Can receivership save a failing Boston school?
The Dever Elementary School in Dorchester has cycled through five principals over the past two school years and is seeking another one. Discipline is a constant problem. Some teachers are fleeing, and many students don’t show up. Most who do perform poorly.
This is not what was supposed to unfold when the state stepped in and took over the school in 2014. Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester had spoken boldly about the need for aggressive change, calling the Dever’s low performance “an injustice” while adding, “I know we can do better.’’
The promised turnaround has not happened — at least not yet — and the troubling picture raises questions about whether state education agencies can do a better job than local districts in lifting up schools stubbornly stuck at the bottom. In the Dever’s case, the state recruited as a receiver a local nonprofit, the Blueprint Schools Network, that had never run a school.
The outcome for the Dever as well as the three other individual schools the state seized from local districts could have far-reaching consequences for school-overhaul efforts.
Massachusetts education officials have long used the threat of receivership as a last-resort measure to goad underperforming schools and their local districts to orchestrate overhauls. But state officials could lose the power of that ultimatum if they fail to achieve quick and dramatic gains at the four schools, which also include a school each in Holyoke and New Bedford and a second Boston school, the Holland Elementary.
According to a Globe review, the first year of receivership delivered lackluster MCAS scores at the Dever and two other schools, and the state and Project GRAD, a nonprofit that was the receiver of the Holyoke school, mutually parted ways as the entire system went into receivership.
“Am I satisfied where we are? No, I’m not,” Chester said. “We are watching this very closely, and we are making adjustments.”
The four schools were the first to go into receivership under the 2010 achievement gap act. The move, in a state where local control is highly prized, has been fraught with controversy. Teacher unions and many parents deride the receiverships as the privatizing of public education.
“They are our children and our teachers, and our school system should have direct responsibility for their educational and other daily needs,” said Richard Stutman, the Boston Teachers Union president. “I don’t think the state knows day to day what goes on in a school like a city or town does.”
He added, “The Dever is in turmoil and it’s quite unfortunate.”
Chester said he remains confident that the state will turn around the schools and that Blueprint, the nonprofit overseer, is the right fit for the Dever.
The state education department has paid $1.3 million so far to Blueprint in management fees. In addition, the Boston school system funds Dever’s operating budget, which was $4.6 million this year. The school also received $585,000 in state and federal grants this year.
Blueprint took on a big job two years ago when it stepped inside the Dever, tucked between the University of Massachusetts Boston and a mixed-income housing development. The school had been struggling for more than a decade with low MCAS scores. Nearly 70 percent of students live in homes receiving welfare benefits and almost half lack fluency in English.
Blueprint immediately made waves by asking teachers and staff to reapply for their jobs and dismantling a popular dual-language program, prompting many middle-class families to leave. Only two teachers out of 47 stuck around.
“We knew some of the challenges and some of the risks,” Matthew Spengler, Blueprint’s founder and executive director, said in an interview this month.
But he added, “Our mission is to change life outcomes [for students] by dramatically changing schools for the better.”
Blueprint’s philosophy is based on five principles that Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. identified in researching New York charter school success: excellence in leadership and instruction; daily tutoring; increased instructional time; setting high expectations; and using data to improve instruction.
Fryer served as Blueprint’s president for a short time when it was founded in 2010, and last year Governor Charlie Baker appointed him to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Blueprint’s ascendancy to receivership surprised many Boston educators because it had never run a school and was just making inroads into Boston.
A year earlier, the School Department had partnered with Blueprint to help English High School and the Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy under a plan to avoid receivership of those schools.
But Blueprint had been gaining national attention for its work in Denver. Educators there were so impressed that they lengthened Blueprint’s contract to five years and replicated the organization’s math tutoring program citywide.
“I would say the math fellows program has shown great promise and great progress,” said Greta Martinez, Denver’s assistant superintendent for post secondary readiness.
In Boston, though, Blueprint has struggled. Last year, the school system shut down the Greenwood. At English High, MCAS scores in math and English dropped under the first year of the partnership, although scores climbed dramatically last spring.
At the Dever, the first round of MCAS results last spring were disappointing, with most scores dropping. Another key performance barometer also took a hit, with enrollment declining from 583 pre-receivership to 498 last fall.
The high principal turnover, meanwhile, has created a leadership void.
In March 2015 Blueprint’s hand-picked principal, Keith Mills, abruptly resigned because of “unforeseen health concerns.” Two administrators stepped in temporarily as co-principals. Then this March, a new permanent principal, Laura Miceli quit to “attend to family health needs” but is now an education director at a private school in Brookline.
Connie Helton, who lives in Florida, is serving as interim principal. In an unusual move, Blueprint is paying her rent at a nearby apartment, totalling $10,000 so far, even though the principal’s job pays $140,000 annually. No other principal in the Boston Public Schools receives a housing allowance.
Blueprint also paid for two trips that Helton made to Florida to visit her family, costing less than $1,000.
Spengler said Helton was best suited to step in because she had been working with the Dever for Blueprint. He said a new leader should be selected soon.
“We know finding a leader is critical to long-term success,” said Spengler, adding, “I can’t say enough about the teachers who have taken this on every day. They are incredibly mission driven, and they are incredibly committed to those students.’’
But many of the teachers Blueprint brought in are leaving, too. Last year, 16 teachers departed, including four let go for performance issues and another four whose positions were cut. More plan to leave this year. Blueprint said it won’t have final numbers until this summer.
Several teachers, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak, described a school skidding off course. Although Blueprint has adopted an online platform to track student behavior, discipline continues to be a problem.
Teachers say that under Blueprint’s approach students often do not understand when they have done something wrong because they receive “reminders” instead of consequences.
They also say Blueprint is failing to minimize disruptions when students who attend a therapeutic program for severe emotional needs have to be escorted down a hall to a time-out room.
Often, teachers say, those students are screaming loudly, throwing items in the hallway, or tearing down bulletin boards.
“It’s piercing screaming, painful crying,” said one teacher, who says the spectacle makes her students flinch.
An independent review conducted for the state last year and a quarterly report Blueprint submitted to the state this spring also noted discipline problems were preventing administrators from observing and advising teachers.
Beyond the school climate, teachers point to other issues.
Blueprint bought 650 Chromebooks, at a cost of $176,000, but teachers say the school’s network keeps crashing. Meanwhile, teachers say the school is running short on basic supplies, prompting them to raise hundreds of dollars on the Web to buy boxes of paper.
Blueprint disputed many of the concerns, saying there is enough money for paper, that it is unaware of any network problems, and that students are properly escorted by trained personnel to the time-out room.
But the organization added that it is planning to relocate two therapeutic classrooms and is identifying an alternate location for the time-out room.
Blueprint hesitated on allowing a Globe reporter to visit the Dever, but ultimately offered a half-hour tour, which took place one recent morning after students settled into their daily routines.
Signs of a student attendance initiative were evident with monthly attendance rates posted outside classrooms. The state deemed more than a third of the students chronically absent last year.
Students were attentive and well behaved in the two classrooms the Globe visited.
In one room, six math fellows tutored about two dozen fifth-graders on decimals. One tutor, Loan Nguyen, attended the Dever as a child after moving from Vietnam. She fondly recalled when her first-grade class released butterflies they had raised for a science lesson into the sky. Nguyen said she was surprised the school went into receivership.
“I think having Blueprint here has been really beneficial,” said Nguyen, who said that working with students has been rewarding. “They remind me of myself when I was growing up. We share similar backgrounds, and I want to be someone who will inspire them.”
Kenneth Wong, a Brown University education professor who studies receiverships, said the state must solve the principal-turnover problem to improve the Dever.
“Without stable leadership, things won’t move in the right direction,” he said.