here wasn’t much to cheer about four years ago at the Charlotte M. Murkland Elementary School in Lowell.
English and math scores were so low, the school was rated Level 4, just one step away from a state takeover.
Instead, the Murkland — helped by an infusion of federal funds and a transformation plan — reinvented itself. The school culture now celebrates excellence. Teachers work in teams toward common goals. “Expect the Best,” is the school motto.
And there is a school cheer, penned by the principal, that reflects those new goals:
C = Commitment to Growth
H = Hope
E = Expectations
E = Energy and Enthusiasm
R = Results
When MCAS results were announced last September, the Murkland had catapulted to Level 1 — the top of the state’s academic scale — because over three years, scores of the school’s students had improved significantly compared to their peers across the state.
As the new school year starts on Tuesday, the Murkland is hoping to build on the momentum.
“We love to see all the smiling faces come through the door,” said assistant principal Kevin Andriolo, over the chatter of youngsters attending the school’s Summer Academy. “You have to be ready to go, and start right away.”
A top state educator gives the school’s turnaround a gold star.
“Quite honestly, the work at Murkland is exceptional,” said Alan Ingram, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “They’ve been relentless in their approach to setting high expectations and motivating students and staff.”
The change was neither swift nor easy.
It followed a painful rethinking of the culture and expectations of a school where 94 percent of the students are low-income, according to state data. The Acre is a neighborhood populated mostly by Asian and Hispanic immigrant families.
“We had to look in the mirror and take responsibility for what our kids were doing,” said Jason DiCarlo, the principal appointed in 2010 to lead the turnaround. “The staff here always associated itself with the neighborhood. ‘You’d hear, ‘Oh, I teach at the Murkland, in the Acre.’ . . . We had to get out of that mindset. The school is not dependent on the neighborhood.”
The Murkland received a $1.5 million federal grant, and was required to choose one of four federal models to improve student achievement. Officials opted for a transformational model that required expanded learning time and teacher training.
The former principal was removed, but teachers were allowed to stay. Only a few chose to leave — and in fact, some longtime Lowell teachers asked to be transferred to the struggling Murkland, DiCarlo said.
“Everyone knew it was a tough school, but I had also heard great things about it,” said Artie Goor, a teacher for 18 years, the last four at Murkland. “I wanted a challenge. I knew there would be a lot of pressure. . . . There are times when it has been exhausting, but the fourth grade teachers work as a team. We really collaborate.”
DiCarlo said he never doubted the Murkland staff.
“We believed the staff was completely competent and capable of doing an amazing job,” said DiCarlo, who is starting his fifth year at the school. “We don’t have any outside consultants. We don’t have any outside agencies. We don’t have a management company.”
A longer school day was ruled out, too.
“Our feeling was, ‘Let’s get good at the six hours we’re here in school,’ ” DiCarlo said.
Class periods were lengthened. An extra 3½ hours of professional development for faculty — including 90 minutes after school Thursday — was added each week, DiCarlo said.
“With the money we got, we invested in teacher time,” he said. “The teacher is key. You want to do everything you can to support them.”
Teachers must collaborate, and there are teaching coaches to work with the staff on common planning time and data analysis. Every new teacher gets a coach, too.
“It was a wonderful support,” third-year teacher Melissa Correia said of her first year at Murkland. “I team-taught with one [coach]. Every day, we would collaborate and talk about how we were teaching.”
Classroom instruction aims to meet the needs of each student at Murkland, where 36.8 percent of the students during the 2013-14 school year were English language learners, according to state data.
“It’s our belief that you have to know every single child in your classroom and what their needs are,” said Andriolo, a former math teacher/specialist. “There used to be a one-size-fits-all approach here. The idea was to ‘follow this script and your students will learn.’ But we found that didn’t always produce the best results for all of our students.”
A rigorous curriculum stresses critical thinking. Students are expected to probe deeply into the logic behind a fraction, or into the motives of a main character in a story. Teachers must talk to students to make sure they understand the lesson.
“We don’t want children who can just memorize and spit out facts,” said Andriolo. “We want our students to really apply what they’re learning in unique ways.”
At the school’s Summer Academy, about 100 students brushed up on math and reading skills.
A group of third-graders sat listening carefully to Orlando Torres, a new teacher, discuss some of the nine books they read this summer. “Our focus this summer has been about characters,” said Torres, who will be teaching third grade this year.
“At certain points in the story we stop and I have them think for themselves, or turn to a partner, and talk about what they think about the character.”
Dominic Mann, 8, sat jotting down ideas about the motivations of Jeremy, the main character in “Those Shoes.”
“I wanted to go to summer school,” Mann said confidently, as he wrote his best ideas on yellow sticky notes. “I want to be smarter and learn a lot of things.”
In a classroom next door, youngsters were quietly reading books.
“They are eager to learn,” Goor said. “I’ve tried to match books to their interest. It’s essential that they become better readers and understand the text better.”
Akia Jackson, 9,sat reading “I Survived The Bombing of Pearl Harbor, 1941.”
“It’s about a fake character, because it’s historical fiction,” the fourth-grader said confidently. “I think it was good because it was telling me what happened in Pearl Harbor. It was very bad, back in the day.”Kathy McCabe can be reached at katherine.mccabe@globe.
com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.