District to intervene in three underperforming Boston schools

Three underperforming Boston schools are set to undergo a four-month review, a move that could potentially avoid a state takeover.

Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said she would assemble a “response team” and work with the Boston Teachers Union to assess problems at Charlestown High School, Madison Park Technical Vocational High School and McKinley K-12. The teams will then make recommendations for improvements.

“I appoint this action team to review data on student opportunities and outcomes, recognizing that we have work to do to deliver on the promise of an excellent and equitable education for all students,” he said. she writes in letters to school staff on Wednesday. “When a school needs help, I have the power to step in.”

The decision made some school staff worried the review could lead to layoffs, while others said they were concerned but feared a state takeover could be worse. Cassellius also briefed the Boston School Committee on the plan Wednesday night, framing it as part of a larger overhaul of high schools in the city.

Under the terms of the district’s contract with the Boston Teachers Union, the superintendent can create a seven-member response team. Each school’s team will consist of three members appointed by the union, three members appointed by the superintendent and one member jointly appointed. Each will complete a four-month evaluation of programming, leadership, facilities, enrichment opportunities, and student support services. They will also hold focus groups with students, families and educators; review school data; and observe classrooms.

The teams’ work will culminate in a set of recommendations to the superintendent on each school that Cassellius could accept, reject or modify.

All three schools have struggled with low graduation rates and serve large populations of students of color from economically disadvantaged families.

The McKinley K-12, a small cluster of school buildings serving about 350 students, had a four-year graduation rate of 29% in 2016, the most recent data available from the state.

Charlestown High School was named by the state in 2019 as one of the 10% worst performing schools in Massachusetts. Hispanic and black students make up the majority of the student body, and 74% of the school’s students come from economically disadvantaged households.

Also in 2019, state officials ranked Madison Park High School as in need of “full and broad support”, its highest classification of need. Only 14% of its 10th graders met state expectations in the 2019 MCAS exams, compared to 45% statewide. None of its students exceeded state expectations, compared to the state average of 19%.

In the spring of 2020, the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released a devastating review of Boston public schools that raised questions about whether receivership was imminent. Among the many criticisms, the report says that 34 of the city’s schools had student populations that scored in the lowest 10% on state MCAS exams. Shortly after the report was released, the pandemic forced the temporary closure of schools across the state.

On Wednesday, Cassellius presented some of his planned changes to the school committee.

“Boston has failed to deliver on its promise of a rigorous, high-quality education for all students,” she said, “especially for black and brown students, as well as students with disabilities and our learners multilingual”.

Drew Echelson, deputy superintendent of academics, echoed that sentiment. He said the district will refocus on good and effective teaching, especially for students from diverse backgrounds, multilingual students, and students with disabilities.

“We think it can be a really powerful lever for thinking about improvement,” he said of the intervention process. “The goal here is to…work together to make sure we’re clear on the root causes…when students aren’t getting what they need, and to figure out what we need to do to make sure that they get.”

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