Building a smart school improvement plan is important, and to result in change, it has to be implemented. But to ensure implementation, the way in which the plan is developed matters a lot.
Boston Green Academy (BGA), a public grade 6-12 Horace Mann charter school in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston, was ready and eager for improvement, but it needed effective outside expertise to frame their challenges and help push the school forward. BGA turned to Mass Insight Education & Research in 2016 to help the school emerge from state-designated partial academic probation. The good news was that all the necessary core ingredients for significant improvement were already percolating inside the school. BGA only needed the right plan and the right partner to provide the catalyst for change.
Mass Insight consultants embraced a school with great potential yet all the same issues often found in urban school environments — particularly a significant percentage of students starting at BGA with academic skills below grade level. BGA serves about 500 students from neighborhoods across Boston, of which 30% are students with disabilities, 15% are English language learners, and 61% are economically disadvantaged. In 2016, BGA was among the lowest performing 20% of middle-high schools statewide. MCAS results (the statewide standardized test) in 2016 for grade 10 indicated 80% were proficient in ELA, 38% were proficient in math, and 36% were proficient in science. Accordingly, BGA needed to present DESE with a plan to improve its scores and begin the process of internal, sustainable change.
After extensive interviews, focus groups, and classroom observations with staff, Mass Insight consultants zeroed in on several levers to boost learning and improve the academic culture in the school. Instruction was a key focus, specifically the need for expanded teacher professional development and a more consistent approach to instilling academic rigor in the classroom. Mass Insight found there was a lack of active student engagement and “productive struggle” in many classes. Additionally, the crucial feeder to the high school – the middle school — was a behavioral hot spot that needed closer attention.
In order to raise the academic bar at BGA, the school needed more consistency around educational strategy. The school has a legacy of strong teacher autonomy and empowerment, “having as many decisions as possible made by those doing the work,” says Matt Holzer, the Headmaster at BGA since 2013.. But that approach had created significant gaps in instruction. Teachers bought into the idea that some of their freedom had to be sacrificed to reach the bigger goal: an organized, systemic approach geared to yield more learning in the classroom.
Mass Insight facilitated a planning process with BGA instructional leaders, resulting in an enhanced framework for professional development which focused on four instructional values: intellectual demand, engagement, urgency, and student as worker/teacher as coach. The school also bolstered professional development by implementing school-wide instructional rounds, school-wide and differentiated professional development sessions, a peer coaching system, peer observations, and a consistent and high-quality evaluation and feedback system.
Mass Insight also saw the potential for using data more effectively for student intervention and behavior management. BGA’s data practices were underdeveloped, and the school has since instituted a system that regularly monitors and distributes data on academics, behavior, and attendance, building a sense of shared responsibility.
During the 2018-19 school year, the needle on student growth started moving in the right direction, when grade 7 math and grades 7 and 10 ELA met the state growth targets. Most recently, the 2019 state accountability classification indicates BGA has made “substantial progress toward targets,” a state classification deemed not requiring assistance or intervention. The learning culture at the middle school has improved markedly. Additionally, the college acceptance rate is up, attendance has increased, and suspensions have decreased. Holzer is especially proud that at the school’s last graduation, every senior walked the stage. “The journey for us is not complete,” Holzer says, but his team now has better tools to address challenges. “There were great benefits to work with external professionals who could tell us we have something good here — but it’s not good enough,” Holzer says. “There was nothing they imposed on us. They worked with us.”