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26 Boston schools at risk of being declared ‘underperforming’

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

West Roxbury Academy (above) was one of the schools at risk of being designated as “underperforming.”

By Globe Staff 

More than two dozen schools in Boston with low standardized test scores are at risk of being declared “underperforming” by the state, an action that can lead to the removal of principals and teachers, according to a School Department analysis.

The 26 schools are spread across nearly every neighborhood, from East Boston to West Roxbury. Officials are expected to learn the fate of each school when the state releases the latest round of MCAS data at the end of October.

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If the state orders any of the schools to overhaul their programs, they would have three years to boost student performance or they could face a state takeover. Nine of Boston’s 125 schools are already designated as underperforming, while two others are in receivership, a more dire classification.

“There is no silver bullet to this,” Superintendent Tommy Chang said Friday, noting that urban districts nationwide are struggling to turn around their lowest performing schools.

He added that the school system needs to push ahead with urgency because many of the most marginalized students are in these schools. The schools that have been singled out represent 20 percent of those in the system, educating about 12,000 students.

The analysis, which officials presented to the School Committee last week, offers greater insight into the state of the city’s school system as Mayor Martin J. Walsh runs for reelection this fall.

Walsh, while praising the system for pushing more schools into the two highest-ranking categories in the state accountability system and boosting graduation rates to historic highs, said he and the district are committed to improving schools at the bottom.

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“This year’s budget includes an additional $16 million for our lower-performing schools and it’s important that we continue to provide focus and supports to the schools and students that need them most,” Walsh said in a statement.

The analysis underscores the reality that many schools need more attention and resources in order to thrive.

Chang’s team produced the analysis at the request of the School Committee, which wanted a better understanding of how many schools are at risk of being declared underperforming and what steps the system is taking to help prevent that.

Since then, the analysis has slowly circulated among the affected schools, raising questions about their future and fueling debate about whether the data accurately reflect the quality of education being delivered.

The analysis flagged 11 schools for being at the greatest risk of being declared underperforming because their MCAS scores rank very low in comparison to other schools statewide.

One of those schools is Roxbury’s Mendell Elementary School, which has been increasingly popular with parents and students.

Some parents said the data do not jibe with their experience, noting the school has expanded its arts programs and introduced robotics and it educates students with disabilities alongside other classmates in traditional classrooms.

Many former Mendell students are now landing spots at the city’s prestigious exam schools.

“I’m baffled by that news,” said Flavia Graf Reardon, whose son is in the fourth grade and whose daughter moved on to Boston Latin Academy. “In my mind, the Mendell is a gem. There are fantastic things happening there. I think this school has been a haven for a lot of different families.”

Also appearing at the very bottom is Blackstone Innovation School in the South End, which highlights the extraordinary difficulty of sustaining school turnaround efforts. The Blackstone had been tagged as underperforming in 2010 but climbed its way out of that designation three years later after getting a new principal, replacing almost all of its teachers, and extending its school day.

But since then, the Blackstone has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal school-improvement grants, forcing it to cut back on academic interventions. More than 90 percent of the students have been classified by the state as “high needs” because they lack English fluency, have disabilities, or live in households receiving welfare benefits.

Bill Wolff, president of the Friends of Blackstone School, said it wouldn’t be helpful for the school to be reclassified as underperforming, noting it just got a new administrative team and has many talented and dedicated teachers.

“It would put more hardship on the school,” Wolff said.

The nine other schools flagged for having the very lowest MCAS performance are Chittick Elementary in Hyde Park; Perkins Elementary in South Boston; the McKinley Schools, a special-education program with multiple locations; Holmes Elementary and King K-8 in Dorchester; West Roxbury Academy and Urban Science Academy in West Roxbury; and Ellis Elementary and Timilty Middle School in Roxbury.

It’s far from certain that all of the schools identified in the analysis would be designated as underperforming. The state identifies only a handful of schools each year as underperforming and would probably consider schools outside of Boston as well.

There is a limit on the total that can be declared underperforming statewide — 4 percent. The state is well below that limit.

As of last fall, 33 schools were designated underperforming statewide, or 2 percent of all schools. And since that time, at least one of them — Mattahunt Elementary in Boston — has shut down.

Chang said that he is hoping the Mendell will avert any sanctions and that he expects to see dramatic increases in its test scores, noting it recently adopted a rigorous curriculum for its upper grades.

In an effort to provide the schools at the bottom with the best supports possible, Chang brought in an outside evaluator last year to diagnose areas of weakness and strength for each school in the bottom fifth percentile.

“We need to make sure . . . that every single school in the Boston Public Schools is a school that parents want to send their children to,” Chang said.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said she was pleased the school system was taking a proactive approach with the schools at risk of state mandated-actions. But she faulted the state’s accountability system for the predicament of many schools, arguing it over-emphasizes standardized test scores and takes funding away from schools too quickly after showing some improvement.

“The accountability system itself is not an accurate measure of student performance and growth,” Tang said. “If you visit some of the schools, you’ll see there are amazing things happening.”

The other 15 at-risk schools identified by the School Department, which have only slightly better performance than the other 11, are Condon Elementary in South Boston; Edwards Middle School in Charlestown; Frederick Pilot Middle School and Community Academy for Science and Health in Dorchester; Hennigan Elementary and Mission Hill K-8 in Jamaica Plain; Irving Middle School and Sumner Elementary in Roslindale; Higginson-Lewis K-8 and Mason Pilot School in Roxbury; Tobin K-8 in Mission Hill; East Boston High School; Charlestown High School; and Lyon Upper School and Winship in Brighton.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.