A class of third-graders at Trotter Elementary School staked out positions on “Jack and the Beanstalk” as if they were arguing a case before the US Supreme Court.
In debating Jack’s motives for repeatedly climbing up the beanstalk and stealing from the giant, the students didn’t rely on gut instinct or emotion, but on evidence they uncovered in the fairy tale.
“He shouldn’t have gone up [the beanstalk] the third time,” one boy said. “The third paragraph said they were well off for some time.”
Jakhai Nicholson agreed, pointing to the fourth paragraph: “He had the hen that laid golden eggs.”
Getting students to think big and probe deep has been a hallmark of a turnaround effort at the Trotter, located at the Dorchester-Roxbury line, and the approach has paid off enormously.
In just three years, the Trotter has catapulted from being identified as one of the worst schools in the state to being considered one of the best. State standardized test scores have risen sharply, and in September, state education officials removed a three-year-old “underperforming” designation, elevating the Trotter into Level 1, the top category dominated by schools from Wellesley, Newton and other affluent suburbs.
Principal Mairead Nolan said the Boston school’s mission to offer the same caliber of education found in the well-to-do suburbs has meant resisting reliance on quick-fix solutions, such as saturating students with test drills, and instead focusing on making sure students thoroughly understand the material they are studying.
“A lot of time when children are poor they get skill-based instruction,” Nolan said. “We try to focus on what students would get if they were wealthy.” That, she said, is a rigorous curriculum that emphasizes the development of “higher-order thinking.”
The Trotter is a standout in a state experiment to rapidly turn around persistently low-achieving schools that has yielded mixed results. The Trotter was among a dozen schools in Boston that were the first to be declared “underperforming” in 2010 under a new school-overhaul law.
While the Trotter and four other Boston schools successfully moved out of the underperforming designations, four others remain in that category, another has shut down, and two are being taken over by the state.
City Councilor John Connolly made much of the Trotter’s success during his unsuccessful bid for mayor this year, frequently talking about how pleased he was with the education his daughter was receiving there and promising to replicate its success if elected.
Many at the Trotter hope its turnaround marks the return of an institution that shined as a beacon during the city’s darkest days of court-ordered desegregation and remained popular for many years.
The Trotter opened in 1969 with a lofty goal for its time: It would achieve integration by persuading white parents to voluntarily send their children into an impoverished black neighborhood, the area around Humboldt Avenue, known for its rundown tenements and high crime rate.
The school was an instant success, enrolling a student population that was about 40 percent white and 60 percent black. A new multistory brick facility, a strong focus on multiculturalism, and a robust arts and music program lured many parents.
Stories about the old days seem almost magical. Students performed for Nelson Mandela and with the Boston Pops. Media reports hailed the school as a shining example of the success of integration. Then there are the famous alumni, including Mark Wahlberg and four members of the New Kids on the Block: Donnie Wahlberg, Danny Wood, and Jon and Jordan Knight.
But student achievement and the school’s popularity began to erode in the late 1980s, for a variety of reasons that included a spike in violent crimes in the neighborhood.
Discipline became a big problem with students running through the halls and slamming doors, and most of the middle-class families disappeared. By the time the state declared the school underperforming in 2010, MCAS scores were horrendous: Only 13 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in English and only 12 percent did so in math. “Many of our students couldn’t read,” said Romaine Mills-Teque, Trotter’s assistant principal, who came to the school in 2008.
While the underperforming designation damaged the school’s reputation, it also gave the school broad powers to make sweeping changes, such as replacing about half the teaching staff, adding dozens of hours of teacher training, and extending the school day by a half-hour. The Trotter also forged partnerships with outside organizations, such as City Year and Boston University’s School of Education.
Other aspects of the turnaround involved the nitty-gritty elements of running a school effectively, such as dissecting each student’s performance, tailoring classroom instruction to meet the needs of each student, and offering a vibrant arts program once again.
Alma Wright, the computer teacher who has worked at the Trotter since it opened, said the effort to achieve the rebound was rewarding.
“You always want to see the kids do well,” Wright said.
This year’s MCAS scores showed large gains: 39 percent of students scored proficient or higher in English and 37 percent did so in math.
Middle-class families have started to return in small but growing numbers.
Connolly and his wife, Meg, enrolled their daughter Clare at the Trotter last year as a last resort. They had applied to about a dozen other schools, but failed to secure a spot at any of them in the School Department’s annual lottery of seats. The Trotter was the only school left with empty prekindergarten seats in their assignment-zone. They took a tour and walked away impressed with the teachers, staff, and administrators, and a rebound that clearly was underway.
“We feel like we sort of stumbled upon one of the best schools in the city,” Connolly said. “We are thankful every day we did.”
Some former students from the Trotter’s glory days have also come back, forming an alumni association to help with fund-raising.
“As alumni, we felt it was a way of paying it forward,” said Dan Restuccia, who attended the Trotter in the 1980s. “We benefited tremendously from the cultural and enrichment opportunities there. The arts programs at the Trotter were unparalleled.”
James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeVaznis