A Matter of Principal
As Boston's public schools fight to regain the faith of parents who see the suburbs or private schools as the only options for their children, a remarkable principal shows how one public school can be special for every student.
The wooden door's brass handle bangs into the cinder-block wall, the echo skidding down the empty hall. The principal of the Patrick O'Hearn Elementary School in Dorchester hustles through, elbows jutting outward, skinny roadrunner legs bounding over the vinyl floor. A bit of chaos heralds every opening day, and three hours into the new school year, the O'Hearn is approaching full tilt. Several children are absent, school buses are late, and the janitors need their schedules. And principal William Henderson is still reeling from the news that more fifth-graders than usual bombed their mastery tests last spring. Yet the most pressing issue at the moment is stopping kickball chaos.
Outside of Room 1, Henderson calls Jamauree Haygood out of class. At 10, he is a huge kid, with David Ortiz's cheeks and expansive stomach, which stretches taut his nylon
Bill Henderson oversees an educational jewel on Dorchester Avenue in a neighborhood that for too many children marks the dead end of frustration and failure. The O'Hearn demands more than most public schools, and it gets more, from students and parents. That the school's principal is blind may be one of the O'Hearn's more mundane features or its greatest selling point.
Most Boston schools share monstrous burdens: exhausted teachers, paltry supplies, creaky technology, weak to awful test scores, little parental help, fractious labor-management relations, and families struggling with blistering poverty - all run by a haggardcentral administration. These are problems pulsing in every big city's school system, and their persistence encourages upheavals. In Boston that means the periodic storms over race and integration and whether it's proper for a still-segregated city to assign children to failing schools close to home or ones a bus ride away. The city has worked mightily to shed the taint of court-ordered busing and urban school failure, but it hasn't altogether succeeded.
What outlasted busing and riot police is the quiet march of sneakered feet. Every year, a good number of parents opt out, choosing between private and parochial, charter and suburban, sending their youngsters away and leaving public schools filled with ever more students with even bigger learning troubles.
Study the Boston system for a short while, and you expect to find nothing but some random successes and a lot of wishful thinking - until you discover the O'Hearn, with its award-winning arts program and stew of skill levels and backgrounds. In past years, the O'Hearn has ranked among the top-performing elementary schools in state test results. Each year, families queue up on waiting lists, pleading that their children be allowed to slip into the kindergarten-through-Grade 5 classes. It is the fifth most-requested elementary school in Boston, and, as one of the smallest, with just 225 students, it offers the fewest seats each year. Why aren't there more public schools like the O'Hearn? What juice does this school have that others don't?
For starters, Bill Henderson.
On opening day, Henderson touches Jamauree's shoulder, and the boy inhales, sure that a scolding has arrived - yet again. We know how good you are at kickball, Henderson says to him softly. A lot of little kids get into trouble because they don't know the rules. They need some help. "We'd like you to be our peer tutor kickball coach." The boy's brown button eyes glance at his principal, then dart away, unsure how to look at an adult who doesn't stare back.
"It's a big responsibility," Henderson warns. Others might ask how a fourth-grader who can't keep himself out of scrapes could summon the diplomacy to manage 7-year-olds. But Henderson calculates differently: Trust Jamauree, give him a task, and he'll mature.
"Would you like that job?" Henderson asks.
The boy breathes, "Yeah."
"You'll be our first," Henderson says exultantly. He grabs Jamauree's hand and shakes vigorously, as if the kid has just won the pennant.
Henderson strides down the hall, reviewing the details with teacher's aide Tony Lopes. Give Jamauree a few minutes to eat lunch, and then send him out to the courtyard to supervise recess. Henderson grins at the brilliance of the plan. Less time to eat will be good for Jamauree, Henderson says: "He could miss a few lunches. That's a win-win."
The principal bursts through the double doors, white cane levitating.
Even for a school with the O'Hearn's reputation, these are not easy times. For the first time in years, there was a substantial increase in the number of the school's fourth-graders who failed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams - 10 percent in English and 22 percent in math. At the same time, Boston schools failed to meet federal education standards under the No Child Left Behind Act. Boston has appealed, but repeat performances could lead to state supervision. In his State of the State address this month, Governor Mitt Romney addressed these problems by pushing for a slate of changes to improve learning in the classroom. Henderson attributes the O'Hearn's sour news to money and competition. The O'Hearn lost $40,000 after Massachusetts cut the tutoring budget. By the strange calculus of federal regulations, the O'Hearn would have to be deemed a failing school - it isn't currently - for three consecutive years to qualify for tutoring aid. At the same time, the O'Hearn has lost some of its smartest children in that same fourth-grade group, who decided to enroll elsewhere in accelerated programs at K-8 schools. The students who replaced them had struggled to learn or fit in at their previous schools. Several are still shell-shocked by the O'Hearn's unfamiliar culture.
"They're afraid to raise their hands. They're afraid to take risks," fifth-grade teacher Mindy Hoffert says to Henderson one September afternoon. Her teaching partner, Terri Wellner, agrees: "They haven't been O'Hearn-ized."
Henderson attacks the problem in the first week of school: scheduling time with his math coordinator and untangling testing data over dinner with teachers to decipher which math concepts are confounding which students. He invites parents to a meeting to consider school changes, among those, a longer day. And he shares his concerns and hopes in a letter to O'Hearn parents, taking responsibility for the drop in scores: "We expect more of ourselves than we expect of others."
Henderson knows that for the O'Hearn to be a school of excellence, he must boost the performance of every child, including the brightest ones. A place with a leaking water cooler and cracked playground still can offer advanced-student programs like Challengers, where students complete extra work before and after school. Just recently, parents and teachers voted to recommend that the O'Hearn add a sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, allowing the school to hold on to students for three more years.
"We're on a mission!" Henderson likes to say when he stops long enough to expound. "To find whatever is humane and helpful to kids. It's getting to all the kids."
Teachers and parents who know the O'Hearn ask the same question: If the O'Hearn is so good and so popular, why aren't there more schools like it? Given the constellation of things that need to happen, a more apt query might be: Could there ever be another O'Hearn?
"We're going to start talking about memoirs." Hoffert - blond, spunky, and very pregnant - sits in a rocking chair in Room 9, her fifth-graders spread at her feet like chickens. One of her goals this year is to get her crew to write their memoirs before she gives birth in December. To explain, she turns to a favorite storybook, Betty Doll, by Patricia Polacco, about a rag doll's adventures. Several of the boys look glum. They are 10 and can already read chapter books. But Hoffert asks for their attention, and her chirpy voice transports the class back a century, into a blizzard. When the girl in the story realizes her doll is lost, a couple of the boys gasp.
By the end, the class starts to understand that the doll is a totem, a witness to each generation's success. Hoffert asks the children to jot down objects important to them, which could be story fodder.
"A list, right? Not a story?" asks Wellner. She is a handsome woman with high cheekbones, who looks elegant even when seated at a child's desk.
Not a story yet, Hoffert says. "Anything that holds meaning. A ribbon. A trophy. Anything you'd hate to lose."
Robert Lopez leans against the front wall and begins. A big, sensitive boy with owlish glasses, he likes to get his work done fast so he can dive back into reading. (Last year he tackled Jack London's White Fang.) Immanuel Lambert scratches some words listlessly. He lost interest in school after his father died last year, and he hates to write. Several children need a push. Hoffert teases out of one youngster a tale about how he crashed his bike. She jots down his phrases on a pad and asks: "Where do you want to end this? This is a great story!" and sends him off with notes. The boy sits, and despite all the direction, he is utterly lost.
Naila Rodrigues peers out from drooping eyelids, and her head rolls in its plastic protective helmet. Words trail from her mouth like sleeptime babble. Naila was born with water on the brain, requiring a shunt in her head and leading to a host of developmental delays. She has had seizures, and her limbs are bent; yet she bubbles with warmth. The school requires that she wear a helmet to protect her misshapen skull. "Uh. Ahhh!" Naila calls out.
Wellner gets down on the rug and chats quietly with the girl. The teacher then writes in Naila's notebook in large letters:
Wellner highlights the words in yellow. With a pencil, Naila copies in faint, loopy letters.
Hoffert calls everyone back to hear the results. The children call out: "My favorite bike!" "My room!" "My cat, Anthony!"
"Naila?" Hoffert prompts. "Birthday!" Naila says, the consonants and vowels landing exactly where they should.
That formula of struggle mixed with success is a component of each O'Hearn class. It's emblazoned in a logo overlooking Dorchester Avenue: "We Are All Special." It shows three childlike figures, one in a wheelchair. Wheelchairs are just the start. The O'Hearn is poly-everything: racially, economically, linguistically, developmentally. You will find children born overseas and American kids of single mothers; children of teachers and children whose grandfather is Boston's mayor. Kids who can chatter and run on the playground take recess with kids who have never uttered their own name, taken an independent step, or seen their handwriting.
Some O'Hearn children are the results of truncated pregnancies, bad genes, missing chromosomes, and medical mysteries that have stunted limbs and stolen speech. A third of the O'Hearn's 225 children receive special education help and some of the most intensive therapeutic services offered by any of Boston's public schools. Pat Dennehy, the school nurse, offers daily medical care to several youngsters. There are children like Mia, who speaks by pointing to pictures, and Quentin, who gets fed through a gastric tube. Mary paces the hallway with a walker, with her legs wrapped in braces, while Chanel commands everyone from her wheelchair to be careful not to break her soft bones. For some of these children, the only alternative to the O'Hearn would be hospital schools. Students learn alongside children whose brains reverse letter orders and others who cannot sit still. To this add the challenges of poverty, for two-thirds of the O'Hearn students qualify for a free or discounted lunch (actually, a low proportion by Boston standards).
Leading this flock is a man who reads Braille and sees blurry shapes. Teachers say Henderson is an inspiration, but for kids used to wheelchairs and flailing hands and drool, a man with a white cane just fits in.
Kindergartner Olivia Fenton chatters to her mother about songs she sings with her classmate Mary, books she reads with Mary, or a play date she wants with Mary. Olivia never mentions that pixieish Mary doesn't speak, read, or walk without help. Some O'Hearn parents insist that their children are learning tolerance, but for most students, dealing with difference just isn't a big deal.
Which is how Henderson wants it. "I don't want this to be a school for children with disabilities, because then it's not inclusive," he says. "Inclusion only works if you have a balance." In academic parlance, inclusion schooling means that children with physical, mental, and learning impairments are taught alongside students who are developing more typically. Some schools use the term to describe their mixed classrooms, but at the O'Hearn, inclusion also means adapting lessons so that every child in a room is learning aspects of the same curriculum.
Urban principals are focused on aiding their poor and minority students. Henderson's challenge is more complicated. "We've got to close the gap between the scores of kids with disabilities and no disabilities," he says. That means more of everything: more teaching time, more accommodations for disabilities, deeper involvement with families. "We've got to push kids to take responsibility. People say, what about the kids with Down syndrome? Do they have to do the reading? The answer is yes."
Of course, disabled children might thrive when tended by a squadron of aides guiding their speech, reading, and movement. But why would inclusion benefit average or even gifted students? The answer is as intricate as a Room 9 lesson.
The district hands out boilerplate curriculum, but O'Hearn teachers re-engineer each part. Lessons are elaborately choreographed, adapting moves and pace to individual strengths and abilities. It starts by having two teachers in each room who use their daily planning period, negotiated into their contract, to hash out adaptation so everyone learns.
The district wants students to improve in writing, so Hoffert has divided the year into genres, starting with the memoir. When she asks the class to read - and there is much time set aside for students to explore books they've chosen - some will read bound books. Some will listen to an audiotape. Others will use a computer program that showsand speaks the words of a scanned book. Wellner will type an even simpler adaptation that includes pictures for students like Naila. They're all reading, and sometimes they're reading the same story. Only the depth and detail vary. Hoffert then will invite everyone back to the rug for a "mini lesson," when they will discuss as a group the single concept she wants them to grasp. At night, Hoffert reads each of the student-selected books. She and each child discuss them, in letters back and forth. If a lesson doesn't work, the teachers rip it up and try again. Meanwhile, every child reworks his or her memoir for the fourth time. It's guerrilla theater - fast, fluid, and unexpected. "What I have to do," Wellner says, "is keep the plates spinning, so none of them drop."
This process unfolds in all 10 O'Hearn classrooms. "You'll see curriculum turned upside down and realigned, over and over . . . to figure out how everyone can achieve the curriculum goals," says Nancy Zollers, a consultant and former Boston College assistant professor who has studied the O'Hearn. Every child benefits, she says. "You can't go unnoticed in an inclusive environment."
Parents recognize that those extra eyes on all children help even the typical and gifted students move ahead. La Dawn Strickland says that class work can be easy for her 9-year-old son, Abanu, but the teachers give him extra challenges at a before-school academic program and enrich her son's schooling with a host of arts classes. For that reason, she did not move him to an advanced-work class elsewhere. "He gets attention. He gets a lot of feedback," Strickland says. "His needs are met."
Boston has several other schools that mix special-needs children with those learning at standard and accelerated rates, and one, the Mary Lyon Elementary School in Brighton, is considered excellent, but it's less diverse than the O'Hearn. And no other school assigns two teachers per class schoolwide, one a standard elementary teacher and the other certified in special education.
Collaboration means you share everything. Parent leader Sharon Williams says, "Whether you're a parent, a teacher, a secretary, or a nurse, when you have inclusion, you're going to wipe up poop. You're going to wipe up throw-up, you're going to wipe up things you're not sure what it is. There's no `They don't pay me to do that.' . . . If you don't buy into it and say that's beneath you, you don't buy into inclusion." Henderson will tell parents that the O'Hearn might not work for every child, especially children who dislike so much stimulation. In recent years, the school has enrolled more children with emotional and learning problems. Henderson believes this shift contributed to the test-score drop. ("There's a bottom line in life," he says, "and we didn't make the bottom line.")
Buying in means every child joins in. Cyndi Archibald, whose husband, Tim, also teaches at the O'Hearn, stretches the children in yoga and dance, the school's phys ed substitute. In the elaborate school plays, she has choreographed children in wheelchairs to twirl in time with other students.
"Imagination is power," Cyndi Archibald says. Tests "are not the only indication of a child's success."
Some teachers do wonder how much children with severe needs progress at the O'Hearn. Fourth-grade teacher Rosemary O'Brien has worked with many disabled children, including one who only responded when his cheek was stroked: "Sometimes you'd wonder if the kid was getting anything out of this. And then you think there are probably other kids out there who could benefit more."
O'Hearn parents can summon every detail of their first visit to the school. For most, it happened after many months spent pleading with and cajoling the Boston public schools' special education office and glimpses of other schools with sterile rooms and shouting in the halls. A small girl chirped to Roxanne Hoke-Chandler: "Welcome to the O'Hearn!" The child had Down syndrome, just like Hoke-Chandler's daughter. The mother burst into tears, right there in the foyer. She had fought for months to get Faith admitted and finally enlisted city councilors to call school administrators until they said yes. "My feeling was, God gave me this child. It's my job to advocate for her," Hoke-Chandler says.
Like a trip to Willy Wonka's, the struggle to win a ticket to the O'Hearn has become something of legend. Some parents are convinced that those who know the right people can push their child's name up the wait list. Boston school officials vigorously deny this. Mayor Tom Menino's grandchildren got in, but the mayor's spokesman says his office had no involvement. The family lives in the neighborhood, and the children's mother, Susan Fenton, says the only intervention came through prayer.
With about 20 seats available in kindergarten and usually a couple of vacancies in the upper grades, the O'Hearn's exclusivity pushes parents of children with special needs to extraordinary means. When Carolyn Kain's child was assigned to the Condon School in South Boston, Kain wasn't satisfied with what she saw there. "It was segregated," she says. "All the children in the classroom were handicapped." With a lawyer, the Kains appealed to the state, spending considerable time and money until everyone had agreed on the O'Hearn.
Partly out of gratitude, partly because of a fierce loyalty to Henderson, parents stay involved in the life of the school, sometimes after their children have grown. Moms, and they are mostly moms, raise money, answer phones, write grants, run after-school programs, organize raffles, visit new parents, and sometimes take jobs at the school. Parents, after all, are the reason the present O'Hearn exists at all.
The courts have forced most seismic changes in Boston schools, and inclusion was no different. Under pressure from activists, the Legislature enacted a law in 1972 requiring districts to educate children with disabilities. Congress followed suit three years later. Boston fell woefully behind completing education plans, and by 1976, activists sued. Allen v. McDonough dragged on for 22 years, with a judge prodding the school district to comply with the law.
At one point, a judge required the Boston School Committee to pay for a special needs parent advisory council. In 1987, the council advocated for Dorchester parents who wanted a new kind of school where disabled children would not be segregated in basements but be part of regular classrooms. Kathy Ryan, whose 22-year-old son, Owen, is mentally retarded and has cerebral palsy, argued at the time that "kids need kids." Thomas Hehir, then Boston's special education director, recalls thinking that given her child's cognitive skills, she was being unrealistic. "I was not in denial," Ryan says. "I knew what Owen's disability was. I was interested in Owen's strengths." Hehir now credits her as a visionary thinker.
The School Committee agreed to remake the O'Hearn in 1989, ceding not just to civil rights arguments but financial ones. Parents argued that the new school would save the district money.
The ultimate goal for many parents and educators was to put a similar school in each district zone, but it never happened. Why didn't this happen? I asked Janet Williams, a deputy superintendent. She replied: "I don't know." She added that creating such a school requires herculean efforts by parents and staff, and few schools could muster such commitment.
Hehir, now a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, says inclusion is still a threatening concept. It forces people to confront preconceived notions about education, as well as prejudices. "There are still people who react very negatively to people with disabilities, and part of that reaction is to segregate them."
To lead a special school, Boston public school administrators and the O'Hearn parents knew they would need a special person. Henderson, then a Dorchester resident and assistant principal at Roxbury's Hernandez Elementary School, was struck by the struggles of the children with disabilities he had met. He was part of a task force that lobbied hard for the new O'Hearn and presented curriculum plans, with budget figures to back them up. He seemed the perfect fit.
Henderson darts through the auditorium, passing a boy squirming on the wooden floor in dance class. The child calls out to him. "Who's this?" Henderson says gently, his eyes searching. Children giggle. "It's Malcolm!"
"Hi, Malcolm," Henderson says warmly, and his hand skims the air at his waist, looking to pat a child he's known for years. But the head's not there, and the principal drops his hand still lower. "You're so small!"
"I'm on the floor."
Henderson's brain is a Palm Pilot of information about everything O'Hearn. He knows the names of each child and recognizes most of them by voice. He remembers their siblings, the pupils who must have surgery, those whose mothers are pregnant. You get the sense that if the enrollment files were consumed in flames, the principal in the shabby Birkenstocks munching on home-grown arugula could re-create them from memory.
He greets everyone with "It's so good to see you!" in a voice as Boston-nasal as any Kennedy's. Some children stare, but teachers say most of the younger children don't notice Henderson's waning eyesight or comprehend it. "Tell him in words, honey," teacher Darlene Jones-Inge tells one wide-eyed child. "He can't see you nod."
Henderson relies on 20th-century technology to move him through a long day. He stays on schedule with a talking watch - really a face with numbers that long ago lost its hands. He attacks e-mail with vigor, using software with an electronic voice that reels off messages at an auctioneer's clip. When he can't do it alone, he isn't fussy about who lends a hand. Children will read memos, answer the phone, fetch supplies. I made Braille labels for the mailboxes. Caitlin Sullivan, now a sophomore at Williams College, remembers the morning in the first grade when she found Henderson pacing. He had given a speech earlier and knew something wasn't right. "Catie," he sputtered, "what color are my shoes?" She told him: One was black and one was brown. He groaned. Just as he'd suspected. "They're probably saying, `Look at the dumb blind guy.'"
The egalitarian spirit that fuels the O'Hearn was forged when Henderson was a Yale undergraduate, helping city kids in tough New Haven schools. In 1970, two years before graduation, he took a semester off to help with earthquake relief in Peru. Later, he joined a commune in Boston's South End, where he met his wife, Margie, a public health worker.
He found work as a bilingual instructor. Henderson was 12 when he started to lose his peripheral vision. Doctors diagnosed retinitis pigmentosa, a slow deterioration of the retina. He figured he wouldn't have to worry about it until he was 60. For years, he read newspapers, traveled, and drove, but his night vision grew worse. Just before he became an assistant principal at the Hernandez in Roxbury, kids pointed out that he was scrawling over words he'd written on the chalkboard. He couldn't read mimeographs. A physician advised him to get out of education. Instead, he earned his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts.
Henderson hadn't accepted that his very colorful world was fading until one day, holding his toddler son, he stepped into whooshing traffic. A car missed, barely. "You vain son of a bitch," he scolded himself. "You won't use a cane because you're afraid of what people will say."
He's become comfortable mentioning his deficit. "He'll play the blind card in a minute," says teacher Arlene LaSane. "That's how he gets things." His charm has garnered tutors, computer gifts, text-and-speech software from Kurzweil Educational Systems - all for free.
His weathered face and pointy nose are blasted with freckles and carved with deep lines from his long hours running and kayaking in the sun. Occasionally, there are cuts, from collisions with walls and doors. (A guide dog, he's decided, would distract students.) His blue eyes are still clear, and at 54, he moves with the verve of a man in his 20s.
He needs the energy. With no assistant principal and just the help of the school secretary, the O'Hearn works because everyone pitches in. Last spring, members of the Boston Teachers Union, locked in tortuous contract talks with the administration, voted to cease helping with some after-school work in protest. Without a fuss, O'Hearn's teachers stayed late, working bus detail. What? Leave Bill to do it by himself?
One of the rarely spoken worries is: What will become of the O'Hearn without Henderson? He would like to move on in three or four years. He's considering outfitting his kayak with a global positioning system that will allow him to tackle ambitious trips. And Latin America calls; he would like to advise a school, perhaps in Peru.
He has assured the O'Hearn community that he will give ample notice before that. By district rules, a committee of staff and parents will interview candidates. "We have strong teachers and parents," Henderson says. "I'm very confident the school will be fine." But the transition will no doubt be rough. Running the O'Hearn "is rocket science," Hehir says. "It does take someone like a Bill Henderson."
One night after a long day of tweaking essays, fifth-grade teachers Wellner and Hoffert head to dinner at a Dorchester pub. I bring up the subject of Henderson's retirement. They change the subject, once, twice. They hope that the O'Hearn will become a K-to-8 school so that Dr. H will stick around. The two recall the myriad ways he has boosted them as teachers. "It will be hard and so different without him," Hoffert says quietly. "Bill's vision has gotten us through."
The day before Thanksgiving, Room 9 invites family members for a memoir reading. With cheesecake and brownies waiting, Robert reads a paean to Anthony, his feline mouser. Naila recites her six sentences about a purple birthday cake. And Immanuel - the boy who hated to write - stands before his audience, a sheaf of paper blocking his face. "Were you ever so scared you were going to die?" he says, dropping his voice for effect. "I was." Playing dodgeball indoors, he scooted out of the way of an oncoming hit and fell through a plate-glass window. It took 20 stitches to patch up his body and, he adds with a 200-watt smile, almost no time to realize that his mom was sometimes right.
For a few minutes, chairs don't scrape, voices are hushed. For Immanuel, it is a huge success.
Suzanne Sataline, who covered education for the Globe is a freelance writer in Cambridge. E-mail her at email@example.com.