Three Lessons in Three Hours
A look inside Massachusetts’ Revere High School, where a flood of new initiatives are helping to revitalize this urban school.
By Wayne D’Orio
REVERE, MASSACHUSETTS—One of the most intractable problems in education today is how to reverse the fortunes of troubled urban schools. In 2009, Revere High School, just outside of Boston, wasn’t exactly a failure factory, but with its demographics changing quickly, its achievement gap was widening.
Seventy-three percent of its students graduated in 2009, but fewer than two in three Hispanic students got diplomas. White students exceeded the state ELA performance target, but low-income and Hispanic students did not. In math, the results were reversed; low-income and Hispanics showed small increases, but white students had slipped.
Yet today, the 1,800-student school has racked up numerous awards and seen its five-year cohort graduation rate spike to 93 percent. Hispanics still graduate at a lower rate, 76.5 percent, but that number has risen 11.6 percent. The school got the highest rating in Massachusetts for reducing the achievement gap, and its suspension rate is less than two percent while the number of students taking AP classes outpaces the state average.
So what’s different? Just about everything. The school’s principal, Lourenco Garcia, who took over in 2010, has changed the culture through a series of bold initiatives. He’s shifted to student-centered learning, created a culture where enthusiastic teachers support one another, and fostered an atmosphere where students are actually asking to add time to the school day.
The school has garnered an impressive list of awards. It won the 2014 High School Gold Award from the National Center for Urban School Transformation, it ranked silver on the U.S. News and World Report’s list of best high schools in 2014, and it was one of 18 schools chosen to present at this year’s National Association of Secondary School Principals conference. Garcia, a native of Africa’s Cape Verde, was chosen as the Revere Journal’s 2014 Man of the Year. The school has attracted visitors from 10 different school districts this year, as well as four separate visits from doctoral students at Harvard. And last year, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation awarded the school a three-year grant worth $1 million a year. “With modesty, we’re a model for the nation,” Garcia says.
I toured Revere High School during the Education Writers Association conference last month. During my short visit, the positive momentum seemed to gather around the following three areas.
- One decision can be a domino for many other (even bigger) changes.
One of the first things Garcia did after coming to Revere was to adopt block scheduling. This shift to four 80-minute periods a day isn’t novel; about one-third of U.S. high schools follow this schedule. But it was what the change allowed that really enabled Garcia and his staff to turn around the school’s performance.
Administration wanted to shift the emphasis from whole-class instruction to student-directed learning, and going to longer periods forced teachers to realize they couldn’t lecture for the entire block. This dovetailed with the high school’s move to flipped learning, where students take in the bulk of the lesson outside of school and complete the sometimes messy homework and practice while in the classroom. (Students were given iPads to help them access all their needed work outside of school.)
The last big change that was helped by the new schedule was the administration’s decision to realign its discipline policy. Before the switch to block scheduling, students were routinely sent to the office (or worse) for acting out. But now, says assistant principal Stephen Pechinsky, “with 80-minute classes there was too much information to miss to kick a kid out.” The school began a restorative justice program. While earlier data on out-of-school suspensions wasn’t available, just 35 of the school’s 1,800 students were suspended in 2014–15, a 1.9 percent rate that is significantly lower than the state average of 4.7 percent.
- Let students drive learning, no matter what the impediments.
“The real change has been around the culture of who owns the learning,” says Superintendent Dianne Kelly. Flipping the classroom puts students more in charge. “Our teachers now understand what we need help on and what we understand,” says junior Samantha Karl. “We get to go at our own pace.”
In addition to the testing gains, Garcia notes that students are getting accepted at more competitive colleges and are prouder of their work. “It’s all part of the growth mindset,” he says.
Another change involves better integrating new students. Because the school has become a magnet for students and families entering the United States, the principal started a newcomers academy as an afterschool program. When the students lobbied him to move the program to school hours, allowing these students to better mix with their classmates, Garcia agreed. Students’ attitude and behavior have improved this year, he says. “That tells you that as adults, we don’t have all the answers.”
Garcia adds that although school gets out at 2:20 p.m., many students are still in the school two hours beyond that because it’s a safe place to be. Indeed when the student Samantha Karl suggested adding a fifth period to the school day, Superintendent Kelly was listening. “We’ve talked about that,” the superintendent said, making no promises.
- There’s no substitute for teacher enthusiasm.
It was the kind of comment that’s made in high school classes everyday. For weeks Nancy Barile had been trying unsuccessfully to get one of her English students, a sophomore named Jordan, to read outside of class. He steadfastly refused, and despite his obvious intelligence, his grades started to plummet.
He told her he was a visual student who preferred watching The Walking Dead to reading. While she told him she wasn’t keen on zombies and violence, he patiently explained the show had the type of themes and character studies she referenced in the books they discussed in class. Then it came out. “Maybe if you watched The Walking Dead I would start reading,” he told her.
Barile accepted the challenge. She started watching and discussing the show with Jordan as she binge-watched through all six seasons. Jordan honored his promise and his grades started to climb. If the story ended there, it would be nice. But Barile saw the greater good in this example and decided to create an entire course around the popular cable TV show. When more than 60 students signed up, officials greenlighted her to teach two sections this fall of the new class, Digesting The Walking Dead.
Garcia has cultivated a staff that works together by valuing their input on items from big to small in the school. While research showed block scheduling was a good change to make, he still had teachers vote on its acceptance. (It passed narrowly, but now the whole staff loves the schedule, he adds.) “My job is to build teacher leadership,” he says. “If I don’t have buy-in or communicate effectively, it’s a message falling on deaf ears. When you give [teachers] a voice, they’re more eager to jump on the ship and help you. . . . People can only produce when they are happy. We are constantly celebrating the work they do. This place is positive.”
Teachers meet twice a week in professional learning groups, going over pedagogical strategies and looking at student work. “They examine each other’s approaches in the classroom,” Garcia says. Sitting on a panel with five teachers, Barile adds, “I’ve gone to every single teacher here for something.”
Garcia notes that two grants from Nellie Mae allowed the school to undertake many of these changes, paying for professional development and clearing more time for teachers to meet. He also realizes that the breakneck pace of change can’t be sustained, so he admits his next goal is to slow down. “We need to let the structures take hold before we do too much more. If we want teachers to maximize, every element has to become self-sustainable.”
Photo: Emily Richmond/EWA