Dever School on the move

Dorchester is already home to some of Boston’s most prestigious public schools. Now one of the neighborhood’s lesser-known institutions is tapping new talent and partnerships to move from a “turnaround school” to a school poised to start turning heads.

The Paul A. Dever Elementary School on Columbia Point has spent the last two years on Boston Public School’s (BPS) short list of “turnaround schools” slated for academic and staffing review following sub-par MCAS scores. The designation triggered a sweeping restructuring of the school’s curriculum, teachers and administrators combined with an influx of partnerships that has allowed the 500-student body to make considerable academic gains.

According to BPS data, approximately 6,000 students currently attend the city’s 11 turnaround schools with about 4,000 of those students living in the “circle of promise,” a zone that encompasses parts of Dorchester, Mattapan, South Boston and the Fenway area among other neighborhoods and has been deemed an area in need of major academic improvement.

Of those students, 40 percent are classified as having limited English proficiency, 22 percent have special academic needs and 86 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Despite these challenging statistics, administrators at the Dever School remain optimistic that the addition of wrap-around programs meant to aid children both in school and at home are making the difference.

Now in his second year at the Dever, principal Mike Sabin said creative approaches to problems that have hampered education in past years will be key to the school’s success.

“This is an exciting time to be at the Dever,” Sabin said. “We’re reaching out to new partnerships to grow our school, there is no reason why in-district schools can’t be just as innovative as charter schools.”

Sabin said programs like City Connects, which offers schools Master’s-level school counselors and social workers to identify struggling students’ needs and connect their families with social, health and academic resources outside the school walls, have helped whittle down truancy rates and ensure students can remain focused on academics even after they get off the bus.

“It’s a natural fit,” Sabin said. “The idea is that in a resource-rich city like Boston, connecting families to any kind service they need is just as important as connecting our students with teachers.”

And when it comes to the faculty, the school has taken a variety of approaches. Two years ago, every faculty member was asked to re-apply for their jobs. Nearly half of the faculty was replaced.

In addition, the Dever has become a training center for new talent through the Boston Teachers Residency program, which staffs classrooms with recent post-graduates to spend a year of hands-on learning as well as formal classes on nights and weekends, providing the school with fresh teachers already familiar with the Dever’s expanding curriculum.

While many turnaround schools struggle to account for their larger numbers of students with limited English proficiency, the Dever is in the process of turning that weakness into a strength by initiating a bilingual educational program in which students are instructed in English one week and Spanish the next.

Spanish classroom teacher Cristen McElwee said that while the sudden immersion into a foreign language is jarring for some students, her classes have made promising gains by the spring semester and the program helps otherwise linguistically-isolated students stand out in class.

“We have a balance of dominant-English and dominant-Spanish-speaking students in our classes,” McElwee said. “Which means students find themselves working together to help each other along, they work together better and gives students a chance to develop leadership skills at a young age.”

Albert Taylor Jr., Boston’s superintendent for turnaround schools, said data regarding truancy, test scores and a decreasing dropout rates mark a promising chapter in the school’s history due in large part to the administrations innovative use of outside assistance.

“They have a very, very unique and resourceful principal,” Taylor said. “He also has a very special team organized and we are very excited for the potential of that school, our preliminary data [for this year] has been very promising.”

Taylor gave particular credit to the Dever’s use of seven City Year volunteers, who have taken on mentoring and tutoring roles with some of the school’s most at-risk youths, creating positive role models and ensuring a friendly face greets students every morning.

Adams Corner resident Katie Grassa, who coordinates the Dever’s Diplomas Now program, sees a bright future for the school.

“I think that Dorchester has a tremendous resource in this school,” Grassa said. “But because it’s out of sight geographically, not everyone is aware of what’s going on here, we want people to be aware that we are taking big steps forward.”

Located on Mount Vernon Street, the Dever shares resources, partnerships and administrative staff with the John W. McCormack Middle School next door. While the two schools are technically separated by BPS until the Dever overcomes its turnaround status, the two schools operate in tandem and represent a nearly 1,200-student body, making it the largest elementary and middle school complex in Boston.