Autonomy breeds innovation at struggling high school

December 5, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

Enrollment has been reduced, new coats of paint added, curriculums rethought. In the year-and-a-half since the beleaguered Boston English High School undertook restructuring, staff and administrators have tried everything.

That includes a staff-led initiative to restructure communication systems to meet the needs of the complex system of the modern urban high school using Internet-networking technology.

Ryan Rud, a teacher and technology manager at the school helped design the system— known as Code Blue, after English High’s school color. Rud said he has not done an exhaustive survey, but he believes it may be the first of its kind in the country.

In 2006, faced with being categorized as “chronically underperforming” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, English High began an ambitious effort to turn itself around. With a faculty vote, it converted into a Commonwealth Pilot School—a designation that offers faculty and staff autonomy over the school, but ultimately subjects it to increased state supervision.

Monitoring the school, along with the handful of others in the state that have been designated as Commonwealth Pilots, has been delegated under contract to UMass Boston’s Donohue Institute. While the institute is focused more on results this year, last year’s oversight was focused on what use the Commonwealth Pilot schools made of their autonomy, Steve Ellis of the Donahue Institute told the Gazette.

The autonomy side of that equation inspired the development of Code Blue, Rud said.

When English High was planning its redesign going into the 2007 school year, Rud and media teacher Xavier Rozas both sat on a sub-committee focused on student support, Rozas said.

The sub-committee identified the inefficiency of “paper-based” systems for keeping tabs on students as a major issue, Rozas said.

“Paper systems buffered teachers from kids. Some were falling through the cracks,” he said.

“Kids are coming in [to the school] with all different needs and challenges,” Rud said. “Legal issues, pregnancy, family issues. Some of them are in foster care.”

And the school is chock-full of professionals, including “counselors, teachers, coaches and parole officers,” who are charged with helping students deal with those issues, he said.

“We started looking at all of the resources available in the building and how to coordinate those efforts,” Rud said. “Each student is [the center of] a micro-community, and they are throwing off data points constantly.”

Code Blue is an efficient way to collect that data and share it among relevant parties, he said.

The system includes security features to restrict faculty and staff access to their own students and keep student support service referrals confidential, Rozas said.

But it has the power, he said, to shed light on student behaviors that, in the old paper-system days, likely would have remained a mystery. For example, he said, one girl who had been a model student recently started showing up late for class.

“Then one day, she blew up at [English High Headmaster Jose] Duarte,” Rozas said. “It turned out she had recently become homeless.”

Having information like that disseminated to teachers in real time has a huge effect on their ability to interact effectively with students, Rud said.

“A good teacher reads and responds to their students,” he said. Code Blue provides a means for teachers and staff to split up the “reading” assignment and share notes before class.

Harnessing the Panopticon?

The students the Gazette spoke to all recognized Code Blue primarily as a disciplinary tool. Getting “coded” is now common parlance for getting in trouble, students told the Gazette.

“You do not want to get coded,” said senior Jason Semado.

Luis Reyes Jr., also a senior, said the system “makes it harder for kids to run around.”

“Teachers use that program for discipline. I try to stay away from it,” said Anis Abdulle, an 11th grader and editor of the school newspaper.

The system, it turns out, has its origin in high-level theoretical considerations of discipline and control in modern society. Rud told the Gazette Michel Foucault’s book, “Discipline and Punish,” provided some of the inspiration for the system.

In that book, Foucault outlines a theory that institutions, including schools and prisons are constantly striving to master a system of perfect surveillance. The French theorist uses a prison design known as the Panopticon—originally developed in the 1800s—as a metaphor for modern society. In that design a darkened tower is surrounded by a ring of backlit prison cells, so every movement in the cells is visible from the tower, but activity inside the tower is invisible from the cells. The ultimate goal of the system is for inmates, who can never know if they are being watched, to police themselves.

While Foucault’s treatise described what he called disciplinary society in unequivocally negative terms, Rud, in a unique reading, apparently took a positive lesson from it.

Having more information gives teachers perspective to confront problematic student behavior in different ways, he said. Traditionally, Isolated in the classroom setting, “teachers see symptoms. Behavioral problems, absences and altercations automatically become disciplinary issues,” he said.

But Code Blue offers teachers a fuller understanding of what is going on in their classrooms. Rud said in his experience, students respond positively when authority figures are able to assert coherent authority.

“Kids flock to teachers like me who are more on the setting boundaries side of things, he said. “Growing up, my parents and teachers didn’t let me fall through the cracks. Setting boundaries for kids and imposing discipline is an act of love.”

Increased efficiency

Rud and Rozas, along with Kevin Palmer, an Americorps Vista volunteer who worked at the school last year, developed the technology using Drupal, a free, open-source Internet platform, Rud said. Drupal is one of a number of free systems available on the web that programmers can use to build web sites and networking systems. The JP Gazette site also uses a Drupal-based content management system.

Code Blue gained wide use in the school organically over the course of the 2007-2008 school year, Rud said. “It started in the student support office and percolated out as other departments wanted to be integrated into the system,” he said.

Duarte said it took him “a little while” to warm to the new system. “I used to harass people to check what was going on for me,” he said. “But it’s a great tool to see what’s going on in the school.”

In addition to communications about individual students, the system is now used to disseminate bulletins to staff and faculty, including events announcements and minutes from meetings of the school’s Governing Council—a board of faculty, staff and parents set up as part of the Commonwealth Pilot restructuring to make school policy decisions.

Code Blue is not a permanent record data collection system. That information is captured on a similar system run by BPS. But the school’s system does collect statistical data that can be analyzed to look at trends, Rud said.

“We can look at, for example, the number of disciplinary referrals versus the number of student support referrals, and the reasons…We can use it to identify what student resources are needed,” he said. “I think of it as a mirror the organization can use to look at itself.”

The school’s experience with Code Blue has “been very positive,” Duarte said. “A new technology, a new workflow of any sort in an organization is a difficult thing. In this case there was a need.”

Sophia Andriotis, a counselor in the school’s student support office, said the new system “makes me make sure I am accountable.”

It helps her to keep track of her workload, she said. “I open my in box and I see ten referrals,” she said.

“It helps us to do a more thorough job,” Duarte said.

Curriculum

Rud also said the efficiency of the system is easing a major burden for the school staff, and freeing up time and energy for things like curriculum development.

Alicia Savage, English Language Arts program director at the school, said faculty focus on the curriculum and on classroom strategy—now the subject of weekly faculty meetings—is paying off.

The school is working to align the subject matter in English and history classes for grades 9 through 11, she said. So, in the 9th grade, for example, reading assignments from Homer’s “Odyssey” are taught in sync with history lessons about ancient Greece.

They are also focusing more on using the full texts instead of excerpts, and designing lessons more holistically.

The lessons based around Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” are being taught with an eye toward “figuring out how much of [the book] students are able to more than just read but really apply,” she said.

The book was being used as a jumping off point to discuss things like the presidential election, capitalism and student’s individual moral codes, she said.

The department is also working to structure the curriculum so that, at the end of four years, students are prepared to take College Board Advanced Placement tests, she said.

“Teachers are very invested in the curriculum. It’s their baby. They are putting a lot of effort into making sure it fits the needs of the kids,” she said.

In reference to extra time allotted throughout the week for planning and professional development that Savage said, “We can tackle methodology issues because we have been given the time to.”

Likewise, Abdulle said longer class blocks—they have been extended from 45 minutes to 70 minutes—are “the most important change I have seen…In science classes there is breathing room to do experiments and take notes. That aspect is very helpful.”

Reyes noted that the shrinking of the student population seem to be making things more manageable for the staff.

Prior to becoming a pilot, English had around 1,200 students, but the population was cut to around 800, and then split into two separate “learning communities” overseen by separate administrative staffs and faculties.

“When the school was bigger, no one ever seemed to know what happened yesterday,” Reyes said.

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