After an earthquake in his native Haiti killed many of the people he knew and all he ever cared about, 18-year-old Giankaspar Laraque thought his life was over.
“I was about to give up,” he said. “I had to pick myself up and go forward.”
He arrived at Revere High School two years ago without a lick of English. Now he is looking forward to taking an honors English class in his senior year next fall. He is studying Italian and Portuguese, too, and wants to be a writer.
Laraque’s timing was exquisite, because three years ago Revere High changed everything, carving the school year into two semesters, expanding individual class times, handing students iPads and demanding they use them for homework so they would show up at school prepared to learn.
It was a revolutionary retooling of a city school, and it has worked so well that Revere High just received the highest award from the National Center for Urban School Transformation, named the nation’s most innovative.
“The whole culture of teaching changed here,” said David Eatough, a veteran science teacher. “Teachers bought into this.”
Traditional pecking orders were scuttled. Skills trumped seniority.
“We saw younger teachers move into leadership roles in areas like technology,” said Mark Fellowes, a history teacher. “And with the students, we changed expectations.”
Amy Chamberlin, a guidance counselor who graduated from Revere High in 1993, remembers how kids used to be labeled: you were college material, or you weren’t. That Darwinian attitude has been replaced by an ethos that tries to convince all kids that they have a shot. “The high expectations are for everybody, not just gifted students,” she said. “Everybody gets college prep.”
Six years ago, 67 percent of Revere High graduates went on to college; now it’s more than 80 percent. Kids want to come to school. A dropout rate that 10 years ago was almost 9 percent is now 3 percent.
“For a lot of our kids,” Eatough observes, “this is the most stable place in their life.”
If teachers, like everybody, are resistant to change, those at Revere High were willing to buy into the new approach because so many of their students face challenges they didn’t.
Eatough has a student, an Albanian kid, whose parents run a pizza parlor on Broadway.
“This kid has a place in the basement where he studies, and when it gets busy upstairs, his mother flicks the light on and off, and he’ll come up and help until it quiets down and he can get back to his homework,” he said. “We have kids who stay up till 2, 3 in the morning, because they’re working, because they have to work, and then they come to school.”
Comprehension and test scores improved when the class period was expanded from 54 to 80 minutes. While that reduced the number of periods, students take more subjects in the semester system, which better prepares them for college.
Fellowes has noticed fewer fights, a calmer campus. In a setting where so many cultures could clash, the vast majority are invested in a new way of learning that is bearing tangible results.
On Thursday afternoon, Dianne Kelly, an assistant school superintendent, was in the hallway, consoling Dolores Simonetti, a teacher who fought back tears as seniors approached on their last day to thank her for all she has done for them. Kelly assured Simonetti she wasn’t the only teacher crying Thursday.
“This was a big change, the way we do everything,” Kelly said, smiling as she watched Simonetti walk away. “But it only works because the teachers really care about these kids.”
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.