The bell tolls, a school answers

Greenwood makes progress amid turnaround order

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / January 2, 2010

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Parents are converting a storage room at the Elihu Greenwood Elementary School in Hyde Park into a library. Bulletin boards have returned to hallway walls, showcasing student artwork, essays, and math problems.

And students have been rolling up their sleeves in a new science lab, where one recent morning they shoveled their hands into containers of gooey plaster and sculpted models of their schoolyard.

The changes, overseen by a new principal who started this school year, are the first of what should be even bigger changes to come at the Greenwood - one of 14 troubled schools targeted by Superintendent Carol R. Johnson last month for dramatic turnarounds, in an attempt to stave off a state takeover of the schools.

While Johnson has not released specific plans for each school, the Greenwood offers a glimpse into what she has in mind at some of the schools and the uphill battle to reverse years of dismal results. A key change at the Greenwood is the new principal, Maudlin Wright, who is holding teachers more accountable for students who fall behind and is introducing new programs, such as optional Saturday school.

The Greenwood got a jump start on its overhaul last school year when Johnson reversed a recommendation to shutter the school, after protests from parents, who vowed to help turn it around.

“Last year the fire was started, and it’s still going this year,’’ said Richard Mitchell, a parent. “There is so much potential in this school.’’

Change continues to unfold here, even as much of Johnson’s agenda stalls while she waits for the Legislature to approve a bill that would give superintendents extraordinary powers to improve failing schools, including the ability to convert them into charter schools. That latter move, which Mayor Thomas M. Menino has been pushing for, would allow administrators to deviate from teacher contract rules as they change staff and curriculum.

While Johnson has said she intends to convert some of the identified schools into charter schools, she is not planning to do that at the Greenwood because she is pleased with the progress, said Mary Nash, an academic superintendent who oversees some of the city’s elementary schools.

“The transformation in school culture is amazing,’’ Nash said. “Kids are coming here happy. Many times when I visited the school last spring it was very chaotic. The atmosphere was not conducive for students to excel. That had to change.’’

The Greenwood School serves students who traditionally score low on standardized tests across the state and the nation: About 95 percent are black or Hispanic, and 72 percent of all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Last spring on the MCAS, about a third of students failed the English and math sections, about the same as the previous year.

Turning around the Greenwood has been a challenge for much of the past decade. It was targeted for additional support under two previous school-improvement programs. Most recently, it was among 10 Boston schools in the now-defunct “Superintendent Schools’’ initiative, which provided such support as an additional $1.2 million a year and an extended school day. Johnson, who inherited the program from the previous administration, quietly ended it last school year amid budget cuts and dissatisfaction with some of the results of the program.

A review of the Greenwood two years ago by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found a school marred by clashes between administrators and staff. The principal at the time said she was promoting teamwork, but many teachers said they did not feel respected and did not trust the principal, who they said imposed changes without explanation. They also complained that the principal failed to address student discipline - a claim supported by parents.

Still, state inspectors found a school with promise. They often observed good teaching and lessons that covered all the material required by the state. Students answered their teachers’ questions in class with a depth of knowledge, using complete sentences and sophisticated vocabulary, the report noted.

Richard Stutman, president of the teachers union, declined to comment on the Greenwood case, but said in general that administrators need to work cooperatively with teachers on their turnaround plans.

“You can’t have sustainable success unless staff has the confidence and respect of the leadership,’’ Stutman said. “In the majority of the 14 schools, the staff doesn’t have the respect or confidence in the caliber of leadership in the building.’’

When Johnson reversed plans to close the Greenwood a year ago, she decided to put a new principal in place for this school year in hopes of fostering improvement. She tapped Wright, a veteran administrator in the district, who made it a priority to improve morale as well as the academics.

Some of the changes Wright has undertaken have ranged from the basic - making sure teachers have time to plan lessons together - to the more complex. For instance, teachers are now required to send weekly reports to the principal about which students failed to learn the main points of a lesson, draft a plan to give those students extra help, and explain why the students were not grasping the concepts.

Last month, the school started a Saturday session, during which students can receive extra help in academics or participate in arts programs. Wright said she does not mind leading one of the superintendent’s “turnaround schools,’’ which could make the Greenwood eligible for $500,000 in federal funds and other awards that could help pay for improvements.

“This is an opportunity to show what this school is made of,’’ she said. “It won’t take three or four years. We will see good results in one year.’’