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English High headmaster to leave troubled school

The headmaster at the long-troubled English High School in Jamaica Plain plans to leave her post as the school is ramping up efforts to prevent a state takeover.

Ligia Noriega-Murphy, appointed with much fanfare last year as the school’s first female headmaster, will return to School Department headquarters, where she will resume working with high schools across the city, said Superintendent Carol R. Johnson.

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When Noriega-Murphy will leave ­English High remains unclear.

Johnson said Noriega-Murphy will continue as English’s headmaster into the next school year, giving the School Department ample time to conduct a national job search for a replacement. That person would then work with Noriega-Murphy for a while before she goes to the central ­office, Johnson said.

“We want to groom someone who will be there for the long term,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Noriega-Murphy’s role at English High was always considered temporary and that the two had an agreement that Noriega-Murphy would return to the superintendent’s leadership team.

Noriega-Murphy has mixed feelings about leaving the school, but is looking forward to working again in a districtwide position.

“If I was going to continue as a headmaster [as a career], I would stay at English,” Noriega-Murphy said. “My heart is with this school. I love this school.”

She said students, faculty, parents, and organizations who work with the school will have a role in selecting a new headmaster.

The impending change in headmasters comes at a critical time for English High. The school is one of nine under­performing schools statewide that could become the first to face a takeover under a 2010 state law, which clarified confusion over whether state education officials had the power to seize control of individual schools deemed unable to properly educate students.

A decision on receivership could come as early as this fall.

But the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, Mitchell Chester, has offered schools one more chance to redeem themselves: They can work with a nonprofit educational organization to run the schools under a new state-approved turnaround plan.

Boston is looking to pair English High with Blueprint Schools Network, a Newton nonprofit achieving success with low-achieving schools in Denver. The organization would also work with another school at risk of takeover, the Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy in Hyde Park.

Repeated efforts to fix ­English High, which has operated under threat of state takeover for several years, have failed.

In an effort to jump-start English’s overhaul, Johnson ­installed Noriega-Murphy as headmaster last June, after its previous leader, Sito Narcisse, took a job out of state.

Johnson believed that Noriega-Murphy had the requisite skills to get the job done: She was Boston’s assistant academic superintendent for high schools and previously led a well-respected pilot high school.

“We deployed her immediately because we thought the situation was urgent,” said Johnson, adding that she appre­ciated Noriega-Murphy’s willingness to step in.

The task she confronted was a big one. State standardized test scores and dropout rates were sliding at alarming rates. The state halted more than $900,000 in federal funds for this school year because of the declining results, leaving Noriega-­Murphy with significantly less money to turn around the school.

The school also suffered from high turnover in teaching staff, and many students were acting out or falling asleep in class, according to a state ­review last year.

Noriega-Murphy quickly ­established order, putting an emphasis on student discipline and conduct, and dismantled several unpopular educational approaches pursued by the former headmaster, such as gender-­classrooms and segregating students by grade level.

It will not be known for several months what impact those changes have on state measures of school performance, such as MCAS scores and dropout rates, which are generally ­released the following school year.

But Noriega-Murphy quickly won praise from staff members, students, and supporters.

“She has been a hard worker and truly cares about English High,” said Maria Colon-Brown, the school’s registrar, who has worked at English for 18 years. “She has done so much in the little time she has been at ­English.”

Peter Powilatis — trustee of the English High School Association, an alumni group — said that Noriega-Murphy is a ­superb headmaster and that he wishes she would stay.

“She really got everyone on one path,” Powilatis said. “It was not easy.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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