Optimism, test scores on the rise at English High School
In a fourth-floor classroom, students diligently scrawled notes across lined pages one recent morning as social studies teacher Frank Swoboda explained the role of politics in economic development, peppering his lesson with observations from students.
“Brisly, you said our government charges us money and spends it on BS?” said Swoboda, who is in his fourth year at The English High School.
“Yes,” a smiling Brisly Ripert, 17, responded.
“You’re going to see a lot of that in the world,” Swoboda said.
Brief chuckles followed, but each student listened intently as Swoboda continued the lesson.
The class of 23 attentive teenagers on that recent morning presented a stark contrast to the climate the Globe observed at English in 2007, when teachers struggled to engage students as they dozed or fiddled with cellphones. Since then, with a potential closure or takeover looming, each academic year has been described as make-or-break.
But now the long-troubled school is showing signs of an academic renaissance.
The school’s 2015 10th-grade MCAS scores were its best since the test began in 1998, a Globe analysis found. This fall, its classrooms and hallways show a newfound optimism, and students now say they are proud to be learning there.
Teachers and administrators attribute the upswing to policies instituted after Ligia Noriega-Murphy became headmaster in 2012.
Under her watch, and with a wide array of partners providing support services, educators have begun collecting detailed data on student performance and using it to address specific gaps in knowledge, while making a broader effort to change the school culture and remove obstacles to learning.
Noriega-Murphy said that because English High provides a “welcoming environment, teachers that care, and after-school components, more students want to come to school.”
“They feel very comfortable coming to school — and acting like teenagers instead of [acting] tough because they have to prove to somebody else that they’re something that they are not,” Noriega-Murphy said.
To be sure, English High is not out of the woods yet. It will take time to see whether the recent gains can be sustained, observers say.
The school’s reputation got another black eye in September, when state officials withheld math results from this spring’s 10th-grade MCAS exam, citing unspecified anomalies.
When the state validated the scores last month, they showed that two-thirds of students had scored advanced or proficient in math, the largest proportion in those ranges since the test began.
Tommy Chang, Boston’s schools superintendent, said Noriega-Murphy was a major force behind the surge but said she prefers to credit the hard work of teachers and students.
“There are plenty of instances in professional sports where you have all-star teams that come together,” Chang said. “Unless you have a coach or a leader that’s able to bring the talents together, sometimes you don’t go very far.”
English High touts itself as the oldest public high school in the nation, and for a time it was one of Boston’s most prestigious schools. But by 2007, it was in such dire shape that state officials declared it one of Massachusetts’ worst schools and threatened to shutter it unless test scores improved. Noriega-Murphy, the school’s first female headmaster, is the third English leader to enact ambitious changes.
Today, students say teachers motivate them to pursue achievement, and the school offers a broad array of support services and extracurricular activities.
On the recent Tuesday morning, Ripert was among the most active students in Swoboda’s global issues class. Ripert told a reporter that before he came to English High, he was just focused on passing.
“But now I realize that there are many bigger things in life,” said Ripert, of Roslindale. “This class is teaching me and preparing me to actually . . . be ready for it.”
Noriega-Murphy pointed with pride to a gleaming glass trophy in the school’s front office — the night before, the girls’ volleyball team had won the city championship.
Sports and the arts are part of a well-rounded curriculum, said Noriega-Murphy, who said she learned about hard work and high academic standards from the private schools she attended growing up in Guatemala, and from her strict but generous grandmother.
In rapid-fire, Spanish-accented English, Noriega-Murphy described efforts to reduce suspensions and expulsions, increase attendance and graduation rates, and provide services for students who are often trauma survivors, impoverished, or dealing with weighty pressures.
Nearly 84 percent of the school’s students came from low-income families in 2012-2013, the most recent school year for which state data are available. Almost a third of last year’s students were immigrants, and more than half were not native English speakers, according to the School Department.
Noriega-Murphy beamed as she introduced Aneury Lara, a junior who is taking Advanced Placement calculus and English. Lara, 16, said he sometimes struggles to focus on assignments, but he works hard, and he is not alone.
“Whenever I need after-school help or support — like if I don’t understand something — then they’ll usually help me out,” said Lara, of Roxbury. “I didn’t expect English High to have such high expectations.”
Those expectations extend from academics to all aspects of student life, Noriega-Murphy said.
In her first three years at English High, student attendance increased by 6 percentage points, according to state data. But four-year graduation rates improved by only a single percentage point, rising to 51.8 percent in her first two years.
Even as improvement has become visible, the school’s path has remained bumpy.
Amid morale-boosters like increased arts education and the launch of extracurriculars such as a Spanish-language debate league, the school has also seen troubling episodes like the shooting in March of a student by Shaun Harrison, a former dean at the school.
But reason for hope remains.
Katherine K. Merseth, who teaches turnaround strategies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said Noriega-Murphy is using methods that research has shown to be successful.
Merseth said the key elements to improving a failing school are a shared vision, welcoming culture, tracking student progress through detailed data, and supporting teachers as they try challenging new things.
She said national data show turnaround efforts are often unsuccessful, perhaps because so much depends on efforts by a broad group of educators and students.
“It’s hard work,” Merseth said. “It does not happen overnight.”