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.
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.
Last 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.