A Tale of Two Boston Schools: Orchard Gardens and Higginson/Lewis

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

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.