High School Reform

OPINION: How teachers bridged two Boston high schools to reap gains for all students

Boston Collegiate Charter, Jeremiah E. Burke focus on instruction

As educators, we are constantly evolving.

Our jobs require us to seek out solutions that will help our students reach new heights so they can get the most out of the hours they spend in school.

Among the many solutions we have tried, one has proven transformational: teachers across schools learning from one another.

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Since 2011, our schools – one charter, one district – have participated in a partnership that demonstrates that when schools step out of their comfort zones they not only can improve student outcomes, but can effect positive change across entire teaching communities.

Charter schools were established, in part, as laboratories of innovation to help support district improvement. But when schools compete for children and revenue, the relationship can become strained, making it politically difficult to share strategies and results with traditional districts.

In 2011, Boston Collegiate Charter School, a charter in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, was looking for a school with which to partner in order to broaden and explore a new model of professional development, share best practices, and learn how to best reach all students. It found a perfect partner in a district school just a mile down the road.

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The partner was the Jeremiah E. Burke High School, which was designated in 2010 as “a Turnaround school” by the state, for persistently low academic achievement.

The school team was looking outside the box for support in undertaking the daunting task of turning around, and it sought out partners in various areas — including welcoming Boston Collegiate into the fold.

With the “underperforming” designation came additional financial assistance from the state along with more flexibility to change the way the school was operating.

The Burke implemented a comprehensive turnaround plan, including a 60-minute extension of its school day, providing ample time for teachers to work in teams, and supporting students’ social and emotional needs to reduce barriers to learning.

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With the cultural change well underway, the collaboration between the Burke and Boston Collegiate was able to focus on instruction. The project was initially funded by a the Lynch Foundation and later by a federal grant supporting charter/district collaboration.

Teachers embarked upon learning various strategies, including common mock state assessment tests to gather data to inform instruction and familiarize students with the rigors of testing.

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The data was also used to group and schedule students for remediation. Boston Collegiate’s content coaches linked arms with the Burke’s content teams and became deeply embedded in the collaboration.

Teams met weekly to discuss best practices in math and ELA intervention. As the partnership evolved, they worked with each other, and learned together which interventions would work best their school’s context.

In 2014, the Burke became the first school in Massachusetts to shed its turnaround status;  it achieved a 12-point gain in English proficiency and a 26-point increase in math proficiency on state tests. It also won the acclaimed “School on the Move” prize from the nonprofit EdVestors, which annually honors the city’s most improved public school with a $100,000 grant to support continued improvement.

Ultimately, this partnership enriched and improved practice at both schools with each school learning from the other’s strengths.

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Where Boston Collegiate had tools and strategies for excellent academic outcomes, the Burke had tools and strategies for accommodating high-need students and English Language Learners – two student populations that are on the increase at Boston Collegiate.

For example, Boston Collegiate  introduced some of its struggling students to sentence starters for Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, thesis statements that were originally designed for English language learners at the Burke. In the math classroom, Boston Collegiate began to more extensively examine student work and incorporate rubrics to communicate with students on their progress.

Our collaboration around academics has become an important development and retention tool for our teachers. Through trial and error, teachers identified best practices and shared philosophies that deepened their understanding of their students and honed their skills as educators.

Teachers working together also help dissolve the artificial border between charter and district schools. When we’re focused on content and practice, the structure of the school doesn’t matter.

The schools are incorporating these practices into their current professional development structures and hope to sustain them over the long term.

Teachers from both schools meet regularly with the coaches to review student work and dig deeper into content and instructional choices. Teachers also videotape their practice and watch themselves and their colleagues across both schools to reflect on areas for growth.

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We’ve found these collaborative sessions to be far superior to outmoded professional development programs that might bring teachers together for an hour after school here and there, and we strongly believe public dollars would be better spent in these types of professional development programs going forward.

Programs that are ongoing and embedded and that allow teachers to watch each other’s craft and solve problems together in real-time make professional development teacher-centered and teacher-driven. If teachers can learn from other teachers at other schools who teach the same content, it makes the professional development even richer.

Boston Collegiate and the Burke continue to build on these positive results, thanks to a two-year grant from the One8 Foundation. This funding has increased participation of math and English teachers from both schools and helps us build on our results and continue on a path to excellence.

Meaningful partnerships like ours could go a long way in eliminating the oft-contentious charter-district divide. Skilled teachers and stronger public schools of all types translate into healthier, more connected communities — for when we listen to and learn from one another, we achieve great things.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Dr. Lindsa McIntyre is the headmaster of the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, Mass.

Shannah Varón is the executive director of Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester, Mass.

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Lindsa McIntyre

Dr. Lindsa McIntyre is the headmaster of the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, Mass. See Archive

Shannah Varón

Shannah Varón is the executive director of Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester, Mass. See Archive