English High approved as pilot

April 13, 2007
By

LOU MANCINELLI

The Massachusetts Board of Education (BOE) unanimously approved English High School’s proposal to become a new Commonwealth Pilot School beginning next school year at the board’s meeting last month. The new model is in response to low student test scores.

The change will alter the policy of the nation’s oldest public high school, located at McBride and Washington streets, to somewhat mirror the city’s current pilot school models, which provide schools with the freedom of increased self-governance with fewer city and state restrictions.

Major changes include the creation of a new 16-member voting governing body with the authority to approve the budget; all major student policies; school vision and philosophy; future planning and fund-raising. It will set the school’s new program in motion. The superintendent has the final say over firing and hiring the headmaster.

“We are very excited the BOE has accepted our proposal,” said English High Headmaster José Duarte. “There is a lot of hope for the future.”

“The state has said congratulations, and now it’s time to move on,” said Sandra McIntosh, family outreach coordinator at English High.

“This is the first time we are doing this,” said BOE Spokesperson Heidi Guarino. “It’s an experiment in many ways. We have to see how the school does. We’re giving them an opportunity to reinvent themselves. We really want to give them a chance to become the kind of school they think the community needs.”

According to McIntosh, five sub-committees—each with its own focus—composed of staff members who expressed interest in providing input, have been formed to discuss the details of implementing the new school structure. Information from those committees will be presented periodically to the design team that drafted the school’s initial proposal for the state as the final package is engineered.

Guarino said the state will pay close attention to what the school does in the upcoming months as the transition evolves to ensure the change produces positive results.

According to Duarte, the fact that the school has greater accountability and support than ever will help produce immediate results. He said the school will work to create the right kind of professional development, resources, support and supervision.

The five sub-committees are: intervention programs; special education/English language learning; school climate; advisory; and senior institute.

McIntosh said now that programs like “college advisory” have been created, the sub-committees must hammer out specifics like how the course will be taught.

“We are at the point now, where we have the foundation of our house built,” said McIntosh. “Now we have to put things up inside.”

McIntosh said she hosted two focus groups March 21, one for Spanish-speaking parents and another for all parents. She said the parents support the new structure, and like the fact their kids will be in school longer. She said because only a few parents were present she hopes to host more groups, as well as get student input.

“The only thing parents say that is different is, ‘What about uniforms?’” said McIntosh. “The kids say ‘Absolutely not.’ We [the administration] have enough problems with cell phones and hats and doo-rags. Why would we want to add another one?”

The new structure will reduce the size of the school by 400 students and reorganize it into two Small Learning Communities (SLC), each run by its own assistant headmaster. The top administrative official at the school will be the headmaster.

Preparing students for college by implementing new advisory programs and services and creating new positions to accommodate those programs is at the core of the implementation. No current students at the school will be forced to leave, said BPS spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo. However, students may choose to do so if they wish. Teachers who wish to remain at English High next school year must submit a letter of interest.

In January, 81 percent of teachers at English High voted to become a Commonwealth Pilot School at the start of the fall, 2007 school year, to avoid being labeled “chronically underperforming,” due to poor or no improvement in MCAS test scores in consecutive years. That would have meant a state takeover of the school.

English High’s initial proposal to the state was drafted by a design team composed of a group of school administrators, staff, parents and outside interests, including Boston University staff, which, according to Duarte, also included input from student meetings

According to the proposal, the new organization is “supported by a core of teachers and staff who know each student well…as a learner, as an individual, and as an important member of the community.”

Students at English High last week protested the proposal. [See related story.] Duarte said that now the students know the change is really happening, they are organizing and talking about what they want.

“They want to give an opinion, so you listen,” said Duarte.

The 16-member board consists of the headmaster; six faculty representatives (at least two from each SLC); three parent representatives (at least one from each SLC); three community representatives; two students (one from each SLC); and an alumni representative. It will be co-chaired by the headmaster and a co-chair elected by the members of the board.

“We are pleased the faculty voted to pursue this route,” said Palumbo. “We are pleased that the board accepted the proposal. We look forward to supporting [English High] during the transition, as they adopt the policies in the plan.”

“You will begin to see results immediately,” said Duarte. “The challenge is sustaining the results. Once you have results, they have to be maintained.”

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