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Boston's Perseverance

Boston Public Schools wins top urban prize as achievement gaps shrink and achievement overall rises

Sometimes known as the Puritan City, Boston had the sweet feeling of victory recently after staying patient because, after all, it is a virtue.

After five years of being a finalist for the $1 million Broad Prize for Urban Education, Boston Public Schools finally has been crowned as having the nation's greatest urban school district-in part for outperforming other Massachusetts districts with similar low-income students in reading and math.

At a ceremony at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in September, roughly 500 school superintendents, mayors, and educators gathered to celebrate the 2006 winner of the prize, established in 2002.

After Boston was announced winner, a few cheers of "yeah!" went out, and a two-minute standing ovation followed. Former superintendent of schools Thomas Payzant, who retired in June, explained that Boston's patience in creating the best possible school system finally paid off, the city having been a finalist since the prize's inception. "Many of us in Boston are Red Sox fans," said the lifelong Red Sox fan, alluding to the baseball team's 86-year agonizing wait to clinch the World Series in 2004 since its last win in 1918.

The finalists included Bridgeport (Conn.) Public Schools; Jersey City (N.J.) Public Schools; Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the New York City Department of Education, its second year as a finalist.

The prize honors urban districts that show the greatest overall performance and improvement in student achievement including reducing the achievement gap between whites and minority students. Boston wins $500,000 for student scholarships to college or post-secondary training. The four finalists each win $125,000 in scholarships.

Former U.S. education secretaries Rod Paige and Richard Riley, among the eight on the selection jury that chose the winning district and who spoke at the ceremony, explained how the prize allows urban districts to think big. The prize, Paige said, "focuses on what we've done right" as opposed to what is wrong. "Are they perfect? No. Do each of these districts have more to do? Yes," Paige said. "But they are beacons of hope for other urban school districts."

While every finalist made significant strides in narrowing the achievement gap, Boston stood out in part because: black students improved more in math at all levels and in reading at middle and high school compared to students in other districts statewide; on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Trial Urban District Assessment, fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores improved at a faster rate than other large American cities and the national average; and the percentage of Hispanic and black students taking AP math and English exams shot up 237 percent and 78 percent respectively since 2002.

Boston is also closing the Hispanic achievement gap in middle and high school math at a faster rate than the state.

Rising Above the Rest

There is a lot that is right about Boston Public Schools. The way Boston has risen is the way it earned the top urban prize-slow and steady, focusing on two or three ideas at a time and not expecting results overnight.

When Payzant arrived in the post 11 years ago, he immediately shifted the system from having no clear expectations of students to having the curriculum aligned to state standards, some of the toughest in the U.S.

Accountability is high on the list, in part as collaborative coaching and learning, or CCL, is used among rookie and veteran teachers. "It's changing the culture of how schools operate," Payzant said.

The practice involves educators working with each other and, coaches or experienced teachers no longer working in classrooms to regularly adjust their teaching methods to best serve each student's needs, develop rubrics describing those needs, and research programs that match needs based on rubric scores. In this model, teachers work in study groups over two months to set goals for the following week. Teachers having trouble with meeting goals have a coach observe lessons and offer feedback and support.

Interim Superintendent Michael Contompasis, who formerly served as the district's chief operating officer, praised the critical help that foundation money played in past years, including from the Annenberg Foundation in 1996 that helped beef up the district's Boston Plan for Excellence. The plan later became part of the blueprint for reform in the district's schools.

The program, to which the foundation awarded a second $10 million grant in 2001, aimed to improve instruction through organizational and instructional practices called Essentials to Whole School Improvement. It involved identifying and using a school-wide instructional focus; analyzing student work as it related to standards; creating a targeted professional development plan; using best teaching practices; and involving parents and the community in standards and assessments.

Mayor Thomas Menino, who said that schools are a key component of a successful city, pointed out that Payzant, also a member of the mayor's cabinet, reached out to and leaned on the community. The Boston School Committee, which is the school board that is appointed as opposed to being elected, holds meetings on the budget, for example, in churches and/or neighborhood facilities so citizens are kept abreast of the latest and biggest issues.

Elizabeth Reilinger, committee chairwoman, added that various businesses also take part in schools, either by adopting schools or providing mentors or tutors to struggling students during the school day. Boston Partners in Education, a nonprofit organization, coordinates volunteer activities and forges many business relationships with schools.

In 2003, the district also created a deputy superintendent position to reach out to families. Boston has 15 family and community outreach coordinators at 17 school buildings to help link parents to schools, with two more coordinators joining next year. "It takes a community to educate a child," Reilinger said.

Rigorous assessment is another ingredient for success. In 1998, Massachusetts adopted the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, which is a rigorous test that forces students to learn standards in core subjects including technology/engineering and history. In 2001, the state required that students pass MCAS before receiving a high school diploma, but students have at least three years to pass it. It forces schools to teach students how to write essays and think, Payzant said. By not demanding more from students, it's a disservice, he said. Since 1998, pass rates rose from 43 percent for English and 25 percent for math, to 73 percent and 70 percent respectively in 2005.

And lastly, taking 12 large high schools and creating 36 smaller schools, four of which have small learning communities called "houses," helped create more supportive environments for students. About 350 students in each "house" have most of the same teachers and counselors over four years, so they are more apt to feel comfortable seeking academic or emotional help. Teachers also meet weekly to discuss how to improve learning and sometimes pull together students and parents to solve behavioral or academic woes. Payzant said such settings make it much harder for students to fall through the cracks.

Despite the accolades, Payzant admits the district has more work to do including meeting the challenge presented by the growing number of students speaking a first language other than English (17 percent are English Language Learners), which will force every teacher to eventually need skills in other languages.

Other Winners

Boston rose above a total of 100 contenders. The Broad Education Foundation, a philanthropic organization established by Eli and Edythe Broad, works with the National Center for Educational Accountability to manage the selection process. It involved identifying 100 district candidates based on size, low-income and minority enrollment; a review board that analyzed quantitative data and other information to determine the five finalists; a team of researchers and practitioners that conducted site visits, focus groups, interviews and classroom observations in those districts; and a selection jury that reviewed the information to select the winner.

Former winners include Norfolk Public Schools, Garden Grove Unified School District, Long Beach Unified School District and Houston Independent School District.

After the ceremony, New York City Chancellor Joel Klein congratulated Payzant and Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudolph "Rudy" Crew noted that Boston's win was a "much deserved honor." Crew added that he, too, would persevere in Miami-Dade in hopes his district would win the Broad prize one year. "Keep on going," he said with a smile.

Angela Pascopella is senior features editor.