Academic Turnaround of a Public Junior High

Boston's Timilty School stimulates learning with cluster teaching, extended class hours. EDUCATION

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Hippolyta, Theseus, Bottom, and Puck were late coming to the Timilty Middle School in Roxbury, Mass., the teachers didn't panic. Here, teachers structure their own time. They just continued teaching until another school's cast of ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' showed up. Such flexibility is helping to vault this 450-pupil junior high into the national limelight as a ``school that works.'' It's part of an experimental program called ``Project Promise'' that involves team teaching and extended hours.

Earlier this week, the Carnegie Corporation of New York cited the school for its team teaching in a report called, ``Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century.'' Timilty is also one of 218 middle schools selected by the United States Department of Education for a Secondary School Excellence Award; it's the first inner-city secondary school in New England so recognized. It's won many local trophies for academics, including a Paul Revere silver bowl (also awarded to Archbishop Tutu, Pope John Paul, and Corazon Aquino) given by the mayor; and a city award for greatest number of books read independently in the summer.

Rolda Lawrence, a seventh-grader and honor-roll student, says she didn't read much before coming here. ``Now I read books every day; they get you hooked on reading.''

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Four years ago, the school's standardized test scores in reading and math were in the lowest quartile. This year it is first in reading scores out of 22 middle schools in the city. ``We haven't heard about math yet,'' says principal Mary Grassa O'Neill. No student has ever been expelled from Project Promise, and suspension has been cut to less than half what it was the first year of the program.

Mrs. O'Neill smilingly calls Timilty the ``Avis of middle schools,'' because it always seems to be No. 2: It's second-highest in teacher attendance and second-lowest in retention rate (percentage of students held back).

But it may just be the Avis attitude of trying harder - and of thinking it's the best - that has propelled this school forward.

Project Promise, which was brought to Boston by school Superintendent Laval Wilson, is based on a similar program in Rochester, N.Y., for remedial students. Since Timilty's test scores were so low across the board, Dr. Wilson wanted to employ the project schoolwide.

``It felt good to have it applied to the whole school,'' he says. ``Kids need more help. You give them more time on tasks and you'll get better progress.''

Students attend school from 7:40 a.m. to 3:10 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Friday they get out at 1:40 in the afternoon. Saturday, it's 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. State law prohibits schools from mandating Saturday classes, so attendance is voluntary. O'Neill says that for some parents, the longer school hours involve a sacrifice. ``Many count on older kids to take care of younger ones, visit grandma, do grocery shopping, or to have part-time jobs,'' she says.

``On Saturdays we come to have fun, but you learn, too,'' says seventh-grader Chaka Meredith. ``It was my decision to come. My parents wanted me to babysit, but they respect this.''

Attendance on Saturday, says O'Neill, has gone from from an average of 45 percent to 65 percent. And she's anticipating an even greater turnout next year when Boston public schools start a new choice plan. Timilty received three times the number of applications other schools did. ``We asked parents not to choose us unless they could buy into the Saturday program,'' she says.

The teachers stay an hour longer than the students each day, and two put in two more hours on Friday, plus the half day on Saturday. That adds up to 37.9 percent more teaching time than at other schools. The teachers are paid for the extra time, but not at an overtime rate, says O'Neill.

But the benefits make up for that, say teachers. ``You have the satisfaction of accomplishing tasks completely,'' says Jim Fewless, the seventh-grade coordinator.

While the extended time is an important factor in the school's progress, O'Neill says, ``it's what you do with that time that's important.'' Teachers, divided into five clusters, decide what to do with the time. The eight to 10 teachers in each cluster design their own schedules, schedule class time, group their own students, and make most of the curriculum and operational decisions for the cluster. With flexible hours, they can schedule longer classes in the morning, when student attention spans tend to be longer.

All teachers, regardless of specialty, have to teach reading, writing, and math. They concentrate on the same writing skills and tie in reading.

``We're doing geography in literature,'' says sixth-grade reading teacher Catherine Ryan. ``In my cluster we've talked about geography in novels like `The Incredible Journey,' `Miss Jane Pittman,' and `Island of the Blue Dolphin.' Students realize how important geography is to the books.''

Priscilla Cole uses writing in her home economics classes. ``When I had the students make puppets, we wrote about the puppets' personalities. The writing increases the breadth and depth of what you're working with.''

Project Promise is not cheap: The additional cost to the school budget is $600,000, which comes from state and federal essential-skills and desegregation grants. Most of the extra money goes toward teacher overtime and other personnel expenses.

``I think anyone would tell you it's very clear that this improves self-esteem,'' says O'Neill. The students are treated with respect and a great deal is demanded of them, particularly in academics, but also in the respect they're required to show for themselves, their peers, and for all the adults in the program.''

O'Neill's leadership is considered by many a strong reason why the school is doing well. She arrives at school before the teachers, takes risks, supports the faculty, and follows through on suggestions given in a school assessment. ``She implemented so many things,'' says Ms. Cole. ``She replaced all broken equipment, hired a woman gym teacher, found a business redoing their office and got them to donate desks and filing cabinets, and set up a conference room.''

Anne Wheelock, policy analyst for the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, a child advocacy organization, says, ``Mary is able to inspire staff to reach out to every single student and help; she's not willing to discard kids. She's sought to create a school community where kids are happy about learning, teachers are happy to be there, that's accessible to parents.''

Ms. Wheelock says the school is remarkable for having come such a long way, but feels it could reach still higher. ``[Timilty's] clustering of students is homogeneous; low, middle, high, and bilingual. State-of-the-art is mixed clustering. But I think they're always moving, which is the exciting thing. They won't rest on their laurels.''

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