Core Skills, Not MCAS, Turned Brockton High Around

by WGBH News
Oct. 7, 2010

Brockton High School.
Brockton High School.

BOSTON -- The city of Boston is in the midst of a concerted effort to overhaul its struggling schools.

Last week, Boston Public Schools superintendent Carol Johnson announced a proposal to shutter six of the district's lowest performing schools. Six months earlier, at the end of the last school year, the district fired five school principals and announced that all of the teachers at six of the twelve schools the state had identified as "underperforming" would have to reapply for their jobs.

Closed doors and staff shakeups have become a normal part of education reform. But just outside of Boston, there's a school with an unconventional turnaround story -- a school that kept most of its staff and capitalized on its own culture, transforming itself from one of the state's roughest schools to one of the state's top MCAS scorers. And a report by Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson has put it on the national stage.

Brockton High School school certainly doesn't fit the mold of the state's best-performing schools. About 2/3 of its 10th grade class is black or Hispanic, and 64 percent of its 10th graders get free or reduced-price meals. The school as a whole has a whopping 4,300 students.

For a long time, Brockton High School was performing even below other low-income, high-density schools. In 1999, 44 percent of the students were failing MCAS testing in English, while 75 percent of the students failed the MCAS mathematics exams."It was like a slap across the face," Principal Susan Szachowicz told WGBH's Callie Crossley, of seeing those scores.

For Szachowicz, then a history teacher and a Brockton High graduate herself, that was a wake-up call. She and other teachers knew that a law that would go into effect in four years time that would require students to pass the math and English MCAS exams in order to graduate. "We were going to have three quarters of our students not getting a diploma if we didn't do something differently, and fast," Szachowicz said.

'Restructuring' Brockton High School

Szachowicz and about 20 others were pulled into a restructuring committee tasked with figuring at what, if anything, could be done about the abysmal scores. It wasn't easy to find people to join. "It was really who we could beg," Szachowicz remembered.

The committee's first meeting was simple, and grim. "I took a marker, and I wrote the failure numbers on a paper, in giant, smelly marker, and said, 'Is this the best we can be?'" Szachowicz said.

For most of those teachers, it wasn't. So they asked themselves what their students would need to be successful, and chose four crucial skill areas -- reading, writing, speaking and reasoning. Then, set about embedding those skills -- real-life skills the teachers themselves used in their every day lives -- into all aspects of the school's curriculum. The group decided early on that their efforts wouldn't be tied to the MCAS. "There's no speaking component on MCAS, and we can't stand how the teenagers speak -- have you heard them?" laughed Szachowicz.

Szachowicz  and the rest of the committee had to teach the other teachers how to turn subjects like science, history and Physical education into opportunities to build core skills -- not just a time for students to repeat facts.

Sczachowicz uses her own classroom as an example. Before the restructuring, if a student didn't understand a primary source document, she would simply tell them to read it again. Now, she needed to teach them to "actively read" and analyze the passage.

A distance from MCAS didn't mean the efforts were unstandardized. "It was very structured, and we monitored it like crazy," Szachowicz said.

Slow, Steady Improvement

By 2001, the students were doing better -- and more and more teachers wanted to join the restructuring committee. Seven years later, in 2008, Brockton High School's students showed more improvement on their English MCAS exams than 90 percent of the state's other high schools.

In a time when many education advocates are speaking to the importance of small schools, Szachowicz said Brockton High School's culture and identity -- including its large size -- was crucial to its resurgence. "We didn't want to build a wall in the middle of the school," she said.

Szachowicz contends that with the right approach to teaching, change is possible in any kind of educational institution. "It isn't about structure. It's about instruction," she said. "The most powerful change agent is the classroom teacher."

And teachers, Szachowicz continued, need guidance. "Are you preparing the teachers appropriately? If teachers are just left to, 'Oh, just go ahead and do what you want to do,' that's not such a good strategy."

Szachowicz has the same advice for those turnaround schools in Boston. "Literacy," she said. "What is the mission that you want for you school around literacy?" And then, she adds, "empower a team" from within that school to implement it.

WGBH'S Jess Bidgood compiled this report.
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