Asberry Lawton, 22, had a rocky history with public education.
In third grade, he was placed in special-education classes after he told an adult he was suicidal. He was passed from grade to grade, but didn’t learn to read until his freshman year of high school. At age 19, he had nearly given up on earning a diploma. But three years ago, he enrolled in a new Boston Public Schools program — Boston Day and Evening Academy’s 2.0 pilot program — that transformed the way he thought about learning, and gave him a shot at graduating.
“BDEA sets the standard for how educators are supposed to act: being there for your students in almost any situation or circumstance,” Lawton said. “They are understanding, they will empathize, but they will also hold you accountable. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.”
BDEA, and its 2.0 program, is an alternative in-district charter school specializing in educating students who have not had success in traditional schools. Many of the students had dropped out because of bullying, unstable housing, or plain boredom in traditional classroom settings. Others are bread-winners for their households and need an education that can be flexible with their work schedules. They see the application-only program, which takes an average of three years to complete, as their path back to earning a BPS diploma.
The program, which launched in the 2018-19 school year with 34 students, was designed to help more Black and Latino male students graduate, though a handful of female students also are finding success through it. All of the 60 students currently enrolled are people of color who are over-age for their grade level and came to BDEA with too few course credits.
The learning environment is unique: Classes are held at Intrepid Academy at Hale, a nature preserve with a specialty in outdoor learning. Bucking the traditional education model, this peaceful pedagogical setting — where students attend four times a week for 10 weeks — attempts to produce better outcomes for some of the district’s most vulnerable students.
But by most metrics, the program, which costs about $700,000 annually, has had little success. The school has been slow to produce graduates among its high-needs students. Attendance, at 60 percent, remains problematic and only eight of the 100 students who have participated in the program have earned diplomas since its inception four years ago. Sixty of those 100 students remain while others have left 2.0; some returned to BDEA’s main campus or instead pursued a GED, while others dropped out to work, or move out of the district. Sixteen more are on track to graduate within a year.
Yet Adam Kho, an assistant professor of K-12 education policy and leadership at the University of Southern California, says it usually takes three to six years to effectively measure a program’s success, and warns that alternative schools like 2.0 “are different, so we should be holding them to different metrics.”
“A lot of those students are going into these schools already behind, or already considered a dropout, or already considered a failure in terms of traditional metrics,” said Kho, whose research focuses on reform policies and programs that target historically marginalized students.
While the numbers are few, school leaders still see the progress as a success. They believe that, in time, the number of graduates will increase. For nearly two years, the pandemic disrupted the ability for students to meet on site, a key part of the program.
“One hundred percent of our students are students that weren’t on track to graduate, so if we have one graduate, that is one more student from Boston that has found success, found themselves that otherwise was not going to make it where they were,” said Adrianne Level, 2.0′s program leader. “How we define success is that sense of belonging and helping students develop that agency and figure out what it is that they want to do and their purpose in life.”
However, for those who have earned a diploma through the program, it was a turning point in their lives. Of the eight graduates, five, including Lawton, returned to work at 2.0 as teaching assistants. Kho says students returning “says a lot. I mean, if you think about how many students in traditional schools return back to teaching, that’s nowhere near [that].”
Lawton said he came back because growing up “I didn’t see the educator that I needed.”
“An educator who went through the struggles that I did, not being able to read, graduating late,” said Lawton. “I want to warn students about, and hopefully avoid, the problems that I did as a student.”
The framework for 2.0 breaks from convention and focuses on the holistic needs of its students.
Academically, students are taught coursework with topics meant to make them more aware of the systems of oppression they encounter, reflect on their roles within these systems, and encourage them to take agency in changing the status quo. For instance, David Jones, a humanities teacher at 2.0, leads a class called “Ancestry of the Land” in which students learn about the history of Indigenous people in Massachusetts and beyond while also interrogating their own ancestral backgrounds through familial interviews and historical records.
Students finish their assignments at their own pace and work in groups. No homework is given, nor are letter grades doled out. Instead, students are assessed on a scale from basic to highly competent to determine whether they acquired the mastery needed for course credit. The educators give students diagnostics before placing them in a course and cater toward a student’s strengths while they work at an individualized pace.
Classes are taught by a diverse group of educators; 90 percent of the pilot’s staff are people of color, reflective of the student population. Level says the school is “intentional” about making sure prospective hires can connect with BDEA’s unique student population.
“It was important for us to make sure that we had a staff that reflected the diversity, not just in skin color, but the experiences that go with the skin,” Jones said.
In tandem with academic courses, students also take classes geared toward their next steps after graduation. In the first semester of the school year, students take a career research class, then a professional development course, and finally they are placed in paid internships, funded by the city.
The 2.0 curriculum also pays close attention to students’ emotional wellness. At Hale, there are two student support specialists and a social worker. Students have designated times in which they are encouraged to speak freely in groups about what is on their mind and provide each other support. They are often allowed to complete their work wherever works best for them: by the fireplace or in a rocking chair on the back porch. There is also a “choose your own adventure” period in which students can choose from an assortment of activities like going for a hike, building a fire, or archery.
Deshawn Goncalves, 20, a second-year 2.0 student set to graduate in December, said he has hopes of becoming a welder.
“There’s a lot of advantages to help push forward kids who felt like they were behind their whole lives,” Goncalves said. “Now I feel like I’m on an even playing field with everybody else.”
Editor’s note: The BDEA 2.0 program previously received $750,000 over a three-year period from the Barr Foundation, which also partly funds the Globe’s Great Divide education team.
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.
Julian E.J. Sorapuru is a Development Fellow at the Globe and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JulianSorapuru