By Lauren Bennett
Special to the Gazette
On Sept. 27, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released its annual statewide school and district accountability results, which found “overall improvement for the Boston Public Schools (BPS) as a district,” according to a BPS statement.
Three Jamaica Plain area schools showed “strong improvements” in 2018: the Ellis Mendell Elementary School, the Joseph P. Manning Elementary School, and the James Hennigan K-8 School. DESE highlighted the Manning School as a “School of Recognition” for making “significant gains,” according to the BPS statement. The school achieved high growth and exceeded its targets in English language arts and math this year, as well as exceeded its target for decreasing chronic absenteeism for students with disabilities.
The BPD statement went on to say that that Massachusetts no longer uses a ranking system of 1-5 for its schools, but rather a new accountability system. BPS was originally labeled a “Level 4” district, but under the new system, it is now “Partially Meeting Targets.”
This new accountability system uses “additional factors such as chronic absenteeism rates, engagement of students who do not graduate within four years, raising the performance of each school’s subgroup of lowest performing students, progress toward English proficiency for English learners, and advanced coursework completion,” according to the BPS statement. In addition, “Because the new accountability system assesses schools using additional factors, DESE does not recommend comparing a school’s overall percentile ranking from the 2018 accountability results with previous years,” said the BPS statement.
The Gazette recently spoke to the principals of the Manning and Mendell schools about the improvement.
“We have really excellent teachers who create strong relationships with kids,” said Ethan d’Ablemont Burnes, principal of the Manning School. He has been the principal at the Manning School for 10 years. D’Ablemont Burnes said that the success of the school is based on creating positive relationships with students and their families, and helping the students believe that they can succeed.
“Lots of students come into our school having failed previously,” d’Ablemont Burnes said. “Getting them to believe that they can actually be a student and be successful is a huge part of the game.”
Inclusion for students with emotional impairments has also been a huge part of the school’s success, he said. He said that 20 percent of the students at the Manning School have emotional impairments and “you don’t know who’s who” in the classrooms.
“What we’ve learned over time is that inclusion is powerful not just for special needs but for all students,” he said, and that this is not only from a social/emotional standpoint, but from an academic one as well.
D’Ablemont Burnes said he recognizes that even though this is a huge accomplishment, there is still more work to be done. The school is still “continuing to try and get better,” he said. “Just the fact that we did really well on MCAS doesn’t change our approach to how we try and get better.”
The bottom line is making sure kids want to come to school, he said, and it really is a whole community effort. He said that what really makes kids want to come to school is when they know they will be engaged in the instruction and see themselves as learners. When they feel that the instruction is not relevant or doesn’t have meaning, they won’t come, he said.
“Our teachers are totally incredible and that’s why we did so well. They figured out how to make this happen,” he said. Curriculum design and providing a rigorous curriculum for the students is an important factor in success. The Manning School also prides itself in being a trauma sensitive school, as many of their students deal with trauma. “Making sure these kids are set up to be successful—that’s as much a mindset as it is system instruction,” d’Ablemont Burnes said.
At the Mendell School, Principal Julia Bott said that the school previously sat in the 3rd percentile of the state and is now in the 41st percentile. The school has exceeded targets on MCAS and has been embracing an “inclusionary model” that has improved school culture and performance.
Bott has been the principal at the Mendell School for nine years, and said that historically, the school has being underperforming, but “we have been making progress though it is slow.” She said that they have struggled in both English language arts and math.
The “inclusionary model” that the Mendell School uses includes a program called Excellence for All, where students with a range of disability profiles, including autism and emotional impairment, are fully integrated into general education for the majority of the day. The teachers at the Mendell School have participated in “high quality professional development” so they are able to teach all students. Students are also provided enrichment opportunities, which include robotics and coding.
“It really was about equity and leveling the playing field,” Bott said. She added that last year, the school really focused around the concept of excellence and “getting clear as a faculty about what the standard of excellence is in all content areas.” Bott said that more resources are not always the answer for struggling schools, and she said that becoming much more intentional about quality over quantity has really worked for the Mendell School. “Our teachers are teaching and recognizing incredible learning,” Bott said.
Bott said that she wrote a letter to families and talked about the progress that has been made. She said that although the state does not recommend explicitly comparing this year’s results to previous years due to the new accountability system, she says that it’s worth noting that the growth in standardized assessment can be viewed in larger terms. “If students are writing better, that will help them be better prepared for everything in the future,” she said. She said that closing opportunity gaps and giving students the tools to get out of poverty is important. “It’s exciting to see so many Boston schools making progress,” she said.
Bott said that the staff members were “ecstatic” about the news of the improvement. “It can be demoralizing and draining to be in a low performing school,” she said, but this has motivated them to keep moving forward.
She’s also discussed the news with the students, and said they talked about the idea that if you work hard, it translates into positive outcomes. Bott said that the kids were cheering and some of them even cried, because it meant a lot to them to see their hard work translated into real results. She added that they were thoughtful about how they brought this up with the kids because not every single child is exceeding expectations.
She, too, recognizes that there is more to be done. “In the work of moving student learning, it’s sometimes a time game,” she said. She said that the fact that most of the faculty have been with her over the last seven years makes a difference, because there’s not a “revolving door of teachers.”
[This article has been updated.]