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Leadership and flexibility, not buses, improve schools

NORFOLK AVENUE in Roxbury is no one’s idea of a plush neighborhood. Surrounded by industrial warehouses and within earshot of a clanking commuter rail line, it’s the kind of place that Boston school committees of the 1960s and ’70s systematically neglected.

But the 200-student Samuel Mason elementary school, housed in a 106-year-old, gently decaying Victorian brick structure on Norfolk Avenue, is in demand, with parents rushing to apply for one of its highly coveted kindergarten slots. As a pilot school, which means that it operates within the Boston Public Schools but its principal has extra flexibility in staffing and curriculum, the Mason requires that every teacher be certified in both regular education and special education.


As a reward for its rising test scores, EdVestors, a nonprofit group dedicated to furthering change in urban schools, awarded the Mason $100,000 in 2008. It’s enough to make members of the old, discriminatory school committees of the mid-20th century turn in their graves.

The rise of the Mason challenges many assumptions about Boston schools: that those located in lower-income neighborhoods are the worst, that outside resources flow more readily to schools in wealthier neighborhoods, that kids in predominantly black sections of the city get a better education if they leave their communities. In 2011, race isn’t an indelible line of demarcation, and buses don’t drive quality.

What does promote improvement are the kinds of innovations that have spurred the Mason’s rise. First, for a school to perform well, it must have a principal who is a committed, effective leader with the power to chart the school’s course - and the understanding that he or she will have to answer for its results.

That, in turn, means the principal needs the ability to choose the faculty that best fits the school’s needs. Not every teacher - not even every good teacher - is cut out for the challenging work in urban schools. That means urban school principals need broad latitude in both reassigning out-of-their-element teachers and hiring those better suited to meet the needs of the school.


Too often given short shrift, a school’s culture is a critical element of success. It’s intimidating to attend a rowdy school and hard to learn in an unruly classroom. To succeed, urban schools must set - and clearly communicate - high expectations for student behavior, effort, and performance. Those rules and expectations must apply school-wide, rather than vary from one classroom to the next.

Once schools get the staffing and culture right, a longer school day is the next critical ingredient in boosting student performance. Boston’s charter schools have amply demonstrated the value of more time, as has Charlestown’s Edwards Middle School. Meanwhile, almost every school that has been able to start from scratch, whether as a charter or a pilot or a turnaround school, has opted for a longer day. That’s an indication of the importance of more school time.

The average charter day is 8.2 hours, first bell to last, compared to 6.1 hours for the traditional Boston schools. That means that over a 180-day school year, a charter student will receive the equivalent of 62 more school days than a traditional school student. (Most charters add even more time through longer school years.)

In addition to more learning time, the longer day allows for the enrichment and extra-curriculars that make school special to kids. But more time in school also makes it easier to incorporate tutoring as a cornerstone of the day. Too often tutoring is treated as an extra - to be offered occasionally, and only after classes end. Yet in Boston, MATCH Charter Public High School has also demonstrated the value of daily tutoring sessions. Given the wealth of college students in Boston, it’s easy to envision more sustained tutoring partnerships between the city’s schools and the area’s many colleges.


If tutoring is important, so, too, are summer programs to forestall the learning loss that often occurs over an educationally inactive summer. The Menino administration has recently stepped up efforts there, as well as on coordinating social supports and services for disadvantaged students and their families.

Advocating for effective urban schools requires continued determination on the part of the city government. It will require vigilance from parents, and strong advocacy from businesses and other concerned parties. Despite its industrial location, the Mason school reflects the hopes of a caring community. There is a modern playground across the street, and a pool in the community center next door. Even as the building shows its age, there are potted plants outside its entrance.

More can be done, and should be done. It will take a continued community-wide effort, building on the foundation established in recent years. But the sense of commitment is visible.

Third in a series of editorials on Boston’s school assignment policy.