Boston International: Model for Innovation Schools

I am against giving School Superintendents more power than they already have.  In a perfect world, principals and teachers should jointly figure out how to fix underperforming schools.  Superintendents are too distant from the task.

I think Charter Schools need to exist.  They offer smaller classes, good teachers, maybe even better curriculums.  Often they also get more buy-in from the parents and community.  But they also have high turnover because the bottom line does not budge the way the Boston Public School’s budget does EVERY YEAR.  Also some schools, like the Match School has a reputation for sending their underperformers BACK to the public schools when they don’t fit neatly into the spreadsheets.  I don’t know how good a job they do, but they need to exist like yappy dogs at the heels of bogged-down systems like Chelsea, Boston, Waltham, Lawrence.

I think Innovation Schools (if that is the new name for Pilot Schools that the BPS developed) could be wonderful if they are kept small and student teacher ratio is 1:12.  Yes, I know I’m dreaming, but this is a blog.

I have worked at a what I would call an Innovation School and it was a wonderful experience.

Two years ago, I taught Senior English at a very interesting school in Jamaica Plain.  It was called Boston International High School and it served all new immigrant students who came from Haiti, Albania, Cape Verde, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic.  When the kids entered 9th grade, they knew only their native language.  The school operated in a  Sheltered English environment, (almost all teachers bilingual in one of the languages the student population represented), and by the time the students were in 10th grades, they were speaking and doing academic work totally in English.

I was hired on a one-year position covering a maternity leave.  I only spoke English, although I understood Spanish which helped often.  But I had taught college so the principal thought I would be a good bridge to prepare these kids to enter college when he hired me.

The attendance at this school was phenomenal.  It was 98% and the school was only 275 students.  Besides 16 teachers in all academic subjects, there was 1 full-time guidance counselor, 1 social worker, 1 community relations advisor.  The academic program included Math, Humanities, Sciences, and English Writing and Literature.  There was little art or music and since the school had no gym, the principals worked out a deal with the local YMCA to get gym memberships for the students.

The parents of these kids often had two jobs–yes, they cleaned offices at night, they worked in hospitals and nursing homes, they fried burgers.  And then some also were medical doctors, engineers, and teachers.  Parental involvement was sporadic.  Not everyone came to parent-teacher conferences but those who did were incredibly invested.  One Cuban parent said to me, “I entrust my son’s future to you.  Whatever you tell him to do, I will make sure he does.”

But they did not buy their kids tutoring for the MCAS or SAT prep or buy them coaching for their college application essays.  Teachers  helped 36 seniors write every college application essay.  Teachers taught kids how to do math problems in their sleep so they could pass the MCAS.  Teachers drilled them in methods to read short answers and write good essays so they could pass their MCAS.  A few seniors (due to English as a Second Language issues) had to take their MCAS tests 2 and 3 times but every senior passed his or her exams finally.  But also students did community service regularly at local nursing homes and the Food Bank.  Students put on plays in English and Spanish.

There was no PTA.  Parents did not read their kids’ homework or read in English but the jobs and the lives they had made it very clear what options the kids had if they did not succeed in their American school.  Students often went to UMass Boston on weekends for extra classes and coaching.    Parents would attend conferences with teachers who had concerns but often the only help they could offer was to promise to feed their kid breakfast.  Yet over 150 people attended the graduation of the 36 seniors, held at UMass Boston.  15 seniors went on to attend a 4-year college, 10 went to community colleges, 11 found jobs.

If this is what you mean by an Innovation school, I am ALL FOR IT.

The secret to good schooling is simple: Small Teacher-student ratio.  Books instead of photocopied instruction sheets.  Not dumbing down the curriculum with “Literacy studies.”  Kids need to have good literature and be reminded that reading is an essential skill.

Universal literacy became a hallmark of American education because it was thought that voters should know how to read, write: hence, think.  Our culture is returning to one where oral/aural skills are becoming more prized.  Would you rather watch a spelling bee or High School Musical?  Homer, who memorized all his poems, would have loved an Ipod. Is this legislation worth memorizing?  Can you hum a few bars?

Marilyn Matis

One reply on “Boston International: Model for Innovation Schools”

  1. Thanks, Marilyn, for sharing this great experience. For me this is an example of how breaking the mold per se is often a good thing to do — innovation is exciting and excitement can be good for education.

    Thoughtless disruption though can be bad for education and among the provisions of the bill that have raised concerns, the one that is most troubling to me is the one you lead with, the very broad powers granted to superintendents. This may need to be trimmed a little. I’ll be watching this issue closely during the proceedings tomorrow.

    Our course, your strongest point may be that low student-teacher ratios are the key.

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