What is Worth $1 Million?

A middle school serving some of Boston’s most vulnerable students faces a $1 million budget cut. Teacher Adina Schecter reflects on what that says about the city and its priorities…

By Adina Schecter
It is 6:45am and I’ve just pulled into the parking lot of the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester, MA.  I can already hear our sixth, seventh and eighth graders entering the building, their chattering voices somewhere between childhood and adulthood. This morning, like every morning, the staff at the McCormack—teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, and City Year corps members—are lined up outside to greet each student individually. Once inside, students make their way to the cafeteria for a hot breakfast. Many of them depend on our school for two meals a day. The staff at the McCormack understands that the best way to get our students ready to learn is to make sure they have food in their bellies and personal attention from an adult who cares.  

But the McCormack, a traditional Boston Public School that serves a diverse group of middle school students, faces a budget reduction of more than a million dollars next year.  We have serious concerns about our school’s fate.  Already lacking the resources to meet the complex needs of our students, my colleagues and I now fear for the survival of our school community, and for our students who are losing high-quality teachers and programs.

Perhaps there are many schools that look like ours in the early morning, but our school is increasingly unique in this day and age: we will take any child who comes to us. There is no lottery for admission; no application to complete.  Our students are low-income students.  Over 90% receive free or reduced lunch. And in a highly-segregated district, we are one of most diverse middle schools, with a student body that is 55% Latino, 32% African-American, 7% Asian and 5% white. Twenty-five percent of our students receive special education services, ranging from push-in support in regular education classrooms to intensive reading intervention to highly specialized support for students with emotional impairments. Forty-percent are English Language Learners, many of them newcomers who arrived in the country within the last year. New arrivals whose formal education has been interrupted find a home in our SIFE program. We take (Panther) pride in our students, whether they need help learning English, have been diagnosed with significant cognitive disabilities, or struggle emotionally because of past and ongoing trauma in their lives. They are a privilege to teach because they show us every day how to keep striving in the midst of adversity.

Should we not prioritize more money for a school with our population? We are told the threatened million dollar cut to the McCormack’s budget is the result of a projected decrease in our student enrollment, from 445 students to 383 for next year. But the reasons our school’s declining enrollment, from more than 700 students five years ago to 445 students this year, are complex.  The increase in K-8 schools throughout the city has resulted in a loss of approximately 100 students per year. The state takeover of some of the elementary schools that feed into our middle school produced turmoil, causing significant drops in student enrollment. In other words, it feels as though the steady diminishment of our school is by design. Meanwhile the complex needs of our remaining students haven’t changed. Shouldn’t this be factored into budget decisions?  Do we take into consideration other important measures such as the quality of teaching and learning, the particular services a school provides, or student growth? Do we believe that a city should ensure an equitable distribution of resources?  Do we believe a child in a high-needs school like the McCormack and a child in an exam school both deserve access to a library, an art class, and teachers who can provide reading interventions?

The state takeover of some of the elementary schools that feed into our middle school produced turmoil, causing significant drops in student enrollment. In other words, it feels as though the steady diminishment of our school is by design. Meanwhile the complex needs of our remaining students haven’t changed. Shouldn’t this be factored into budget decisions?

The impact of this reduction means losing the strong leadership of an administrator, our historically robust arts program, and our teaming structure, where students are taught by a group of shared teachers. Instead, students will take their core classes from a somewhat disconnected set of adults who don’t have opportunities to meet and plan for their support.  Students will have one fewer adult to connect with when they are struggling in a classroom and need a minute to re-regulate. Fewer students will have access to music and voice lessons, and thus, to admission at Boston Arts Academy. The adults at McCormack face the loss of a school community: the group of talented and committed teachers who together have developed the specific expertise needed to meet the needs of our young, adolescent students.

Measuring what matters
Since many of our students come to us at least one year (often multiple years) behind grade level, it is important to highlight student growth rates as one critical measure of our school’s success.  For the past three years, the McCormack has sustained an average student growth rate that is higher than the district average for three consecutive years. Last year our student growth rate was seven points higher than the district average in English Language Arts and nine points above the district average in math. We also have compared our student growth rates to the state of Massachusetts as a whole. We are the only school in Boston to exceed the state’s average growth in both subjects three years running. As a system, Boston has not scored above the state Student Growth Percentile (SGP) average on even one of the exams in the last three years.  We are actually making unparalleled progress as a school.  Other schools would benefit from learning about how we have achieved this growth. Is now the time to strip us of more resources?

In addition to standardized test data, as the school’s literacy coach, I can give you countless examples of the student progress I see on a daily basis.  I see students writing paragraphs and developing an argument when they came to us barely having written a sentence.  I see students winning awards on the debate team who did not know they had a voice, let alone the power of persuasion. One of our eighth grade students who rarely came to school during term one is now on track to make the honor roll for term three. Please spend an hour at our school and watch how our teachers persist in their belief that all our students can achieve at high levels.

Learn from us
We have a large group of dedicated teachers who have stayed at the school for over ten years, working in collaborative team structures, and have never lost their sense of urgency and mission to teach all students. We have sustained high student growth because of our team structure and coaching model.  Teachers meet in teams daily to plan, collaborate with parents, reflect on what is working and not working for every student, and make immediate adjustments when necessary.  We also have weekly department meetings where teachers meet in content areas led by school-based coaches and teacher leaders who are masters in their content areas. Teachers have an open door policy.  They want coaches and colleagues to observe and help them get better.

Our students have grown because we have master teachers in all four content areas who have focused on creating and engaging our students in cognitively demanding, authentic real-world tasks that build critically thinking, globally conscious, and creative lifelong learners.  We are one of the few middle schools that teach social studies and science every day. We have made a transition to differentiated staff professional development so that teachers can get what they need to take the quality of their instruction to the next level.  The teachers possess the knowledge, disposition and  skills to educate every child and persist despite losing staff and resources.  When we lose teachers from budget reductions, we don’t just lose teachers for the 62 students who are projected not to come to our school next year.  We lose teachers who make a daily impact on our entire school.  We lose a teacher who is trained to lead a reading intervention that supports our struggling readers.  We lose a teacher who has a strong relationship with parents and has therefore strengthened our understanding of what it means to welcome and engage families student learning. We lose a teacher who has been planning an international trip for students so that they might hike through the rainforest and prepare field guides on animals and plants.

Joining forces
We also acknowledge that we need partnerships to provide our students with the high level of support that they need.  One of the ways we have reached out for help is through strong community partnerships with Citizen Schools, City Year, Tenacity, and the Trinity Boston Foundation.  Our partners have become essential to giving our students young adult mentors and daily one-on-one support. They work alongside our staff to facilitate the progress monitoring we need to thrive as a community.

Image result for mccormack middle school bostonLast year we resurrected our school library that had not been up and running since 2010 when we lost the funding to operate it. Our staff banded together, and with the help of the Trinity Boston Foundation, we now have a fully operational library, with almost 6,000 books in our collection, run by volunteers providing students with the kinds of experiences and resources that every student deserves. The volunteers are now embedded in our school community. They have created a book review program, trained eighth grade students in library administration, and started an after-school tutoring program.  Last week I caught a student running in hallway.  After asking her to slow down she said, *I need to get the next book in the series before class starts!*  

More questions than answers remain about what will happen to our school community. Will death by budget reductions force us into closure?  Where will our students go? What happens to the historical knowledge of community and families that our staff has cultivated?  Which schools in the district understand the unique needs of supporting middle school age adolescents in their identity development? And in a city where schools have increasing freedom to choose which students to take and keep, what happens to the students who require the most support? Throughout the year, the McCormack absorbs students who have been kicked out of charter schools. If we are forced into closure by budget reduction, where will our students go? Who will take them, love them, and hang onto them by any means necessary?

And in a city where schools have increasing freedom to choose which students to take and keep, what happens to the students who require the most support? Throughout the year, the McCormack absorbs students who have been kicked out of charter schools. If we are forced into closure by budget reduction, where will our students go? Who will take them, love them, and hang onto them by any means necessary?

I am going to continue on with my work day.  I am meeting with a social studies teacher about a grant that we are writing for our school library.  When she found out that one of her students was homeless and sleeping in her car, she organized teachers to help pay for multiple nights in a hotel and advocated for the family to get stable housing.  When we’re done, I plan to drop by a math teacher’s classroom.  She recently took four students in her homeroom, who are all newcomers and experiencing their first Boston winter, shopping for winter coats, hats and gloves. Then I am going to plan a reading lesson with an Structured English Immersion teacher.  In her personal time after school, she figured out a way to help a family that was about to be forced to move to a homeless shelter in North Attleboro remain in Dorchester. My final stop of the day will to see our theater arts teacher about how to use her expertise to plan a professional development session on motivating and engaging resistant learners.

What is worth a million dollars? Is it worth it to invest in a school that has persistently and wholeheartedly embraced educating a city’s most emotionally vulnerable students? At some point our city needs to ask this question and realize that the answer reflects our values and commitment to the future of all of our children.

Adina Schecter became an English teacher in the Boston Public Schools in 2005.  She currently works at the McCormack Middle School as the Literacy Coach.  Her goal is to provide every student with powerful, life-changing literary experiences.

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7 Comments

  1. Adina, I am sorry for the faculty of the McCormack and its kids.

    I know the kind of work you do. I know the kind of difference it makes to your students and to their families. I know they appreciate it, value it and will benefit from it.

    The ones hurting are those on the front lines, regrouping year after year, pouring in more time, staying awake at night figuring how to support still another child through a crisis, taking money from their salaries for kids’ needs, while painted as greedy, lazy, blood-sucking union leeches by the Globe’s commentariat, while Sam Tyler denigrates the children in our care as failures who aren’t worth spending money on.

    But the city just doesn’t care. We are not on their agenda. Walsh and the business community brought Chang in to shut down our school system and it’s happening, death by a thousand cuts.

    It’s wrong and it’s shameful.

    Reply

  2. I’d agree with Jeannie and Ayla. Superbly well done! Exceedingly persuasive.

    BTW, Adina, one little item you mentioned left me quizzical. You wrote: “Throughout the year, the McCormack absorbs students who have been kicked out of charter schools.” Please correct me if I’m wrong but my understanding is that the 125 Boston district schools, with 56,000+ students, absorb roughly 70 students total returning from charter schools for any and all reasons during the course of the school year, reasons that in alternative to expulsion may range from a child wanting to play an instrument not offered at his school to a parent’s car breaking down, etc., etc. Do any kids leave the McCormack during the school year to go to another district school? For what range of reasons?

    If it’s a notable problem for the McCormack that it is absorbing multiple expellees each year how would you explain why it is receiving such a disproportionate share? Who makes that decision?

    I certainly hope y’all will get the resources needed to keep up the great work.

    Reply

    1. I’m posting this for Adina as she was having some technical issues…

      Hi Stephen,

      Thank you for writing. First, I want to clarify that when I said we absorb students who have been kicked out of charters I did not mean formally expelled from charters. I have talked to many families and students who have said they felt kicked out, so that is why that word felt like the right one. We have had approximately ten students come to us throughout the year, last year and this year, from charters. Every single one of those students has an IEP, an emotional regulation issue, or an attendance problem that require a lot of staff attention and resources. In particular, we have had a lot of students come to us from Match and Roxbury Prep. I have never heard of that number 70, but it seems like 10/70 is a lot for one school. We have not received any additional funding for these students because we did not reach the threshold of students you need to get in order to receive additional funding.

      Your question about why McCormack has absorbed more and who makes these decisions….we are a middle school that takes all students and there are few middle schools that will do that. Also, part of the reason is that the charters aggressively went after the middle school market in Boston. There are a ton of charter middle schools but not that many BPS schools for them to return to. As for who makes these decisions, I have no idea! Please tell me if you find out.

      In terms of the question about why students leave our school, our observations have been that students leave because they can’t afford living in the city, so they move and go to other districts. I did find out that our suspension rate dropped 55% since last year. We are working incredibly hard to keep our students here and figure out how to serve them well.

      Reply

      1. Adina: “We have had approximately ten students come to us throughout the year, last year and this year, from charters.”

        Wow. That doesn’t include any summer transfers? As I’m sure you know, many more tend to shift in one direction or the other during the summer.

        Adina: “I have never heard of that number 70, but it seems like 10/70 is a lot for one school.”

        Well, maybe it’s 10 out of 80 or 90 during that particular period, but that would still be a heck of a lot compared to the other 124 schools.

        Councillor Jackson chaired an education committee hearing in Dec 2015 at which someone from the Boston Public Schools’ Department of Data and Accountability testified that in the most recent year for which they had data 73 students total had returned from charter schools for any and all reasons during the course of the entire school year (not including summer).

        Thanks for explaining potential reasons for the McCormack’s receiving relatively many school year transfers. The concentration of charter middle schools and the McCormack’s readiness to accept students make sense as explanations. I guess the latter interrelates with the fact that some other schools may seem full, oversubscribed, with waiting lists that can’t be leapfrogged. While the McCormack is viewed as undersubscribed by lottery applicants, declining in enrollment, having empty seats?

        Seems like much of the threat to your continuing existence could be cured if there were a larger pool of of applicants designating it as a high choice in the BPS lottery. Would it be appropriate and feasible and helpful to recruit a skilled team to join you in getting your light out from under the bushel basket? I’d guess that the school’s location may be both a problem and opportunity. Fewer births in Southie? Other communities viewing Harbor Point as outside, perhaps unwelcoming? But potential for further highlighting collaborations with UMass…

        Reply

  3. Yes, where do we go from here? I think a 7-16 model with UMass Boston right around the corner would be an incredible opportunity for our students and families. We would definitely be in a great position to recruit. We are actively in the process of strategizing about our future so we can be proactive. We know we can’t continue on as is, but we do know we have all the right people in our building and don’t want to lose anymore of our dedicated staff. We want the district to let us be a part of the decision making.

    Reply

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