IN THE SPRING OF 2020, Michael Emery, then a junior at the Mary Lyon Pilot High School in Brighton, fell back into an old habit — cutting class. He wasn’t alone: As the reality of the pandemic set in, schools across the country saw a decline in attendance as they pivoted to remote learning.
For Emery, who has ADHD and bipolar disorder, learning over Zoom was daunting. It was hard to focus in his bedroom, where he was used to relaxing, and the isolation exacerbated his mental health issues. During class, he often turned off his video and went back to sleep. He easily could have dropped out; many students in Boston and elsewhere did.
Such a path would have been disastrous for Emery, who, during his freshman year, went through a similar stretch of cutting class. Back then, a social worker at the Mary Lyon — where more than a third of the students have special needs — intervened, helping Emery see himself as a young man with leadership potential. Emery got back on track, building strong relationships with teachers and social workers and becoming a standout in basketball and football.
That was the kind of school the Mary Lyon was, Emery would be reminded in his junior year. A tightly knit community, including educators, parents, and peers, was there to help. A “full inclusion school,” the Mary Lyon was built to give all students — those with special needs, particularly emotional and behavioral disabilities, and those without — the best possible chance to learn in a supportive, integrated environment.
But with each skipped class, Emery’s social and academic progress went further into jeopardy. Similarly, the Mary Lyon itself could have gone down the path of so many other schools during the pandemic: plummeting attendance and academic outcomes, especially among high needs groups such as low-income students, English learners, students with disabilities, and students of color.
But then, something happened. When Emery was missing from a Zoom class, he would get a call from someone at the school. The same check-ins were expected of him: When his ninth-grade mentee — who he was paired with through a peer leadership program — was missing, the student would hear from Emery.
Against all odds, the Mary Lyon was mobilizing, leaning on the community-based structures and inclusive philosophy that make the school a unique experience in the Boston Public Schools system.
The result was nothing short of remarkable, validating the Mary Lyon’s approach — and offering a model for the district as it attempts to recover from the pandemic and transition to district-wide inclusive education.
Leaders at the school attribute their success to a community-based approach that pre-dates the pandemic. While other schools were trying to figure out how their students’ home lives affected their ability to attend Zoom classes, Lyon staffers already had parents’ phone numbers, knew which families lived close together, and could lean on engaged students to help their less-engaged peers stay connected.
“That is what makes the Mary Lyon special,” says Elaine Meehan, a parent of a student at the school. “They deal with really scary stuff sometimes. This [pandemic] was another scary thing, and they know how to deal with it. That’s something all schools could use.”
THE MARY LYON HIGH SCHOOL is part of a continuum of schools that begins with kindergarten. The lower school was founded as a K-5 in 1992 by Mary Nash, a former teacher who began her career teaching students with emotional disabilities. In the 1980s, Nash coordinated programs for such students in Boston Public Schools, and found success supporting them in small clusters. Far more challenging, however, was integrating them into general classrooms.
“It was very difficult moving students back into the regular education setting. There weren’t the supports needed for students to succeed and thrive,” Nash recalls. “There was a lot of concern that they would ‘contaminate’ the regular ed environment with bad behaviors.”
The umbrella term “emotional and behavioral disabilities” can include anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and severe ADHD. Students with such diagnoses are often enrolled in segregated, private schools. In Boston, they may also end up at the McKinley Schools, a group of special education schools so challenged that they are specifically targeted by the recently-imposed state improvement plan.
Mary Nash, who later went on to serve eight years as a superintendent in Maine before retiring, set out to change the paradigm. The initial format at the new Boston school — small classes where one-third of the students had emotional and behavioral disabilities — was based on a gut instinct, Nash says. It stuck. All teachers are trained in both general and special education, and each classroom has either a special education paraprofessional — an “assistant teacher” — or a second lead teacher.
“Our goal was to teach better than any public school anywhere,” Nash says. “It wasn’t good enough to just be good. We had to be the best teachers because it was very, very difficult work.”
Parents of general education students were initially reluctant to enroll their children, Nash says, because of concerns about disruptive behavior. As an incentive, the school offered extended free before- and after-school programming. But after the first school year, the school was able to achieve full enrollment “just from word of mouth,” Nash says, with parents raving about the welcoming environment and sense of community.
Michael Emery would enroll as a freshman years later, after hearing good things from friends. “I liked the fact that it was an inclusive school,” he says. “Whether a kid had a disability, or came from a difficult background, any kid could come to the school and feel like they were part of it.”
The elementary school expanded to include middle school in 1998, and then, in 2008, a group including Herve Anoh — now the school’s headmaster — won approval from the Boston School Committee to expand to a high school, which was established as an autonomous school. The high school now shares its space — in the former home of Garfield Elementary — with the Lyon K-8′s oldest two grades.
When school leaders were founding the high school, there was no model to follow, says Anoh, who began his stint at the Mary Lyon working with the after-school programs. They knew of no one doing school-wide inclusion for the type of students the Mary Lyon specializes in — except for the Mary Lyon K-8. (Even now, Anoh points out, you typically only see such inclusion at the classroom level.) So they sought to become a pilot school, which would offer more freedom to innovate. “We want to do the work nobody wants to do,” Anoh says.
In practice, being autonomous has allowed the Mary Lyon to expand its school hours beyond those seen at the district’s traditional high schools; and staff have three hours of professional development every week — on Wednesdays — compared to 18 hours per year elsewhere. Those hours focus on themes such as developing inclusivity in classrooms, promoting emotional well-being, and simply keeping teachers informed about each other’s work.
JULIEN MARCUSE, a 2019 Mary Lyon graduate, began attending in kindergarten. As public schools are required to do for special-needs students, the school created an individualized education program (IEP) for Marcuse, who struggled with executive dysfunction, which can result in a short attention span, memory challenges, and difficulty understanding social cues.
Particularly helpful to Marcuse was the school’s policy letting students redo assignments; this alleviated stress and gave him space to work on his social skills and pursue outside interests, including computer programming. Marcuse thrived academically, testing into the prestigious Boston Latin Academy — an opportunity he turned down to stay at the Mary Lyon.
“The teachers were very dedicated to helping their students learn,” says Marcuse, who now studies computer science at Champlain College and recently completed an internship at Google. “They did a very good job accommodating kids with learning disabilities. I feel like my time there helped me overcome the challenges I faced with mine — even though mine were much less challenging than some others.”
In absolute terms, Mary Lyon students are far from the district’s highest performing. The school overall posted below-average marks in attendance, test scores, and other measures, before the pandemic and since. But the group of students often face greater obstacles: In addition to those with disabilities, half are economically disadvantaged and around 40 percent speak a first language other than English.
Marcuse’s experience illustrates that the Mary Lyon pays attention to the specific needs of each student. In addition to the IEPs for those with disabilities, “learning profiles” are built for every student and consistently updated.
The profiles “have all kinds of questions that are beyond just ‘ability’ or ‘disability’ or things within the classroom,” says Sean Atcherley, an English teacher. That includes “what the student wants to do in the future, what their family life is, and what their very, very specific needs are.”
Teachers, parents, administrators, social workers, and the students themselves are involved in building the profiles, and they serve a key role through the years, setting new teachers up for success and laying the groundwork for key parts of the Lyon experience, such as one-month internships the students take at the end of their senior years. In addition, a majority of students get some sort of counseling support, helping them meet their goals.
“We see students as individuals in development,” says headmaster Anoh. “And that way of seeing things, coupled with our desire to really create or change the conditions to enable students to maximize their learning potentials, is really at the basis of the work that we do.”
Then there is the school’s commitment to being fully inclusive, a philosophy with its own set of challenges and rewards.
An inclusive classroom must also figure out how to bring along the general education students, notes Liz Bettini, a Boston University professor who studies schools for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. Many inclusive classrooms fail at that.
“One of the things we often do in inclusive classrooms is, we teach kids with disabilities how to get along with their neurotypical peers, but we don’t teach neurotypical kids how to get along with the kids with disabilities,” Bettini says.
But when full inclusion is realized, the picture is altogether more positive. “If [students are] having better engagement, better attendance,” Bettini says, “it means kids are feeling connected, feeling like part of the school.”
That’s the Mary Lyon way, adds Meehan, the parent. “The kids don’t act like there’s something different about the other kids,” she says. “Kids who graduate from the Mary Lyon school should be able to say on their application to college, I went to a fully integrated school with social-emotional learning.”
By the 2018-2019 school year, the last one before the pandemic, the Mary Lyon had become a success by several metrics, and a model for a Boston school district seeking to expand inclusion. It boasted a slightly lower graduation rate than the school system as a whole, but a significantly higher one among students with disabilities. Other vulnerable student groups, including low income and English learner students, also graduated at higher rates than their counterparts. Similarly, more students were passing all their Grade 9 courses and more students were going on to college.
Taken together, it was a remarkable accomplishment. But the school — and the values it was built on — was about to be put to the test.
MEEHAN WAS HAVING a hellish start to 2020. She had been diagnosed with late stage breast cancer in December 2019 and had a double mastectomy in January. She lost both her mother and her grandmother at the beginning of that year.
School staff, aware of what was going on, checked in on Meehan regularly. Social workers and teachers called her to offer support — and, eventually, to discuss the news of a virus getting out of control. They also called her sophomore daughter Reagan, who had cancer as a child among other severe ailments, and was on an IEP for her special education needs.
“Teachers knew that she was going to be scared and worried,” Meehan says. “So they jumped on that — but it wasn’t just her that they were calling.”
Soon, the family was paying it forward, calling other kids and parents when they noticed people were not in their Zoom classes or seemed unwell. And it wasn’t only them.
“I could trust that I was gonna get a phone call,” Meehan says. “Everybody was walking into their kids’ rooms. Just checking who’s on, who’s not on, and who’s not turning their camera on.”
The flurry of communication from the school community — built on a foundation laid before the pandemic — anchored the school’s response to the pandemic.
Social workers joined Zoom classes regularly, says Lisa Johnson-Bechtel, who led the Mary Lyon’s team of social workers at a time when many of the district’s schools didn’t have a single one. They participated in classroom activities, and monitored breakout rooms while teachers focused on other needs.
The school also expanded opportunities for students to spend time with teachers outside of core class time. Midday homeroom periods, known as advisory groups, were put in place over Zoom, a relaxed time block during which students could work and socialize. The groups of about four students were staffed by teachers and paraprofessionals. Struggling students who would “hide behind remote learning” and turn their cameras off would show their faces during those non-academic periods, Atcherley says.
After the school day, teachers would hold open office hours — a virtual space where students could study and speak to each other. Anoh says these involved a lot of work, but were worth it.
“It was fantastic to see teachers at 8 at night, talking to students,” Anoh says. “People really thought differently because we were dealing with something different.”
OVER THE COURSE OF the 2020-21 academic year, the first full one of the pandemic, students at the Mary Lyon and across the district would make their way back to the classroom in a staggered schedule, starting with high-needs students. “I think that was really important for those kids,” Atcherley says. “Fragile students and emotionally impaired students were able to get their bearings again.”
Johnson-Bechtel says she and the other social workers spent a lot of time wandering in and out of classrooms, interacting with the students. As with many schools across the country, teachers said behavior amid the stress was worse when students returned to classes than it had been pre-pandemic.
Robust communication remained a vital component throughout the year. Johnson-Bechtel spent the first few months regularly chatting online with a student struggling with anxiety and attendance even prior to the pandemic. The student was exactly the sort of kid at risk of becoming more disconnected, the social worker says, attending less, learning less, and potentially even dropping out.
“There was no face-to-face, no turning the camera on, no verbal communication,” Johnson-Bechtel says. “It was all chat.” But that was what the student needed.
“Once I was able to show her that I’d be there when she gets to be in person, that we could do a walk of the school together,” she says, “she attended school consistently. That was a huge shift for her.”
Mark Duhaime, a middle school humanities teacher, says one of its most important tasks is convincing students that the school really is “their place” and that they all belong. The pandemic, a huge source of unpredictability added to the students’ often-unpredictable home lives, made that task much harder. “During the pandemic, they could just walk away,” he says.
But the Lyon’s community held strong, diverging from the national picture at one of the most difficult moments in education anyone can remember. That year, attendance at the Lyon actually went up at a time when it was dropping across the district and state. MCAS scores climbed slightly, and passing rates for Grade 9 courses rose. Graduation rates surged — and more graduates completed the state’s MassCore set of graduation standards. The Mary Lyon way was working.
WHEN GRADUATION DAY 2021 arrived, Michael Emery was there, ready to receive his diploma on time — despite his missed classes at the beginning of the pandemic.
The road to that point had not been easy; the days leading up to graduation had been a particularly harrowing time, underscoring the challenges that some students at the school face.
Shortly before graduating, still feeling the impacts of pandemic isolation, he attempted suicide. “Most people with mental health issues, things of that nature, probably weren’t able to adjust well. I know I wasn’t,” Emery says today. “Social distancing was hard, not being around people.”
Emery’s doctors agreed to release him the day before graduation, allowing him to stand with the rest of his class. He was among the 93 percent of his class graduating that day — the school’s highest percentage in years. The same percentage of students with disabilities graduated.
At the Mary Lyon, each student selects a staff member to give a personalized speech when they receive their diplomas. Emery picked Christine Kittle, a school librarian who also worked the scoreboard at basketball games.
“She said, ‘You can always ask for help,’ and started to break into tears,” Emery recalls. “That’s when I knew, over those four years, whatever else, I made an impact. Dealing with that type of stuff during the pandemic was not easy, but I honestly got better.”
Emery is now studying engineering at Bunker Hill Community College while working at Staples. It’s been tough leaving the routines of life at the Mary Lyon — even the disrupted routines of the last few years. But he remains in touch with some of his favorite teachers from the school, and says he is getting by — and credits the school with helping him mature and improve his mental health.
Meanwhile, the 2021-22 year was held in-person. Attendance dipped that year — a common trend — but it held closer to pre-pandemic levels than elsewhere. Many staff members found that year as hard as the one before it, if not harder, as hopes of a real return-to-normal were dashed. The Mary Lyon community hopes the current school year will finally be closer to normal.
On a recent Monday, Anoh and other administrators greet students as they arrive in the school’s lobby, as they do every day, joking with the students, making sure their phones are secured in magnetically-locked pouches, and quizzing them about their weekends. In some classrooms, students work on low-stakes start-of-year tests to establish their baselines and guide learning profiles. Seniors in an elective anatomy class dissect gummy bears, practicing for a visit to Harvard where they will attempt grislier dissections.
As the day gets under way, some students sit at tables with friends while others find quiet corners where they can focus better — all in rooms where the harsh fluorescent lights are muted by fabric covers. At lunch, students scatter, some playing basketball in the yard, others eating on a grassy embankment. Missed layups seem to be the biggest concern of the moment.
Of course, challenges remain. Some beloved teachers have left — burnout is always a risk — and a new generation of students has joined the school with no memory of what it was like before the pandemic.
But much of what the staff learned over the last two-and-a-half years has remained in place, such as the smaller advisory groups and the practice of calling students directly, rather than their parents, when they are late. The most important lesson from those difficult days, Atcherley says, is the need to stick together and build relationships — something the Lyon community did so well.
“There’s always going to be change. Change is inevitable,” he says. “So if you have a good foundation, and you have a good community, and you have good communication, then you can overcome challenges.”
The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christopher Huffaker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @huffakingit.