Harbor School to bring new philosophy to Cleveland

The student population at Grover Cleveland Middle School on Charles Street in Fields Corner has been whittled down to its eighth graders, and when they graduate this spring, the school will cease to be. But the end of the Cleveland will be a beginning for Harbor Middle School, a pilot school based on Bowdoin Street that has been slowly claiming space in the Cleveland building since September. When the full plan is realized, it could mean a new, integrated K-12 educational choice for Dorchester parents.

In 2005, then superintendent Thomas Payzant recommended to the School Committee to phase out Cleveland due to declining enrollment, itself a parental reaction to low test scores at the school. The closure of under-performing schools to make room for new pilot schools has become a nationwide trend, a way in which urban school districts hope to compete with their suburban counterparts.

BPS plans to extend the Harbor's range to include grades six through 12 and, in partnership with the nearby Patrick O'Hearn Elementary School on Dorchester Ave., provide a complete K-12 educational track.

The schools have spent two years in collaboration, creating a K-8 education "pathway." The pathway guarantees seats for O'Hearn students at Harbor when they reach middle school.

"We are loving the new location," said Amy Marx, principal of Harbor. "We have a lot more space than we had before."

Both the O'Hearn, and the Harbor are "full-inclusion" schools, a new method wherein students with disabilities, students considered gifted and talented, and the general student body all learn together and from each other. To facilitate this environment, teachers and support staff undergo special training to work with students of all levels of ability.

Harbor accepts around 90 sixth-grade students annually. Depending on the amount of O'Hearn graduates choosing Harbor each year, O'Hearn students could take up almost half of each Harbor class.

"We are an over-chosen middle school," explained Marx, who has been principal for six years. "Some O'Hearn students would get in through the lottery before," she said, but not all would be able to go to Harbor. In 2008-2009, they are guaranteed a spot. "We still have 60 spots available for children from other elementary schools," said Marx.

So far, Marx said, the data the school collected about students transitioning from O'Hearn to Harbor has revealed encouraging results. In a survey measuring the success of the first year of priority placements, Marx said 94 percent of the parents responding said they were highly satisfied with their children's transition to Harbor.

"To know what middle school their child's going to helps them feel more confident about keeping their kids in Boston Public Schools," she said.

Out of the graduating O'Hearn students with significant disabilities, eight of 9 students chose Harbor in fall of 2006, and all three chose Harbor in fall of 2007. Those students are all still attending the school.

William Henderson, principal of O'Hearn for the last 19 years, said it was very important for his students to be able to continue learning with their community of peers if they choose to.

"It's really exciting to us," he said. "Before, our kids were all split up. We couldn't do K through eight because of space. But now, they have a guaranteed option of staying together. They never had that before." Thirty-three percent of O'Hearn students have a disability said O'Hearn, ranging from mild to very significant. "Parents have been requesting this for a long time."

Neil Sullivan, a parent whose four children attended O'Hearn, said the new partnership was an exciting development.

"This is effectively a new K through eight option for Dorchester," said Sullivan. "Your children grow up knowing all kinds of people, race, culture, ability, and they come to see everyone as an individual. That's the kind of education you really want for your children. Practically, (full inclusion) means that the classes are smaller, two teachers in every classroom, and sometimes a para-professional."

Harbor hopes to add a grade nine in the fall of 2009, and grow one grade per year until the full goal of sixth thru 12th-grade is realized. As the building is renovated, and if the plans are all approved, Marx said O'Hearn grades four and five would be moved to the Harbor location, though they would remain O'Hearn students.

For now, the students and faculty from the two schools have been getting to know each other better. Harbor students have been taking trips over to O'Hearn and tutoring students in the lower grades, and the faculty of both schools have been sharing ideas and teaching practices.