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Two Boston schools face takeover after MCAS results

Governor Deval Patrick greeted a student at Orchard Gardens K-8 in Roxbury on Wednesday.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Governor Deval Patrick greeted a student at Orchard Gardens K-8 in Roxbury on Wednesday.

Four underperforming schools, including two in Boston, are facing state takeovers, education officials announced Wednesday as they released the latest round of MCAS scores. But there was also some good news: Scores on 10th grade exams have hit historic highs.

The takeovers would mark the first time state education officials have ever seized control of individual schools without putting an entire district into receivership. The move highlights the dire state of education in the four schools: Morgan Elementary in Holyoke; Parker Elementary in New Bedford; and the Dever Elementary and the Holland Elementary in Boston.

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While state education officials have not officially decided to take over the four schools, Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, characterized the action as “very likely” this fall. It would enable him to appoint a receiver to develop and execute a new turnaround plan, which could force out teachers and administrators.

“These are four schools I’m highly concerned about,” Chester said in an interview. “Our students deserve and need a better shot than what they are getting now.”

The four schools were among 35 statewide that were declared underperforming three years ago under a 2010 state law that gave districts extraordinary powers to execute school turnarounds, such as forcing teachers out of their jobs, extending the school day, and making other union contract changes.

Fourteen of those schools have made so much progress that education officials on Wednesday removed their underperforming designations. The schools included five in Boston: Orchard Gardens K-8, Harbor Middle, J.F. Kennedy Elementary, Blackstone Elementary, and Trotter Elementary.

But turnaround efforts in the other underperforming schools are considered either too fragile to sustain on their own or have been sliding backward, despite receiving millions of dollars in federal school-overhaul funds.

In addition to the four schools slated for takeovers, seven other schools, including English High and the Greenwood Leadership Academy in Boston, had to bring in outside partners in recent months to help run the schools to avoid state receivership, while a school in Fall River recently shut down as well as another in Boston in 2011.

Overall, MCAS results from this past spring were mixed.

Tenth grade by far was the big standout — 91 percent of students scored proficient or higher in English and 80 percent reached those levels in math. Students at other grade levels, except sixth grade, also saw their scores rise in math.

But English in the lower grades remains an area of high concern for state officials. Grades three and four each saw a 4 percentage point decline from the previous year. Just 57 percent of third-graders scored proficient or higher -- an early barometer of whether students will excel or struggle as they progress through school.

For much of the past decade, English scores in the lower grades have been stagnant, raising questions about the quality of literacy programs statewide. Chester said the state and schools need to refocus their efforts there.

John McDonough, interim superintendent for the Boston schools, said he was proud that five previously underperforming schools no longer carry that designation. In fact, improvement was so robust at two schools, Orchard Gardens and the Trotter, that they now rank among the best schools in the state.

But McDonough also expressed concern that three-year efforts to turn around six other schools did not yield strong enough results.

“It is the responsibility of the Boston public schools to ensure success for all students in all schools,” McDonough said. “We all rise and fall together.”

Boston’s School Department sent out letters and automated phone calls to parents at the Dever and the Holland, both in Dorchester, to notify them of the potential takeovers. In the coming weeks, state officials will meet with staff and parents at the schools to discuss what the future holds.

In New Bedford, Superintendent Pia Durkin said the School Department has already moved aggressively to make changes at the Parker School this fall, appointing a new principal, replacing half the teachers, adding 3.5 hours to the school week and bringing in a new literacy program.

But she said she is willing to accept whatever decision the state makes on a takeover.

“I think this is new territory for the Department of Education,” Durkin said.

Holyoke Superintendent Sergio Páez said in a statement said he was looking forward to working with Chester to accelerate achievement.

“School and district leaders and staff have worked to improve the school’s performance, but we have fallen short of ambitious goals for turnaround,” Paez said. ”

State education officials are moving to take over the schools under a 2010 state law that made clear that they had the authority to seize control of individual schools deemed unable to properly educate students without having to put the entire district into receivership.

Governor Deval Patrick and key legislative leaders pushed aggressively for the law change. But the resulting authority came with one hitch: School districts would have at least three years to turn around those schools themselves before ceding control to the state.

“When given tools and control, most of these districts and schools can make the progress they need to make, but there are exceptions,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “I think clearly there are some schools that need to be taken over.”

In making the announcement, state officials preferred to keep the focus on the positive news of the day, scheduling a press event at Orchard Gardens to highlight that school’s success. Students greeted Patrick in the entryway, and he then visited two classrooms — sitting at one point in the back of an eighth-grade math class on “implicit and explicit values.”

“I was on the edge of my seat worried you would call on me,” Patrick confessed to the teacher.

During the press conference, Patrick noted the historic high on the 10th-grade exams and highlighted increases in scores among African-American and Hispanic students, but noted that gaps in achievement still exist between students of different backgrounds.

He also applauded Orchard Gardens’ progress, and said how proud he was to accompany a class of the school’s first-graders to the White House last year, where they recited Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech for President Obama.

“We have a lot to be proud of, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Patrick said. “There are still poor children, there still children who speak English as a second language, there still children with special needs not getting all they need. That shows up in MCAS results.”

But Patrick added, “We have to keep trying new things.’’

Chester stressed that even though 60 percent of the original underperforming schools retain that designation, many are making good progress.

During lunch, eighth-grader Ceili Lemus, 14, said she was thrilled that Orchard Gardens has skyrocketed to one of the best schools in the state. Ceili, who has attended the school since second grade, credited the success to hard work and other factors, such as changing most of the teachers at the school.

“It feels like a completely different school,” Ceili said. “Our school feels very proud.”

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

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