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    Public-school turnaround: The Trotter gallops ahead

    The Trotter Elementary School in Roxbury offers a powerful reminder that no urban school is beyond redemption. Some may not rebound as quickly as the Trotter, which rose from Level 4 (failing) to Level 1 (high achieving) on the state’s performance yardstick in just three years. But all substandard schools across the state could benefit from the turnaround strategy at the Trotter.

    It wouldn’t have been possible without the 2010 overhaul of a state education reform law designed to help schools in academic distress. At the time, only 13 percent of Trotter students scored at the advanced or proficient level on a statewide MCAS English test. Math scores were a shade worse. The most recent test scores showed impressive jumps, with 39 percent of students scoring proficient or advanced in English and 37 percent hitting those marks in math.

    The change was methodical, not magical. The new law made it possible to require that all staffers reapply for their jobs, which led to the replacement of about half of the Trotter’s teaching staff. The new and remaining teachers benefited from intensive training. Students, meanwhile, made productive use of 30 additional minutes in the classroom each day. Skilled administrators recruited supporters from academic institutions and other nonprofits.

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    The Trotter is not the only Level 4 school to show dramatic improvement. Of the 11 schools so designated in Boston, five have moved out of the underperforming category. But the remainder are still bogged down or slipping backwards. Two schools — the Dever and the Holland — are on the verge of being taken over by the state. Management flexibilities turn out to be of limited use without top-of-the-line principals who can transform the culture of the schools. At the Trotter, Orchard Gardens K-8, and other successful turnaround schools, positive change begins at the top.

    Ultimately, extra funding for a longer school day, hiring flexibility, and carefully targeted instruction should not be limited to a few dozen Level 4 schools across the state. Level 3 schools — the bottom 20 percent of performers in the state — would benefit greatly from similar flexibility. No one pretends it will be easy to improve schools where upwards of 90 percent of students come from low-income homes, including many where English is not the first language. But it can be done, as the Trotter so ably demonstrates.