What's striking about Elihu Greenwood Elementary School in Hyde Park is how quiet it is, even as groups of students walk by on their way to lunch. But it wasn't always this way.
While giving a tour of the school, eight-year-old Cristalle deJesus explains why it's so quiet. "Because the teachers teach the children how to be quiet and they tell them the rules and the kids follow them," deJesus replies. "We settled it down."
The ownership that deJesus feels is what Greenwood is all about now. A year ago, the school was set to be closed because it was in such chaos. A third of the students failed the English and math sections of MCAS. Hallways were loud and uncontrollable, and kids threw food at lunch. After the community fought to keep it open, Boston's school department hired a new principal — Maud Wright. She's made some dramatic changes.
"The students were not as ready for learning as they should have been," Wright says. "And I’m talking about school climate. That was key. Another key area I believe was the data, just using what you have. Based on how the students preformed."
Wright began weekly assessments of each student by a team of teachers. In one month, kids showed improvement.
Greenwood is one of 35 schools now labeled as underperforming. Like the other failing schools, students at Greenwood had low scores on the MCAS for four years and were not showing signs of improvement. The majority of the schools are in Boston and Springfield. In all, 17,000 students are affected.
"If we do the same things we have been doing and get the same results. The department's strong hope is that the nine districts in which these 35 schools are located will be successful with every single one of them," says Massachusetts Deputy Education Commissioner Karla Baehr.
Education reforms passed in January mean these schools can expect something akin to education martial law. Superintendents will have sole authority over improving these school — including possibly requiring all teachers to reapply for their jobs. They will have an easier time firing bad teachers. If schools want federal grant money, the superintendent must fire principals who’ve been on the job more than two years.
Listen: Boston Superintendent Carol Johnson On Turning Schools Aroundhttp://audio.wbur.org/storage/2010/03/news_0305_boston-schools.mp3
Already, Boston Superintendent Carol Johnson is reassigning five principals and asking teachers at six schools to re-apply for their jobs. Baehr says superintendents at underperforming, or "Level 4," schools now have the leeway to make broad changes.
"The law is very clear that the standard for dismissing teachers in Level 4 schools is a different standard than in other schools throughout the commonwealth," Baehr says.
Understandably, teachers at these schools are anxious about their future. The state's largest teachers union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, says improvements will not be achieved with top-down reforms.
By the state’s rules, a school will no longer be considered underperforming if it increases student achievement for three years in a row. If it doesn't, there will be a state takeover. But Mary Nash, who oversees academics at the city’s elementary schools, says Greenwood shows progress can happen quickly.
"It’s almost like night and day here, the parents feel this is a wonderful place," Nash says. "The students love it, they feel they are really smart people, that they can get even smarter and go to college one day. And the teachers like working here. They love being successful with the kids."
The success of the kids is what these reform are all about, says the Department of Education. But it's also a warning to other schools on the edge of being labeled underperforming that they should make changes now to avoid more draconian potential measures.
This program aired on March 5, 2010.