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Adrian Walker

Frustrating, in any language

The teachers and staff at the Dever Elementary School in Dorchester recently got terrible, though not completely unexpected, news: They should prepare to get fired.

Well, not fired, exactly, but likely to lose their current jobs. Because their “turnaround school” has not turned around quickly enough to satisfy state regulators, the staff has been informed that they will have to reapply for their jobs, or for other jobs in the system.

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Dever is one of four schools in Massachusetts headed for receivership. Many will tell you that this is an injustice, and that the school is nowhere near one of the four worst schools in Massachusetts. It is, in fact, a school that is showing steady signs of improvement. But it has not hit the benchmarks dictated by state regulations, and simply doing better is not good enough.

This is a palpable source of frustration to Sarah McLaughlin, the school’s hugely dedicated first-year principal. She makes no excuses for the school’s performance, but is steadfast in her belief that the state is about to pull the plug on reforms that are, in fact, working. MCAS scores have improved, and other testing also indicates that more students are performing at their grade levels.

“A lot of good things are happening in the building.” McLaughlin said. “Attendance is up. The climate is far better. Behavior incidents are way down. The things we’ve tried to put in place are working. Achievement is moving.” But the state’s intervention continues anyway.

Five years ago, the Dever became a dual-language school, meaning that its nearly 600 students get half their instruction in English and half in Spanish. About 60 percent of them speak either Spanish or Vietnamese at home. They come with the litany of challenges, like poverty and some form of state involvement in their lives, that are typical in many urban schools.

“What I know of dual language and understand is that it’s the best way to educate students who don’t speak English as their first language,” McLaughlin said. “Teaching them in their native language as well as English has proved to work over the longer term. But it’s not an immediate fix. It’s an open question whether dual language and turnaround [status] coexist well.”

McLaughlin is well versed in the problems of turnaround schools. Before she went to the Dever as an administrator four years ago, she worked for the state Department of Education as part of a team that went into troubled schools and provided advice and support. After seven years as a bureaucrat, she wanted to work in a school, solving problems instead of just offering advice.

How receivership will work is unclear, because no schools have reached this stage. No one knows whether the school will retain its dual-language program, or focus on something else entirely.

Turnaround schools receive extra money for things like tutoring and extending the school day, but, oddly, that is eliminated when the school goes into receivership. How that helps improve a school is anyone’s guess.

Much of the way forward will be decided by Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of education. He attended a night meeting with parents and staff a year ago, but McLaughlin says she would love to have him see the school in operation, and introduce him to her students and teachers, if only to be better informed about what the school really needs.

Amid the uncertainty, parents and teachers alike are in the process of deciding whether to attempt to stay at the school they have so much invested in. But what the future holds for the school may not be clear for months.

In the meantime, McLaughlin says, she and her staff are focused on the only thing they can control: teaching their students. “The best thing we can do is have a great year and tell everybody what we did.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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