LYNN — At Lynn’s Connery Elementary School, where 93 percent of the students come from low-income families, and 85 percent live in homes where English is not the first language, principal Mary Dill moves through the hallway with a gentle grace, offering a hug to students or a high-five.
About a mile away, at Harrington Elementary School, principal Deb Ruggiero talks about the emotional component of learning, describing how everything from morning meetings in which students discuss life outside of the school with teachers to employing a full-time social worker has prepared children to do better in the classroom.
Until last month, the two schools were included in a category that no school wants to be part of. In 2010, both were designated by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as “underperforming” or “Level 4” after their students performed poorly on the MCAS test. In September, after three years as a Level 4 school, Connery and Harrington — along with 12 other schools, including Murkland Elementary School in Lowell — were removed from the underperforming list and elevated to Level 3. The higher level still classifies them as being among the lowest-performing 20 percent of schools, according to the state.
“It was a very big priority for us,” said Lynn Superintendent Katherine Latham, who helped overhaul the school administrations and put into place programs that would help students overcome many distractions outside of the classroom to boost scores.
As part of the state law, schools newly designated as Level 4 must change principals; they are also eligible for federal grants to help increase academic achievement.
At Harrington, Ruggerio took over as principal in 2010, and since then the school’s Composite Performance Index, which helps gauge overall MCAS scores, has risen. At Connery, the number of students who have failed or received a warning on their MCAS results has dropped in each grade since 2010.
The two principals attribute the change to several factors.
Since 2010, the schools received more than $2 million in federal grants, which was used to buy desktop computers, iPads, and software programs to test students on English, math, and science comprehension.
In addition, the schools hired curriculum instructors, added more professional development courses for teachers, created smaller learning groups for students, and created teams where educators would meet together and cross-reference data to create individual learning programs for students.
In addition, in order to create a more stable learning environment, Latham reached an agreement with the teachers union that would allow for the principals at Harrington and Connery to approve any new teacher hire.
Dill and Ruggiero said mobility, especially among the students, is part of the day-to-day environment within the schools.
At each school, more than 20 percent of the student population will either enroll or withdraw during the year.
The turnover, combined with students learning a language that is not primarily spoken at home, and other issues — such as poverty and homelessness — create an array of challenges for educators.
“About one-third of the kids who start in kindergarten finish the fifth grade here,” said Ruggiero.
Three years ago, the Level 4 designation also changed the thinking about how to deal with a student’s emotions.
Since then, the schools have hired social workers, given teachers trauma-sensitive classroom training, and had the Lynn Community Health Center set up medical clinics, complete with full-time nurse practitioners, social workers, and visiting doctors, in the buildings.
Also, each month, students and families can access free food from the Greater Boston Food Bank, and can also receive free school supplies.
Ruggerio said she sees these additional resources as an important element in the gains taking place at her school.
“One of my top priorities is the social and emotional well-being of the child,” Harrington’s principal said.
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