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Personal attention, strong leaders can revive schools

Jeremiah Burke students celebrated as their school took top honors.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

There were no losers at the Boston Harbor Hotel on Tuesday, but only one public school walked away with a $100,000 prize.

That distinction went to the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, which won the 10th annual School on the Move award given by the nonprofit EdVestors to recognize the city's most improved public school.

It was a remarkable win for a school that four years ago was designated one of the worst in Massachusetts and only last year became the first high school in the state to shed its "underperforming" label.

A winning formula isn't just based on test scores but also on what can't easily be measured — such intangibles as the leadership of the principal and the relationship between the school and the parents.

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"We are never looking for the best schools," said Jim Stone, founder and CEO of Plymouth Rock Group, a Boston-based insurance holding company, and chair of the prize selection committee. "We are looking for the most improved and when its improvement can be replicated."

In accepting the award in front of hundreds gathered at the hotel, Burke principal Lindsa McIntyre said: "This award represents the voices of marginalized students not heard. And today, they've been heard."

Burke principal Lindsa McIntyreWendy Maeda/Globe Staff

I had an opportunity last month to join Stone and other judges on a tour of the Burke and the other two finalists, the Joseph Hurley K-8 School in the South End and the John F. Kennedy STEM Innovation School in Jamaica Plain. I've read so much about what's wrong with Boston public schools that I wanted to see what's going right.

I also wanted to see what EdVestors had learned about urban schools that work. Stone, who has been a judge since the prize's inception, told me the lessons are not hard to figure out.

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"We don't know the answer on how to achieve peace," said Stone, but "we do know how to make a good school."

So with apologies to educator and author Stephen Covey, here are the 5 Habits of Highly Successful Schools. Think of it as a cheat sheet for any city school that wants to come up the next big winner.

1. PERSONAL ATTENTION When McIntyre became principal of the Burke six years ago, she wanted to change the relationship between the parents and the school. She figured many had negative interactions, only hearing from administrators when their kid got in trouble. To set the right tone, McIntyre makes sure that someone from the school visits each of the 120 or so incoming freshmen at home over the summer. It's purely a get-to-know-you meeting with the parents. That's followed by a barbecue block party.

"It's a feel-good vibe," said McIntyre. "Schools don't have to be a stressful environment."

She also wanted to engage parents in nontraditional ways. About 80 percent of the students come from low-income homes.

"Nobody is showing up at the PTA with a crock pot," she said.

2. LONGER HOURS MATTER Whether it's an extended academic day or a menu of after-school activities, students do better if they can stay in school longer. Students "feel more attached to their activities and have more contact with role models," observed Stone, and they develop a sense that their "educational experience is relevant to their lives."

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When the state designated Burke a turnaround school, it was allowed to extend its school day by an hour and a half. Now the Burke is back to regular hours, and McIntyre is seeking to lengthen the school day, but it will require both city and state approval.

3. DATA-DRIVEN METRICS Smart schools track not only MCAS scores but also the individual performance of students and teachers. These schools look at, for example, grades, teacher feedback, attendance, and extra-curricular activities. Sure, Burke has delivered impressive gains in its MCAS scores. Just take a look at its performance in English Language Arts, in which the percentage of students that were proficient or advanced surged to 62 percent in 2014, up from 29 percent from 2010.

But here's another metric deserving praise: Suspensions at the Burke have dropped to 28 last school year from 525 in 2009. The difference: McIntyre's recognition that about 80 percent of her students have experienced some kind of trauma — gun violence, homelessness, poverty, drug and alcohol addiction. Counselors replaced school disciplinarians, and teachers shifted focus from responding to students' behavior to what was causing it.

For Laura Perille, the CEO of EdVestors, Burke stood out because the school not only made sure the kids hit the books but also took a close look at the lives they lived.

"It's not an either-or," said Perille, adding that officials knew to "support these kids next to educating the heck out of them."

4. STRONG PRINCIPALS & COLLABORATIVE TEACHERS Almost any successful organization hinges on the quality of the leadership at the top. Schools are no different. The principal is the driving force at all the schools that were finalists. Besides McIntyre, Waleska Landing-Rivera oversees the Kennedy elementary school, and Marjorie Soto runs the Hurley school, a three-time EdVestors finalist, which was honored with a special $25,000 award for sustained achievement on Tuesday.

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Visit these women at their schools, and you can't help but feel their energy, ambition, and command for what needs to be done.

But the teachers matter too — a mix of highly experienced and enthusiastic rookies.

"That is universal among all our winners," said Stone.

5. CULTURE CHANGE Schools that make big strides change their culture.

The Burke, with about 500 students, has long been a troubled school. But bit by bit, McIntyre and her staff worked at making school a positive experience for both parents and students, a place where learning was more important than giving the right answers and an environment in which teachers could customize the curriculum.

What impressed Pam Eddinger, another judge on the prize committee, was Burke's ability to achieve dramatic academic achievement and change its culture.

"It's a classic definition of transformation," said Eddinger, the president of Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.