A bootstrap success in Boston

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When Mary Russo first walked into Boston’s Mason Elementary in 1990, she felt like walking out the back door. “The building was filthy,” she recalls. “It had not been painted in 17 years. Ceilings were peeling. Walls were gouged. …”

But those were the least of the problems facing the newly appointed principal. Reading scores at Mason were in the district’s bottom 25 percent, and one of every three 1st-graders typically was held back a year. Nobody even questioned the high retention rate, Russo says. “That was just the way they did things.”

Under a district policy that gave parents some choice of schools, the school’s enrollment had plunged more than 50 percent—to only 130 children.

“When I went there it was: Either turn it around, or it will close,” says Russo.

By 1994, Mason had made its turnaround. That year, it posted reading scores that put it in the top 25 percent of Boston’s public schools.

Mason has the natural asset of small size—just 300 students—and Russo took steps to lower class size. But she credits most of the school’s improvement to a solid plan for the professional development of its teachers.

“Every school has—and we had even in 1991—its star teachers,” she notes. “And then you have ‘the other teachers.’ But what that means is that you have some kids who are exposed to good instruction, and some kids who aren’t. Our goal was excellent teaching practice in every classroom, for every kid.”

Mason’s professional development plan evolved slowly through the years, partly as a result of trial and error. For instance, Mason invested in several courses on reading instruction that were held at the school, but these had little impact on teaching practice. Finally, teachers asked that a reading consultant come to the school once a week to coach them in their classrooms. “That’s when I saw real change happen,” says Russo.

Today, most professional development at Mason is led by the teachers themselves. A “lead teacher” for literacy coaches colleagues and leads an after-school course. Veteran teachers spend time coaching and advising new colleagues. The classrooms of teachers with expertise in technology, early childhood or literacy are designated as “model classrooms” that other teachers can visit by appointment.

In addition, teachers share ideas and problems with instruction at weekly grade-level meetings. At schoolwide student support meetings, they help each other deal with student discipline problems.

All the time and effort that collaboration requires “was hard to get used to,” says veteran 2nd-grade teacher Arline McKeen. While supporting the idea of grade-level meetings, she couldn’t escape the uneasy feeling at first that “I should be back in my room getting ready.”

Mason’s professional development regimen has made her job “more hectic,” she says, but ultimately “much more interesting and stimulating.”

In addition to their collaborative efforts during the school day, Mason teachers average 50 hours a year in more formal activities, such as school-sponsored workshops or courses pursued individually through universities. Russo insists that all of these hours be linked to specific schoolwide goals for raising student achievement.

“If they want to take a ‘dance in education’ course, that’s great,” she says, “but I’m not interested.”

To keep focused on goals, everyone at Mason—teachers, custodians, the school secretary and the principal herself—draws up a personal professional development plan during the summer, which Russo reviews in the fall. The plan functions as a contract, but teachers say it also keeps them from biting off more than they can chew.

The school’s spending on professional development ranges from 5 to 10 percent of its $1.5 million budget, with the money coming from federal and special education funds and grants that it applies for. To free up more money, teachers skimp on substitutes and cover classes of absent colleagues.

When Russo arrived at Mason, she found teachers working in isolation. For teachers to work together effectively they would need not only new structures for collaboration—such as grade- level meetings—but a different mind-set, Russo realized. “I remember from my days in the classroom, you went in and you taught and you didn’t worry about the school as a whole.”

During her first year, Russo had teachers draw up a vision statement for the school. The guiding question was simple: What kind of a school would you want for your children?” The process was more complicated. Teachers sought input from parents and students as well as each other. “I think we went through about 14 draft versions before we finally came up with something that everybody agreed to,” Russo says.

The one-page statement lists what teachers wanted to provide all Mason students, for instance, “curriculum, methods, and materials that challenge each child. …”

“People liked the vision,” Russo says. “Everyone likes philosophy.” The next step was more painful, she recalls.

Mason staff held their vision statement up to the school. “Seeing where we were was just very, very hard.” For one, teachers realized that while they had envisioned the kind of education all children should receive, a third of Mason’s students were confined to special education classrooms. “They were making English muffins while other kids were reading textbooks,” Russo says.

Faculty agreed to make a dramatic change—they would mix special education and regular classes and spread out the special education staff. While aimed at boosting achievement of special education students, the change benefited regular students, too. Special education classes had fewer students per teacher; when they were combined with regular classes, class size was reduced for the regular students.

Russo decreased the student-adult ratio even further by recruiting graduate students from a special education program at a local college to serve as classroom assistants. Her eye still on professional development, she figured that fewer children and more adults in each classroom would make it easier for teachers to learn and adopt new teaching strategies.

By 1993, the school’s leadership team—made up of teachers, parents and the principal—was prepared to chart a course for instructional change. It did that by crafting a five-year plan for professional development, which the school has since revised from time to time. Among other details, the plan laid out which subject area the school would target each year for improvement. Mason’s first priority was reading.

Having had little success with traditional textbooks, the team decided to switch to whole language, a literature-based approach where teachers develop their own reading lessons based on a common philosophy about how children learn.

Up to 1993, reforms had unfolded at Mason without much opposition. But now “reform started to reach into the classroom,” Russo says. “The culture was changing. People had to become reflective, had to change their teaching methods.” These changes didn’t go over well with the entire faculty. Of 10 or so teachers employed at Mason in 1993, five left.

Russo says she understands the discomfort teachers feel when asked to alter their teaching. “When you’re learning something new, for part of the time you’re going to have to feel incompetent, like you don’t quite know what you’re doing,” she explains. “And that’s a very hard thing to experience.”

Teachers who stayed say they often found the changes stressful and difficult, but seeing children progress more quickly made their efforts worthwhile. Support from colleagues helped them over the rough spots, they say. “The fact that we’re all learning together makes it so much easier,” says veteran 1st-grade teacher Gwen Stith. “We have each other to fall back on.”

Improving instruction turned out to be harder than anyone had anticipated. Even with the best-laid plans and a collaborative school culture, Mason still lacked a clear understanding of what good reading instruction should entail. As a result, teachers went through training in a number of approaches before finding a program that suited them.

Although teachers liked the new emphasis on literature, says Russo, “we still had kids who were falling through the cracks.” So in 1994, Mason created its own hybrid, adding traditional phonics from a reading textbook and a separate intensive phonics program. Teachers also folded in some strategies for teaching writing and beginning reading, which they learned in summer workshops.

Reading scores rose enough to put Mason in the district’s top 25 percent, but many teachers were still dissatisfied.

Teacher Toni Newsom describes the home-grown program as “cut-and-paste,” with too many isolated, unrelated activities. Some of the professional development Mason selected to support the program “didn’t give the teacher any instructional skills,” she says. “It was just philosophy.” For example, “It was never: This is how you teach them to read phonetically, this is how you teach them to read for meaning.”

Last school year, teachers selected yet another program. Newsom likes it because it is more thorough and better organized. Called the Early Literacy Learning Initiative (ELLI), the program is based on Reading Recovery, a high-profile tutoring program for beginning readers. Both were developed at Ohio State University and piloted in the Columbus Public Schools.

Newsom is now Mason’s ELLI coordinator. As with lead teachers in Reading Recovery, she went through intensive training to learn specific instructional methods. In turn, she leads a 40-hour course after school for all kindergarten to 3rd-grade teachers. During the school day, a substitute takes over Newsom’s class in the afternoon so she can coach her colleagues.

Having experienced both a do-it-yourself program and a predesigned, tested program, Newsom votes for the latter. “A group of teachers working on this by themselves—it would take years,” she says.

Russo now believes that Mason would have saved time if it had located elementary schools with the most effective reading programs—through universities, the state department of education, federally funded regional labs or other sources—and sent teachers to observe.

“Had we had a vision of what good literacy instruction looked like earlier, I know we would have moved to change more quickly,” she says.