Officials plan to add grades 9-12 to the Mildred Ave. School

‘Innovation’ high school proposal awaits teacher OK

Dr. Deborah DancyDr. Deborah Dancy
Citing low MCAS scores and a drumbeat of violence that brings a frequent police presence to campus, Boston school officials plan to expand the Mildred Ave. Middle School in Mattapan into a high school and re-name it the “Mildred Avenue Leadership Academy.”

Changing the school into a high school is part of a five-year proposal to turn the Mattapan facility into an “innovation school,” allowing administrators greater flexibility on curriculum and staff hiring. The school’s teachers must sign off on the proposal before it can go forward.

Superintendent Carol Johnson has tapped Dr. Deborah Dancy to lead the effort. Dancy, who started as the school’s principal in September, previously served as principal of the Channing School in Hyde Park and Madison Park High School. She grew up in the Mattapan neighborhood and is a published author and a veteran of the US Army’s Special Forces.

Born in Mississippi, Dancy moved with her family to Boston in 1969. Her mother, a retired teacher, lives ten doors down from the school, and Dancy remembers playing on the grounds of the future middle school when it was a lumber yard. “I have come full circle,” she said.

Dancy noted that Mattapan is “the only community” without a high school. “With the high school here, we have the space, we have the desire and we have the need,” she said during a Tuesday morning sit-down with the Reporter. “We’re fulfilling a need for this community.”

She has sought to raise test scores and engage the student body, including the set-up of a student council for grades 3-8. The council has two student representatives from each class and functions as an “advisory body” to the principal.

If approved, the proposed change-over to high school status could take effect for the 2013-2014 school year, according to a school district spokesman. In the first year, the school would add a ninth grade; in the second year a tenth, and so on, until they reach twelve grades and a total of 855 students and 101 staffers.

The school now serves grades K to 8. It originally opened in 2003 as a 6-8 middle school, but in 2006, grades 1 to 5 were added after the closing of the nearby Pauline Shaw Elementary School. Sixty-eight percent of the school’s students are black, and twenty-eight percent are Hispanic. Twenty-five percent of students are designated as special needs, according to the school, and eighty percent of students receive a free or reduced lunch.

In a separate interview, Johnson said that Dancy has written an “innovation grant” proposal, with input from families and other community members. The superintendent said there may have to be some upgrades, but the building has the capacity to expand into a high school. “We certainly think it presents a viable option,” she said.

The plan includes extending the school day past its 1:25 p.m. wrap-up time, and keeping the campus, which is shared with a community center, open until 9 p.m.

The support for an innovation school isn’t unanimous. District 4 City Councillor Charles Yancey, who represents Mattapan, has long demanded a high school in Mattapan, frequently bringing the prospect up in speeches inside City Hall and at community forums. He acknowledged the building is new and nicer than some high school facilities, but said that he has not been provided with details of the proposal, adding a concern that middle school students might be displaced as a result of the expansion. “It’s a great facility for middle school students,” said the councillor, “but I don’t think it really does the job for high school students.”

But Dancy said the school, which has been designated as underperforming, is “the ideal location to have an innovation school.” The facility has an Olympic-size swimming pool, a dance studio, an auditorium for 250 people, computer labs on every floor, and two science classrooms on every floor, she said. “This is a principal’s dream and a child’s wonderland.”

As to the school’s teachers, who have to approve the proposal, Dancy said most are “pretty much on board” with a vote likely to occur at the end of May. “It’s a win-win situation because we’re meeting the needs of the community,” she said.