English High is one step closer to becoming a pilot school

March 16, 2007
By

LOU MANCINELLI


Gazette Photo by John Swan
Senior Alex Brewer catches some air during a dance routine in the jazz review Café Anglais at English High School March 4. [See related story.]

The Massachusetts Department of Education has accepted English High School’s initial framework proposal for becoming a Commonwealth Pilot School beginning in September.

Teachers at the school voted for the change in January to keep the nation’s oldest public high school from being labeled “chronically underperforming” due to poor MCAS test scores in consecutive years.

A group of school administrators, staff, parents and outside interests, including Boston University staff, drafted the proposal that would make the school’s primary educational focus preparing students for success in a four-year college.

This Tuesday, a second, more specific proposal, which began to focus on curriculum items such as electives was filed with the state. A teachers work agreement, which will take the place of the teacher’s contract with the Boston Teacher’s Union, was also submitted.

A final proposal is due April 13. According to Headmaster José Duarte, that proposal will include input from student focus group meetings, the first of which was scheduled to take place early this week.

“I’m very excited about what’s happening,” said Duarte. “A lot of what’s happening is what we wanted to happen for a long time.”

“All the parents I’ve spoken to feel positive about this. They are looking forward to the changes,” said Sandra McIntosh, the school’s family outreach coordinator. “Parents are concerned with structuring time for the kids to get fresh air. They are concerned about classes not getting crowded.”

Duarte said the five autonomies granted in the Commonwealth Pilot School structure are critical to gearing the school’s program to success. They allow for more direct accountability from the school administration with regard to scheduling, staffing, budget, curriculum and governance.

Under the new proposal, the number of students in the school would be reduced from over 1,200 to around 800 students. A combination of efforts would facilitate this reduction, including 200 graduating seniors and the fact that no additional students have been assigned to the school since last December. Students currently enrolled at English will have the choice to leave at the end of this year as well.

The proposal’s framework would divide the school into two smaller learning communities (SLC) composed of 400 students, each led by its own director, who would report to the headmaster. A social worker and community field coordinator would also work within each SLC.

In addition, the school day would be extended from the current 7:25 a.m. to 1:51 p.m., to 7:30 a.m. to 3:08 p.m.. Instead of the current four, 83-minute period schedule, the proposal suggests six 70-minute periods a day.

“The only complaint students have is the day will be longer,” said McIntosh.

“Collectively, the kids are not happy about being in school longer,” said Duarte. “But when I talk to them individually, most don’t care.”

Once a week, students would receive advisory and career development classes known as AVID. This is a specific program designed to prepare students for a 4-year college experience.

“The vision focused toward preparing the students for a four-year college,” said McIntosh. “If they decide to go to year two-year college, then they’re prepared. If they get a job, or decide to go to trade or vocational school, or into the military, they will still be prepared.”

It is not clear yet whether or not seniority will play a role in staffing. Under the proposal, the headmaster will co-chair the governing body of the school with a member elected by the school’s governing board, and would have the final say on all staffing issues.

The school’s governing board would include the headmaster and his/her co-chair; faculty members; parents; community and alumni representatives; and students. The superintendent has the final say over hiring and firing a headmaster.

Duarte said he thinks the new level of accountability afforded to the administration will be critical to the school’s potential revitalization.

“We’re not only free to do what we believe is right for the students,” Duarte said, “but also, we are being held accountable. It’s great to have freedom, but you have to be able to hold people accountable in order to have success.”