified could join with students at nearby schools in Roxbury to learn something no single school had the resources to provide on its own. Jason Wise began collaborating with arts teachers from other Roxbury schools, like Boston Latin Academy and Trotter Elementary School, to explore ways to augment one another’s efforts. “We all have pieces of an arts program, but we want to see what we can do collectively,” Wise says. “It’s really tough to teach on an island. This cross-collaboration is how it starts: You can’t teach in a bubble, and kids can’t learn from bubble teachers.”

Something else happened as well. As the final days of school ticked away at the end of June, Salesman-Oliver put in a call to a counterpart across town. She’d cobbled together the funds, she believed, to hire a music teacher for one full day a week starting this year. The Higginson/Lewis’s musical instruments were ­returned a few days after school let out.

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