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Yvonne Abraham

Failing South Boston school makes a turnaround

What a joy it is to go into a school that is working. Especially when that same school was in serious trouble just two years ago.

Parents weren’t exactly clamoring to get their children into the Gavin Middle School in South Boston. Test results were grim: Only 1 in 4 Gavin students scored proficient or advanced in math on the 2011 MCAS. Fewer than a third cleared that bar on the English test.

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So Superintendent Carol Johnson did something radical, turning the Gavin into one of the city’s first in-district charter schools. She brought in Unlocking Potential, a nonprofit turnaround outfit, to remake the place. Last September, the imposing brick building on Dorchester Street became UP Academy. And UP Academy became something spectacular. According to MCAS results released Wednesday, math scores grew more at UP Academy than at any other school in the state last year, with proficiency rates doubling to 48 percent. English proficiency grew more than at any school in the city, jumping from 32 to 54 percent.

This did not happen because the charter school creamed off the best students. Fully 85 percent of the Gavin’s students elected to stay on at the new school. There are as many poor kids, special education students, and English language learners here as ever.

So, how did they do it? A longer school day is a big part of it, said Amanda Gardner, the principal. The official Boston day is 6½ hours. At UP Academy, where teachers belong to the Boston Teachers Union but some work rules are waived, it’s eight hours.

“More time, if it’s used well, can lead to dramatic results,” Gardner says. In addition to more time for lessons and enrichment activities, students get a crucial hour of tutoring at the end of each day. There are 15 more teachers at UP than there were at the Gavin, which allows them to organize lessons and collaborate with other teachers for at least 100 minutes a day.

Teachers do 25 extra days of professional development each year to define their common goals. You can feel that extra time in the school’s sense of mission: In every classroom, lessons follow a similar format, teachers talk about aspiration and perseverance in the same way, and everybody seems to understand exactly what is expected of them.

There is community here. In classrooms on Thursday, teachers were energetic, smiling, taking pride in their students. Kids in black shirts and khakis snapped their fingers in approval when classmates spoke up. When someone struggled, students used “spirit fingers,” wiggling their fingers in the direction of whoever was fumbling, to encourage them. It’s hard to imagine image-obsessed middle-schoolers doing this without snickering, but they were utterly unself-conscious about it in every classroom. “They buy into it when they realize we aren’t going to drop it,” says Michael Kerr, director of operations.

And they buy into it for an extra 90 minutes a day. The teachers union has fought mightily to avoid adding extra minutes to the school day without compensation. But there are plenty who disagree with that hard line: An astounding 4,100 teachers applied for 60 positions in UP’s first year. The school is relentless about teacher evaluation and coaching, which has made it a magnet for educators who are just starting out (and who earn less on average than veterans, allowing UP Academy to staff up more).

It’s working here. But the lessons of this year should benefit kids beyond UP Academy. We need longer days in every Boston school. We need every teacher in every school to have a sense of mission and a will to grow. And we have to give those teachers the time and feedback to make it all possible.

Most improved isn’t good enough for UP Academy: Gardner wants the best MCAS scores in the state. “This year is all about moving from good to great,” she says.

Cue the spirit fingers.

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