Note: This was my final piece for a beat reporting class in which I covered the Allston-Brighton neighborhood of Boston. The article was written in December.
Brighton High School teacher Emily Bozeman stepped into her role as headmaster in May knowing the nearly century-old school was struggling.
Before the start of the school year, she poured over data about test scores, graduation rates, and dropout rates and saw the school was not up to par. Bozeman educated the staff about Brighton’s numbers and together they worked to slow the school’s downward trajectory.
It wasn’t enough.
The Massachusetts education commissioner reviewed similar data and saw a chronic inability for the high school to meet standards. At the end of September, Brighton High — a refuge to many low-income students, English language learners, and high-risk students — was deemed a failure.
“It was shocking even though we knew all of these things and that we were actively working to prevent it,” Bozeman said. “It was staggering.”
Bozeman and half the staff could lose their jobs. Many teachers have said they want to continue working at Brighton High, but they will have to wait for the superintendent’s decision if they can say.
The state is calling on the school to come up with a “turn around” plan — a three-year school improvement plan with help from the district and state — to close the achievement gap.
Liza Veto, turnaround school director for Boston Public Schools, has been working with Brighton since the designation.
“Ultimately, for any school in Massachusetts, we would want students to be performing at their full potential,” Veto said in a phone interview. “We want them to have high performance, great levels of growth. We want all high school students graduating, none dropping out.”
Brighton High is perched on a hill near St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center. Nearly 1,000 students walk the halls of the gothic-style building, which was built in the 1930s.
Most students are Hispanic or African-American, a rate that is up to four times higher than the ethnicity makeup of students in the state, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
About 88 percent of Brighton High students are low income, according to the state. Up to 40 percent are English language learners. About 20 percent of students are enrolled in special education classes.
Brighton High ranked in the bottom 2 percent for performance compared to high schools in the state, Veto said.
State accountability standards that measure school performance look at how well the school eliminates proficiency gaps, according to the department.
The department’s report states that Brighton High is among the lowest achieving and least improving schools, has persistently low graduation rates, and has low test participation. The school scored 48 out of 100 for the state’s Cumulative Progress and Performance Index, putting it below target.
Schools receive a rank from one to five with Level 1 being the highest achieving and Level 5 as the lowest. The bottom two ranks require intervention from the state. Brighton High fell to a Level 4, which triggered the need for a turnaround plan, Veto said.
Patrick McQuillan, a professor at Boston College, has written about education reform and leadership.
The Level 4 designation, he said, can negatively affect teachers’ morale.
“[They] oftentimes feel as though they are not in a fair game, and that other schools have other advantages they don’t have,” he said in a phone interview. “Being designated publicly identified is a very painful experience.”
Teachers and students spoke at an Oct. 26 School Committee meeting at the Boston Public Schools headquarters to advocate for a “transformational model” that strengthens teacher effectiveness.
At the meeting, students from the Brighton High Leadership Team told the committee that looking at test scores as an indicator of performance ignores their accomplishments.
“We, the students, will lose so much if who we know and what we love about our school changes dramatically next year,” a member of the team said. “We are not nameless, anonymous numbers.”
Chris Unger, a professor at Northeastern University who has researched school policy changes, has analyzed how effective turnaround practices are in Massachusetts.
A capable leader is the key during the turnaround process, Unger said.
“You can’t just get anyone off the street and you can’t just get any principal,” he said in a telephone interview. “You need to get someone who knows that they’re doing to rally the staff around a common set of ideals, focus, and a revision of the structures of the school.”
Teachers, education professionals, neighborhood partners, and the city came together as a local stakeholders group toward the end of October to make recommendations for Brighton High to improve student achievement.
The group has been looking data from the state, understanding the school’s culture, and discussing what needs to be changed.
Bozeman said the meetings have grappled with teachers’ wishes to preserve the heart of Brighton High and look for solutions that may challenge those ideas and practices.
“It’s a process that asks you not to focus on the emotional,” she said after the meeting. “It’s a process that asks you to look analytically at something that is deeply personal, so it’s hard.”
Bozeman’s hope is at the end of the five-week process the group will come up with a set of recommendations that balance familiar and innovative approaches to help students.
The group’s recommendations for Superintendent Tommy Chang are expected in December.
About 30 parents, teachers, and former students attended the meeting on Nov. 9 in the school library to address the stakeholder group and advocate for students.
Robin Mankel, who has taught math for nine years, said it is difficult to work with students falling behind in classes that are over capacity.
In 2014, there were about 80 teachers for a population close to 1,000.
“How am I supposed teach this kid to multiply when I’m supposed to be moving on with rigorous curriculum for the rest of my students and getting them ready for the MCAS?” she said. “I need help.”
Steffan Mesidor, a senior at Brighton High, told the group that the school is like a second home. He worked his way out of special education and English language learner classes.
Many teachers in the crowd smiled when he and several alumni mentioned how they helped them find a path to success.
“I want to say thank you to all my teachers for believing in me,” he said to the stakeholder group. “I feel like you should all just stay here.”