THE BOSTON SCHOOL COMMITTEE voted last month to merge four elementary schools into two school communities – the Pauline A. Shaw with the Charles A. Taylor in Mattapan, and the John D. Philbrick with the Charles Sumner in Roslindale. Mayor Michelle Wu and Superintendent Mary Skipper also recently announced their intention to rebuild and expand Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury and to expand and relocate the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science to West Roxbury.
These changes will almost certainly be followed by more consolidations, new builds, and likely, school closures as the Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools (BPS) takes shape. As the city and district enact their vision of “every student in Boston learning in a space that is safe, healthy, resilient, and inspiring,” all involved must plan for the impacts – intentional and unintentional – these changes will have on school communities.
Each year, EdVestors, a school improvement nonprofit in Boston, recognizes the most improving schools in BPS through its School on the Move Prize. In addition to awarding the $100,000 prize to shine a spotlight on and support what’s working, we also document the practices these schools employ to achieve improved outcomes.
Several years ago, we studied prior prize winners and finalists to understand if the improvements were maintained and what factors contributed to their paths of performance. Our research, conducted in partnership with the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, provides important lessons to draw from as the city and district move forward with plans to close, merge, and build new school communities.
Two areas that had negative consequences for school communities were the pace of change it undergoes and the degree to which it experiences staff turnover.
Our study of 12 former School on the Move Prize winners and finalists found that the number and speed at which a school was expected to implement building-wide changes often challenged a school’s ability to meet student learning needs. School leaders reported that responding to district-driven changes, which were typically operational in nature and required coordination across several aspects (e.g., staffing, schedule, and transportation), can be as, if not more, time-consuming as addressing building-level instructional needs. The study also found that educators considered the pace of implementation to frequently be misaligned with other school priorities.
Schools in the study that saw a decline in performance reported high staff turnover as a result of major changes at the school level. This included transitions in school leadership as well as teacher turnover. Nearly all of the schools included in the study simultaneously underwent district-initiated operational changes. The high frequency and types of changes – including leadership turnover – combined to be important factors limiting higher levels of performance.
Fortunately, the research offers valuable insights on what the district can do to support sustained school improvement and mitigate some of the negative effects of change.
Consider carefully each school’s capacity for change and the pace of implementation.
School leaders reported consistently balancing competing priorities. When leaders and teachers are having to frequently attend to new changes, they risk sacrificing student learning. This can strain capacity. District leaders should assess an individual school’s capacity to handle operational changes associated with the Green New Deal for BPS and carefully consider any additional initiatives the school is asked to take on.
Reflect on leadership “fit” and professional culture when making school leadership decisions.
A continuation of the school’s existing culture and vision were often key to continued improvement. When selecting new leaders for the consolidated and new school communities, the district should carefully consider how to sustain a positive, professional culture wherever present. Two critical strategies to promote the effective placement of new leaders are 1) selecting principals or heads of school whose style complements a culture of participatory leadership and 2) incorporating teacher voice into the selection process.
Support school leaders to center key practices including vision and engagement.
School on the Move winning and finalist schools had common practices that sustained improvement. The district should support leaders to implement these common practices and nurture school communities that engage teachers in school improvement efforts, cultivate a shared student-centric vision, and value collaboration and continuous learning for all educators. The vision for each school should also include a data-driven culture of high expectations and high support for students.
Improving BPS schools, both in their facilities and in their student learning, is an urgent task. To help schools get on and stay on a trajectory of continued improvement, the district must pay careful attention to their expected pace of change and create the conditions for facilitative leaders to work collaboratively with teachers in these new or consolidated school communities.
Superintendent Skipper is familiar with what this type of change can mean for a school community, having led TechBoston Academy through a successful merger in her time as head of school. It is in the district’s best interest to draw from her experience and incorporate the lessons she learned firsthand with our School on the Move study findings to best support our school leaders, teachers, and students through the changes ahead.