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Once underperforming, East Boston High School made gains through the pandemic. Can BPS replicate the success?

Teachers Erin Delaney, in background, and Juliane Jorge, in foreground, conducted an eighth-grade humanities class that uses two teachers to give a better ratio for students.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Going into high school in 2014, Juliane Jorge had doubts about East Boston High School.

The child of Brazilian immigrants who learned English as a second language, Jorge didn’t get into the city’s prized exam schools and ended up at the neighborhood high school.

“I was super bummed out,” Jorge said.

At the time, East Boston High students were performing so poorly on state exams that it was on the precipice of being labeled a “turnaround school,” putting it at risk of being taken over by the state. The school was in the third percentile of schools statewide, with nearly half of students failing to graduate. Attendance was abysmal, with more than four in 10 students chronically absent.

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But change was afoot.

The new principal, Phil Brangiforte, an East Boston native and graduate of the high school, demanded change.

”We made a decision that we’re going to dig our heels in and we weren’t going to go turnaround,” Brangiforte said.

By the time Jorge graduated in 2018, nearly three-quarters of her peers received their diplomas alongside her. Jorge, who grew up low income like the vast majority of the school’s students, could see the impact, with the teachers instilling confidence in her as someone who can make a difference.

“Growing up in an urban area, I needed that hope,” Jorge said. “All my teachers here were great to me. So I wanted to come back and do the same for my students.”

And by the time Jorge did just that, returning to East Boston High this year as an eighth-grade humanities teacher, her alma mater had become a model for the district, managing to continue years of academic gains.

The 1,300-student school, located in a majority-Latino corner of the district separated from the rest of the city by Boston Harbor, is now the only traditional high school in Boston with a wait list.

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The pandemic could’ve derailed all that, given its disproportionate impact on low-income families. The state classifies more than 90 percent of East Boston High’s students as “high needs” — those who are from low-income households, are learning English, or have disabilities. Statewide, chronic absenteeism more than doubled during the pandemic, while test scores plummeted.

But East Boston, which added grade 7 last year and grade 8 this year, displays a different picture. Attendance, graduation rates, and scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, consistently have risen in the last decade. Campus leaders acknowledge there is much more work to do, like expanding college and career options, but the school’s successes could provide lessons for Boston Public Schools as the district attempts to make good on the promises of improvement it made this summer to avoid a state takeover.

Brangiforte credits East Boston High’s integration into the neighborhood’s network of schools for much of the success, alongside the school’s carefully refined, teacher-led culture of collaboration and professional development. The school’s unique position as a neighborhood high school is not available to every school in a district, where most teenagers crisscross the city every day, but it’s still a model for other schools, district leaders said. The school does serve students from other parts of the city, but East Boston residents who mark the campus their first choice get guaranteed entry and make up the vast majority of the enrollment.

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Student Odalis Trejo, a ninth-grader, fist bumped Lauren Owens, a teacher who was on hall monitor duty stationed by the girls bathroom. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

When Brangiforte took over as head of school, he began with a focus on culture. With so many local students in attendance, school leaders moved to emphasize the roots in the community, commissioning a new logo and eventually uniforms. Teachers are encouraged to attend extracurricular and sporting events regularly to support their students.

But Brangiforte also rolled out concrete changes, including on-campus summer school (prior to it being offered districtwide), alternative programs such as night school and credit recovery classes, and co-teaching, where two teachers share a classroom.

School leaders made changes gradually, relying on staff votes to avoid controversy.

“That approach to change management is what works in education,” said Tommy Welch, the district’s regional superintendent for East Boston and Charlestown. “It takes time.”

But the biggest change was the introduction of “instructional rounds,” where all the teaching staff spend days observing, critiquing, and learning from each other’s work. Brangiforte brought in Judith Blanco, a fellow East Boston graduate who was running a similar but less intensive program for the district, as his deputy. The practice results in bottom-up professional development, Blanco said, with teachers identifying for themselves what they need to improve.

Beth Schueler, a University of Virginia professor who studies school improvements, said that teacher effectiveness is the most important school-based input into student outcomes.

“Teachers are implementers of the reforms,” Schueler said. “It’s important to get their buy-in because they’re the ones on the front lines. You need their support.”

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The sort of gains the school has posted are “exciting and promising and generally rare,” Schueler said, although she was not familiar with the specifics of East Boston’s turnaround.

The district is drawing lessons from the school’s progress over the last decade, Superintendent Mary Skipper said, including administering schools through regional networks and instituting something like instructional rounds across them.

“There’s an idea and expectation of continuous improvement,” Skipper said. “That is why you’ve seen EBHS continue to grow.”

Kerry Donahue of the Boston Schools Fund, an organization that raises money to expand seats at high-demand public, parochial, and charter schools in Boston, said it decided to help fund the school’s expansion to grade 7 and 8 based on the improvements at the high school, particularly among English learners. (Three-quarters of the students speak a native language other than English and more than 40 percent are still learning English.)

The school’s cohesive culture is part of what enabled success during the pandemic. Blanco worked with teachers to design a consistent online teaching method that lays out for students what they’re working on each day, so they know what’s happening even if they’ve missed time.

The pandemic “transformed everything,” for senior Luis Ortiz, he said. When schooling suddenly went remote in 2020, he had little motivation to turn the computer on in the morning. But his teachers immediately took notice.

“Whenever I didn’t show up for class, I got a call from my teacher. Or my grandma got a call,” Ortiz said.

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Luis did not want to have to hear from his grandma, he joked — so he went to class.

That consistency among the teachers, who were each assigned to daily check in on about a dozen students, ensured students turned up for online class and were eager to return in person when school reopened.

The school also furthered its role as a community hub, including launching a food pantry during the pandemic for school families who were without. The campus continues to run the food pantry year-round.

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the school was a hub for the United Way Thanksgiving meal distribution, with over a hundred meals going to East Boston High families. Dozens of staff and students volunteered to prepare the meals.

“The community really rallies around the school. When they do a fund-raiser, or they ask for prom dresses, the community really rises to the occasion,” said Gloria DeVine, the family engagement director at East Boston Social Centers. “I think there’s a lot of pride in the people that live in East Boston, grew up here, [and] went to school there.”

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.


Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit. Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her @adriarwatson.