4,100 Massachusetts students prove big schools can beat odds
BROCKTON, Mass. — A decade ago, Brockton High School was a case study in failure. Teachers and administrators often voiced the unofficial school motto in hallway chitchat: Students have a right to fail if they want. And many of them did — only a quarter of the students passed statewide exams. One in three dropped out.
Then Dr. Susan Szachowicz and a handful of fellow teachers decided to take action. They persuaded administrators to let them organize a school-wide campaign that incorporated reading and writing lessons into every class in all subjects, including gym.
Their efforts paid off quickly. In 2001 testing, more students passed the state tests after failing the year before than at any other school in Massachusetts. The gains continued. This year and last, Brockton outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools. And its turnaround is getting new attention in a report, “How High Schools Become Exemplary,” published last month by Dr. Ronald F. Ferguson, an economist at Harvard who researches the minority achievement gap.
What makes Brockton High’s story surprising is that, with 4,100 students, it is an exception to what has become received wisdom in many educational circles — that small is almost always better.
Brockton is the largest public school in Massachusetts and one of the largest in the nation.
Szachowicz and other teachers took action in part because academic catastrophe seemed to be looming, Szachowicz and several of her colleagues said in interviews here. Massachusetts had instituted a new high school exit exam in 1993, and passing it would be a requirement to graduate a decade later. Unless the school’s culture improved, some 750 seniors would be denied a diploma each year, starting in 2003.
Szachowicz, who in 2004 would become Brockton’s principal, and Paul Laurino, then the head of the English department — he has since retired — began meeting on Saturdays with any colleagues they could pull together to brainstorm strategies for improving the school.
The group eventually became known as the school restructuring committee, and the administration did not stand in the way. The principal “just let it happen,” the Harvard report says.
The committee’s first big step was to go back to basics and deem that reading, writing, speaking and reasoning were the most important skills to teach. They set out to recruit every educator in the building — not just English but math, science, even guidance counselors — to teach those skills to students.
Teachers unions have resisted turnaround efforts at many schools. But at Brockton, the union never became a serious adversary, in part because most committee members were unionized teachers, and the committee scrupulously honored the union contract.
Over the years, Brockton has refined its literacy curriculum. Brockton’s performance is not as stellar in math as in English language arts, and the committee has hired an outside consultant to help develop strategies for improving math instruction.
Ferguson said Brockton High first “jumped out of the data” for him early last year. He was examining Massachusetts’ 2008 test scores in his office in Cambridge and noticed that Brockton had done a better job than 90 percent of the state’s 350 high schools helping its students to improve their language arts scores.