English High staff votes to be pilot

February 2, 2007
By

LOU MANCINELLI

Faculty at English High School avoided being labeled “chronically underperforming” and a potential state takeover by voting Jan. 8 to become a Commonwealth Pilot School beginning in September, 2007, according to a spokesperson for Boston Public Schools (BPS).

But some teachers at the school are still concerned about the quality of education, their students’ future and “the chaotic manner in which the school is run,” according to an unsigned open letter obtained by the Gazette, claimed to be sent by a number of English High teachers to BPS Superintendent Michael Contompasis. [See related story.]

Eighty-one percent of the staff approved a 4.5-page proposal drafted by the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE), designed to transform English High into a successful college preparatory high school through several key reforms, including rigorous core academics like mathematics leading to pre-calculus, and three years of science including biology, physics and chemistry, as well as foreign language and history.

“I applaud the teachers and staff of English High School for taking a proactive step to lead the transformation of this historic [the nation’s first public] school,” said BPS Superintendent Michael Contompasis in a press release. “These educators have acknowledged that business-as-usual will not provide English High School students the full opportunity to succeed in college and career.”

But according to their letter, a group of teachers wonders whether the situation at English High was in truth a calculated policy on the part of the BPS administration to school the school to fail so that it could be targeted for pilot status.

Boston public teachers via the Boston Teacher’s Union (BTU) have been in ongoing contracts with BPS. Tensions in that dispute led to a citywide teacher’s picket-rally before school Jan. 19.

That aside, the vote makes English High one of the first schools in Massachusetts to become a Commonwealth Pilot School, a new type of school created by the DOE to turn around schools that continue to produce insufficient improvement in student achievement. All current English High students will be able to remain enrolled at the school.

According to a spokesperson for the DOE, Commonwealth Pilot Schools are like city pilot schools, but with more state oversight due to the school’s continued low-performance.

“This is a new approach. We will watch closely to see if it works,” said Heidi Guarino, spokesperson for the DOE. “We think in many ways that giving a school the opportunity to reinvent itself could be successful.”

In 2006, 26 percent of English High 10th grade students scored a “proficient” test score in language arts, compared to 53 percent statewide. In mathematics, 40 percent of 10th graders at English high turned in a score in the “warning/failure” level, compared to 12 percent statewide.

In 2002, 12 percent of 10th graders at English High turned in a language arts score in the “proficient” level, compared to 40 percent statewide. In the math section, 71 percent of 10th graders scored a result in the “warning/failing” section, compared to 25 percent statewide.

According to a copy obtained by the Gazette of the DOE proposal voted on by English High staff, critical elements of the pilot school include a faculty-developed governing structure; a learning center for students with disabilities; increased focus on up-to-date technology; student college and career advisory service and focus; an extended ESL program; and a longer school day.

A critical element of the proposal also calls for a reduction in total enrollment from 1,200 to about 800 students beginning in 2007-08. This would be done by assigning fewer new 9th grade students (150-185 compared to 409 in September, 2006) in the fall. In the past, over-crowding has been attributed to poor conditions at the school.

According to the proposal, the school will be run by a headmaster and divided into
two Small Learning Communities (SLC) composed of 400 students each—one on the fourth floor, and the other on the fifth.

Each SLC will be led by an assistant headmaster and two program directors (ELA/History; Math/Science). The assistant headmaster supports, supervises and evaluates anyone in their SLCs teaching subjects other than ELA, math, science or history, as well as their guidance counselor, social worker, students and community field coordinator.

School will be in session each day from 7:30 a.m. to 3:08 p.m., and will operate on a 70-minute, six-period schedule. In addition, twice a week, the school will run a seven-period 60-minute schedule, which includes a 60-minute advisory period.

According to Guarino, more information has yet to be determined. The means of separating students into the SLCs are also still unknown. “The definitions are not spelled out,” she said. “The schools are coming up with their plans.”