The long-troubled Union Hill Elementary in this one-time textile town has pulled off the kind of headline-grabbing transformation struggling schools around the country dream about: It went from being one of the lowest-performers in the Bay State to the highest rung on the state’s school ratings system in just four years.
The school’s enrollment has swelled from slightly more than 300 students at the start of the turnaround in 2010 to around 500—because of the restored faith of the surrounding neighborhood, officials in the Worcester school district say.
What’s more, two other elementary schools in the urban, diverse system—Chandler Elementary Community School, and Burncoat Preparatory—also “exited” the same turnaround process.
That success didn’t happen overnight. And sustaining it will take a major effort from everyone from state education Commissioner Mitchell Chester to Union Hill’s janitor, Luis Martinez, who followed Principal Marie Morse from her previous school and helped get Union Hill in shape at the beginning of its turnaround. (“He’s no joke,” she says.)
The state’s role has been to provide the 25,000-student district and the schools with just the right mix of pressure and support to keep its turnaround on track, using a relatively unsexy lever: its 5-year-old accountability system.
While many states provide ratings for their schools, Massachusetts goes a step further: It labels its districts.
After all, Chester says, low-performing schools aren’t islands unto themselves. They are part of a broader district ecosystem. And while states can step in and provide expertise and leadership, no school can sustain a turnaround without continual district support.
“We’re not structured and staffed to intervene in scores [of schools] throughout the state,” Chester said. And, he said, the chances of a successful turnaround are “greatly diminished if a school district isn’t part of that capacity and effort.”
To be sure, there are plenty of factors the state education agency doesn’t have much direct control over.
Chester can’t direct Morse to be the kind of principal that a student feels comfortable hugging in the hallway after sharing the news that the child’s mother is about to get of jail.
He can’t issue a regulation asking Burncoat Prep’s instructional coach, Beth Zeena Dowd, a district veteran, to help her relatively new-to-Worcester principal, Deborah Catamero, recruit a strong staff after about half the teachers left at the start of the turnaround.
And he can’t ask Mary Meade-Montaque, Worcester’s manager for curriculum, instruction, and school leadership who oversees a broad swath of schools, including all four turnaround campuses, to take on so much that she’s doing the work of about four people, at least as Catamero sees it.
But the state can put its districts into different buckets and tailor supports to them the same way teachers might “differentiate” instruction based on the individual needs of the students in their class.
Levels Of Support
At least 11 states, including Massachusetts, rate both districts and schools in some way in their accountability systems, according to a preliminary examination by the Council of Chief State School Officers of states’ websites and waivers from the mandates of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And the reauthorization of the ESEA signed by President Barack Obama last month could encourage states to beef-up the district role in turnarounds. So the practice may spread in coming years.
Under Massachusetts’ accountability system, a district is only considered as strong as its lowest-performing school. That means in the Bay State any district, like Worcester, with even one school labeled “Level 4", is also considered a Level 4 district. That’s almost the lowest rung in the state accountability system.
And districts that have at least one school in the bottom 20 percent in the state—even just barely—are “Level 3" districts. There are also Level 1 and 2 districts and schools.
“You can’t be good enough for most schools,” said Russell Johnston, a senior associate commissioner. “You have to be good enough for all schools.”
The state offers districts with similar challenges—including the state’s two largest systems, Boston and Springfield—the chance to collaborate and learn from each other.
And each Level 4 district is assigned a state liaison to help district officials find out what practices have been successful elsewhere, advocate for the district as it tries to navigate the state bureaucracy, and help keep the turnaround process on track.
In Worcester’s case, that liaison is Deborah Lantaigne, herself a former turnaround principal. She can offer real “I’ve been there” empathy to school leaders, even as she pushes them to reflect on their work and think about what they could be doing better.
It isn’t always easy: A while back, the state brought in outside consultants to train a fresh set of eyes on instruction in its turnaround schools. Those consultants found that while there were pockets of excellence in Worcester, the quality of instruction just wasn’t consistent across all classrooms.
That was really hard to hear, but it led to some soul-searching that ultimately helped the schools, Meade-Montaque said.
The state’s process wasn’t always so collaborative. Back in 2008, before the state’s new accountability law went into effect, state administrators would show up at a school and walk through classrooms, taking notes without much discussion, recalled Meade-Montaque.
The state called it “support.” But in her view, it was really “compliance, awful compliance.”
The relationship has gradually changed over the course of the past seven years to one that is more “pressure and support,” she said.
For her part, Kendra Cox, an instructional coach at Elm Park Elementary, a school in Worcester that’s just beginning its turnaround journey, sees the schools, district, and state as moving in tandem toward a common goal: helping Elm Park succeed.
“I feel like it’s us doing the work together, side by side,” Cox said of the state. But, she conceded, “maybe it would be different if we weren’t doing what we’re supposed to do.”
In fact, the district is keenly aware that if its turnaround efforts aren’t successful, the state has a heavier hammer in its toolshed.
Level 4 may sound like the bottom of the barrel when it comes to student achievement, but there’s actually a level below it: Level 5. That’s a designation reserved for schools that have failed to make much progress, even when the district and state are working together. In those cases, the state steps in and takes over completely. Right now, there are just four Level 5 schools in the Bay State.
For entire districts with a long track record of dysfunction and foundering achievement, there’s an even more-dramatic option: becoming a Level 5 district—subject to total state takeover. Unlike in other levels, being a Level 5 district doesn’t mean that you have one flailing school. It means the whole district needs help.
So far, the state has stepped in and taken control of two historically underperforming systems: Lawrence, which has been under state authority since 2011 and has begun to see some brighter results, and Holyoke, which just started the process last year.
In deciding on where to intervene, the state has more to go on than just test scores. It has regular meetings with a cadre of urban superintendents.
Those interactions help offer leaders support and give state officials some insight into which systems have serious, systemic problems that will require a lot more action from the state.
“We have a pretty good sense of which districts are well-organized and have some good capacity and leadership,” Chester said. In both Holyoke and Lawrence, “internal capacity was incredibly weak and incredibly dysfunctional.”
Lantaigne also happens to be Holyoke’s liaison. She spends a lot more time in that district than in Worcester, but, she says, the basic framework for the assistance is the same.
Worcester has a ways to go, she said, but the district has “been so intentional about learning from each school, trying to lift up some of their district systems” while also doing “some of that preventative work” with other schools that could be in danger of falling into Level 4.
Massachusetts also can provide its districts with something else: in-depth research on what actually works when it comes to fixing low-performing schools—a notoriously tough nut to crack.
The state is a standout when it comes to learning from its own turnarounds, said Carlas McCauley, who until recently worked on school improvement at the U.S. Department of Education and is now the director of the Center for School Turnaround at WestEd, a research and consulting organization.
Massachusetts did a detailed analysis of all 34 of its Level 4 schools—18 of which were able to exit turnaround status by October 2015. Most had received federal School Improvement Grants.
The state looked for the common denominators among schools that had high growth in student achievement during the first three years of their turnaround and those that didn’t.
It found that schools that made the most progress tended to have supports and instruction tailored to individual students, a collegial climate, and a shared approach to leadership, among other features.
That analysis has helped Worcester provide more-focused support to Elm Park, its newest turnaround school, which just started the process this school year.
There’s another key ingredient that seems to help underperforming schools get better: attention to nonacademic supports.
Thanks in part to initial seed funding from Massachusetts’ $250 million federal Race to the Top grant, low-performing schools in Worcester and a handful of other districts have been able to participate in the state’s"wraparound zone” program.
That means all four of Worcester’s turnaround schools—plus another handful of “innovation schools” in the district that have been granted special autonomy through a state law—have been able to hire a wraparound-zone coordinator, a kind of social worker, parent liaison, and community connector all rolled into one.
Both Morse, Union Hill’s principal, and Catamero, Burncoat’s principal, see the wraparound coordinators as a crucial component of the turnaround process—more important, even, than the full 90 minutes of additional instructional time that was also a key part of each school’s path to improvement.
Now that Union’s Hill’s $1.3 million state and federal turnaround grant has run out, Worcester is spending about $550,000 to help the school sustain its effort. The school cut back extended learning time to just one additional hour of instruction, instead of 90 minutes, in part so it could keep its wraparound coordinator, Yolanda Lopez, on staff.
The coordinators’ responsibilities range from connecting students with social-service agencies to helping find backpacks and school supplies to deeper assistance for entire families.
For instance, Lopez recently helped connect a Union Hill family that lost furniture in afire with community resources.
And Burncoat’s coordinator, Jennifer Jimenez, has set up after-school programs, including enlisting the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to start troops at the school, with Burncoat paying for membership dues and uniforms. Jimenez, who speaks Spanish, helps translate for staff members who aren’t bilingual.
It’s not just Worcester. The wraparound coordinators are getting results across Massachusetts, a report released in 2015 by the American Institutes for Research found.
According to that study, students in schools with wraparound coordinators made bigger gains over time than those in similar schools that don’t offer the service. The achievement jumps were particularly significant for 3rd and 4th grade English-language learners—important in Worcester, which has one of the highest percentages of ELLs in the Bay State, including many native Spanish speakers.
The coordinators meet regularly to trade ideas and connections they have with social-service agencies, nonprofits, and more.
For now, the district is planning to make sure all the schools that have exited turnaround status continue to have access to the coordinators—as well as the longer school day and an extra half hour of planning time per day that teachers say is critical.
They’re all integral parts of the district’s overall accountability strategy.
“It would be a disservice to say, ‘Let’s change that,’ ” said Marco Rodrigues, the interim superintendent in Worcester. “I don’t know if I could face anyone if I just said, ‘We’re done.’ The set of challenges [Union Hill] has don’t go away because we got them to be a Level 1 school.”