It sounds like an urban fairy tale, at least in Boston: A new superintendent with a visionary plan transforms a low-achieving school almost overnight, turning it into a shining success story emulated by admirers far beyond the city.
But the story is a warning, too, with no fairy-tale ending. For in Boston — a system then and now in desperate need of transformation — the magic that happened in one Roxbury school was never fully embraced or widely replicated.
This stunning collision between unexpected excellence and inescapable inertia really happened, in the heart of the city from the late 1980s into the 1990s, at the James P. Timilty Middle School. And as the Timilty prepares to close for good this June — part of a move by Boston Public Schools to do away with all its middle schools — its history of breathtaking improvement and subsequent decline offers urgent lessons for a district still struggling to transform itself.
“It had a rich legacy as a cornerstone of the Roxbury community, and it became a beacon for the schools in Boston, and beyond,” said Roger Harris, a former Timilty principal who traveled to Europe during his tenure to teach educators there the school’s approach. “Everyone wanted to understand how we did it, turning underprivileged kids into high achievers.”
Some 35 years later, that six-word summary of all the school accomplished — turning underprivileged kids into high achievers — still holds an almost mystical allure. Yet the memory of its triumph is unsettling, too, and keenly painful: because the system that created it allowed it to be lost.
To pull off this unlikely reinvention, a brand-new superintendent, Laval Wilson — the first Black leader of the city’s schools, hired in 1985 and fired five years later — had to sell a radical plan to extend the school day at the Timilty by two hours and add a half-day on Saturdays, an expansion modeled on school schedules in Japan. It required tense negotiations with the Boston Teachers Union and a costly district commitment to boost teacher salaries at the Timilty by $7,000 to $10,000 per year.
Then school leaders instilled an entirely new, collaborative approach, pushing teachers who had long operated independently into close and constant conversation with their colleagues. Bit by bit, they remade the school’s culture, replacing the chaotic bell system with silent, orderly hallway transitions, and later enforcing a new student dress code of white shirts, ties, and khakis. One by one, in face-to-face meetings, they convinced each parent or guardian to send their child to school on Saturdays.
“Some of them wanted their kids home to baby-sit siblings,” said Chuck McAfee, who helped remake the school as a young teacher. “I remember telling them, ‘You’re going to deprive your child of the best education because you need to go shopping? Go shopping later.’”
The payoff was dramatic, and it happened stunningly fast. Student attendance and teacher morale surged, as did family engagement, educators and researchers reported at the time, while rates of discipline fell. By 1987 — one year into the experiment — student scores on the standardized Metropolitan Achievement Test had already registered double-digit improvement: 17 points for Timilty sixth-graders and 19 points for seventh-graders, according to coverage in the Globe.
“Politicians say they want better test scores, but you need a system in place to make it happen, and it needs to be sustained over time,” said Wilson, the former Boston superintendent, now retired, in a recent interview. “You need staff development, planning time, an extended day, and a strong focus on literacy. … With those things, and with staff and parent support, it’s been proven you can get results.”
At the Timilty, the city saw firsthand how school success could happen. It would also see how hard it was to make it last.
Tucked into Roxbury’s Eliot Square, a historic neighborhood of wide brick sidewalks and graceful open spaces, the Timilty School fits seamlessly between adjacent landmarks. Across the street from its worn wooden front doors, the First Church of Roxbury dominates the hilltop, a classic white-clapboard meetinghouse on a site first established by English settlers in 1631. Next door, almost touching the school, the Dillaway-Thomas House is an exquisitely preserved 18th-century home and tavern, now an elegant museum, that was headquarters for the Continental Army in 1775 during the Siege of Boston.
The towering brick schoolhouse, built in 1937 to house grades 7 through 9, opened its doors as the nation’s Second Great Migration began sending waves of Black Americans from the South to the North, remaking Roxbury as a center of Black life and culture. The school’s enrollment evolved from mostly white to mostly Black and Hispanic, while its influential educators of color, including the legendary football coach Fred Gumbs, inspired Black students who had never known Black teachers before.
Among them were Barbara Fields, later the director of the BPS office for equity, and Albert Holland, future headmaster of Jeremiah E. Burke High School, both of whom attended “the Tim” in the 1960s and found diverse mentors and role models there.
“We were in awe of them,” Fields recalled. “We didn’t want to disappoint them.”
By the 1980s, though, poverty, crack cocaine, and crime had taken a harsh toll on Roxbury. At the Timilty, now a middle school for grades 6 through 8, the students ranked among the poorest in the city, and the likeliest to be coping with trauma and violence at home; their academic underachievement and discipline problems earned the once-proud school a reputation as one of the “worst” in the city, according to news coverage at the time.
There seemed little to lose when first-time principal Mary Grassa O’Neill signed the Timilty up for a pilot program, Project Promise, dreamed up by the brand-new superintendent. Many were skeptical of her leadership — an untested white administrator, the product of parochial schools and mother of twin toddlers — but the Dorchester native earned unflinching loyalty. She was no rookie, with 14 years of BPS middle school teaching experience and three as a curriculum adviser, a relentless hands-on style, and a gift for motivation that made her a “laid-back Vince Lombardi among principals,” according to one 1980s story.
Still, almost no one believed it would work.
“Everyone laughed at us,” O’Neill said in an interview. “They called it a boondoggle. … No one was doing extra [class] time then.”
Some teachers fled the school and its new demands. Most stayed, adapted, and found themselves reenergized by their shared mission. The key, said O’Neill, now a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, was not to draft a 100-page plan that ended up in a drawer, but to pick one simple, easy-to-articulate goal and then build joint ownership of it, so everyone felt responsible for its achievement.
“You could have asked anyone there, any teacher, any student, what the school stood for, and they could tell you: reading, writing, math, across the curriculum,” she said. “The home ec teacher had to show how she was adding reading, writing, and math — same thing in gym class. It was like rowing, everyone in the boat going in the same direction, getting stronger.”
Tremendous energy went to cultivate community engagement. O’Neill established a dynamic partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital that sent Timilty students to MGH weekly to shadow health care professionals. She launched the school’s signature pen pal program, Promising Pals, which flourished for decades. As generations of students penned letters to influential Bostonians, they learned the importance of writing — while also putting the school on the radar of powerful policy makers.
Administrators also gave teachers more authority and flexibility, allowing them to adjust schedules or structures to accommodate their own creative vision. School leaders cultivated respect for students, too, eliminating daily bag searches and adding a dizzying array of extracurriculars, each with its own emphasis on excellence: The double Dutch jump rope team advanced to national competition while the trivia team knocked off rival schools around the city, and young Timilty scientists, their skills honed at MGH, scored upset victories at citywide science fairs.
“It was like our version of an exam school, for families who wouldn’t have had a chance at a rigorous education,” said Donkor Minors, who attended in the mid-1990s and later worked as a BPS teacher and administrator. “And though it was rigorous, it was also communal and loving, and made us want to be there. … It catapulted me into a whole other trajectory.”
There was plenty of pushback at the start. But when the plan worked, and the boat picked up speed, everything came easier. “We showed, when people pull together, what a difference you can make,” said O’Neill.
In many ways, the approach that allowed the Timilty to thrive mirrored the “middle school movement” then sweeping the country. An educational philosophy dating back to the 1960s, holding that students in the so-called middle grades have unique needs, it spread like wildfire in the 1980s, as more cities and suburbs embraced ideas first championed by education professor William Alexander, and created separate schools custom-made for 10- to15-year-olds.
Developmentally, those children undergo more rapid change — physical, physiological, and cognitive — than in any other stage besides infancy, said Mary Beth Schaefer, an associate professor of adolescent education at St. John’s University. And that time is also critical in their education.
“The stakes could not be higher for this age group,” Schaefer said. “Middle school is where it happens, where they either learn to do school well, or to drop out. … It’s pivotal, and people still don’t realize it.”
The core elements of the classic middle school model advocated by Alexander — team teaching and integrated curriculum; innovative scheduling and student engagement — were crucial to the Timilty’s success. By the mid-1990s, when a young Andrea Campbell arrived there, the future city councilor found a space that nurtured her and made her feel safe, even as it pushed her to raise her expectations and reimagine her future.
Campbell’s childhood had been shaped by tragedy and trauma, her mother’s death in an accident and her father’s incarceration. As a driven sixth-grader at the Timilty, she said, her math teacher urged her to apply to Boston’s prestigious exam schools.
A decade earlier, it would have been an unthinkable reach for a Timilty kid — but things had changed. Campbell applied to Boston Latin School, and got in. Her next stop was Princeton University.
“To say the school was an important influence would be an understatement,” said Campbell, the first Black woman to serve as Boston’s city council president, and now a candidate for attorney general. “The Timilty demonstrated that you could take children who were dealing with trauma and instability and provide what they needed right in their own community. … It’s a model that should be used across Boston and the state.”
A decade into its ascent, the school had earned a glowing reputation. There was a waiting list for admission, said Roger Harris, who took over from O’Neill as principal, and doubled down on Project Promise, when she was recruited to be an assistant superintendent. Its leaders twice traveled to Washington, D.C., to collect National Blue Ribbon School awards for excellence, in 1989 and 1994, and its program was used as a model for a new Boston charter school, Roxbury Prep.
But as the accolades piled up, the model that drew national attention still was not fully embraced by BPS. Only two other Boston middle schools, Cleveland and Thompson — both now closed — adopted elements of the approach. Three years into the Timilty experiment, the district’s budget chief estimated it would cost $9 million to replicate its program at all 20 middle schools in the city. But he pointed out, in an interview at the time, how many other things could be done with that much money, and questioned the return on the Timilty investment.
The district’s baffling inaction and ambivalence left the Timilty vulnerable to attack. Its success spurred envy from schools elsewhere in the city, and grumbling about its extra cost. When Wilson, its original champion, was forced out by the School Committee in 1990, the school lost a powerful advocate, and its critics gained ground. “Attitudes changed,” Harris said. “It was seen as a financial burden instead of innovative.”
Around the country, other thriving middle schools have faced the same pressure. Many also saw their programs downsized and diluted.
“It’s hard work, and it costs a lot of money to do it right,” said Schaefer, the education professor. “And when it’s not implemented in a holistic way, it can look like a disaster.””
Boston’s decision to eliminate its middle schools dates back to 2018, when then-Superintendent Tommy Chang made the case that students and families needed fewer transitions to new schools. Since then, declining city enrollments and deteriorating facilities have given the district more reasons to close aging buildings and consolidate students at fewer campuses.
After closing the Timilty and the Washington Irving School in Roslindale this June, the district will have two remaining middle schools, the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester and UP Academy in South Boston, a so-called in-district charter. Most students will have the option of transitioning between schools only once, from a K-6 or K-8 campus to one serving grades 7-12 or 9-12.
Amy Ellen Schwartz is among the researchers who see a real cost to school transitions, one that may outweigh the benefits of separate middle schools.
“Kids in a new school are dislocated, with new rules and peers and different levels of preparation,” said Schwartz, economics chair at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. “There’s robust research showing that transition has a cost in academics. … I like the K-8 model, and I do think moving kids around can be a problem.”
Many urban districts, including those in Newark, N.J., Baltimore, and Philadelphia, have dismantled middle schools in the last two decades. In Cambridge, though, administrators went the other way, consolidating middle grades to address an enrollment drop-off in sixth grade. The change allowed more sports and clubs for grades 6-8 than otherwise would have been viable, at a time in their development when such pursuits take on new importance.
Educators agree that what matters most, for students and for school success, is meeting the needs of students in the middle grades, regardless of which buildings they are placed in. It’s clear that was the strength of the Timilty, which sparkled well into the 1990s in a structure built before World War II began, fueled by an ingenious blend of daring and compassion, uncompromising expectations and high-octane school spirit.
As they prepare to send some sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders back into elementary schools this fall, and others into high schools, it remains unclear exactly how BPS administrators plan to meet those students’ unique needs. Details on the transitions have been lightly discussed at public meetings, though recent investments in school social workers and family liaisons may help.
Some parents are wary and lament that their children are facing more disruption in the wake of the pandemic.
“Kids haven’t been back in school that long, they’re relearning social skills and rebuilding their community, and now they have to start over again,” said Andira Ture, whose son, a Timilty sixth-grader, is still waiting to hear where he will go next year. “I wish it could be more intentional, like, are there ways to keep Timilty students together?”
In some ways, the Timilty is a school frozen in time. The antique radiators still hiss as they overheat the hallways, driving teachers to crack their classroom windows; the trophy cases outside the principal’s office are still crammed with gleaming hardware. An unused classroom has recently been converted into a kind of school museum — known here as the “legacy room” — to hold the overflow and to give visitors who show up to pay their last respects a space in which to reminisce, and say farewell.
But while many students here still dress with Timilty pride in burgundy sweats that bear the school’s name in gold letters, the hallways seem too quiet. Once a coveted placement, the school’s enrollment plummeted from 700 a decade ago to just 200 this year, a decline partly driven by its flagging fortunes and partly engineered by the district to soften the blow of its closing.
As it enrolled fewer students overall, and larger concentrations of English learners and students with disabilities, its test scores plummeted, too. In the last four years, the percentage of eighth-graders not meeting expectations on the state MCAS exam rose 10 points in English, from 28 to 38 percent, and more than 20 points in math, from 31 to 54 percent, according to state data.
The school’s signature pen pal program, suspended for the pandemic, will have one last celebration this spring, but there are no more Saturday classes; no more competitive jump rope and trivia teams. Some teachers and parents with recent experience at the school describe a chaotic environment, abusive student behaviors, and low morale driven lower by the looming closure.
“There was so much turnover, no continuity, no institutional memory,” said Paavo Carey, who taught music there for two years before leaving for a new job last fall. “The students looked at you with mistrust. ... They would say, ‘You coming back next year, mister?’ The assumption was, you wouldn’t.”
For those who knew and loved the school in its golden age, and believe it changed their lives, the erosion feels personal, and devastating.
“I’m not going to lie — it’s a tragedy,” said Donkor Minors, who attended in sixth grade and returned to teach there 10 years later. “That place was life for me.”
Encouraged by his teachers at the Timilty, Minors won a scholarship to a private high school. He graduated from college with a passion for literature and became a teacher; in 2006, his sixth-grade English teacher invited him back to work at his old middle school.
It was, he said, “an American dream for a kid from the hood.”
But the school he returned to was not the same one he had known. Its focus had shifted to enforcing discipline, he said; the vibrant, diverse extracurricular culture and its synergy with demanding classes, the integrated “whole child” approach, had faded. Some change was inevitable in a decade. But the young teacher wondered, then as he does now, why leaders didn’t hold on tighter to the values that once made it such a standout.
“The question,” he said, “is how to create a legacy for things that do work.”
It’s a question Boston is still grappling with.
An abrupt change in leadership opened the door to the Timilty’s decline. In 1990, in one of its last acts as an elected body, the city’s School Committee fired Wilson, the superintendent who started Project Promise. The dismissal, by a majority who blamed his failure to act as a “team player,” sparked angry protests and accusations of racism. Within two years, the Timilty’s Saturday classes came to an end. As its success slowly ebbed, and as the city’s school assignment process changed, it drew fewer students from across the district.
Chuck McAfee fought to hang onto the Timilty’s success, wondering all the while why some schools always had to fight.
“Every year someone would say, ‘They have more than we do’; every year we had to fight and rally to hold on,” the former teacher recalled. “And I would always say, ‘They don’t have to do this at Boston Latin School’.”
If the district had replicated the Timilty’s approach at more schools, he said, it would have been less of a target. “There weren’t enough neighborhoods saying, ‘We want what they have,’” said McAfee, who later helped transform other struggling Boston schools as a principal. “People were knocking it down instead of demanding the same.’”
Standing in the legacy room at the school one recent morning, surrounded by trophies lined up six deep, stacks of old yearbooks, and black-and-white photographs in yellowing albums, longtime Timilty teacher Cheryl Ashley said she planned to retire last year to avoid the pain of the closing, but in the end, “I couldn’t bear not to be here.”
Asked what people should remember of the school, she gestures toward a handmade banner on the wall. It doesn’t list the record-setting test scores or awards, but the basic building blocks that educators stacked, day after day, to reach those heights.
“The work,” she said. “The work we did together.”