When the Mildred Avenue K-8 School opened in 2003 in a newly constructed building in Mattapan, parents and school officials were full of optimism. But a decade later, the school was struggling: MCAS scores were among the lowest in the state, principal turnover was high, enrollment was plummeting.
Worried the state would mandate changes, school district leaders and the teachers union stepped in. They tapped a seldom-used teacher contract provision that essentially let a group of teachers craft their own turnaround plan and play a key role in hiring a new principal — all under the joint oversight of the central offices and the union.
On Wednesday, the school won one of the highest honors in the city for making big gains in student achievement, securing the $100,000 Thomas Payzant School on the Move Prize.
EdVestors, the Boston nonprofit that gave out the award, singled out the joint union-management oversight of the school as a critical ingredient in the school’s success and one it believes should be replicated at other city schools in drastic need of improvement.
In accepting the award, Mildred Avenue’s principal, Andrew Rollins, said the school of 560 students was honored to be recognized and that its journey was nothing short of amazing.
“Wow, if anybody four years ago bought a lotto ticket or put a bet on Mildred Avenue being up here . . . it was long odds for sure,” he said. “We were a school on life support.”
A huge part of the school’s story, he said, were the teachers who stuck around — some since the school first opened — and led the work to turn the school around.
The provision of the teachers contract that allowed for joint oversight of the school and giving more voice to teachers dates to at least the 1990s or late 1980s, according to Richard Stutman, who recently retired as president of the Boston Teachers Union. He along with former superintendent John McDonough presented the idea to Mildred Avenue.
For many teachers, the idea of being in control of the school’s future was appealing, while the prospect of state intervention could have led to the removal of more than half of the teachers from the building.
Under the joint management model, the union and the central office each appoints three people to an intervention committee, and they mutually agree on a seventh person. Both the union and the central offices sign off on the school-improvement plan that is devised.
“Reform doesn’t happen from the top down,” said Ambrizeth Lima, a Mildred Avenue teacher, after the award ceremony at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel in the Seaport. “Reform starts with teachers believing reform is needed.”
The plan called for extending the school day, letting go of a few teachers who were not a good match for the school, and giving more flexibility for teachers to experiment with new instructional techniques — without fear of being punished if they flopped.
The school also reduced class sizes, emphasized compassionate relationships between teachers and their students and families, and closely analyzed student test scores, class work, and other assignments to determine what was working and what needed changing.
The effort went a long way in building trust and collaboration among teachers and administrators that helped the school move up the state’s accountability system last year from Level 3 to Level 1, the highest performance category.
Laura Perille, executive director of EdVestors, said she hopes the prize will bring much-needed attention to the joint union-management approach as a powerful tool in turning around schools.
“This prize serves as an engine of learning about how schools improve rapidly,” she said.
When the provision was first added to the union contract, more than a dozen schools tried it, but the partnerships eventually faded and the provision sat dormant for years. Stutman said the partnerships fell out of favor at a time when the state rarely intervened in schools, giving the school system less urgency to tap the provision.
The approach also does not guarantee success. The school system and the union tried it a few years ago at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury, but the effort fizzled amid immense distrust among teachers and administrators. The school, which eventually was declared underperforming by the state, continues to struggle.
Mildred Avenue teachers said trust was the foundation of its school’s success with the approach.
About $20,000 of the Mildred Avenue’s prize money will go to researching its successful strategies for dissemination to other schools.
Two other schools, both from East Boston, were named finalists for the award: the Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School and the Donald McKay K-8. Each will receive $10,000.
“All three schools celebrated here today have shown tremendous progress and provide models for schools across the city,” Superintendent Tommy Chang said in a statement.