BPS: English High needs improvement

David Taber

Courtesy Photo
English High School’s new headmaster. Sito Narcisse, addresses students and staff during a big Thanksgiving feast the school had on Nov. 25. The remaining food was donated to a shelter.

English High School was one of two Jamaica Plain Schools—along with the John F. Kennedy Elementary School—among 14 targeted for a five-year turnaround plan by Boston Public Schools (BPS), it was announced in November.

The details of the district plans for each school are due out in the coming months, BPS spokesperson Matt Wilder told the Gazette. In the meantime, English—which in 2007 undertook a radical transformation into a Commonwealth Pilot (Co-Pilot) school, is continuing apace with big changes.

Most recently, English, the oldest public high school in the country, this year took on a new headmaster, 32-year-old Sito Narcisse.

The school is now in its third year under state oversight as a Co-Pilot School. Under that program, new teachers have been hired, many aspects of the curriculum have been redesigned and the student population has been cut from over 1,300 to around 800.

Although the Co-Pilot reorganization program was originally designed to last two-years, state officials last week told the Gazette they will continue to evaluate the school for at least another year.

While many teachers and students at the school have consistently described the changes as improvements, English is still officially designated as under-performing.

Narcisse came to English this year from Pittsburgh, where he served for a year as principal at the new Pittsburgh University Prep School, a high school founded in partnership between the Pittsburgh Public School system and the university.

In an interview at the school on Nov. 12, the new headmaster told the Gazette he has put together a three-year plan for English, and he intends to stay at the school for “longer than three years.”

“I really want us to be one of the best urban schools in the country,” he said.

His plan includes specific target goals like increasing schoolwide MCAS scores by 15 percent every year, and “improving learning and achievement in reading and writing across the curriculum and increasing [them] each year by 10 percent.”

Narcisse said his overarching three-year goal is “literacy throughout the building”—a particular challenge because of the significant population of English-language learners at the school, he said.

The new headmaster said he was warned by many not to put goals on paper, and it remains to be seen how he will fare.

But his clarity comes at a time when education policy at just about every level is in some state of flux. In response to a Gazette inquiry about next steps for English under the Co-Pilot program, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokesperson Jonathan Considine said, “There are a number of issues to be clarified within the next month, which will then allow us to be in a position to develop plans and expectations for English High School and [other schools].”

Those include BPS’s forthcoming plans; final changes in a state education reform package moving through the legislature; final guidelines from the federal government on how states can use allocated school improvement funds; and the findings of Co-Pilot evaluations for the 2008-2009 school year, he said.

Meanwhile, many are impressed with the new headmaster’s early efforts.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” said local state Rep. Liz Malia, who visited English twice in recent months, once as the school’s “principal for a day” as part of a school system-wide program Nov. 6. “To my mind it is pretty obvious that great things are happening” at English.

“There is a lot of support this year…Everything is calmer and more structured,” English junior Jacqui Cannady told the Gazette.

Cannady said she transferred to the school at the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year. English seniors, who entered the school the year before it became a Co-Pilot, expressed amazement at the changes they have seen since 2005.

“It’s hard to explain. It seems like we have been through too much to be doing as well as we are doing right now,” senior Flora Ajayi said.

While she said the atmosphere at the school improved in the first two years of the Co-Pilot program, “Dr. Narcisse is doing things that make it feel like a real school,” she said.

Headmaster Jose Duarte, who oversaw the school’s reorganization under the Co-Pilot program, “was a nice guy. He tried his best for us,” said senior Carlos Rodriguez, “We knew he cared about us. He knew all our names.”

The former headmaster’s leadership was controversial during different times in his tenure, but most students and school staff the Gazette spoke to said they thought he had done a good job. The most negative comment about him, offered by a math teacher who declined to give his name, was that “Pete Carroll did not really do a bad job, but he was no Bill Belichick.”

Carroll was the lackluster head coach of the New England Patriots between 1997 and 1999. Belichick has led the team to four Super Bowls and three championships since he took over in 2000.

Wilder, who was present during the Gazette visit to English said, “English is a [BPS] turnaround school, but the test scores here are high compared to other turnaround schools.” The hope is the five-year plan will build on English’s success as a Co-Pilot, he said.

Duarte has been reassigned to another of BPS’s identified “turnaround” schools—the Dearborn Middle School in Roxbury.

In a phone interview, Wilder said that assignment was based on Duarte’s “strengths and talents.”

Malia told the Gazette she regrets there was not more focus on the school long ago. “It’s not rocket science to decrease the number of kids from over 1,200 to 800 or 900,” she said. ”We knew it was overcrowded for years. We completely blew it,” she said.

She said she is pleased to see increased attention being paid to underperforming schools, including English, but she wishes officials had been more on the ball before the recession hit.

“Shame on all of us in city and state government,” she said. “When the economy was better we allowed this to happen.”

While it was apparent that Narcisse had been focusing most of his energy on the internal workings of the school in his first months on the job, he said that he is hopeful that under his leadership English will become a larger player in the local community.

“I want to get the JP community more involved with English,” he said. “Even though we have kids from all over the city, they identify the school as being in JP.”

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