School & District Management

Students in Boston’s ‘Pilot’ Schools Outpacing Others

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 09, 2007 8 min read
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Voucher Program’s Defeat May Lead to Strategy Shift

When Lindsey Jones was deciding which high school to attend in a district that offers nearly three dozen options for secondary education, she was swayed by the Boston Community Leadership Academy’s claims that it would prepare her well for college. She didn’t realize how well until she started classes at the 400-student academy, part of a network of small schools the Boston district established more than a decade ago to provide alternatives outside its traditional system of large, comprehensive high schools and selective exam schools.

A four-year study of that network, released this week, shows that the academy and the nine other “pilot” high schools in the 56,000-student district are seeing more students through to graduation than regular high schools here. They also have significantly higher promotion and graduation rates, fewer dropouts, and fewer disciplinary issues.

Conceived in 1994 as the district’s response to charter schools, pilot schools have won praise from educators, business leaders, and community groups for providing school choice and innovation within the city’s public school system.

Still, some observers say their results are due more to the schools’ ability to choose or remove teachers, lower proportions of high-needs students, and the control they have in selecting students or weeding out those who are not likely to succeed in them.

Now a senior with a high grade point average, Ms. Jones says her school’s rigorous coursework, personal attention, and insistence that students apply to and be accepted by at least one college in order to graduate have made her college-ready.

“That requirement is something to work for. It motivates you,” she said.

It motivates educators here as well, who say there is an expectation at the academy—as well as at the district’s other pilot high schools—that they will do what it takes to help all students master the knowledge and skills they will need to tackle college-level work.

“Teachers here will work with you until 7 o’clock at night when you need help. They give you their home phone number. They check up on you,” added Ms. Jones, who is still weighing her college options.

‘Common Sense’

Through an agreement between the Boston Teachers Union and city and school officials, the district’s pilot schools—including 10 elementary and middle schools—have autonomy in curriculum, hiring decisions, scheduling, and budgeting. In exchange, teachers get the benefit of smaller class sizes and student loads, a degree of freedom in course content and instructional approach, and time for planning and collaboration with their peers.

Class of 2006

Graduation rates were higher for Boston pilot schools than for the public schools as a whole.


SOURCE: Center for Collaborative Education

The arrangement is paying off, according to the study by the Center for Collaborative Education, which reviewed data for more than 20,000 high school students throughout the district for each of the school years in the study.

Students in pilot schools, from all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, do better than their peers at regular high schools on a number of indicators of student achievement and engagement. Even students who have been at risk of failing have higher success rates at pilot schools than their counterparts on other campuses.

“It is quite common sense that if you provide schools with the control over their budget, if you allow them to hire inside or outside the district without regard to seniority so they can build a faculty with a common vision, if they can tailor a curriculum to meet the needs of the children they serve, and allow them to schedule their time to include greater core academic time for kids and planning time for faculty, that outcomes will improve,” said Dan French, the executive director of the center here, which coordinates several school improvement initiatives in Boston, including the pilot school network.

The program frees participating schools from district mandates and union-negotiated rules, allowing principals, or headmasters as they’re called here, to hire teachers who are committed to a school’s mission and agree to longer work hours.

Those teachers are expected to build a “nurturing environment” and strong relationships with each of their students. In regular advisory sessions, they also offer individual guidance on academic issues and even social, family, and developmental concerns that might affect students’ work.

“At big high schools, there is always a certain tolerance of failure, that you can’t help some students succeed,” said Eileen Sullivan Shakespear, who conducts professional development at the school. She spent 24 of her 35 years with the district teaching English and humanities classes at Fenway High School, which sits in the shadow of the city’s historic baseball stadium. “Here, there is an expectation that we won’t let them fail.”

That often requires teachers to vary their instruction and work with students individually. But the longer hours and additional work have brought rewards as well, Ms. Shakespear said.

“That problem-solving, and working collaboratively and collegially with other adults to find solutions,” she added, “has made teaching so fun.”

The flexibility teachers are given to design their own curriculum and delivery of the content, and the longer school day, has made for some demanding coursework at the schools. The students are expected to demonstrate their knowledge in varied ways, such as through multimedia presentations, exhibitions, and portfolios.

Heavy Reading Load

At Another Course to College, a pilot high school with 220 students, all seniors are expected to read some 4,500 pages of literature and write eight lengthy papers that interpret and analyze the readings.

In Robert Comeau’s English class, which he models after a college seminar, students recently debated the strengths and intentions of Aeneas, the hero in Virgil’s 1st Century BC epic poem, the Aeneid. One student referred back to the class’s readings in Plato’s Republic, to make a point about Aeneas’ integrity.

Later in the year, they will read other hefty tomes, including Dante’s Inferno, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude.

Higher Achievement

Some students performed so poorly on their state math test in the 8th grade that they received a warning score, according to an analysis of two cohorts. On the 10th grade tests, those same students who attended the pilot schools passed at higher rates than their peers in the other Boston public schools.


SOURCE: Center for Collaborative Education

Mr. Comeau’s course syllabus boasts that the work is the kind of required reading, writing, and conversation found in “elite private high schools and affluent suburbs.” “We work to be rigorous and supportive,” the nine-year veteran said.

“We want to show the kids they can do college-level work. They have to do the readings and participate in the analytical discussions, which is what they’ll have to do in college.”

The students at ACC were selected by the district’s lottery system, which makes assignments based on the students’ choices and several other factors. Some pilot schools require students to complete an application and meet certain academic requirements.

Although the student demographics of pilot schools reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the district—as well as those in mainstream special education programs—they enroll significantly lower proportions of English-language learners, students who need separate special education services, and those who were at risk of failing in middle school.

The pilot model, however, has helped some of the schools thrive. ACC, for example, began as a program for 11th and 12th graders within a larger school. The Boston Community Leadership Academy was a failing school in its previous life as Boston High School. Principal Nicole Banham, however, rallied parents and students when the district announced plans to close the school. It is now less than half its original size and somewhat selective in accepting students.

Fair Comparisons?

Such features have raised questions, even among some fans of the program, about whether comparisons between pilot schools and regular high schools are a valid accountability tool.

“I think pilot schools are terrific schools, and I wish we had more of them,” said Ellen Guiney, the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, a local education foundation that supports professional development and school improvement efforts.

“But these analyses don’t point the district in the right direction because they compare pilots to high schools that don’t have a selection process, that have to accept kids who come and go throughout the year, and schools where 40 percent of their students scored in the bottom quartile on the state test in the 8th grade.”

Boston officials are working to improve those larger schools as well. Over the past several years, the district has divided four of its nine comprehensive high schools into 12 smaller ones and set up specialized programs in the remaining schools.

The pilot model has spread beyond Beantown.

Officials in the 727,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District announced last year that they were working with the Center for Collaborative Education to launch 10 high schools there modeled after Boston’s pilot schools. The Aurora, Colo., district is also adopting the model. (“L.A. Proceeds With Plans to Open ‘Pilot Schools’ in Belmont Area,” Aug. 9, 2007.)

And last winter, state education officials in Massachusetts approved adapting the model to four schools—a high school in Boston, a middle school in Fitchburg, and a middle and high school in Springfield—that were deemed “chronically underperforming.” (“Easing Rules Over Schools Gains Favor,” March 16, 2007.)

Attending Fenway has changed Stephon Worrell’s attitude about his studies, and, he thinks, saved him from dropping out of school—physically or mentally.

“This is a professional environment, so I feel like it is my job to do well in school,” said the senior. “We’re basically doing college work,” he said. “Since I came to Fenway, I actually like learning.”

Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Students in Boston’s ‘Pilot’ Schools Outpacing Others


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