By Seth Daniel
When Supt. Mary Bourque and administrator Gerry McHugh were working in a teaching exercise last year to help them to be able to sell their schools to a skeptical parent, they began listing off all the attributes of the Chelsea schools – one by one.
Their evaluator, Barry Bluestone, former executive and director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Planning, sat patiently as the two Chelsea chiefs rattled off the social emotional supports, the specialized instruction and the programs offered in the schools.
When they finished, he was mystified, as he thought Chelsea schools were only about catching kids up who were way behind.
“At the conclusion of our description of what Chelsea Public Schools offers, Mr. Bluestone sat back in his chair and was truly in awe,” Bourque told a gym full of teachers Monday at the Convocation Breakfast. “He was in awe because as he stated to us, ‘Chelsea schools have a reputation as being all about remediation.’ His statement just hung in the air between Gerry and me. Mr. Bluestone went on to challenge us to change the reputation, change the perception, and change our collective identity both internally and for the external world. We took the challenge to heart and we began the work of obtaining stakeholder feedback, yours included, and we began to craft our new five-year vision. In the next five years, we will build upon the work of the last five years and we will expand opportunities for all our students.”
Bourque is in her sixth year as superintendent and she told the gathering of teachers, staff and administrators that in 2011 she came out with a five-year plan. This year, that plan expired and many of its objectives, she said, were accomplished – such as building more family and community organization partners. On Monday, she unveiled the 2016-2021 Commitments to Our Students plan.
For the first year of that plan, this year, Bourque said they will focus on rigor, making lessons move faster and the work be more complex – while at the same time bringing every kid along and making sure they are ready to move on to the next grade and to be successful.
“All of the plans prioritize teaching and learning–the work for us this year is focused on rigor as defined by complex text, complex task, and accelerated pace of lessons,” she said. “Our goal is for each student to be ready to move onto the next grade and be successful. To achieve this goal we must accelerate our teaching and learning to include annual student growth as well as catch-up student growth. Just achieving annual growth for many of our students will not be enough to be successful in the next grade. We can’t water down our teaching nor slow down our pace of teaching and learning and expect catch-up growth. These plans reflect work that will be demanding, robust, relentless, more intentional, and laser focused than ever before. We are pushing students to the top and pulling students up from the bottom.”
One particularly interesting point she made in hammering home the point of moving faster and expecting more is that she said teachers and administrators should not pity the students, or give them special accommodation because they are from Chelsea and may be living in tough situations.
“Throughout all of our work, we want to avoid misplaced compassion for our students,” she said. “We want to hold our student performance expectations high. If you expect a suburban student to do the work, then expect a Chelsea student to do the same work. Don’t expect less of a Chelsea student because he or she is a student of poverty or a second language learner. Expect your students to do the heavy cognitive lift and learning in each class. There are resources both human and material at each school to help you do this.”
One of those tools is a new assessment system for internal testing that the schools will implement, a system called Mastery Connect. The system will be used in all grades, from kindergarten to 12th grade. That, along with other work connected to the system, is implemented with the hope that each student in Chelsea is on track to reach the ‘Proficient’ benchmark in state testing.
Some of the other initiatives in the five year plan include:
- Build a tiered system of support to meet all diverse student needs (struggling students, English language learners, and Special Education students).
- Deepen social and emotional supports and expand the use of the trauma sensitive classroom. The schools will pilot the trauma sensitive classroom work and the Mind-Up Curriculum in the Hooks and Kelly Elementary Schools with the goal of rolling it out in all nine schools in the next five years.
- 1:1 Technology (each student with a computer) in grades 1-12.
- Expand College Board Advanced Placement (AP).
- Offer an Associate’s degree pathway for students through dual enrollment.
- Offer a local diploma credential for bi-literacy.
- Build a middle and high school community service project continuum.
- Expand the school day at all three middle schools, grades 5-8.
- Expand dual language program at the Kelly School through grade 8.
A final piece of her plan called upon the City Council and the City Manager to assess the needs for, perhaps, building a new school. In a community like Chelsea, which has taken such building projects slowly, it was a big thing to say.
“As a community, we need to answer the question, do we need another school building in order to continue to offer the programming necessary to support a college and career 21st century education for all our students?” she asked.
Bourque concluded by saying it is an ambitious plan and will be very difficult, but rewarding, a she believes all students in Chelsea can succeed at a higher level.
“This is the Chelsea school system of today, this year, and the next five years,” she said. “This is the work, this is the vision we heard from you and from the community. It is both exciting and scary at the same time, yet the reassurance for all of us is that we are not alone and that we will do this work together. We believe it can be done.”