BOSTON — One of Boston’s 12 poorest-performing schools has made significant progress just two years after it was designated a turnaround school by the state. Orchard Gardens Pilot School was underperforming for several years and in 2010, because of its poor performance, the school received more federal funding and expanded leeway to make sweeping changes.
When you walk among students in the hallways of Orchard Gardens they are silent, even as they head to lunch. As he walks among them, Principal Andrew Bott says the calm shows respect for learning.
“You’d never know that there’s 800 students in the building, there’s 250 at lunch right now, kids transitioning back from gym, heading throughout the building,” Bott said. “And it just speaks to the importance of keeping a calm, quiet environment so everyone can focus on their work.”
The kids have a lot to catch up on. Just two years ago, their K-8 school was one of the five lowest-performing schools in Massachusetts. Because the school was failing for several years, it was designated a turnaround school and Boston Public Schools hired Bott to fix it.
“Fundamentally, we came in and we had to change the history of failure of the school,” Bott said. “The kids knew the history of failure, the Greater Boston community knew.”
In Bott’s first full year on the job, the students showed more progress than most others in the state on the 2011 MCAS. And double the number of seventh graders scored proficient in English and math than the year before. They’re doing better on more indicators than students at other turnaround schools.
Bott said he’s using a three-pronged approach.
“We built our whole turnaround model around three components: people, data and time,” he said.
First, Bott did something a principal could not have done without the turnaround label: he replaced 80 percent of the teachers. Then he hired replacements who know how to use data to adjust their teaching quickly. Finally, he expanded the school day. For example, middle school students stay from 7:30 a.m. through 5:30 p.m. The teachers work an extra hour. Bott hired outside nonprofits, including City Year and Citizen Schools, for the remaining hours.
“I hated it,” said eighth grader Tomell Kelley. “But when we came into it, and getting more days into the after-school programs, I actually started to like it because I would… get most of my homework done before I got home.”
Other students say they’ve adjusted too. And for ESL teacher David Place, a longer day allows him to collaborate more with other teachers.
“I appreciate that so much, just from my own practice and and my own learning and becoming a better teacher, to have that time carved into the schedule where you can look at student work or co-plan units, that’s something we didn’t really have,” Place said.
Typically, large-scale changes to improve schools take much longer to show results. Especially when, like Orchard Gardens, the school serves a majority of low-income students. Chris Gabrielli of the nonprofit Massachusetts 2020 says that’s what makes the Roxbury school impressive.
“Those are students who are harder to educate perhaps than some, but the school is full of people who believe they can, and look at the results,” Gabrielli said.
Bott cautioned he doesn’t expect the gains to be as dramatic this year, because Orchard Gardens is working with an influx of English-language learners. And the school’s almost $4 million in federal grants will run out at the end of June 2013. Bott used much of the money to lengthen the school day, not to hire additional staff. He’s confident he can keep the momentum going because he says outstanding staff is essential to reform. And he will use a combination of private fundraising and reworking the schedule to keep the extended learning hours.
Meanwhile, Bott is directly involved with keeping the mood positive with daily announcements over the loud speaker.
“Good afternoon, Orchard Gardens, I want to end our day with a few shout outs,” Bott said over the loudspeaker. “I want to give a shout out for all of the performers today from both acts of the arts show, our chorus, our band.”
It’s these shout outs, Kelley said, that give him and other students something to strive for.
“When you hear that over the overhead, you feel proud and good about the school and yourself,” Kelley said.