By Laura Perille
JUST FIVE YEARS AGO, Mildred Avenue K-8 School in Mattapan was one of the worst performing schools in the Boston Public School system and ranked in the lowest percentile of public schools statewide. When the school was in peril of being placed under state control, district and school leaders and the teachers union — often seen as unlikely allies — teamed up to make changes.
Fast forward to today, and Mildred Ave. is classified as a Level 1 school, the state’s highest ranking, and was recently awarded 2017’s “School on the Move” Prize from EdVestors. The award recognizes the often unsung work of rapidly improving schools and elevates lessons learned for dissemination to the rest of the Boston Public Schools and beyond. In just four years, Mildred Ave. transformed school climate, reduced student suspensions significantly, accelerated student learning growth, and improved ELA and math achievement by 15 and 22 points, respectively. They didn’t just raise test scores – they built a nurturing environment and expanded learning opportunities for all students.
What changed so quickly here? The school employed a rarely-used approach in the Boston Teachers Union contract that allows the superintendent to request a joint labor/management intervention process for an underperforming school. The foundation is increased autonomy at the school level in exchange for a commitment, informed by data and driven by frontline educators, to make bold changes on behalf of students. What is unique about this approach – when applied under the right conditions – is that reform is not done “to” the school but rather “by” the school community with a core group of strong teachers leading the work.
An intervention team, composed of both union and management members, is formed and charged with initiating an assessment of the reasons for the poor performance and presenting a remedial plan for improvement after spending time at the school and talking with school staff, parents, and community members.
This joint oversight effort between the BPS and Boston Teachers Union allowed a select group of teachers to be involved not only in the planning, but also the execution of their own turnaround plan at Mildred Ave. These teacher leaders developed a plan that expanded the school day, increased teacher responsibilities, and deepened professional learning expectations, in exchange for greater flexibility around scheduling and curriculum as well as staffing and compensation. They raised the bar for teachers within the school – and while not all staff were prepared to take on these challenges, more than 70 percent committed to engage in the effort and remain at the school today.
The joint union-management oversight of the school was widely accepted as a critical ingredient in the school’s success, one that could be replicated at other city schools in need of dramatic improvement. It is a way to intervene in schools before they are designated for state action that also maintains agency and morale of the school community, ensuring improvement strategies are closely aligned with student needs and “owned” by the adults who must implement and sustain the work. The embrace of school-level autonomy at Mildred Ave. was highlighted in CommonWealth’s recent feature story on the 25th anniversary of the state’s education reform law – and promising strategies to close the persistent achievement gap facing Massachusetts schools.
As seen in the case of Mildred Ave., joint oversight — when well applied and well supported in a school where the conditions are right — can lead to dramatic improvements in a relatively short time. This approach will not work in every struggling school. A key requirement is an existing core group of teachers within the school willing to engage and drive change. At Mildred Ave., the conditions were just right. Teachers were able to speak hard truths about where they were and what changes were needed, including changes they needed to make in their own classroom practices to improve outcomes for their students. Both the union and the district central office supported the teachers to implement their plan. This kind of labor-management collaboration should be folded into current state and local conversations about effective strategies to support and empower schools for improvement.
At the end of the day, Mildred Ave.’s turnaround is a story about trust. The district allowed and trusted the school to retain its autonomy and gave teachers broad latitude and accountability in reshaping their classrooms. Teachers and school leaders pushed and trusted each other to follow through on bold strategies. This collaboration proved to be a vanguard of support and change – and a model from which more schools and districts can learn.