In an era of federally mandated school turnarounds, Cristo Rey Boston High School is an example of a self-directed improvement plan in which a principal and a core group of teachers were empowered to strengthen curriculum, change the school schedule, improve instructional practice and address staffing issues. The changes resulted in a significant improvements in student performance and a 100% placement rate of graduating seniors in four-year colleges and universities. Teachers were empowered to participate in every level of the change effort, including analyzing test scores that showed students not advancing one grade level in core subjects, researching best practices at high performing charter and public schools, testing instructional strategies and then having the freedom to make changes to meet the needs of students.
Cristo Rey Boston High School (www.cristoreyboston.org) is part of a national network (www.cristoreynetwork.org) of 25 college preparatory high schools in which urban students work to earn tuition and gain professional experience. Cristo Rey Boston High School was formerly North Cambridge Catholic High School, which converted to the Cristo Rey model in 2004. Cristo Rey Boston High School has 348 students with plans to grow to 400 students in the next two years. The average family income is $26,000, and 82% of students qualify for the federal free/reduced lunch program, among the higest concentration of low-income youth in a Boston high school, public or private. Cristo Rey Boston students work at more than 100 companies in Greater Boston, generating enough income to cover 60% of the operating costs of the school. The school competes with public and charter schools in Boston for students.
The impetus for turnaround began in 2007 when a new academic leader took over the school, met with faculty and staff, analyzed test data, and concluded that the school was in decline. Techers chose what they would teach in their subject area, there were no tools for aligning curriculum with state standards, and test data revealed that on average students were not advancing one academic year in Math and English Language Arts. Most significantly, the new principal learned that teachers did not believe that students could learn at higher levels. The school needed to change, or eventually it would fall hopelessly behind other urban schools that were finding ways to improve the performance of low-income students. The turnaround of Cristo Rey Boston High School is chronicled in a case study in Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice. The article can be accessed by visiting http://ejournals.bc.edu/ojs/index.php/catholic/article/view/2593.
Year One, 2007-08, was the year in which the principal creating conditions for genuine improvement. He realized to make change he needed to involve the teachers. He began by showing data to teachers that indicated that students were not advancing as they had thought. After initially challenging what the data was saying, most teachers accepted that they had to change practice in order to appropriately educate their students. A core group of teachers who were eager to improve visited other high performing schools and borrowed some best practices.
Stage Two of the turnaround was from 2008 to 2012 in which the school realized significant improvements. Teachers implemented new ways of teaching, professional development improved, rigor was guaranteed by implementing mandatory Advanced Placement classes for all seniors, and the entire freshman curriculum was revamped. In 9th grade, all students were part of a proficiency program designed to remediate skills they should have learned by the end of 8th grade, and double block classes in Math and English were implemented, allowing students to go deep into core subject matter. The result was 100% of graduating seniors going to four-year colleges and universities.
Stage Three is our current stage, and this is a period of continuous improvement. In all stages, leadership has been distributed, teachers have been empowered to take part in decision-making and to coach and train their fellow teachers.
The first thing was that we had to create a culture in which we critically analyzed our practice. We had to take a hard an honest look at what various assessments were saying about teaching and learning at the school. Not all teachers bought into this practice, but many did. Those who didn't buy in eventually left the school.
We worked hard to create a spirit of continued innovation and risk taking. Teachers were improved to try new approaches and to change practice to meet the needs of our learners. This was new for many staff who were resistant to change, particularly in the middle of the school year.
The changes took place during a recession, and we had to make some budget cuts as we were growing. To build trust, we had to be transparent at all times. Everyone at school knew (and still knows) our budget, test score data, and other critical information. When teachers receive their annual evaluations, they know how they compare to their peers.
The most important benefit was improved student performance, but a new problem has been how do we retain more students at our school. We keep learning, and our current research and reflection tells us that we need to do a better job of teaching resliency -- a key quality in who remains at our school -- to our students. We solved the college prep puzzle. The combination of a rigorous 9th grade curriculum coupled with the requirement of all 12th graders taking AP classes advanced academic rigor. Now, we have to retain more students. Thankfully, we have a culture in place in which staff look critically at data and seek ways to improve.
The key thing is leadership that is transparent, vulnerable, willing to listen, and willing to empower people to be leaders in the organization. We worked hard to get buy-in from everyone. Most teachers would later say that they felt they had a part in the changes being made and were not making changes because they were told to.
Another lesson is to leverage resources. There was a lot of good work being done in education in Boston in 2007-09, and the school's leadership was unafraid to go out and see what other schools were doing to educate urban students. This culture continues today. We partner with schools that have good results with urban students because we want to learn from them, and they want to learn from us.
Most of the credit is due to our principal, Fr. Jose Medina, fscb, plus two key faculty members who have risen to leadership positions in the school, Carrie Wagner and Jill Crowley.
I suggest reading this case study: http://ejournals.bc.edu/ojs/index.php/catholic/article/view/2593.