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Schools facing takeover reflect on obstacles

Three years ago, principal Michael Sabin set out to accomplish a herculean task in public education: turn around a persistently low-performing school.

He replaced many of the teachers at the Dever Elementary School in Dorchester, added an hour to the school day, and brought in a number of outside partners.

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But at the same time, then-Superintendent Carol R. Johnson added to Sabin’s challenge by also naming him principal of neighboring McCormack Middle School, which connects to Dever by an overhead bridge and was also beset by poor performance. The idea was to create a single K-8 school that would boast more than 1,200 students and a solid academic record.

The task, however, proved to be insurmountable. The state, after giving it just three years to improve, is moving to take over Dever, along with the Holland Elementary in Dorchester and two schools in other cities, citing lackluster MCAS scores. The proposed takeovers would mark the first time the state has ever seized control of an individual school from a district.

Dever’s shortcomings offer insight into why some underperforming schools fail to make rapid gains despite more funding, attention, and effort, while others succeed. In the case of Dever, it appears the School Department expected too much at once.

At Holland, the problems are still being sorted out. But a state site-visit report this year highlighted one possibility: While administrators and teachers earned high marks for addressing myriad socioeconomic issues among students, many from crime-plagued neighborhoods, they were confused about how to tailor individualized lessons for them.

In an interview Thursday, John McDonough, Boston’s interim superintendent, said merging Dever and McCormack while Dever was under a state-imposed deadline to improve in three years was “a heavy burden” and there were conversations during that time between the schools and the superintendent’s office about the enormity of the tasks.

But he added, “Did it cause us to pull back? No, it did not.”

“We didn’t meet the benchmarks. There are no excuses,” McDonough said.

“Our direction is to move forward. We will take whatever measures that are required to ensure that every student who goes to the Holland and the Dever has every opportunity for success as individuals and as a school community. That is our job now and that is what we will focus on,” he added.

Dever and Holland were among 35 schools statewide to be the first declared “underperforming” under a 2010 state law, shortly after its enactment. Fourteen of those schools shed their underperforming designation this week, including five in Boston.

The designations, although bad for a school’s publicity, came with big money. Dever received $2.3 million in federal school-improvement funds during the past three years; Holland got $2.9 million.

The designations also gave school administrators extraordinary powers to turn around performance, enabling them to force out teachers, extend the school day, and make other changes to teacher union contracts.

Sabin said that when Johnson approached him about merging the two schools he thought it was a good idea, noting the School Department had talked about it for decades and that many families have children at both schools. Having it function as one entity would be easier for all, he said.

But he added, “No question it was a challenge. Change comes slower in a large school. It slowed down the turnaround.”

MCAS results have been uneven in the past three years, rising and falling at Dever and slipping at McCormack.

Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, characterized the results at both schools in an interview as “anemic.” (The state has never officially recognized the merger because of the bureaucratic oversight that came with Dever’s “underperforming” status.)

“The bottom line for me is student learning and have we seen it progress,” Chester said. “The answer is no.”

On the third grade MCAS in reading — a key barometer for future success in school — just 16 percent of Dever students scored proficient or higher this spring, down from 24 percent the previous year.

Turning around a school such as Dever is considered an all-consuming task, and so is merging two schools. But there were even more large-scale initiatives underway.

At Dever, Sabin and the staff were creating a dual-language program, in which students learn in both English and Spanish, and at McCormack, they eventually rolled out an extended day.

Sabin, though, has beaten the odds before. He orchestrated a turnaround of the once-troubled Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, extending the day to increase instructional time and opportunities in art and music,.

Sabin said he stands behind the changes that were made at Dever-McCormack, and said achievement would be stronger this year.

If there was anything he would have done differently, he said, it would be to bring in an outside organization to help recruit teachers, because he did not anticipate how many vacancies would occur on such a large teaching staff.

“I feel disappointed we didn’t move faster,” Sabin said. But he added, “I do think it’s fair to say we were managing some long-term projects.’’

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