As an art teacher walked down a quiet hallway at the Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School on Wednesday, she smiled at the sight of three eighth-graders helping to move chairs. “You can’t get enough of this place, huh?” she asked.
Such an interaction would have been unlikely at Orchard Gardens just a few years ago, when the school was struggling.
Yet the pleasant exchange, and the students’ choice to pitch in at the Roxbury school on the last day of summer vacation, reflect the dramatic transformation highlighted by Governor Deval Patrick during his speech Tuesday at the Democratic National Convention.
“In less than a year,” Patrick told delegates and a prime-time television audience, “Orchard Gardens went from one of the worst schools in the district to one of the best in the state.”
That line, part of a longer anecdote about the school’s progress, raised a few eyebrows. While the school’s improvement in student test scores has outpaced the improvement at most other Massachusetts schools, the scores remain far below the state average.
‘In less than a year, Orchard Gardens went from one of the worst schools in the district to one of the best in the state.’
Still, a visit to the school suggested that for those who know Orchard Gardens best, it hardly took a speech — or one class’s invitation to the White House earlier this year— for students and staff to know that much has changed.
Opened in 2003, the $30 million building represented high hopes. In addition to an eye-catching yellow exterior and bright yellow walls inside, the school boasts a music room, an auditorium with movie-theater seating, and a third-floor library with a sweeping view of the city’s skyline.
The school, however, quickly fell behind expectations. By 2009, only 13 percent of students scored proficient or higher on the English section of the MCAS exam, and only 6 percent were proficient in math.
In its first seven years, the school saw five different principals. In 2009, the Boston school system identified Orchard Gardens as one of 12 “turnaround schools,” and months later Superintendent Carol R. Johnson named Andrew Bott to shepherd the school into a new era.
Speaking in his office Wednesday, near a framed Time Magazine cover featuring a picture of Nelson Mandela, Bott said the challenges have been daunting.
“It’s fair to say there are a lot of people who believed that Orchard Gardens could not succeed,” he said.
The school’s problems, however, were not its students, Bott said. It needed a new approach to educating. Under Bott’s leadership, Orchard Gardens lengthened the school day and started a data-driven approach in areas from attendance to test scores. Between 2009 and 2010, the school also replaced 80 percent of its staff.
The transformation is not yet complete, Bott said, but progress has been considerable. In 2011, 35 percent of students scored proficient or higher in the math portion of MCAS, and 30 percent scored proficient or higher in English, according to state data. The state average was 58 percent in math and 69 percent in English.
“We all believe that we’re far from done,” Bott said. Still, he said, “it’s exciting to be on the right path.”
This would be easier to dismiss as spin or optimism were it not for Carlos Barbosa, Kevaughn Little, and Jason Correia, the three eighth-graders moving chairs on Wednesday. The trio, teammates on the school football team, have attended the school since it opened. They recalled frequent fistfights and a lack of enthusiasm among teachers and administrators.
The culture changed with Bott, Correia said.
“The teachers used to look at me and then look away,” said the 14-year-old, who lives in Dorchester. “Now they say, ‘Oh hey, what’s up Jason?’ and we have a conversation.”
In his convention speech, Patrick singled out a first-grade class that memorized part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
At home in Canton, teacher Darlene White-Dottin, watched the Tuesday night speech with tears in her eyes. Early this year, her students had performed the speech for Patrick, impressing the governor so much he secured a class trip in February to the White House, where they recited it for the president.
“I’m crying because I’m just so proud of the kids,” recalled White-Dottin, now entering her 29th year as an educator.