Metro

Dorchester Academy faces uncertain future

Brandon Siah, who was expecting to start his senior year Sept. 7, is one of many students confused about the school’s future.
Jim Davis/Globe Staff
Brandon Siah, who was expecting to start his senior year Sept. 7, is one of many students confused about the school’s future.

A Dorchester high school that caters to students at risk of dropping out appears to be on the brink of closing. The school system has issued layoff notices to three administrators, encouraged teachers to find other jobs, and is reaching out to students about transferring.

The move comes as Dorchester Academy, which was declared underperforming by the state three years ago, is struggling to raise standardized test scores and graduation rates to avoid receivership. A centerpiece of the overhaul effort was transforming the traditional high school into an alternative program serving some of the most academically challenged students, who tend to test poorly and miss school frequently.

Brandon Siah, who was expecting to start his senior year Sept. 7, is one of many students confused about the school’s future. He, like many others, recently received a letter asking him to report to a School Department registration office “to explore other pathways towards graduation.”

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The letter made no reference to the changes underway at Dorchester Academy and instead said students were being contacted after a review of their academic and attendance records, giving them the impression they were to blame for having to leave the school.

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“It makes no sense,” Siah, 20, said earlier this week. “I was four and a half classes away from graduating. I hope my credits don’t go to waste or I might not stay in school.”

The problems at Dorchester Academy represent another setback to the school system’s efforts to overhaul schools with the lowest state test scores.

Less than a year ago, the School Committee voted to shut down Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan after state officials threatened to take it over. The vote came three years after the state took control of two low-performing elementary schools in Dorchester.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh has vowed to let no other Boston school fall into the state’s hands. Superintendent Tommy Chang said he has no plans to close the school “at the present time.”

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“I am encouraged by the new direction that Dorchester Academy will be taking in the coming school year,” he said in a statement earlier this week.

Yet only 65 students are registered to attend this fall, while Chang warned the School Committee in a letter earlier this month that the numbers could drop further. Only about five teachers remain.

By contrast, Dorchester Academy was initially preparing to educate 121 students and had about a dozen teachers.

Adding further intrigue about the school’s future: School officials unexpectedly ended its partnership this summer with Action for Boston Community Development, a nonprofit that works with people living in poverty and was running the school.

The partnership’s demise leaves the school without a full-time leader. The School Department announced Wednesday that Freddy Fuentes, who is the school system’s executive director in charge of alternative education, will also serve as Dorchester Academy’s headmaster.

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Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, blamed the school’s predicament on the “state’s failed accountability system.” The system relies heavily on standardized test scores and gives little consideration to other performance measures.

The union hopes “this unfortunate situation is not replicated in schools that need additional resources and programming, not destabilizing upheavals,” Tang said in a statement.

Dorchester Academy opened in 2009 when two small high schools located at the old Dorchester High School merged. The school is now in the Fields Corner area. Many students have learning disabilities, don’t speak English fluently, have been homeless, were placed in foster care, were touched by violence in their neighborhoods, or were involved in the criminal justice system.

To help keep students engaged and make their education more meaningful, Dorchester Academy opts for hands-on projects over lectures, and sends students on internships to learn the practical applications of their lessons.

Teachers also have received training on how to detect and respond to signs of trauma in students, placing a premium on helping students find ways to cope with emotional or behavioral problems rather than resorting to punitive measures.

However, a state report completed in April indicates that Dorchester Academy is showing few signs of long-term sustained improvement, putting it at risk of receivership.

Efforts have been hamstrung by the challenges of converting a traditional high school into an alternative education program and by other factors, such as disruptive students, according to the report.

For instance, a room set up for misbehaving students to reflect on their conduct devolved into a “student lounge” where students would hang out. As one teacher put it in a recent state report, “It was a party.”

And the school is struggling to help students graduate: Just 16.4 percent of the Class of 2016 earned their diplomas within four years, according to the most recent state data.

Mark Isenburg, vice president for workforce development at ABCD who oversaw the Dorchester Academy partnership, defended the organization’s handling of the school.

Isenburg said it takes time to build up alternative education programs, but that effort conflicts with the state’s demands in turnaround schools for rapid gains in student achievement. ABCD runs two other well-regarded alternative schools.

The state report highlighted some bright spots, finding quality instruction in many classrooms and describing administrators and faculty as caring.

Sylvia Rua, a former Dorchester Academy teacher, said she is worried the school will shut down at a time when many students are struggling in traditional high schools.

“It’s a lost opportunity to provide a quality alternative education program to students in Boston,” said Rua, adding that the last-minute changes could set Dorchester Academy students back academically. “The worst-case scenario is students will drop out of school. We had a number of students tell us if it wasn’t for this place they wouldn’t be going to school.”

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com.