Cheers erupted Friday morning in the gymnasium of the Jeremiah Burke High School after students learned that the Burke would become the first high school in the state to shed its “underperforming” designation.
“This is a historic moment,” said Headmaster Lindsa McIntyre, speaking from a microphone as she addressed the students at the Dorchester school. “Not only have we earned a place as a competitive institution in the city of Boston but also in the state.”
The news came with the release of the latest results of MCAS scores statewide.
The juniors and seniors who gathered in the gymnasium gave each other high-fives. Some began chanting the school’s cheer, while others danced as music pulsated over the loud speakers.
“Honestly, it makes me feel like anything is possible,” said Brandon Newton, 17, a senior, from Mattapan.
Newton recalled how his friends reacted when he first got assigned to the Burke four years ago, saying, “ ‘Oh, man, you are going to the Burke -- why would you do that to yourself?’ ”
Initially, the put-downs got to him, Newton said. But the longer he stayed at the school, the more he appreciated the teachers and staff, the academic programs, and other resources. It’s the kind of experience that many students recount about the Burke.
The school has long been the litmus test for the quality of education in Boston. During a State of the City address in the Burke’s auditorium in 1996, then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino famously challenged city residents to “judge me harshly” if his overhaul of the city’s schools failed.
Through Menino’s time in office, the Burke went through cycles of progress and decline. Many students at the school, located on Washington Street, have been touched by violence. About 80 percent come from low-income households and 30 percent are learning to speak English, according to state data.
The state declared the Burke underperforming in March 2010 -- one of 35 schools statewide to receive that designation under a law passed two months earlier. The law gave school districts the ability to get around teacher union contracts to implement longer days and other changes at these kinds of schools.
McIntyre had been headmaster for just a few months. The Burke has always had a special place for her. It is where she started her teaching career “years ago.”
The Burke overhauled its academic programs -- emphasizing individualized instruction for each student -- and closely analyzed test scores, course work, and other data to adjust instructional practices to help ensure students graduate. It also formed a partnership with service organization City Year to crack down on truancy.
McIntyre said the staff never forgot that each data point represented a name and a face, as staff strived to build a sense of community throughout the building.
The latest MCAS results show scores rose sharply.
In English, 62 percent of 10th-graders scored advanced or proficient last spring, double the percentage from five years ago. In math, 71 percent met that benchmark, up from 41 percent five years ago. And in science, 36 percent scored proficient or higher, up from 1 percent five years ago.
The four-year graduation rate also climbed to 56.8 percent in 2013, up from 41.1 percent in 2009, according to the most recent state data available.
Students repeatedly said Friday that it was the sense of community that kept them at the Burke. Students affectionately call McIntyre “Ms. Mac.”
“This school is a family,” said Elis Perez, 17, a junior from Dorchester. “We are here for each other.”
“The teachers helped us out all the way,” said Deonte Young, 17, a senior from Roxbury.
Filomena Cabral, the school’s registrar, said that when she heard the good news Friday morning she exclaimed, “We delivered a baby.”
“Now we are going to make this baby grow and get big,” she said.
Indeed, McIntyre warned students after the announcement that the Burke could not rest on its laurels. She wants the school to climb to the highest level in the state’s school accountability system, a level 1. The school is now at Level 3.
But for now, McIntyre is savoring the victory with a big smile -- and some tears.
“It’s been a long road,” she said, “but a great one.”