Staff, students optimistic about failing school’s turnaround

Almost a year after the state Board of Education (BOE) approved Boston English High School’s proposal to become a Commonwealth Pilot school—preempting a potential state takeover—the troubled city school is on the right track, many say.

The Commonwealth pilot status subjects Boston’s oldest high school, located at the corner of McBride and Amory streets, to oversight by the state, but increases the institution’s autonomy from city and state restrictions in budgeting, curriculum development and student policy, among other things.

On Feb. 15, the Gazette sat down with a dozen students, teachers, administrators and other Boston English stakeholders, and their message was unequivocal.

The morale of the students and staff is up, parents are raving, attendance rates have improved, and students are more engaged, was their message.

“This is a social experiment. It’s a crash course in bettering our students in our schools…English High School is something new,” one faculty member said.

The group that spoke to the Gazette included school nurse Anne Minichinc; Spanish and history teacher Lucia Rodriguez; English High School Association President Manuel Gonsalves; Family Outreach Coordinator Sandra McIntosh; Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) Instructor 1st Sgt. Burch Alford; and English High seniors Frederick Daniels and Sheila Paul, among others.

English High Headmaster Jose Duarte was present at the beginning of the meeting but excused himself almost immediately because, he said, he wanted those in attendance to be able to speak freely.

Duarte’s leadership style has been controversial in the past. As part of the school’s transition to pilot status, the student body was reduced from about 1,200 to about 800, and Duarte asked teachers to reapply for their jobs for the current academic year.

At the recent meeting, McIntosh described Duarte as a “hard taskmaster. He drives a hard ship,” but said she has “never been intimidated” by him.

Others echoed McIntosh’s sentiment, saying that Duarte is exercising strong leadership through tough times.

“The teachers who want to be here are here, and the students who want to be here are learning,” one person said.

One program that has been beneficial for the school, known as Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), matches students up with teachers at a ratio of about 10 to1. The groups meet for advisory sessions twice a week. The program insures that “at least one adult in the building is carrying on a conversation with students in person and is aware of what is going on in their lives,” Rodriguez said.

English High senior Frederick Daniels said he has always had a good relationship with Duarte. He is not the strongest student, he admitted, but he has benefited from increased attention from both the faculty and the headmaster, he said.

“This year it’s ‘bring your butt here,’ I love that so much,” Daniels said.

As far as school policies are concerned, the pilot model is allowing for more power-sharing structures in running the school, meeting attendees said.

The school is receiving external support from the Boston-based nonprofit Center for Collaborative Education (CCE). In a telephone interview, CCE staffer Dania Vasquez described the governing board as a “macro policy decision making body.”

The 16-member board—made up of administrators, faculty, students, parents, alumni and community members—develops things like procedures for staff, graduation and promotion requirements, she said.

Currently, the board is developing a plan to integrate special education students more fully into the general education environment, Vasquez said.

At the Feb. 15 meeting, one stakeholder predicted big things for the school, saying, “This is going to be a model that a lot of other schools are going to be coming in and asking how we did it—how we turned it around.”

Vasquez was generally positive about English High’s prospects, too, though more guarded in her optimism than the group the Gazette spoke to. “They have a good program. There is a lot to be done, and they are working really hard, but you can’t turn a school around in seven months,” she said.

“I have a lot of hope that by this time next year they will be in a much better place,” she added.

In an e-mail, state Department of Education (DOE) spokesperson John Considine said the school is subject to ongoing monitoring by the state. At the end of the school year, he said, English High will submit a progress report and the DOE and the school will review and adjust the school’s pilot plan.

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