Orchard Gardens— cited by Patrick— has shown improvement, but lags in testing

Sep. 6, 2012

During his Democratic National Convention speech Tuesday night, Gov. Deval Patrick gave a surprise highlight to a Boston school that was recently among the worst-performing in the state, but while Patrick said Orchard Gardens is now “one of the best” schools in the state, it still lags behind in standardized testing.

“I think he was referencing the growth they have made,” said Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carole Johnson, who said leaps have been made in arts, parental involvement and extending the school day at the Roxbury kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school.

Only 11 percent of third-grade math students at Orchard Gardens received advanced or proficient scores in 2009. By 2011, that number had surged to 64 percent, which is only 2 points below the state average.

However, when it comes to the school’s annual MCAS scores, the most recent data shows it lagging behind statewide averages in all categories broken down by grade and subject.

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data from the spring 2011 MCAS tests shows that the aggregate of all students who were tested scoring advanced or proficient in English was 30 percent compared to the state average of 69 percent. In math, 35 percent of the school’s students scored advanced or proficient compared to 58 percent on average statewide.

Data from the spring 2012 tests has not yet been released and the school has shown improvement from 2010 to 2011, meeting the adequate yearly progress required in all categories except for among students with disabilities.

The governor did not cite test scores as his basis for designating Orchard Gardens “one of the best,” instead citing the longer school day, higher teaching standards, a mentoring initiative that has improved attendance, experiential learning, art, exercise and music.

Patrick’s speech served as a critique of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s time as Massachusetts governor and a reflection on the positive improvements Patrick has made since taking office in 2007. Toward the end of his speech, Patrick told the story of visiting Orchard Gardens, a school that had been ranked among the worst in the state in 2010. At his visit, Patrick was impressed by the fact that a class of first-graders could not only recite Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech but also understood the meanings of words such as “creed” that were used in the speech.

“In less than a year, Orchard Gardens went from one of the worst schools in the district to one of the best in the state,” Patrick said. “The whole school community is engaged and proud.”

By some measures, that is accurate, said Johnson, who said, “It had, I think, the highest growth rate of any of our turnaround schools last year.” She said, “His comments were accurate about the growth rates.”

“It’s not there yet, but it certainly made enormous progress in a very short time,” Johnson said.

Other aspects of the overhauled school are not measured by standardized testing. She said the school was one of eight selected nationwide for its arts investment, and said renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma – who played at President Barack Obama’s inauguration – will be visiting the school this year.

“Learning is more than just passing a test,” Johnson said. She also said, “Today we have a wait-list for Orchard Gardens. That was certainly not true two years ago.”

One other measure of the school’s growth that resonated with Johnson was a seventh-grader’s comment to the school’s principal at an evening event.

“Can you believe this is Orchard Gardens?” the student said, according to Johnson. “Can you believe it?”

Johnson said that federal Race to the Top Funding along with state education reforms allowed the school to overhaul its staff and increase the school day by more than an hour. The school brought in City Year to help school staff, increased parent involvement and put Principal Andrew Bott in charge after the school had “gone through several principals in the last few years.”

The high praise lauded on the school during the Democratic National Convention came as a surprise to Johnson, who said she heard from “one of our partners” about an hour before the speech that Orchard Gardens might receive some recognition.

“It was a surprise to us. We were very excited that he chose a school that we tried very hard to change,” said Johnson. While acknowledging there is still work to be done, Johnson said Orchard Gardens is now a model around the district.

“I think some of our other schools are learning from the experience at Orchard Gardens,” Johnson said.