The Best Schools 2005: Smart Answers

Challenge: Boys and girls learn differently. Solution: Divide them up and play to the specific needs of each gender. Case Study: Sacred Heart School, Roslindale

Starting this month, Sacred Heart, a Catholic school in Roslindale, will split up its sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students by gender, letting them mingle only during lunch and extracurricular activities. “Some of the kids said, 'What are you trying to do, kill me?'” says Sister Gail Ripley, the school's principal. But she felt she had no choice. “Girls like to be entertained. So what do the boys do? They entertain them.” Stifling these classroom disruptions may be just one benefit of the school's rather Victorian tactic. The notion of separating boys and girls is supported by research suggesting that the sexes are wired differently and learn best in different ways.

Leonard Sax, head of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education and author of Why Gender Matters, notes that in single-sex classrooms, everything from the teaching styles to the thermostats can be adjusted to fit the distinct needs of boys and girls. According to Sax, a physician and psychologist, boys flourish when they're allowed to stand, the room is kept at 69 degrees—six degrees cooler than the ideal temperature for girls—and the overhead lights are slightly dimmed. They also respond better to tutoring done shoulder to shoulder rather than face to face, and to teachers who speak up. But the main benefit of single-sex education, he says, is that it breaks down gender stereotypes. “At coed schools,” he says, “a boy can be a poet or a jock, but you can't be both. Boys in boys' schools are more likely to pursue drama and art. And girls excel at physics and computer science at single-sex schools.”

Sacred Heart's Sister Ripley put a more pragmatic spin on things when selling the approach to her students: “I told the kids, 'Now, while you're in school, why not do the work? Then you'll have less to do at home.'”

Challenge: Unless teachers intervene immediately, students who are struggling will continue to fall behind. solution: Quiz students regularly in every subject to monitor their progress and provide quick remedies. Case Study: The Media and Technology Charter High School, Brighton

Some progressive educators might balk at inundating students with even more tests in an already test-crazed age. Not Michael Goldstein, CEO and founder of the Media and Technology Charter High School in Brighton. “We think tests are good, ” Goldstein says. “They help you measure what kids know.” First thing every Friday morning, his students take quizzes in all their classes. Tutors grade the short exams while the kids are at assembly: Each failing mark earns tutoring later that day, while kids who pass all the tests get to read for an hour and go home early. More than a motivational tool for students, these regular assessments also help teachers fine-tune lessons for the coming week.

The simple system had its genesis in an unlikely place. “We looked at cops in Comstat,” Goldstein explains, referring to the software used to identify and stamp out crime hot spots. “If you measure results in a much more rapid way, you have a quicker feedback loop. We measure student performance more frequently and use the data to inform how we do our jobs.”

Challenge: Traditional school-day hours and a long summer break rob kids of valuable learning time. solution: Expand the school calendar to improve performance—and reflect the reality of the modern world. Case Study: KIPP Academy, Lynn; Codman Academy, Dorchester

Today's 8-to-2 school day and nine-month school year are relics of our agrarian past, when students had to hotfoot it home after classes and take summers off to help tend the family farm. Nowadays, you don't see a lot of Boston-area kids driving plows or harvesting wheat—but you do see many struggling to meet the expectations of a high-stakes testing era without the benefit of added hours at their desks. Which is why the state legislature has passed a measure that gives districts grant money to study ways to overhaul the educational calendar by increasing students' classroom time by as much as 30 percent a year.

Several local schools have already expanded their schedules voluntarily, and with good results. KIPP Academy in Lynn, part of a national network of successful charter schools, is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, two Saturdays a month, and three weeks during the summer—or 70 percent longer each year than at the typical public school. In the school's first year of operation, standardized-test scores in math and reading shot up by roughly 25 points. “Our kids get an average of six and a half to seven years of school instead of the usual four,” says KIPP principal Josh Zoia. “If you're using that time wisely, it's not rocket science to figure out you're going to get a great result.”

Rethinking the school day doesn't have to mean making it longer. Taking into account the physiological needs of adolescents, Dorchester's Codman Academy starts classes at 9 a.m. and ends them at 5 p.m. “Teenagers sleep more, and they need their sleep,” says Codman chief Meg Campbell. “Sleep deprivation causes depression, overeating, and behavior problems.” This is an easy reform, Campbell adds. “Boston public schools could do it tomorrow.”

Challenge: In schools with thousands of students, it can be easy for some kids to wind up lost in the shuffle. solution: Make schools smaller. Case Study: TechBoston Academy, Dorchester

When the massive Dorchester High was broken into parts two years ago, TechBoston was one of the three small-scale learning communities that resulted from the reorganization. Like all the micro-schools that have sprouted in and around the city in the past decade—each of which shoots for fewer than 400 students—it has benefited from its small size. Students and teachers at TechBoston work together to create programs of study tailor-made for each student's strengths and interests. That kind of flexibility has led other supersized schools to follow suit: This month, Hyde Park and West Roxbury high schools each will splinter into smaller, independent pieces.

Proponents say microschools not only give faculty and staff more autonomy (read: job satisfaction), they also cultivate the one-on-one relationships that encourage genuine learning. That certainly seems to be working here. “What we've seen on the whole is that small schools have increased attendance and lower transfer rates, decreased suspensions, an increase in graduation and college-going rates, and an increase in MCAS scores,” says Dan French, executive director of Boston's Center for Collaborative Education. It's not just educational analysts who are excited by the promise of smaller schools. So is Bill Gates, who has pledged nearly $1 billion from his very large pockets to develop them across the country.

Challenge: To succeed, schools need parents working with them, not against them. solution: Build in accountability and encourage continual feedback to
make parents feel more involved in their children's education. Case Study: Boston Collegiate Charter School, Dorchester; Chapel Hill–Chauncy Hall School, Waltham

Brett Peiser, head of Boston Collegiate Charter School, has heard the excuse more times than he cares to remember. “So many parents with busy schedules say to their kids, 'Did you do your homework?' and the kid says, 'Yes,'” when in fact the assignment went uncompleted, he says. “I can't tell you how many parents say, 'But he told me he did it!'” To unscramble those lines of communication, Peiser came up with a solution as elegant as a geometry theorem.

“We collect all homework at 8 o' clock every morning. That way, students aren't doing their third-period homework during second period,” he says. The assignments are sorted into colored folders and delivered to the appropriate teachers. Every parent whose child didn't turn in the required material gets a phone call. “Parents love it,” Peiser says. “They find out immediately.”

In May, Waltham's Chapel Hill–Chauncy Hall School rolled out a similar notification system, with a digital twist: When students are late to class, their parents are instantly sent an e-mail. The hope is to promote student accountability while building strong relationships between faculty and parents. Once that pattern of trust and collaboration is in place, it's easier to call on parents should the heavy artillery be needed. Says renowned educational reformer Ted Sizer: “Give me a kid whose parent is on my team and I'll give you a kid who learns.”

Challenge: A lot of digital-era kids don't like to read. solution: Play on the teenage need for drama by having students act out their assigned texts. Case Study: Codman Academy, Dorchester

Every teacher, like every parent of an adolescent, knows that almost every teenager harbors an inner drama queen. Codman Academy has figured out how to turn that urge to emote into a powerful learning technique. Throughout the year, the charter school's ninth and tenth graders work with the Huntington Theatre Company to stage the plays they read in English class. Acting out the literature makes reading more fun—and more effective.

Ellen Winner, a Boston College psychology professor, has analyzed more than 100 studies on the effect performing texts can have on verbal comprehension, and found a significant correlation. This may be because kids don't just get free time in the spotlight with their histrionics: They have to wrestle with the text on the page before they can perform it. “You don't read Shakespeare once,” says Codman head Meg Campbell. “You ponder it, and the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.” Should her students find themselves needing more motivation, they can just imagine stepping before a packed audience of parents, teachers, and peers—without having done their homework.

Challenge: Kids struggling with their math may need new ways to make connections. Solution: Teach them how to read music. Case Study: Conservatory Lab Charter School, Brighton; Peabody Elementary School, Cambridge

At a time when many elementary schools have gutted music programs, the Conservatory Lab Charter School has set out to prove that violins, of all things, can help students learn their multiplication tables. Along with instruction in how to read sheet music, the school gives every child his or her own instrument and lessons on how to play it. School head Jonathan Rappaport says this perk may be boosting the kids' performance in other subjects: Their MCAS scores, especially in math, are much higher than those of students in schools that don't cover fractions hand in hand with learning how to break a tune into its individual notes.

Similar gains have been seen at Peabody Elementary School in Cambridge, where students are taught via something called the Kodaly method of musical training. Named for a Hungarian composer, the approach goes beyond the standard music-appreciation class to teach kids how to sing and understand a song's basic elements—mental skills some scientists say are related to the kind of thinking needed to master math and poetry. “The brain has choices of how to go about addressing a particular problem,” says Martin Gardiner, a visiting research associate at Brown University who is studying the positive effects of Peabody's music program on students' test scores. “You have to throw off the old methods of approach, and adapt through a different way—as if you're seeing the same information through new eyes.” Or hearing it through new ears.

Challenge: Teachers waste valuable time each new school year getting up
and running. Solution: Keep the same teachers with the same kids for two years in a row. Case Study: Attleboro schools, grades one through eight

There's an age-old saying among teachers: “Don't smile until December.” That way, the kids won't try to clobber you before they've gotten in a little learning. In many Attleboro elementary and middle schools, there's often no such need to play bad cop. That's because many of the district's teachers are “looped” with students, spending two consecutive years with the same class. When the kids arrive for the second go-round, expectations—and, with luck, camaraderie—have already been established.

Researchers estimate that plunging right into the curriculum saves an average of four to six weeks that would otherwise be spent getting to know kids and setting ground rules. After Attleboro started looping in 1991, attendance among both students and teachers increased, test scores went up, and the number of kids held back declined. While some teachers have recently left the program—largely because of high-stakes testing, which burdens them with having to master test preparation for two different grade levels—those who are sticking with the system swear by it. The kids, who also have the choice of remaining with the same teacher or moving on to another, are voting with their feet: The majority are staying in the loop.

Challenge: For disadvantaged students, college can feel completely out of reach. solution: Give them a taste of higher ed in high school. Case Study: University Park Campus School, Worcester

While students at most high schools are still comparing SAT scores, kids at Worcester's University Park are racking up college credits—an achievement all the more surprising considering that 78 percent are children of parents who don't speak English as their native language. Through a unique relationship between the school and Clark University, juniors and seniors can take one undergraduate course per semester at Clark along with their regular classes, an opportunity that reflects University Park's mantra of high expectations for all students. “We build a culture of no excuse-making,” says principal June Eressy. “We start talking about college right away.”

While sending disadvantaged kids into the maw of a major university may seem risky, Eressy insists the move is actually pragmatic. “To me, taking a college course is more advantageous than taking an AP course, because an AP course prepares you for a test, while a college course prepares you for college. A lot of kids have a hard time when they get to college. This gives them a leg up.”

Exposing high schoolers to the rigors of the post-secondary world is an idea also promoted by Boston-based advocacy group Jobs for the Future, which is leading a national initiative that would require a hefty college-course load for students at schools in its network. “We want to make a significant impact on students' college careers,” says Carmon Cunningham, Jobs for the Future's vice president. “A student could have two years already paid for when he gets to college, which for a low-income family could make a world of difference.” One University Park alumnus knows all about those benefits. Now at Georgetown, he's eligible to graduate early thanks to the credits he got at Clark. Not only will he save on tuition; he's got an ample head start on his dream of going to law school.

Challenge: There's little solid data about which teaching methods really work. solution: Invite outside researchers to do randomized studies of educational strategies. Case Study: No one—yet

In the world of medical research, randomized trials—in which one group of subjects is given a test treatment and a second group is not—are standard practice; a new medicine would rarely make it to your local CVS without first passing rigorous trials. But this most basic form of scientific review has long been a tactic non grata in pedagogical circles, in part because many in the field question the ethics of providing potentially superior teaching methods to some children while denying them to others.

“There's very little hard evidence,” says Josh Angrist, an MIT economist who studies education. “The whole scene is crowded with people with something to sell.” Most educational research, Angrist says, has fallen into the “qualitative” category, in which a given idea—a new reading program, say—is tried in a single classroom and evaluated at the end of the test period. The problem is that this doesn't reveal anything conclusive about cause and effect: Maybe the teacher who volunteered to participate is more enthusiastic than the one across the hall who declined, and her students succeeded because of her infectious gung-ho attitude. Scientifically testing new teaching techniques makes it easy to control for such outside influences. And that's just what the U.S. Department of Education has started to demand of research it funds—which means that all the innovations in the area's best and brightest schools may be about to go under one very large microscope.