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In The South End, A 'Last-Ditch Effort' To Save A School06:22
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An important experiment is underway this school year at some of the state's lowest performing schools. The state has given the city unprecedented authority to essentially push the “restart button:" the students will largely be the same, but new teachers and principals are meant to bring new energy and ideas into the classroom. A lot is at stake as these public schools try to prove they can educate poor students.

Blackstone Elementary School: 'Stuck' At The Bottom

When officials told all of the teachers at Blackstone Elementary School they had to re-apply for their jobs last spring, some teachers didn't bother and transferred to other city schools. But the ones who did want to stay had to sit down with the incoming principal.

“I asked the staff to talk a little about why the school was stuck,” said Principal Steve Zrike.

The school wasn’t just stuck — it was stuck at the bottom. Blackstone Elementary has had some of the worst test scores in the state for five years in a row. And students there missed a lot of school — on average, two weeks a year. Zrike brought these problems up in interviews with teachers.

“This is a last-ditch effort to affirm and build the confidence of the community."

Blackstone Principal Steve Zrike

“I was looking for people to really talk about things that the school or themselves could do differently to accelerate learning for kids. Some people were able to express that, but some people were blaming families and were blaming students,” Zrike said.

Nearly all of the students — 92 percent of kids at the Blackstone — are considered low-income. And two-thirds of the students started off speaking a language other than English. Zrike points out that other public schools have successfully educated students with the same profile.

“I need a team of people who really believe at their core that the work can be done,” he said, adding that he looked for teachers who didn’t “put blame on families, who I believe are doing the very best they can for their children.”

Zrike looks more like a soccer dad than a principal. In fact, he comes to this job after a year of coaching teachers in Boston. He's laid-back, young and energetic. He used that energy to replace four out of five teachers at Blackstone, bringing their successors from as far away as California and Florida. Zrike loves that he could build his own team, but he says parents have expressed concern about not knowing anyone at the school anymore.

So over the last few weeks, he's been sending teachers out to the neighborhoods to introduce themselves.

The Introduction

Knock, knock, knock!

Lisa Goncalves is holding a fat binder and several reading books. She's standing outside the third-floor apartment of a triple-decker in Dorchester. She knocks several times before a woman answers the door.

“Hello ... Is this Dayson’s house?” Goncalves asks.

Goncalves has been teaching for six years. She started out teaching in Framingham and Natick, but last year she moved to Boston, seeking the challenge of an urban school. And when she heard about the plan to "turn around" the Blackstone, she signed up.

Goncalves walks into the living room and sees a little boy sitting on the couch, his eyes not moving from the cartoon on his television.

“Is this Dayson? Dayson, nice to meet you. I'll be your first-grade teacher," Goncalves says. "Can I see those beautiful eyes? Am I interrupting your TV show?”

This is a contract between 6-year-old Dayson and the school. He looks intimidated but signs anyway.

She asks questions about what Dayson likes and doesn't like about school, and learns from his mom Antonia that she's worried about his behavior.

“Other than that, I don't have a problem with him,” says Dayson’s mother, Antonia Goncalves (who is not related to Lisa Goncalves).

Then comes the most intense part of the visit.

“So, it says here that Dayson's going to come to the Blackstone at 8:20, every day prepared, ready for school with what he needs ... You think you can do that?” Lisa Goncalves reads from piece of paper, pausing to stare into Dayson’s eyes.

This is a contract between 6-year-old Dayson and the school. He looks intimidated but signs anyway.

“Put my name?” he asks.

“Uh-huh,” Lisa Goncalves says.

His parents and his teacher sign their own contracts.

Dayson's parents — Antonia Goncalves and Jose Bemazides — think the visit was a great idea.

“We get to know who he's going to be with and she shared a lot with us,” Antonia Goncalves says.

A New Approach To Education

Lisa Goncalves and her principal hope these interactions with parents will improve attendance rates and get parents more involved in their kids' education.

But even if they don't, the Blackstone will have its own monitoring system — and this is the most crucial part of turning around the school, say school leaders. If a student starts to struggle, the school will step in with more tutoring and specialized help. And teachers will tailor their instruction to meet individual students' needs.

"(My biggest fear) is that I or my colleagues will work really hard and not see results."

Teacher Lisa Goncalves

This hyper-vigilant approach will mean more work and coordination among teachers.

Goncalves admits it's daunting.

“The first thing that comes to my mind is that I or that my colleagues will work really hard and not see results, not only in our individual classrooms but collectively as a school," she says. “Yeah, that is my biggest fear.”

If teachers don't show progress at the end of the first year, they can be moved to another school, without the usual union protections.

Principal Steve Zrike says there's a lot at stake.

“This is a last-ditch effort to affirm and build the confidence of the community, that we as a public school system can do this work on behalf of our student population. And if we're not able to do it, then that sends the message that maybe it's time for others to do the work,” Zrike says.

The state has given Blackstone and the other 34 so-called "turnaround schools" in Massachusetts three years to improve. The schools will get grants to do this, and they have to show gains each year to continue getting money.

A spokeswoman for the state's Department of Education says there's no plan for what happens if this doesn't work — because, well, they just expect it to.

Related stories:

This program aired on September 7, 2010.

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