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Hundreds help reinvent Dorchester school

Volunteers from Fidelity Investments helped paint a mural on the wall at the former Marshall Elementary School.Jessica Rinaldi for the BOston GLobe/Globe Freelance

Drew Gallagher said he was so excited to start at UP Academy Charter School of Dorchester that he could not fall asleep Wednesday night because of “the first-day jitters.”

The next morning would mark the 24-year-old Gallagher’s first day as a fifth-grade English teacher at the former Marshall Elementary School, which had struggled for years as one of Boston’s lowest-
performing schools.

Thanks to a new partnership between the city and the educational nonprofit Unlocking Potential, the school is reopening this year under new management and a new name.

“The sun is out, and it’s a beautiful day to mark a bright future for the school,” Gallagher said Thursday in front of the school, where fellow teachers and hundreds of volunteers armed with paintbrushes and shovels arrived at the 1970s-era brick building in the Bowdoin-Geneva area to give it a makeover before students arrive at the end of August.


On last spring’s MCAS exams, only 10 percent of Marshall’s nearly 700 students scored proficient or advanced in English, and 12 percent reached those levels in math, Boston public schools spokesman Lee McGuire said.

The school’s story, he said, was similar to that of the Gavin Middle School, which came under Unlocking Potential’s leadership in 2011 as UP Academy of South Boston, one of the city’s first in-district charter schools.

Since then, the South Boston school has made remarkable improvement, and officials hope the same future lies ahead for UP Academy of Dorchester.

Fidelity employees Eva Sanchez (foreground) and Iman Cohen-Whitaker helped spruce up the former Marshall Elementary School in Dorchester on Thursday. Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

“Gavin was known for antibusing rallies and a failed school system, but once UP Academy took over, now it has one of the best ratings in the state,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino said at Thursday’s kickoff in Dorchester. “Wait till you see what happens here.”

In-district charter schools are overseen by the Boston School Department and receive state funding in the same way other public schools do, but can deviate from central-office mandates on curriculum, budgets, and scheduling. They are also exempt from many workplace rules in teachers contracts, though their teachers remain part of the union.


“There will be new expectations, new team members, and a new curriculum,” said Scott Given, director and chief executive of Unlocking Potential. “But two things won’t change: the students and the connection between the school and the community around it.”

Some of the changes include an eight-hour school day, instead of a 6½-hour day, and a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club, which will run a full-time operation in the school.

Although critics of charter schools have raised concern that UP Academy of South Boston pushed out disruptive or academically struggling students to boost performance, McGuire said internal investigations found that the rate of returning students was higher than district averages.

All of Marshall’s students were offered a spot at UP Academy, as required by state law, and close to 90 percent will return next year, Given said. All teachers had to reapply for jobs, and only a few of UP Academy’s 80 new staff members taught at Marshall, he said.

On Thursday, nearly 300 volunteers from Fidelity Investments and nonprofit partner Boston Cares painted murals and planted flowers while teachers underwent their first day of training.

Volunteers stationed in the cafeteria pointed overhead projectors toward white walls, where some stenciled in 2-foot tall letters spelling “Respect” and “Engagement.”

Incoming UP Academy teachers Nicholas Speller (left), Drew Gallagher, and Elena Millius took part in their first day of training.Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Outside, others knelt in the dirt planting shrubs near the front entrance, where graduate students from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design hammered together a student-designed wooden deck and garden.


“I hope and I believe that the physical transformation they [volunteers] are doing today will be mirrored by the transformation that teachers will be making with the academics and culture of the school all year,” said Lana Ewing, the principal.

But for those who have long known the Marshall as a pillar of the community, Thursday’s makeover was bittersweet.

“I cried when I saw Marshall being taken apart desk by desk . . . and seeing all the new paint,” said Theresa Johnson, who worked as Marshall’s school secretary for 12 years and will continue at UP Academy. The two-toned walls, which once sported the Marshall blue and gold, are now painted shades of yellow, lime, and teal.

But as a Bowdoin-Geneva native, Johnson said she is “implanted” at the school.

“I want to be a part of it,” she said. “The change will take time, but if we succeed like Gavin did, it’s all worth it. Anything for our babies.”

Alyssa A. Botelho can be reached at alyssa.botelho@ globe.com.