State education chief eyes level 5 status for Dever School

Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell D. Chester used a public roundtable format last Wednesday to discuss the imminent possibility of state receivership of the underperforming Dever Elementary School, which has failed to meet the MCAS benchmarks in reading and math established in 2010.

Participants in the discussion included Boston Schools Superintendent John McDonough, Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman, Dever McCormack School Principal Michael Sabin, and numerous teachers and parents affiliated with the school. 

While Chester expressed deep concern over the school’s severely substandard MCAS scores, Dever Elementary community members insisted that the school had made substantial progress in less-measurable ways. They argued that changes to the school’s culture and climate, which have alleviated disciplinary problems, have been immensely positive for the students and are a necessary condition for improving test scores in the future. They argued that programmatic changes, particularly the establishment of a dual language program, have set students up for success even if the scores say otherwise. And they warned against the damaging effect that major changes can have on students who crave stability.

In 2010, Dever Elementary, which is associated with the McCormack Middle School, was one of twelve Boston Public Schools identified by the state as underperforming and assigned a Level 4 status. Each of the twelve was given a three-year turnaround plan, which, in Dever’s case, involved changes to the administration and faculty, including the selection of a new principal.

Three years later, Chester was arguing at the meeting that the turnaround at the Dever has failed. “I’m here because, quite straightforwardly, when I look at the results here at the Dever, I’m alarmed,” he said, stressing that he was not pointing fingers or assigning blame. According to Chester, just under one out of three students at the Dever is at grade level in math and less than one out of seven is on grade level in reading and writing.

For these reasons, Chester indicated, it is more than likely that the Dever School will be upgraded to Level 5, which would force the school into state receivership, or takeover, and entail broad changes to the school’s administration, faculty, and educational programs. “This is not a situation where I’m on the fence,” Chester said in his opening remarks.

Over the course of the two-hour discussion, which was held before a large crowd of Dever parents, partners, and faculty, school representatives were unified in passionately defending the school’s progress over the last three years and in imploring the commissioner to approach change with extreme caution.

While accepting responsibility for failing to adequately raise test scores, and noting that this failure is disappointing, Principal Sabin explained that he was “confident and hopeful” about the future. He enumerated the “aggressive” steps the school had taken to address underperformance: “We added more literacy coaching; we made staffing changes to strengthen the grade 3-5 faculty; we made leadership changes to increase our instructional leadership.”

Sabin asserted that due to these changes, “many of the essential conditions for school success are now in place,” including strong leadership, social and emotional support.

Sabin also said that while measurable annual goals for turnaround only consider grade 3-5 MCAS scores, there are “other indicators that show greater success and promise for the future.” For example, he noted, primary grade reading scores have markedly improved, from seventeen points behind the district average to one point behind; enrollment is up and there are waitlists at many grade levels; teacher surveys report progress; and school culture is improving, as evidenced by the reduction in reported disciplinary incidents in the first month of the school year from 207 last September to 77 this year. Sabin summed up: “For the first time, students are returning with an understanding of our culture.” As to the whole picture, Sabin said, “Do I wish progress had been faster? Absolutely. But I know from experience that we’re about to see rapid growth.”

Sabin’s colleagues and Dever parents echoed his message. Kyla McCartney, a teacher at the Dever, praised the school’s community outreach efforts and its commitment to student’s individual needs, and made a forceful argument that Dever should be given the same five-year trial period as startup charter schools. “If we change the structure of the school, if we change the adults involved, how can we expect any continuity?” McCartney asked, a point reiterated by several speakers.
Parents and teachers in the discussion offered emotional testimonials of their success stories at the Dever, and of the improvements made since the turnaround. Lorna Miller, mother of two children at Dever-McCormack, emphasized her appreciation of the dual language program, remarking, “My kids are speaking Spanish at a level that makes me very proud.” She said the program demonstrates the high degree of cultural acceptance at the Dever.

The audience mirrored the speakers’ solidarity with the school, brandishing signs of support and applauding with zeal.

But for all that, Chester remained the skeptic. Although he praised the work and energy put forth by the Dever community, he repeated his concern over the low scores and what they mean for students now. “We may or may not be on the right path, but we are not there now,” he said.

When asked after the discussion whether he had changed the position he staked out in his opening remarks, Chester replied that he was listening carefully, but was mostly unconvinced. “The overall sentiment was, ‘Just trust us; we’re on the right path; give us more time.’ I’m not confident that that’s sufficient.”

Sabin said it was “moving” to hear parents and colleagues speak on the school’s behalf, but he added that he was not surprised by the commissioner’s stance. Asked what he felt people feared most about a possible receivership, he said, “What everyone fears most is a very disruptive change.”

Chester said he will make a decision about whether to place the Dever in a receivership within the next two weeks.