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Yvonne Abraham

Another last chance for English High

Last chance for English High.

Again.

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For years, an ax has hung over the school on Washington Street, the worst performing in Boston. Inside that hulking building live all of urban schools’ ills: cratered morale, dismal academics, abysmal behavior, sundered hopes.

Only 10 percent of the school’s 650 students choose to go there, the rest assigned by the school district. Students are repeating ninth grade, two, three, four times. Last year, 56 percent of 10th-graders failed the English language arts MCAS, with only 2 percent scoring in the advanced category. In math, the picture is similarly grim.

English High has been a giant rebuke to the promises Mayor Tom Menino has made on education over the years. The school district has tried a lot of things here, most all of them spectacular failures. Three years ago, Superintendent Carol Johnson brought in a hotshot named Sito Narcisse, who made some radical changes — including brooming or driving away most of the teaching staff.

Now he’s gone, and little has changed. Again, the school is on notice: Turn English High around within a year, state education officials say, or they’ll take over.

Which is how a trilingual martial arts enthusiast came to be sitting in a frowsy office in the almost-empty school on Thursday afternoon. Her name is Ligia Noriega-Murphy; she is the new headmaster of English High, and she says she can do this.

“It’s a challenge, but I’m not afraid,” Noriega-Murphy said.

Maybe not, but she’s very, very cautious. She won’t go into detail about what has gone wrong at English High over the years. “It’s very political,” she said. She prefers to talk about where the school is going: back. She plans to move away from experiments and return to a more basic model: “If we don’t do this simple structure, we can’t move forward.”

Ninth-graders, special-education students, and English language learners will no longer be separated from other students all day. The single-sex classes Narcisse introduced will go away. “We have to be one school, with one mission,” Noriega-Murphy said.

Her staff will track students like never before, each of them monitoring a group of 10 kids for everything that happens inside and outside the classroom, checking their progress every five days. Since good education is all but impossible without invested parents, Noriega-Murphy is going to try to draw more of them into the building, perhaps by offering awards for mothers and fathers whose kids do well. There will be no more brooming of teachers. Noriega-Murphy believes no school can succeed unless teachers feel respected and fully invested.

“I want this school . . . within three or four years to be one of the best schools in the nation,” she says.

Sitting with her, you can’t help but think, “Seriously?” Noriega-Murphy is thoughtful, but she’s so self-effacing (she didn’t even mention being a fifth dan black belt, for heaven’s sake). She definitely doesn’t come across as a superhero principal type.

But she has done this before, at Excel High School in South Boston. Under her leadership, the percentage of 10th-graders with proficient or advanced scores in the MCAS math exam jumped from 6 percent to 61 percent; in English, the jump was from 1 percent to 61 percent.

It turns out self-effacing is exactly what some schools need in a headmaster, said Laura Perille, executive director at EdVestors, a nonprofit that funds school improvement projects. “When we looked back at successful schools, we found they all had strong leaders, but not a hero with [a] baseball bat or shiny new ideas,” she said.

So, once more unto the breach goes English High, with its first woman headmaster leading the charge. If she succeeds, her school will become a national model. And if English High fails again, we will have to face a harsh truth: Some schools are truly beyond repair.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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